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Milky way panorama by michael ,  Nov 25, 2014

I love capturing beautiful nightscape photography, and I’m always happy to share what I know and what I learn. I’m keen to inspire others to head outside and look up at the sky, and to photograph the sky.

So I’ve started a series of posts with the theme ‘Nightscape Photography 101‘ – sharing tips and tricks to help you take better nightscape photos.

In this fourth blog post, I’m going to share with you How ToCapture and Process Nightscape Panoramas. When you just don’t have a wide enough lens to capture the vast scene in front of you, and you want to create a panorama – how do you do it? I’ll answer questions such as – how many frames are needed, how much overlap, using the camera in landscape or portrait orientation, getting a straight horizon after stitching and more!

How to Capture and Process Nightscape Panoramas

How to Capture and Process Nightscape Panoramas

Update: This article was originally posted in December 2012, but this is now version 1.1, with some edits and additions, and added to the Nightscape Photography 101 series.

Since my trip to the Kimberley’s, this image of the Arching Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles has become one of my more famous images, partly thanks to receiving an APOD for it back in September.

I’ve received loads of feedback and lots of questions about the image, so I thought it’d be great to share all the details about how I captured and processed it. I hope that it helps you!

Ancient Arches – Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles. Wallpaper. Buy Print.

Early in 2012, I was fortunate enough to win 1st prize in the Ken Duncan Photo Awards competition. The prize was a 2 week photographic tour with Ken to the Kimberley region of North West Australia, to photograph some of Australia’s most remote and yet iconic landscapes such as Cape Leveque, Mitchell Falls and the Bungle Bungles.

The Kimberley Region of North West Australia. We covered over 3,500 km during the trip.

The Kimberley Region of North West Australia. We covered over 3,500 km during the trip.

One of my passions in photography is Nightscapes – night sky scenes combined with beautiful foregrounds (more reading – What are Nightscapes?). I saw this trip as a great opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes amongst some of the darkest skies in the country.

Nightscape Basics

This article very quickly covers the reasons why I use the settings I do for nightscapes. To understand more about the basics of nightscape photography and why we use the settings we do, read my article: Fundamentals of Nightscape Photography.

I prepared for the trip by buying a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens – a nice and fast ultra-widefield lens for my Canon 5D Mk II. It’s manual focus and manual aperture setting, but for nightscapes that’s not a problem. To focus at night, I simply switch to Live View on the 5D Mk 2, find a bright star and zoom right in, and toggle back and forwards through the focus until the stars are as tight points as they can be.

Aperture setting is always at f/2.8 (or as fast as your lens allows) and ISO is always high for nightscape shooting. I use ISO3200 on the 5D Mk II. You want to collect as much light as possible in the shortest time possible, so you can capture your scene before you get trailing of stars due to the Earth’s rotation. For an ultra-widefield lens like the 14mm on a full-frame body, you can capture up to 30s exposures without any trailing of stars. Any longer than that, and the stars won’t be pin points anymore when you zoom right in on your preview screen after taking the shot. For a longer focal length, the exposure time would have to be shorter before you get trailing of stars.

There’s always a little distortion around the corners on the wide open lens, and always a bit of grain shooting at high ISO, but for nightscapes you can sacrifice that bit of sharpness in the corners for capturing more light. And for noise reduction, there’s some great Photoshop plugins and other tools that do an excellent job cleaning up those high ISO images.

Topaz DeNoise does a great job at controlling noise in High ISO images

Topaz DeNoise does a great job at controlling noise in High ISO images

The only time you’d stop the lens down or use a lower ISO, is if you’re purposely going for longer exposures to do a star trails image. In that case, you might stop down to f/8 with a lower ISO like 200 or 400, and capture exposures of several minutes at a time, like I did for these images of Star Trails at the Bungle Bungles and Moonlit Mitchell Falls Star Trails.

