Photographing The Milky Way

How and when to create panoramic images of our home galaxy

Panoramas are one of the most fun and dramatic ways of capturing the Milky Way over a landscape, created by stitching multiple exposures together in software to capture a much wider field of view than you could capture in a single photo. You’ll need some gear, techniques and patience, but the results are well worth it.

When to Shoot Milky Way Panoramas
The Galactic Center—the big, bright, photogenic part of the Milky Way—isn’t always visible at night, and the arc of the Milky Way gets more and more overhead throughout the year, so you need to know when and where you can shoot Milky Way panoramas. With an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, PhotoPills or PlanIt! for Photographers, you can determine the angle and elevation of the Milky Way at any location and on any night.

Milky Way panoramas are most easily done when the Milky Way arc is lower in the sky, but when this occurs depends on your location. For example, in the northern part of the United States, the Galactic Center of the Milky Way starts to be visible in February late at night, and arcs low in the sky until June or so, when the Milky Way arc starts to be angled so high in the sky that you’d need to do multi-row panoramas to get it all in with the foreground still in the final stitched panorama. This article will focus on single-row panoramas.

Gear Needed
At a minimum, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head, and a superwide-angle lens. You’ll ideally want a 35mm equivalent of 16mm or wider for your system, with a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 or brighter. A superwide-angle lens allows you to capture as much of the sky as possible for each shot that’s needed to create the panorama.

You’ll need to level the tripod head completely, and have a way of rotating the camera so it remains level. This is best done with a leveling base of some sort. You can use a ballhead with a panning (rotating) plate on top, such as the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead with their panning clamp. The Acratech GP ballhead is another great example; it can be mounted upside down on your tripod head to be used as a leveling base and panning clamp. Once you have the tripod positioned fairly level, you can level the ballhead as perfectly as possible, and then rotating the panning clamp on top of the ballhead should result in the camera rotating without going out of level.

An L-bracket and nodal rail (also called a nodal slide) are highly recommended, as well. The L-bracket lets you mount your camera vertically in your tripod head (or nodal rail) without having to flop your tripod head over to the side. The nodal rail is a very important piece of gear that lets you find the “no parallax point” of your lens (sometimes called the nodal point, but “no parallax point” is a more accurate description). Without a nodal rail, because of parallax distortion, the exposures that you take will be harder to stitch together when there are strong fore-ground elements.

Have you ever held a finger up in front of your eyes and looked at it with just one eye open, then just the other eye open, and noticed how it seems to move? That’s parallax, and your lens has the same issue when you rotate the camera: Objects in the foreground will appear to move in relation to objects in the background from frame to frame. With a nodal rail, you find the “no parallax point” by testing the parallax of the lens with a vertical object in the foreground against an object in the background. You can use a light pole or tree, for example. Keep sliding the rail back and forth on your tripod head until you don’t see any parallax through the lens when you rotate the camera, meaning the light pole or tree in the foreground always appears in the same position relative to the background objects.


“Boulder Beach Panorama, Acadia National Park, Maine.” Photographing luminous Milky Way panoramas like Adam Woodworth requires technique and patience. As for additional gear, all you need are a leveling base, nodal rail, L-bracket and Lightroom or Photoshop for stitching.

Technique
In order to capture the entire arc of the visible Milky Way, you’ll need to take many exposures and stitch them together in software. Mount your camera vertically; you want to take vertical shots to get as much sky and foreground as possible in every shot. Start with your camera panned a bit farther than the farthest left or right point that you want in the panorama. Then pan the camera enough so that at least one-third of the new frame overlaps the previous frame, take another shot, and keep going until you capture the entire scene.

You need overlap for the stitching software to be able to put together the panorama. Since it’s hard/impossible to see what’s in your frame when shooting in the dark, it’s best to go with an angle of panning that’s needed between each shot. For example, when I shoot 14mm on a full-frame-sensor camera, I pan the camera 30º between each shot. I can simply look at the markings on the panning clamp of the ballhead illuminated by my headlamp and turn the camera to the next 30º increment. This can be made even easier with a panning base that has configurable click stops, such as the Nodal Ninja RD16-II, so you can just pan the camera 30º each time without having to even use your headlamp.

How many exposures you need will depend on the focal length of your lens. For example, on a full-frame camera at 14mm in May, when a good portion of the arc is visible, I find that I need anywhere from 8 to 10 or more exposures to capture the scene, depending on how much foreground I want in the frame to the left and right of the Milky Way. When you’re shooting your panorama, it’s very important to remember to shoot one more frame than you think you need on both the left and right sides. You’ll need that extra room for the stitching to work correctly, otherwise you’ll end up losing some of your panorama on the left and right edges.

Camera Settings
A basic rule of thumb per exposure would be ƒ/2.8 or brighter, ISO 3200 or higher, and 20 to 30 seconds. Turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction in-camera will reduce hot pixels, but your exposure will take twice as long, since this causes the camera to take a dark frame to find hot pixels. Depending on the ambient light where you’re shooting, you may not get much detail in the foreground in your 20- to 30-second shots. You can take foreground exposures after taking all of your sky exposures by shooting the panorama again, but with a longer shutter speed to capture more light. Then stitch two separate panoramas in software and blend those together in Photoshop to get a single panorama with detail in the sky and foreground.

Stitching the Panorama
You’ll need to use software to stitch the panorama together. The easiest options are using the Panorama tool in Lightroom, found via the Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama menu, or the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, found under File > Automate > Photomerge.

Try the auto-perspective settings and see how it looks. Sometimes a merge isn’t perfect and you’ll need to fix the panorama in Photoshop with tools such as Clone Stamp or Warp, and maybe even manually blend in some of the original exposures if things go really bad with the stitching. There are also other more advanced and complicated tools dedicated to panorama stitching, such as Autopano and PTGui, which may be necessary for complex panoramas, but for single-row panoramas as described here, you usually can get by with stitching in Lightroom or Photoshop.

To see more of Adam Woodworth’s photography and to purchase his video-editing tutorials, visit his website at adamwoodworth.com.

12 Comments

    Thank you for providing a chart with your article. I am using a Nikon D90 with the Tokina 11-16 and I get a lot of noise at the higher ISO. How do I reduce this?

    In my experience, it would be really difficult to get decent results using a D90. It should have an onboard Noise Reduction feature, but even with this and any efforts in post processing, getting an image that would even approach the ones in this article would be next to impossible.

    Great article, but I too like the final paragraph. I think a lot of people forget to enjoy the moment and only reply on the captured image for their memory.

    Well it was fascinating yes, however this my passion. However I don’t have $7000.00 to shot the milky way plus travel exp.. It is ok though I will over come the extra exp on equipment and use my artistic mind to make up the difference. Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm f1.4 will have to do it. I may sell the Sigma someday and buy the Nikon f1.4. If I’m not ok with my shots. I’ve read a lot the past month on shooting the night skies. It seems every one has a different opinion on what to use. The photos I’ve seen on the different web sites have all been awesome. Again thank you for your knowledge.

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