Astrophotography around Los Angeles - What you need to know

Astrophotography around Los Angeles - What you need to know

Growing up in the sticks of Connecticut, I dreamt of city life away from the slow, quiet, semi-rural life. College gave me that chance and 14 years later I wouldn't change a thing.  After several years in San Francisco, I eventually settled in Los Angeles. The urban lifestyle has it’s perks, especially having access to just about anything 24/7 and of course In-n-Out Burger. But with all those perks I have to admit I long for those quiet and "dark" nights watching a million stars twinkle above.

  Scorpius Arch Meteor Shower  

Astrophotography is my escape from city life. Long nights under the stars play a pivotal role in my personal and professional development as a photographer. The planning and preparation is half the fun, but traveling 4-5 hours to find "dark" skies can really kill the enthusiasm when you need to balance work, play, and family. So I focus my creative energy on making the best astro related photographs I can within the city I live in.

  Downtown LA Skyline  

Unfortunately, Los Angeles doesn’t easily lend itself to beautiful astrophotography. I constantly battle smog, coastal fog, and the light pollution that illuminates the other two. All light sources contribute to Light Pollution but that horrible orange glow emitted by Low Pressure Sodium Vapor street lights are the worst. No matter what I try, custom white balance or Lightroom magic I always seemed to sacrifice something to get the color or exposure to look close to my definition of correct. After about a year I stumbled across the Hoya Red Intensifier. A filter that literally stops that part of the color spectrum, sodium vapor lights emit, from passing through the filter. Just like magic, my colors are more accurate, it was easier to dial in my exposure, and the natural colors of the sky and surrounding area are more true to life.

vincent thomas bridge

A quick little tutorial: In the astrophotography community we use the Bortle Scale to measure how good the light is for viewing and picture taking. Bortle 1 and 2 skies are highly desirable but in Los Angeles, Bortle 5 is the best you’ll find. So I work with what I got, and what I got are some of the most iconic locations in the world just begging to be photographed at night. Malibu Beach, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Boardwalk, the Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory, the opportunities are endless but with nearly 29 million people occupying nearly every inch of coastline and 30 miles inland, dark skies are impossible.

This is where the Hoya Intensifier has revolutionized my astro image making process.  The filter lets me capture the sky as accurate as possible without disturbing the natural beauty of the night sky and the surrounding area.

hoya intensifier

Unedited Images - 50mm, f/2.0, 8 seconds, 2500 ISO


“Well isn’t it just a white balance issue?” I am often asked by photographers new to astro. If that were the case I would not be writing this article. WB is a fixed setting that corrects for color temperature and tint. When you shoot at night your are dealing with multiple light sources, including the ugly orange glow of LPS lights. When you correct for one light source you essentially contaminate or shift the others. The filter acts like a wall protecting your camera from one of the worst offenders of light pollution. By stopping this light source from reaching your sensor you are now free to capture the sky and foreground more accurately, thus making post-processing a lot easier.

As a real estate photographer, I am faced with WB challenges all the time. Mixing daylight, incandescent, and florescent together is nearly impossible to capture accurately in one exposure. When I correct for the orange incandescent lights in the master bath, the master bedroom in the background turns really blue because it is being lit by natural light coming through the windows. The same goes for astrophotography. When you adjust for one color you affect the others. The Intensifier filter will make your life easier.

Another benefit I have found is increased dynamic range. By eliminating a very bright light source from the exposure the camera has much less contrast to deal with. This lets me capture greater highlight and shadow detail in a single exposure. This shot taken from up in the Malibu Hills is facing south in the direction of LAX. A faint Milky Way is visible, but the details above LAX are completely blown. When I put the intensifier on my lens I am able to recover a considerable amount of those stars in the sky above LAX.

Unedited Images - 24mm, f/2.8, 13 seconds, 3200 ISO


Edited for Crop Only - 24mm, f/2.8, 13 seconds, 3200 ISO


Even when I hit the road up the coast to Santa Ynez, I am still facing south into Santa Barbara, which also has light pollution issues as well.

Hoya Intensifier filter

Unedited Image - 24mm, f/2.8, 153 seconds, 800 ISO


But using the light pollution filter doesn’t just apply to Astrophotography. Just last month I ventured out to Manhattan Beach to capture some lightning strikes off the coast. As the storm passed and traveled east the bolts crashed above the city. With clouds visible in the sky, street lamps were bouncing off the belly of the clouds, causing the camera sensor to pick up heavy amounts of yellow. After noticing this issue with a few exposures I put the Intensifier on the camera to cut through the yellow hue in the clouds and bring a more natural look back into the scene.

Unedited Image - 70mm, f/16, 30 seconds, 320 ISO


Whether it be that I am shooting Milky Way photography or night cityscapes I always consider applying the Red Intensifier filter to my camera lens to prepare myself better for better night imagery!

  Steven Magner - Hoya Ambassador   Leo Carrillo Milky Way Image