Location

We had visited the Bungle Bungles for a sunrise shoot earlier in the day, and I asked our guide if she could take me back at night. It was about a 40 minute drive from our camp, and this was after she had worked all day, so I was ecstatic when she agreed. I had showed some others in our group the nightscapes I’d captured at Cape Leveque a few days earlier, and they were keen to learn how to do it so 8 of us boarded the truck after dinner and headed back out to the Bungle Bungles.

A bright fireball (shooting star) captured during a 30 second exposure at Cape Leveque

A bright fireball (shooting star) captured during a 30 second exposure at Cape Leveque

Capturing the Scene

After walking 30 minutes from the parking area to the Piccaninny Creek bed, I gave the group the key settings they needed to capture nightscapes:

  • Use a tripod
  • High ISO (1600 or 3200 depending on your camera)
  • Fastest and widest lens in your kit, set to the fastest aperture
  • Set focus by focusing on the Moon using auto-focus and then switch to manual (or use live view to focus manually)
  • Set image quality to RAW or largest jpeg if you don’t use RAW
  • Set the exposure time to 30 seconds
  • Compose your shot. Look for an interesting combination of foreground and sky.
  • It might be difficult to see the scene properly through the viewfinder at night, so take some test exposures to check your composition and focus.
  • Use a cable release or intervalometer if you have one, and fire away.

We were fortunate that a crescent Moon high in the West provided the light we needed to light up our foreground – the beehive domes of the Bungle Bungles, and it was a perfect time of year with the Milky Way having just risen in the East.

Piccanniny Creek Bed Under the Stars

Piccanniny Creek Bed Under the Stars

Why Shoot a Panorama

I guess the first logical question to ask, is why would you shoot a panorama. What are the reasons for going to the extra effort in capture and processing?

There’s a few reasons why you might want to shoot a panorama:

  • You don’t have a wide enough lens to capture the scene in a single shot
  • You have a crop camera which doesn’t give you a wide enough field of view
  • You want to use a slightly longer focal length to get more detail in the sky, but want to capture enough scene as well
  • You want a higher-resolution photo (more pixels) so you capture a bigger scene
  • You want to capture the whole extent of a scene – for example 180 degrees of the Milky Way covering the sky or even a full 360 degrees

A panorama doesn’t have to be an epic full coverage of the sky or 180deg etc. Sometimes I shoot panoramas that are just 2 or 3 shots stitched together. When I want just a bit of extra sky or land when my lens isn’t wide enough.

Shooting the Panorama

While the rest of the group was happily snapping away, absolutely thrilled with what they could see on the preview screen, I started composing my shots and was keen to capture a panorama showing the extent of the Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles.

I usually try to shoot my panoramas in vertical (portrait) orientation most of the time, and allow at least 1/3 to 1/2 the frame overlap. It’s always best to shoot more than you need, as there’s nothing worse than having gaps in your mosaic and having to throw away a potentially great image. You want enough ‘left over’ around the edges to be able to crop and warp later.

For my Ancient Arches image below, I originally thought 5 or 6 frames would cover it and captured some in landscape orientation, but when I stitched those together it was horrible – nowhere near enough coverage. Luckily though, I was able to use images from the same time that I didn’t originally plan for the mosaic. Auto Pano Pro was clever enough to take all of my frames and make something of them.

So in the end I captured 13 panels, all with the same settings – ISO3200, 30s exposures, f/2.8, 14mm.

All 13 images, straight out of the camera

All 13 images, straight out of the camera

The screenshot above shows the single images I captured, pretty much straight out of the camera and exported from LR as TIF.

Some other examples of panoramas and the number of images:

In Dead Stump Panorama (below), I used 22 shots (2 rows of 11, with the camera in portrait orientation) – to make sure I captured enough land and sky with enough overlap to not have any missing pieces or parts that couldn’t stitch.

Dead Stump Panorama

Dead Stump Panorama

This image below was captured at Lostock Dam during IISAC2013, and is 9 frames in portrait orientation: Milky Way Rising over Lostock Dam.

