Challenges of Smoke

Night photography has many challenges, and in the summer, wildfire smoke adds an additional challenge. Planning a composition and achieving your creative vision takes time, sometimes luck, and the cooperation of the weather (clouds not being jerks). Add in some smoke, and the images you have planned out for months or years can be put off even longer. But, don’t be completely discouraged if there is some smoke in the air. It can lead to some interesting images and unique conditions.

If the skies are completely smokey and obscured, it may not be worth heading out. Both for safety reasons and because there is likely no chance you’ll get the photo you want. If the smoke is “light enough” or only in one portion of the sky, you might be able to get some captivating images.

The image on the right was taken during my 2022 Jasper in June Photography Workshop. We had a lot of blue bird days in the forecast, and then the smoke rolled in. The smoke did not get too heavy, but on the date we decided to go try night photography, it came in thick on the southern horizon. We shot to the north, and then made our way down to the lake shore to catch the perfect reflection. A rising full moon lit up the smoke with warm tones and the Milky Way rose above the smoke. The galaxy is relatively faint in the image due to the lack of night time – only astronomical twilight in June at that latitude – and the brightness from the rising moon.


Safety is always a priority. If the smoke is so thick that it completely obscures the night sky, there are likely also health risks. Many factors can affect your health and well-being. Stay informed about air quality advisories through local news and weather forecasts. Some websites post air quality and smoke forecasts.

The photo on the left was taken by my friend Douglas Drouin, Aug 2022. The fire was the Keremeos Creek blaze that burned in the Southern Okanagan. He was photographing the fire along or near a highway in the area. 2023 has been another devastating year for Okanagan the area.

Techniques and Tips


Any haze in the sky can make focusing on the stars challenging. Whether this is cloud haze or smoke haze, manual focusing on a star becomes more difficult. Look for the brightest stars/planets to make this easier, or you can use artificial light at a far enough distance from your camera to act as a light point at infinity. My preference is to use stars and keep my night vision as best as possible. But, sometimes, you just need to use other methods.

Night photography workshop in smokey skies
A night photography workshop where we definitely had to use artificial lighting to focus. No stars to be seen! We were able to work on techniques and had a blast with light painting.

Smoke and Light

Wildfire smoke can scatter light – sunrises and sunsets can get more red/orange because of some smoke. Smoke will also diffuse light, creating a softer effect and image. When the smoke becomes too thick the sun may still become a brilliant red colour, but the rest of the sky will be flat and grey. During daylight hours, smoke can create interesting layers and challenges a photographer can work with. If your goal is stars, the Milky Way, and deep sky objects, then smoke could completely ruin your plans. There are those times when it could create interesting conditions, and you could come away with unique photos.

Wildfire smoke in the air obscured the night sky during a Waterton photography workshop. Only Jupiter and Saturn were bright enough to shine through and they are both muted.
Red alpen glow on Mount Inglismaldie from sunlight passing through wildfire smoke at golden hour.

Light Pollution

To see and photograph certain subjects, you will need dark skies. To figure out where to go, you can utilize Light Pollution Maps. Urban areas with lights can have a sky glow around them. A city, for example, would have a large glow around it, and clouds will reflect that artificial light from the ground. Smoke will amply light pollution just like the clouds do.

Smoke in the air amplified lights from nearby farms along the horizon.


Editing can bring back some contrast and details in images affected by smoke. The Dehaze tool in Lightroom is fantastic, for example. Like any tool in Lightroom, be careful of how far you push it. My preference is to stay true to what was there and simply enhance. Night photography editing can be very light or very complicated.

More Image Examples and Details

Milky Way and mountains reflecting in Herbert Lake, Icefields Parkway

Perfect reflections the same month two years apart, two different atmospheric conditions. In 2017, you can see the Milky Way very clearly, there is green and magenta airglow in the sky and Lake Louise lights up a little bit of the sky and the mountains. In 2019, I went out with my friends at The Camera Store TV to film a segment about the new Nikon Z7. We tried to line up our schedules and the weather multiple times before settling on a night that ended up being a bit smokey. The Milky Way did not stand out as much and the light pollution was amplified.

Nikon d3S + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8
ISO6400 f2.8 14mm 25s

Nikon z7 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8
ISO6400 f2.8 14mm 20s

Another shot from Jasper in June (but after my workshop) when the darkest the sky gets is in astronomical twilight. A mix of smog and smoke was creeping over the town of Jasper and reflecting the light pollution from the town. I thought the reflected pattern looked neat alongside the Milky Way.

In retrospect, I should have set up a time-lapse of the Milky Way and fog but I was still experimenting with the new z8 and I had moved around the lake a few times.

Nikon z8 + z14-24 f2.8
ISO3200 f2.8 14mm 13s

While smoke blanketed the mountains, I lucked out with fairly good conditions in Southern Alberta. There is smoke on the horizon of this photo – it looks shadowy and flat. The Milky Way was high enough in the sky for the core to stand out. Luckily there wasn’t any light pollution for the smoke to reflect along the horizon.

Nikon d810 (astro-modified by Spencer’s Camera) + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8
Sky: ISO400 f4 14mm 240s x3
Foreground was shot in blue hour and blended in with a tracked shot.

Taking chances and utilizing resources available will help you achieve the results you want. Sometimes you do have to be patient. I’ve waited years to get images I’ve planned out. Sometimes taking a chance on questionable conditions is how it all works out.