Miller Mountain Milky Way - How I shot it

November 05, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Miller Mountain Milky WayMiller Mountain Milky WayI was outside grilling steaks when my beautiful wife told me to look towards the Huachuca mountains. Apparently, someone had forgotten to tell the Milky Way that the season was over. Not one to pass up an opportunity to showcase God's beautiful universe I set up my camera and took some shots. Each day in this desert paradise I am presented with new opportunities to wonder at the glory of His creation. I am truly blessed and humbled to be His witness.
Shoot Date: November 3, 2018
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
30.0 sec at f/2.5 0 EV
Lens: 15mm @ 15 mm
ISO: 2500

How I shot this photo (Milky Way Stacking)    
Equipment / Software
Canon 5D IV
Irix 15mm 2.4 Lens
MeFoto Traveller Tripod
Vello Intervalometer
Photopills iPhone App
Starry Landscape Stacker
Lightroom
Photoshop
RayaPro
On1 PhotoRaw
DXO NIK Software
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The goal in Milky Way, or any night photography, is to capture the most amount of light with the least amount of noise.  There are many tools and techniques to accomplish this. My favorite is Star Stacking, which is taking multiple images (Light Frames) sequentially and then using software to combine them. This can be accomplished in Photoshop, but that is labor intensive. There is a specialty software for MAC owners, Starry Landscape Stacker, that makes the process much more manageable. It is the software I use in almost all of my Milky Way images.  

Here is how I capture single frame Milky Way images. Capturing Pano's of the entire Milky Way utilizes different techniques and equipment. 

Equipment
On the hardware side, using a camera that is capable of shooting at a high ISO without noise is a great start. One of the advantages of modern camera technology is that they can shoot at higher ISO's without noise. My Canon 5D IV can easily shoot at ISO 6400 at night without considerable noise. A wide, fast (f2.8 and lower) lens is also a significant advantage. My go-to lens is the IRIX 15mm f2.4. It has proven to be a workhorse for night shots and also doubles as a great lightning/storm lens during monsoon season. Getting Milky Way photos with slower lenses is possible. I shot the Milky Way with a Canon 16mm f4 lens for years, but a faster lens allows you to capture more light in a shorter time, thus minimizing noise. A tripod, or some other stable support, is essential. There is no way to capture the night sky at the shutter speeds required without the camera on a stable platform. The final piece of hardware needed for this technique is an Intervalometer. This is a cable release device that allows you to program a timer that releases the camera shutter at set intervals for set periods of time. The intervalometer is essential in star stacking, especially if you will try to further reduce noise by using Dark Frames. Dark Frames are images shot at precisely the same settings as Light Frames but with the lens cover on the camera. 

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. 

Planning
The Milky Way Season, the time when the core (Galactic Center) of the Milky Way is visible above the horizon, is from late May through October. June and July are the best times to shoot. In the Northern Hemisphere it appears in the SouthEast during spring, South in Summer and SouthWest in the fall.  This is essential information for planning your shooting locations. There are still opportunities to capture great Milky Way shots in late April and early May, but the window to shoot is incredibly short, and you may not get the entire galactic center. 

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
Once I have planned the shot and set up my camera I will always take a test shot using a long exposure and high ISO. My goal is to capture an image that I can easily review on my camera's screen. Typically this is a 30-second exposure at ISO 3200. A quick note about 30/3200. This is the default setting many Milky Way newcomers use. It is written about frequently and produces acceptable images. I strongly recommend not using these settings. Find out what the optimal exposure / ISO is for your camera set up and use that. You will be much happier with the results. 

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
The foreground element in a Milky Way shot is as important as the Milky Way itself. It anchors the image and provides visual distinction to the final composition. Using the minimum amount of time and lowest ISO will not give enough exposure to illuminate the foreground properly. The best way to capture the foreground is to plan the shot in PhotoPills in advance and get to your shooting location while it is still light.  The software will tell you exactly when both Golden and blue hour happen. Once the sun sets below the horizon, the time called the blue hour; there is still sufficient light to capture the foreground in detail. This is one of my favorite times to shoot in general and is often overlooked by other photographers.  I will cover shooting the foreground in advance in my Milky Way clinics and workshops. 

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
I use Adobe Lightroom as my starting point for all images.  Once I have them in my catalog the first thing I do is make a lens correction and eliminate chromatic aberration on one image. I then sync this adjustment to all my pictures, even the dark frames. Then I decide which series I like best and prepare those to be stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker. I make adjustments to the first image in the series and sync the changes across the rest. This is when I will crop the photo. Since I try to shoot at the fastest shutter and lowest ISO I can, my images are typically dark. My first goal is to lighten them to make the highest amount of stars visible. I am not worried about noise because stacking other post-processing techniques will eliminate it. Each image series is unique, but most often I will increase the exposure, shadows, and whites while decreasing the blacks and contrast. This does not give me an image I would want to publish, but one that the stacking software can analyze most effectively. I usually shoot my pictures at a Kelvin of 3800 which works for my area, but I will also adjust my white balance at this point in the process. I then export the series to my hard drive and import it into Starry Landscape Stacker. Use of that software is beyond the scope of this post, but primarily I select the sky area and let the software do its work. The result is an image with all the stars aligned and most of the noise removed. The software will also produce a separate with the foreground masked out. I usually export this image as well. I then import that image back into Lightroom where I make necessary adjustments. 

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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