Milky Way Rising over Lostock Dam

Milky Way Rising over Lostock Dam

This one below is 12 frames: On the Ridge.

On the Ridge

On the Ridge

And another captured from the Kimberley, at Cape Leveque this is just 3 images: Cape Leveque at Night.

Cape Leveque at Night

Cape Leveque at Night

They’re just a few examples of using different number of images and the types of scenes you can capture. Now – how to stitch them!

Stitching

I import my images into Lightroom for categorisation, ranking and initial post-processing. Usually that’s a little noise reduction, saturation boost and applying the lens profile for the Samyang 14mm to remove some of the distortion. I then export the 13 panels as full-size TIF’s.

Panorama Stitching Software

There’s a number of software packages out there that can be used to stitch panoramas – some free, some paid.

Typically, I’d been using AutoPano Pro for stitching my panoramas – it’s a great piece of software, really easy to use, handles all of my panoramas seamlessly and is good value at only 99 Euros.

However, after finding a few panoramas that it had trouble with, I found and tried a newly released program from Microsoft called Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor). It’s FREE and really easy to use. It’s has managed to stitch images well, without exception.

There are others, such as PTGui and Hugin that I’ve heard other people use successfully, but I have no personal experience in them so can’t comment one way or another.

Settings

In almost all cases I use default settings with cylindrical projection, however for some images I’ve tried planar, spherical or other methods. Just experiment until you get the image that looks the best.

And always make sure you adjust the settings to save the image at 100% in PSD or TIF. I usually save the panorama as a 16-bit TIF, which I then import back into Lightroom or straight into Photoshop.

And a word of caution – when you see something come out like the image below, that’s normal! Don’t throw it away. We’re not done yet.

The initial panorama creation in AutoPano Pro. You can see it really needs some work!

The initial panorama creation in AutoPano Pro. You can see it really needs some work!

Post Processing

This article isn’t going to be full in-depth guide to post-processing nightscapes, but will focus on the most important workflow steps. There’ll be a future article that goes into more specifics about processing nightscape images.

My post-processing of the Ancient Arches panorama (and almost all of my panoramas) involved the following steps:

1. Noise reduction

I use Topaz DeNoise photoshop plugin, with the RAW medium or RAW light setting depending on the image. I find it does a great job at reducing the noise of high ISO shots while still retaining star and foreground detail.

I simply apply the noise reduction to the background layer.

2. Straighten the panorama, crop

In most cases, the panorama will come out distorted and unless you crop out huge amounts of your photo, you need to apply some warping to get the horizon straight. Because of the wide field of view, this will result in the milky way being curved like a rainbow across the sky.

I increased the canvas size to allow some stretching and cropped the top

I increased the canvas size to allow some stretching and cropped the top

After increasing the canvas size and doing an initial crop, I duplicate the background layer, select the duplicated layer, and use Edit->Transform->Warp. Grab the edges and pull them in the directions needed to get the photo how I want it. It might take a bit of trial and error and experimentation to get the desired result without stretching it too much or too little.

The warp tool is a life saver!

The warp tool is a life saver!

I can then crop any remaining parts away to get the panorama ratio I’m after, and if necessary, use the clone tool to fill in any minor gaps around the edges.

3. Levels and curves

The camera captures a lot of detail in the sky but requires some post-processing to give it more contrast and make it pop. I do this by small increments of levels and curves layers, paying careful attention not to clip too much off the black end or white end.

4. Saturation and colour balance

The Milky Way can stand up to generous amounts of saturation or vibrance layers, in small increments. You want the yellows, oranges and reds of the central bulge of the milky way to stand out more, but without introducing colour noise or blotchiness.

Finally some colour balance adjustments to get the sky background to a pleasing neutral colour and to correct any colour cast such as reds or yellows or blues that may have been introduced by the bright Moon or by any of your other adjustments.

Your aim is that the sky looks fairly natural and not overly processed.

