Conducting research is a prime task when it comes to photography. Milky Way photography and other genres require us to spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours researching. The research can cover anything from specific photography tips to location research. Here are a few simple Google Maps tips that can help you with your Milky Way photography.

Google Maps Screen shot - Google Maps is a powerful tool to research locations.
Google Maps is a powerful tool to research locations.

My guess is that many of you are already familiar with Google Maps and use it to a degree. I would say that some of you even deep dive into the app for your research. I am going to cover my Google Maps tips for researching locations, borrowing heavily from an adventure I had with several other photographers last fall.

Sitting at the Table in a Clayton, NM, Restaurant

Last August, a small group of us agreed to meet at a little known restaurant and hotel in Clayton, New Mexico called The Eklund. In this merry band of adventurers was me, my good friend Arlene (you need to follow her on Facebook), a beginner named Lori and a mutual acquaintance named Dawana from south-central Oklahoma. We did not have a plan other than meet for lunch and hitting up the Internet to tell us where to go.

Before I get too far into this, why northeastern New Mexico first of all? This particular area of the country happens to be home to a very large swath of land that is classified as Bortle Class 1 skies. The skies are so dark that throughout the year, several “night sky” parties are held in the region, one state park has been classified as a dark sky park.

I lived only an hour and a half from the eastern edge of this region. I learned and honed my night photography skills in this area. When I first started, it was not that well known in the photography community. Now it sees semi-regular visits from photographers.

The Search

Once I sat down and made the proper introductions, it was time to get down to business. I might have been familiar with the area, but I had no idea where to go. Unfortunately, I do not remember what my search term was, but as soon as I hit enter on Google, the results were almost a slam dunk. An old rock church popped up. It looked perfect. It took me a few minutes to locate a name for the church. Once I had that information, it was all downhill from there.

Use Satellite View

Once I had the church located on Google Maps, I looked over the route we would have to take. We were roughly an hour away.

The next thing I needed to check was access. Even though the church was right on the highway, we needed to make sure we could pull into the parking lot and off the road. I tapped on the Layers icon and then selected “Satellite” for Map Type; I could see that there was a fence line around the church. Yet, the information I had found was that even though the church was over a hundred years old, it was still in use.

johnson mesa church
Google Maps Street View allowed us to virtually inspect this location before we physically went there.

Street View for the Win!

Since the satellite view could not show a gate, I had to hit up Google Maps Street View. This worried me though. The particular area where this church is located is not exactly in the middle of civilization. Luckily, Google has been by the church. Street View gave me the answer that I needed. There was no gate. After a quick consult with the group, we decided we would gas up and head to the church.

I felt really good about our decision. Even though I had been looking at this particular area of the dark sky region for years, I never had made the jump across the state line. Since we had hours to burn, we stopped at an old museum, then got to the church several hours before sunset. We had so much time to burn, that we took off for another couple of hours. We took some back roads into Colorado and came back to the church just a few minutes before sunset. Since it was August, we were not going to have to wait long to start shooting.

Best Practices for Using Google Maps

The preceding story gives you a basic, behind the scenes look at how Google Maps can be used for a successful Milky Way photography trip. So what are some of the best practices when it comes to using Google Maps?

The first is try to do your research at home first. In the adventure I wrote about, research was “on the fly.” Luckily, the research was done at a place where I had cell phone service. The research was done fast and quick.

Second, if you did not know, Google Maps allows the user to download sections of the map on smart devices. This allows the user to continue using the app with readable maps in locations with no service. In fact, the GAIA GPS app has this feature also and it works great. So before you head out, download map sections in case you have no service. You should still be able to navigate.

google maps
Tap on the three horizontal lines in the Search Bar of Google Maps to download maps. Look for “Offline maps” to start the download to your device.

To download a map section in Google Maps, tap the three lines on the left side of the search bar and the Offline Maps option will pop up.

The third thing you can do is look at Google Maps Street View if possible. With the church in New Mexico, it was a long drive to get to it. By looking at it through Street View, we could see that it was possibly publicly accessible.

Johnson Mesa Church in New Mexico

Give Mapping a Try

If you are not using Google Maps in your Milky Way photography research, give it a try. It allows you to research new locations for possible issues, planning your shot, and navigating to the location and back home.

Your Google Maps Tips

Do you have some Google Maps tips you find really useful? Share them with us in the comments below.


  1. Great tips! I’ve also used street view plenty of times to look for gates. This was helpful for scouting Shiprock, even though I ended up not getting the milky way from there, since I didn’t trust my off-roading skills at night by myself. But it was still neat to see during the day. Google maps has helped me scout form afar many, many times!

  2. Yeah, I’m hoping the Street View will continue to grow. Out here in Oregon, there are a lot of smaller roads that have no coverage. State highways do, but not some of the National Forest ones that would be really useful for site planning.


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