Miller Mountain Milky Way - How I shot it
How I shot this photo (Milky Way Stacking)
Here is how I capture single frame Milky Way images. Capturing Pano's of the entire Milky Way utilizes different techniques and equipment.
If you are only shooting a single exposure at a longer shutter speed and higher ISO the intervelometor is not required. For a single image, a simple cable release works well, as does setting your camera to use its internal 2-second timer. The purpose of the cable release or timer method is to minimize camera shake when pressing the shutter.
Whether I am mapping out a Milky Way shot in advance, my preferred method, or shooting an impromptu shot, as in this image, I always begin with PhotoPills. I do not believe there is a better, or more important, app for Milky Way shootings than PhotoPills. In fact, in almost every shooting situation, including wildlife shooting, PhotoPills is an essential tool for capturing a great shot. Going into all its capabilities is beyond the scope of this post, but I will be offering PhotoPills clinic and workshops in 2019. Full disclosure - I am a PhotoPills Master, and my images have won numerous awards from the company.
PhotoPills has many critically important tools for Milky Way shooting. The ones I use most frequently are the Planner module, which lets me know when and at what time the Milky Way will be visible, as well as the Night Augmented Reality feature which enables me to envision the Milky Ways position at a future time, even if it is daylight. The other critically important panel in the application is the Spot Stars module. This allows me to enter my Camera model, lens length and aperture to provide me with the optimal exposure time for the image. For planned shoots where I am capturing the foreground during the blue hour, the HyperFocal Module with its Augmented Reality feature allows me to get the maximum exposure focus from front to back.
Capturing the Stack
After reviewing my test shot and making adjustments to the composition, I program my Intervelometer to shoot 20 light frames and let it go. As soon as the image sequence is complete, and careful not to move anything, I put the lens cap on the camera and shoot 20 more images. Note, that 20 images in the maximum number of images Starry Landscape Tracker can handle and no the essential amount of shots needed. Getting great results with as few as five images is possible. I am just a bit OCD about it. The key is that you take as many dark frames as light frames.
I will typically shoot the Milky Way in both Landscape and Portrait mode to give myself options on which images I like best.
Capturing the Foreground
If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot get to the location while there is still light to capture the foreground do not be dismayed. You can still obtain a great foreground using the proper techniques. One thing to remember, while shooting the Milky Way during a full moon is not really possible, it is possible to shoot during different phases of the moon. Moonlight is bright as the sun and offers a great lighting source, even when it is below the horizon. I will cover this in my clinics and workshops as well.
At other times the key is taking multiple exposures with long shutter speeds and high ISO. These images will be noisy but using simple photo stacking can eliminate much of the noise while retaining enough detail to make the picture visually compelling. In the image above I had the benefit of a lot of ambient light and some minimal moonlight in the background. I shot five photos of the foreground at a 30-second exposure at ISO 2500. I often shoot foregrounds for as long as a minute at ISO 3200 or 6400.
Putting it all together
Once those adjustments have been completed, I send the image to Photoshop.
I will then work on my foreground images. I use mostly the same process as I do for the sky, this time focusing on making the foreground adequately exposed. I have two methods for stacking the foreground images. I will either use Starry Landscape Stacker or Photoshops median stacking. Either way, I end up with a final image ready to be merged with the sky image.
Merging images is an art in itself. The first step is to stack the sky and the foreground as separate layers in photoshop. Once this is done, they must be aligned. If you have done everything right and not moved the camera while shooting the alignment is easy.
Then they must be combined into one image. One of the simplest methods, but one which I do not use, is to use the masked image produced by Starry Landscape Stacker to create a mask on the sky image revealing the foreground image below. My experience is that this method creates a distinct line between the photos. My goal is to create a feathered blend that is seamless. The most effective way to do this is to use RayaPro to produce a luminosity mask that blends the images. Luminosity Masking is an advanced photoshop technique. I may one day offer a clinic on it, but the creator of RayaPro has created some of the most excellent youtube training tutorials I have ever seen. Most of them are free. There are other methods for blending the images, and the key is to find the one that works best for you.
Now that I have the composite complete it needs to be edited. The first thing I do is run DXO software define module. This eliminates any remaining noise in the sky. I will then typically run DXO Color Efex module details, Pro Contrast, and Tonal Adjustments. I try to go very light on these. I will then bring the image into On1 PhotoRaw where I add a very light glow to the sky, a very soft vignette and if needed, some Dynamic Contrast. I export the image back into photoshop and make any other adjustments needed to levels, curves, etc. I will often make specific adjustments using RayaPro to isolate particular areas to enhance detail, saturation, hue, levels, and curves.
I now have my final image. By this point, it is a large file. I will save it and then duplicate it. I rename the duplicate to my final image name and then merge all the layers to make the file smaller. If needed this is when I will resize the image for printing. I then use RayaPro to create a separate 2048 pixel wide image sharpened for social media. I save both these files into Lightroom. The last thing I do before publishing is writing the image story. But that is a story in itself. I hope this helps to get you started on Milky Way Photography.
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