5. Layer Mask for the foreground

With all these adjustments for the sky, the foreground can end up too dark, or too contrasty or with too much orange or yellow – especially with the bright Moon lighting up the foreground and the already natural yellow/orange colour in the beehive domes.

So I duplicate the base warped layer and use a layer mask to reveal just the foreground. I then applied any levels, curves and saturation adjustments as clipping masks just to that foreground layer to ensure it looks as natural as possible, while revealing the detail you’re after.

Showing the various layers applied in Photoshop

Showing the various layers applied in Photoshop

6. Flatten and Resize for web

I save the whole layered image as a PSD, and then flatten the layers to do some sharpening and resize to around 1200px wide with a final smart sharpen if required for web presentation.

Ancient Arches – Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles. Wallpaper. Buy Print.

That’s it!

And that’s all there is to it! The combination of beautiful dark skies, a stunning location and foreground scene, the right camera and lens combination and the right settings – the rest is fairly straight forward and it’s something that everyone can achieve.

Please feel free to get in touch via the comments below, or simply email me if you have any questions! I’d love to hear from you if this helps you get the image you’re after!

I hope this Capturing and Processing Nightscape Panoramas tutorial helps you capture your own panoramas. In the coming posts, we’ll talk about everything you ever wanted to know about nightscapes, including:

  • capture techniques for the different types of nightscapes
  • processing tips and tricks
  • focusing at night
  • my thoughts about what makes a good nightscape photo,
  • my thoughts about what makes a good nightscape photographer

and much more.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. Let me know your challenges and frustrations and questions about nightscape photography, and I’ll add them to the list of topics I’ll cover!

Make sure you don’t miss any posts in this Nightscape Photography 101 series!

I hope you will enjoy this series and your feedback and comments will always be welcome. Please share with your friends too!

Creating a Vision

Nov 9

Posted by everlookphotography

Our recent trip to Eyre Peninsula yielded some very popular images.  None more so than a panorama of Murphy’s Haystacks with the Milky Way above. We are thrilled with the interest and the overwhelmingly positive feedback which has arisen from this image. There has been however, a group of doubters who have presumed that I’ve composited the stars or the foreground into the scene.  By sharing the process by which I took and processed this image, I hope that it gives you an insight into how our images are created and by doing so, the doubters can re-assess the validity of their accusations.

First, imagine the scene in real life. There are no towns for 20km in any direction, no moonlight and the sun had just set with last light almost gone. It was literally pitch black in that field with the stars shining above. If I were to present ‘truth’ in the image, it’d be a pretty boring image with only the stars visible.  I wanted to create a scene encompassing the milky way over a visible foreground object of interest. Murphy’s Haystacks made for a very interesting foreground. They are a group of inselberg granite rock formations which literally arise from the ground in isolation to other rocky features in the surrounding area.  As the  milky way was almost directly overhead, I had to take a few test exposures to see if 16mm (my widest lens) could ‘fit’ in the milky way even shooting from very close to the ground. Next, I had to estimate the duration of lighting for each frame with a torch. Having established that the milky way could fit vertically  into the frame and that 3-4 seconds of frantic torch waving gave me the smoothness of exposure I needed, it was a question of getting the tripod set up correctly and the first frame correctly shot.  Below is the resulting 13 exposures taken.

The original 13 vertical images making up the panorama

After obtaining these shots which looked good on the LCD,  it was still no guarantee that they would align correctly after stitching given the star movement during the 7-8 minutes it took to take all of these images. Fortunately , the initial stitch in CS5 was far easier to work with than other wide angle panoramas I have photographed!

After stitching in CS5

In order to make the milky way more bow-shaped and less like a rectangular box, and in order to recreate the horizon, the transform> ‘warp’ function in CS5 was used.

After using the transform > warp function in CS5

Thereafter, I resumed my usual workflow for images which includes two main stages. The first stage involves mainly colour corrections and adjustment of lighting using luminosity masks. As you can see from the original images, the image was awfully warm and the rocks resembled  nothing of their natural red and yellow colour you would see during daylight hours. Some of the layers and masks are visible which address these issues.

