March through October is the best time to see the Milky Way galaxy’s core from Earth’s northern hemisphere. Early in the season (MAR-MAY), the core and arm are lower to the horizon. When you see images that show the Milky Way as an arch, these are typically captured in the early season. However, the window to view the core in the early season is shorter because it is visible shortly before nautical dawn (3:30 AM to 5:30 AM). Later in the season, the galaxy’s arm becomes more vertical, and earlier in the night, the core will be become visible (around 10:00 PM in September). The below post is the story of how I created a multi-row panoramic starry landscape image and I am sharing may help you produce your image creation with this amazing night sky object.
Typically, before I go to a location where I want to capture the Milky Way, I search for exciting areas using Google Earth. Google Earth is my favorite tool for doing digital scouting because of its 3D rendering and the ability to view from different perspectives. I always plan for 2 to 3 locations in case one of these does not work out. Once I have a few desired places in mind, I check how much light pollution will affect the Milky Way’s visibility. I use the application from lightpollution.info to see how much radiance from nearby cities will affect the night sky. Maps in the light pollution application are color-coded to show the bright and dark areas; red for bright, and blue or black for dim to dark. If the light pollution information meets my needs to the locations, I plan for the evening for the trip, typically during a New Moon. I also use an app called, PhotoPills, which gives me details when the core is visible and overlays my desired locations to give a virtual view of the sky. These tools greatly help in planning compositions, such as starry landscapes.
I made plans for mid-March 2019 to travel to a primary in Colorado, known as South Park. I also had a secondary location in case the primary did not work out. South Park is a large grassland flat within the basin formed by the Rocky Mountains’ Mosquito and Park Mountain Ranges within central Colorado. This high valley ranges in elevation from approximately 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. I chose mid-March because I knew from experience the Milky Way core and its arm would be closer to the horizon, which would make a lovely arch when doing panoramic photos. Before my departure, I checked the weather forecast and how clear the skies would be using the information found at Clear Sky Charts; all were good. To get to the locations from my home in Colorado Springs would require a 1.5-hour drive in the dark of the night, and the Milky Way core would not appear until 4:00 AM, so I departed around 1:30 AM.
On the weekend before the date I chose for my trip, a weather event known as the Cyclone Bomb Blizzard had hit Colorado. A bomb cyclone is a meteorological phenomenon that describes a storm with plummeting atmospheric pressure. Low-pressure storms like this are rare in Colorado and are known for creating fierce winds and intense snowfall. This blizzard’s timing was perfect because I wanted to capture the Milky Way image with snow on the ground. Unfortunately, this also meant the temperatures would still be far below freezing.
I also wanted to do a nighttime image because I had just acquired a new Nikon D850. Before I purchased this camera, I knew that it had many capabilities, so I wanted to see how well it could do starry-landscape images.
I arrived near my first proposed location with a derelict ranch house and barn in South Park at about 3:00 AM. Unfortunately, the ranch house route was over a rugged and unmaintained dirt road with much snow cover and large drifts. Not taking the risk of getting stuck, I aborted my plans and then drove to my second location, Elevenmile Reservoir. I arrived at the second location about 30 mins later, but it still gave me ample time to grab my gear, hike a short distance, and set-up my camera and tripod. I noticed the temperature reading from my truck indicated that it was -3 degrees F, so I grab my extra layers of clothing, too. There was a slight breeze, too, which gave lower temperatures with the wind chill factor. I had to hike through the snow to get to the shoreline of the iced-over lake. I noticed some ice fishermen and set-up a tent on the ice not too far from where I stood on the shore, and they had a lamp glowing inside. Of course, I was excited because I thought this would make a great composition! I walked further along the lakeshore to position myself at an angle where the glowing tent would be with the Milky Way.
I decided to use my Sigma 35mm Art F1.4 lens with the D850 and put the camera on a Really Right Stuff multi-row panoramic gimbal tripod head. The 35mm does not have a wide enough field of view to capture what I had envisioned, so I knew I had to do a panoramic. Plus, to get the arch of the Milky Way, one must create a panoramic image. To get the complete 180-degree view with the sky and ground, I had to develop my panoramic in a 2×7 matrix (2 rows of 7 frames) – going right to left for the sky, and then left to right for the ground with about a 25%-30% overlap of each image. The RRS head quickly allowed me to pan the camera for the two rows of images. In addition to taking several frames for the panoramic matrix, at each frame, I captured several images for stacking (10 images for each sky panoramic frame, and five images for each of the ground). Since I was using a high ISO to capture detail at night, the camera’s sensors have limitations and create noise. Stacking the images together helps to reduce the sensor noise created on the image. I had set the ground at a lower ISO, and longer shutter time, so I did not need as many frames to reduce noise.
