The Milky Way is our home galaxy. It has been visible in the night sky since well before the dawn of man. Today however we rarely see this beautiful site. We live indoors and when outside our skies are typically fogged with the light from local cities and cars. With a dark sky far from city lights and with some planing and effort a modern digital camera can reveal an ancient and beautiful sight.
The first five photos in this series were taken in the Alabama Hills, a set of rock formations located near Lone Pine, California just east of Mount Whitney. The Alabama Hills may look familiar to you - these famous formations have been used as the location for over 400 Hollywood movies! You may learn more about the history and geology of the Alabama Hills here.
The remainder of the photos were taken in the hills to the west of Hollister, California. This is just far enough away to be free from most of the city lights, but you can still see the glow of the Bay Area lights near the horizon above the road. The rolling California hills and oak trees provide some interesting foreground subjects.
On a moonless night from these locations with your eyes adjusted to the dark you can readily see the Milky Way spanning across the entire sky. In summer the brightest part (looking to the very center of our galaxy) can be seen just above the southern horizon. The proximity to the horizon makes this a great backdrop for different foreground subjects. Note that the dark areas in the glow are actually the result of interstellar dust blocking the light from the bright distant center of the disk! The brightest star in these photos is the planet Jupiter. The center of our galaxy is in the bright area nearby and here resides a massive black whole millions of times heavier than our sun. For more information on the Milky Way see this.
The camera is more sensitive than the human eye so in real life the galaxy does not look quite as bright to an observer. The foreground on a moonless night is so dark as to appear merely as a black silhouette. A long exposure with a good camera can pick up surprising details however and the use of lights to illuminate or "light paint" the foreground can create some amazing effects.
Lots of post processing is still required to bring out the hidden details however. Here for example is a photo before and after post processing in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop:
The rest of this post will go into much detail about the equipment, techniques, and post processing. This is mostly of interest to fellow photographers that may wish to explore night sky photography and light painting on their own. Do give this a try, it is fun and you never really know what you will get.
All of the photos here are available to order. These make spectacular prints at any size, and they look striking printed on modern alternative materials such as sheet aluminum and acrylic. Where will you display your favorite photo?
Before I go into more technical details, I want to thank Paul Dileanis for showing me these great night sky photography locations. Paul is a professional photographer and he leads excellent photography workshops. I highly recommend exploring his his photos and his workshop offerings at his website www.siliconvalleyimages.com.
So now on to some details - how to shoot photos of the Milky Way...
Yes, as in real estate, location is everything. The challenge with night sky photography is to separate the light of dim stars from the background glow of the sky caused by city and vehicle lights and moonlight. Ideally you want a location far from cities, at higher elevations (less atmosphere to reflect light), and on a clear moonless night. The Alabama Hills is almost perfect - 5,000' high desert with only a few small towns nearby (which still can be seen as the glowing areas just above the horizon). The hills near Hollister are also pretty good but are still somewhat impacted by the Bay Area lights. Another consideration for location is seeking interesting foreground subjects. Here is an interesting website that maps locations based on the or the degree of light pollution from nearby cities.
You will need a good digital camera - ideally a recent full frame camera with very good low light sensitivity and the ability to shoot at higher ISO settings with minimal digital noise. I used a 24MP Sony a9 (excellent low light capability) and a 40MP Sony a7R3. Canon and Nikon also offer good low light solutions. If you don't have one of these - just go out and experiment with what ever you have.
The Milky Way spans a wide angle of the sky so in general you will want a very wide angle lens, ideally 14mm to 18mm. You also want to capture as much light as possible so wide aperture lenses from f/2.8 or down to f/1.4 are best. Manual focus is used. My favorite lenses are the Laowa 15mm f/2 and the Sigma 14mm f/1.8, but I have also worked successfully with a 16-35mm zoom. If you only have narrower field of view lenses such as a 24mm you can also use Photoshop to create stitched panoramas.
In addition to your camera and lenses, you will need a good steady tripod with a ball head, a headlamp with a red light option (does not disturb your night vision), and optionally a variety of dim light sources to experiment with Light Painting. If you really get into this you might explore a tracking device such as a iOptron SkyGuide, but this is not required and most all of the shots above are taken on a simple tripod. A remote control is helpful to eliminate vibrations for the longer exposures.
You will want to plan to experiment with different camera settings to see what works best for your gear in your location, but here are some considerations and some suggestions for starting points.
All camera settings should be set to manual - manual focus, manual shutter speed, manual aperture, manual ISO, and any image stabilization turned off (flights with long exposures on a tripod). For aperture - use wide open or on-half stop down for maximum light. Some lenses are much sharper however at just one stop down so test and determine what works best for your lens. For ISO use as high as you can without objectionable noise. On my Sony a9 I can go to ISO 6400, and on the Sony a7R3 I use 3200 max. With these settings try for about a 10-15 second exposure. Anything longer and the motion of the stars is apparent. Shorter and you will just not get enough light. My typical setting is f/2, ISO 6400, 10 seconds.
Finally - manually focus CAREFULLY. Set your camera on live preview and hopefully use a magnified setting. As you focus near infinity your will see the stars pop into a sharp pinpoint. Do not simply turn your manual focus all the way to the infinity stop - most lenses will actually focus beyond infinity. Once you set your focus remember to check it often thought the night - it is easy in the dark to bump the focus ring and end up with many useless photos - I know this from experience!
Another suggestion is to take lots of variations - bracket exposures, try slightly different lens positions, and of course experiment with light painting. It is difficult to review your shots carefully in the field so having more different trys to select from later helps.
Here is where the work really begins. I probably spent about 4x the time post processing a set of images than I spent in the field capturing them. As you can see above, there is a lot of hidden information in the shadows of the image that can be brought out. I start by trying to optimize the sky in Lightroom with both global and local adjustments. When this is completed I make a second virtual copy and optimize the foreground (ignoring the sky). I then open both of these versions in Photoshop and stack them and carefully mask out the foreground separately from the sky.
For reference, here are some of the somewhat extreme lightroom settings used for one specific image. You will see the development settings on the right panel. Note that some of the adjustments are full slider settings...
There are many good sources of information on the web that can help you with night sky photography. Search for terms like "night sky photography", "milky way photography", "light painting photography". I encourage you to go out and give this a try. It is also fun to do with a friend or two and have them participate in the light painting experiments.
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