Colour and levels work (1st stage processing)

The second stage of processing involves multiple duplicated layers in varying blend modes. The aim of this stage is to enhance local contrasts, sharpening and glow effects of the image. Some of the layers and masks are shown in the image below.

Contrast, sharpening work (2nd stage processing)

Finally, there is a large difference between presentation for web and preparation for print. I leave final PSD file in a format which looks a little bland knowing that I will have to adjust sharpening, colour and brightness levels according to output medium. The web version of the image is presented below. And the rest as they say, is history!

Final result

Creating a Night Panorama

1 Reply

Creating a Night Panorama

That’s it. You just found the perfect composition but there is a problem. The interesting bit does not fit with the other interesting bits.  So you sacrifice and change to a wider angle lens but that does not improve the shot. In fact, you can’t get an image wide enough or tall enough. Let’s change our frame of reference for a moment because not many people think about the ability of panoramas to connect the foreground to the heavens.

Although taking truly panoramic star circles is next to impossible within a reasonable budget, you can connect the earth with the sky with a little bit of planning and some tricks to aid in your alignment later in the process.

We are proposing a vertorama that is a “vertical panorama” to extend our photo to the ground and blend it into the star trail on top.  Our approach will be to shoot in landscape mode and tilt our camera up as we progress.   We can take a series of two or three shots but it will look odd if the star trails don’t extend into the edges of solid land (lower portions).  We also have to make sure that we don’t end the last frame too high as this leaves the star trail disconnected from the ground (lower) images.

Gear

The minimum amount of gear required is a camera a tripod and an interval timer.  However the whole process is going to get much easier if we have a method to align the “no parallax point” with the axis of rotation.  Huh? What did you just say…If you didn’t get that last sentence I suggest you read our primer articles on panoramas here and here or by following links out to other resources.

Planning a Shot

By this time I am assuming that you have read all of Steven’s articles on shot planning and alignment.  If not they can be found here, here, and here.  Now that we are up to date on planning and alignment we can get into the gory details. We are going to have to take some additional steps to help in the alignment in post processing.

I can get obsessive about the details but I want to do it right not get back to my computer to discover I spent 4 hours in the cold, dark night with stars and nothing interesting in the foreground.  I begin with an idea of how I want the image to look then I walk around with a compass and the local north declination adjustment to fine tune where the center of rotation will be in my final image. I set up my tripod where my chosen foreground will be in  alignment with Polaris (aka The North Star). Before I take the first photo I know where Polaris is going to appear in my frame. When I am really particular I will use a laser line to insure I have the object exactly where I want it in the photo.  I then level the tripod and assemble the pano head.  I use the pano head to determine the elevation of the north star this helps me know exactly how high the star with be in the sky.  This helps me to see where the star circle is going to be in the photo.  [Editor's comment: If you know the angle of view of your lens you can determine the altitude of the north star by using your camera's field of view as a measurement]. Knowing how high Polaris is in the sky will help me to determine the overlap I need to include all of the elements in the photo I want.  This all may seem like over-kill but to go home and thinking you have an image of a lifetime only to find you have a dud is not fun.

Shooting (and Bracketing)

I take a lot of photos with different settings until the blue period ends and the stars begin to appear. I make sure that I take a lot of bracketed shots that have 30% to 50%  of overlap. Having plenty for foreground images to choose from later is going to be very helpful when merging the final images.   Once I am satisfied I have enough images the next step is to lock the camera and tripod down tight to take the series of star trail photos.  If I didn’t get to my intended location in time and still want to get foreground shots it is still possible. Darkness merely means that my foreground exposures are going to have to be long, perhaps very long. Alternatively I can light the foreground with a flash light, strobe, or fire or I will let you borrow some light from my moon. :-)

These are some of the images the top and bottom of the vertorama. I took right before the blue period ended. You can see the various bracketing and over lapping I did.