Why did I choose a 35mm lens over a superwide like a 14mm or 16mm? That would have certainly reduced the number of images I needed to capture! There will be less barrel distortion I would have to correct on the 35mm on wider lenses, such as the 14-24mm I normally use for landscapes. Plus, the Sigma 35mm Art has outstanding image quality with shape corners with low coma aberrations.
I also try not to shoot wide open apertures and crank it back a 1/3 to a full stop to reduce the coma aberrations in the corner of the image (this is where your stars look like little UFOs in the corners of your frame). Stopping down the aperture reduces the rays entering from the lens’s lateral edge to reduce the coma. Using the NPF rule, I determined that my shutter speed was 6 seconds for my lens and aperture setting. The result is that I would have sharper stars in every image.
Many times during the shoot, I had to slip my fingers out to operate the camera. I stood on the ice and snow for about two hours with no wind protection before I finally finished capturing images. I began to lose feeling in my fingers despite getting them in the glove more and vigorously moving them. Frost kept forming on the camera and lens and operating the camera increased in difficulty. When I was done, I grabbed my tripod and camera, threw them onto my shoulder, began walking back to my truck and feeling glad that I was moving to expel some energy to warm up.
The wind had decided to pick up more, so blowing snow became a factor that made seeing my path more challenging. I had a good general sense of the direction I needed to walk, so I kept moving forward. I did get off course, but I eventually found the road I drove on and kept walking towards my truck. Calculated that I was a good quarter-mile off course, adding more time to my walk in the cold temperatures with wind chill and blowing snow.
I slowly opened the truck with my numb fingers and hands and put my gear in the back. Climbed into the car and started the engine to begin warming it. At this point, I was still feeling frozen but glad to be out of the wind. Eventually, the heater started to blow heat instead of cold air. My hand and fingers were still too numb to drive safely, so I spent the next 15-20 mins trying to warm them up with the heater. If you ever had your hands this cold, then you know that this can be painful! Days later, after the shoot, my fingers were still hurting, so I had some minor frostbite, but eventually, this pain went away.
The result of all that shooting was about 100 images that were stacked and then stitched together. I used Sequator for the image stacking (similar to Starry Landscape Stacker for Macs) and Microsoft ICE for stitching. Even with these two powerful software tools, I still had to manually blend the rows for the sky with the ground in Photoshop. Partly because I had changed the ISO and focused on the ground images, there was no perfect alignment of the background mountains. The PTGUI program would probably handle that problem more effortless, but I did not have a license at this time. I used a computer that I have custom-built to process large files and lots of calculations to create the image, but this image was still tasking it somewhat hard! The size of the file after completing the stack, stitch, and edit is about 1.25 Gb! If I print this guy at 100%, it would be an 80″x50″ monster!
The final image and the process I took was mostly for me to try the D850 with my lens and pano rig, see the results in the images I captured, and learn what is possible in this system. I had not used the D850 for starry night photography before this evening, and I became very impressed with its capabilities. The D850 is one helluv-a camera body, IMO! However, I did manage to create an image that is worthy enough to hang on a wall!
Do you need the same type of gear I used to create wall-hanging worthy images? No, but it doesn’t hurt! You definitely can use the same tools I did for planning your shoot, though. Knowing your camera and its limitations are the best place to start, and then experiment doing night images with it. You may find that your camera is quite capable of creating start sky images. As a matter of fact, the recent technology in phone cameras has increased dramatically to where some are capable of capturing starry skies. If you have one of these amazing devices, give it a try sometime and share what you learned!
Panoramic images are fun in the way I created mine, but make sure you have enough storage space for the files and an excellent processor to crunch through the processing! I spent maybe a good 16 hours on this image, but I am also a perfectionist and may have spent more time than what it should take. Give panoramic images with your camera a try, learn from it, and above all, have fun!
Your methods may differ from mine, and that is OK. If so, share your techniques in a post! The above worked out for me, so if anything, I hope what I shared taught you something you can use for your creations.