Post Process

I assume that you already know how to process your star shots into star trails. If you need a refresher check out Steven’s articles on star trail creation.  I like to do a few different versions of the with stars because I like to include different amounts of blue and so I have an easier time blending them in later in the stitching process.

Just some of the Star Circles I generated using different amounts of blue period photos.

Combining a star circle with a foreground can be done with several different stitching engines, I prefer PTgui, however for other stitching engines the workflow is similar. Your images may be bright enough to do the whole process with Photoshop’s stitching or in Microsoft ICE engine but if you are blending in photos to get a darker sky then Photoshop might be a dud.  Also these stitching programs will not allow you to add control points to help align and warp the image to the background and let me be the first to  say the alignment and warping the foreground image is not fun or easy.

Import your Images

I like to import a lot of different bracketed images into the stitching engine just so I can have some variety to work with.  Also it will allow me the automatically find control points on overlapping images and then tell the software that the other images have zero pixel shift from that image in the bracket series.  This allows me to save time by putting control points on only the images that are dark or match the star circle image.   Thus I can align and blend the pano in one step then use Photoshop to blend in the stars.

Once imported click the align images,  did it work…if so hooray!! You now only have a small amount of clean up to do (skip down to the projection part of the article).  If not then you have to add some control points and align the images yourself.  Control points are areas on an image that match in overlapping images the software needs to know these areas to know how to warp adjacent images to stitch them together.  So lets look at how PTgui does this.  Below is a screen shot of PTgui’s control point placement feature.

Control points selected between the star circle image and the bright forground image. I pick areas in the image that have 1) sharp contrast, 2) Jagged edges and 3) don't move.

All you have to do is open the adjacent images at the seam and then zoom in to find distinct points that match.  I like to use object with good contrast and unique shapes to help guide my cursor to a pixel accurate match.

In the image above you can see that the transition between the rock and the sky is the area of overlap.  I follow the rock edge because of the contrast between the sky and the rock but also it has bumps that are easily distinguishable between the top and the bottom photos. Once I have these set I do the same for the star trail photo see below.

Aligning the Star trail image with the photos from the blue period

I will align the star circle photo with the corresponding photo of my foreground just so I have less stitching errors and it is easier to align.  Again if the star circle is light enough then these images may automatically align.

Projection and orientation

Once all of the images have control points then I will go and see how the preview of the image looks in the panorama editor.

Looking at the stiched images in the panorama editor for the first time to see the errors in overlap and the corrections needed to correct the distortion.

You can see the top and bottom images of the vertorama are properly aligned at this point don’t worry about the blending we will handle that later in photoshop.  Two things are very off, causing distortion of the star circle 1) the projection and the vertical height of the image.  The projection is the way the images are projected on to the inside of a sphere during the alignment.  If you are interested in the types of projections  (and there are many in the image below) and how the distortion affects the overlap and warping of your image more info can be found here. I am not interested in the type or how it works in this case I am just worried about what looks right.  For most vertorama star circle images the “Rectilinear” projection often looks the best but is not always the case.

Correcting the projetion to make the photo appear flat and not as distorted at the edges.

We can quickly correct the oblong star circle by moving the top image toward the bottom. This will change the amount of space that is blank but once we crop the image those areas will not longer be visible anyway.

Changed to rectilinear and moved the whole image down. You can see I changed the vertical FOV with the slider on the right (right red arrow) I changed the projection at the top to rectilinear. and the line in the middle shows the movement of the image down.

 Outputting the files

Once you are satisfied with the preview the next step is to use the image optimizer to hone the control points to reduce the error.  It is so easy I am not even going to include a photo just click and tab and click optimize.  It will give you a rating “very good”, “good”, “not bad”, etc.  then suggest some corrections my usual experience is just accept them they more often help then harm.

The only step left is the output the files and then mask them in photoshop.  Go to the “Create Panorama” tab and preview the settings.  You can see the settings I use is to output the images as a “.psb” for use in photoshop but you can output what ever you would like.  The most important is to output into 16bit layers under the “LDR file format” or “HDR file format” settings. This is shown in the screen shot below.   Since the blending is going to  cancel out some of the stars the aligned images need to be output in seperate files so.  I will uncheck the image that represents the aligned star circle in the screen shot below this is “Image 6″ the rest of the images are the aligned HDR brackets.  Then I will name the file something like “file….SC_BKGD” were file is the former file name and the “SC_BKGD” stands for “Star circle Background”.

Outputing the top and bottom layers

Once this is done stitching I output the star circle image alone.  So in this example I would un-check the boxes next to images 0-5 and only output image 6.   So once all of these images are outputted I select them and open them as layers in photo shop.  If your blending went well in PTgui then  great skip the next step and forward on to the next.  If the blending shows seams or other artifacts of stitching follow then next steps.

If the blending was bad then go back to PTgui mask out the areas the blending did not work so well if you have PTgui version 9, if not then output all of the layers and we will mask and clone in photoshop.  I picked this example specially because I had blending issues in the past so if you have blending issues you will know how to approach them.

This is my stitched Foreground and star circle images notice the two red arrows are places where the blending did not work so well

The first thing to try since the layers are aligned is the auto blend layers under the Edit menu.  Select the top and the bottom then navigate up to “Edit” and click under “auto blend layers”

This is the first tool I reach for when blending is the auto blend layers. Once the layers are aligned (and HDR-processed) thanks to PTgui the blending in Photoshop is usually easy.

If the auto blend function does not work it is time for some good old fashion hand blending. I will open the individual blend layers and the PTgui blended photo with blending issues.  I will use the photo with blending issues as the background and layer over the top the individual planes to blend by using a mask to gradually make the layers more transparent using a big soft brush.  I slowly make the seam fade or use the surrounding colors to add detail.  I will also use the clone stamp to replicate areas like clouds and blend them into each other.  This takes a lot of patience and practice to make some areas look “normal” but keep zooming in and out to see what affect you are having on the whole photo and local areas.

Adding the Star Circle

Once the blending the top and bottom image is finished the star circle can be added.  Since you exported it as a separate layer out of PTgui this can be brought into photoshop as a layer in the document.  Opening the photo as a layer then by changing its blend mode to lighten or screen blend mode then bright stars will out shine the dark background.  Thus adding the star circle to the finished photo was easy.  Don’t forget to mask out some of the areas were affected by the screen blend.  Say in cases of light pollution the foreground might be brighter then they should be.  Crop then your done.

Final image

This is the final image after the stars are added as a background layer and blended in using the screen blend mode.

Thanks for reading, as always comments and questions are encouraged.  If you have found this interesting please forward to your friends and follow us on Facebook. If you are interested in this topic (panoramas), night photography, shot planning, or super cool post processing techniques come and join us for a workshop.

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This entry was posted in Creativity, Image Stitching, Photo Processing, Photo Tip, Stacking and tagged base, control points, creative, exposure, f/stop, hyperfocal distance, leveling, night, panorama, perspective, PTGui, scale, shooting panoramas, stitching, tripod, vertorama on by Eric Harness.

How The Panorama Of Arching Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles Was Taken

A while back I saw this amazing 13 images panorama of the Milky Way featured as the photo of the day for NASA’s astronomy site. I was fascinated with it and asked Mike Salway if he can share how he took it with DIYP readers.

How To Photograph An Arching Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles

Early in 2012, I was fortunate enough to win 1st prize in the Ken Duncan Photo Awards competition. The prize was a 2 week photographic tour with Ken to the Kimberley region of North West Australia, to photograph some of Australia’s most remote and yet iconic landscapes such as Cape Leveque, Mitchell Falls and the Bungle Bungles.

image of the map of where we were visiting

The Kimberley Region of North West Australia. We covered over 3,500 km during the trip.

One of my passions in photography is Nightscapes - night sky scenes combined with beautiful foregrounds. I saw this trip as a great opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes amongst some of the darkest skies in the country.

Nightscape Basics

I prepared for the trip by buying a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens – a nice and fast ultra-widefield lens for my Canon 5D Mk II. It’s manual focus and manual aperture setting, but for nightscapes that’s not a problem. To focus at night, I simply switch to Live View on the 5D Mk 2, find a bright star and zoom right in, and toggle back and forwards through the focus until the stars are as tight points as they can be.

Aperture setting is always at f/2.8 (or as fast as your lens allows) and ISO is always high for nightscape shooting. I use ISO3200 on the 5D Mk II. You want to collect as much light as possible in the shortest time possible, so you can capture your scene before you get trailing of stars due to the Earth’s rotation. For an ultra-widefield lens like the 14mm on a full-frame body, you can capture up to 30s exposures without any trailing of stars. Any longer than that, and the stars won’t be pin points anymore when you zoom right in on your preview screen after taking the shot. For a longer focal length, the exposure time would have to be shorter before you get trailing of stars.

There’s always a little distortion around the corners on the wide open lens, and always a bit of grain shooting at high ISO, but for nightscapes you can sacrifice that bit of sharpness in the corners for capturing more light. And for noise reduction, there’s some great Photoshop plugins and other tools that do an excellent job cleaning up those high ISO images.

before and after of noise control

Topaz DeNoise does a great job at controlling noise in High ISO images

The only time you’d stop the lens down or use a lower ISO, is if you’re purposely going for longer exposures to do a star trails image. In that case, you might stop down to f/8 with a lower ISO like 200 or 400, and capture exposures of several minutes at a time, like I did for these images of Star Trails at the Bungle Bungles and Moonlit Mitchell Falls Star Trails.

Location

We had visited the Bungle Bungles for a sunrise shoot earlier in the day, and I asked our guide if she could take me back at night. It was about a 40 minute drive from our camp, and this was after she had worked all day, so I was ecstatic when she agreed. I had showed some others in our group the nightscapes I’d captured at Cape Leveque a few days earlier, and they were keen to learn how to do it so 8 of us boarded the truck after dinner and headed back out to the Bungle Bungles.

image from cape leveque

A bright fireball (shooting star) captured during a 30 second exposure at Cape Leveque

Capturing the Scene

After walking 30 minutes from the parking area to the Piccaninny Creek bed, I gave the group the key settings they needed to capture nightscapes:

  • Use a tripod
  • High ISO (1600 or 3200 depending on your camera)
  • Fastest and widest lens in your kit, set to the fastest aperture
  • Set focus by focusing on the Moon using auto-focus and then switch to manual (or use live view to focus manually)
  • Set image quality to RAW or largest jpeg if you don’t use RAW
  • Set the exposure time to 30 seconds
  • Compose your shot. Look for an interesting combination of foreground and sky. 
  • It might be difficult to see the scene properly through the viewfinder at night, so take some test exposures to check your composition and focus.
  • Use a cable release or intervalometer if you have one, and fire away.

We were fortunate that a crescent Moon high in the West provided the light we needed to light up our foreground – the beehive domes of the Bungle Bungles, and it was a perfect time of year with the Milky Way having just risen in the East.

image of piccaninny creek bed

Piccanniny Creek Bed Under the Stars

Shooting the Panorama

While the rest of the group was happily snapping away, absolutely thrilled with what they could see on the preview screen, I started composing my shots and was keen to capture a panorama showing the extent of the Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles.

I usually try to shoot my panoramas in vertical orientation most of the time, and allow at least 1/3 to 1/2 the frame overlap. It’s always best to shoot more than you need, as there’s nothing worse than having gaps in your mosaic and having to throw away a potentially great image. You want enough around the edges to be able to crop and warp later.

For this image, I originally thought 5 or 6 frames would cover it and captured some in landscape orientation, but when I stitched those together it was horrible – nowhere near enough coverage. Luckily though, I was able to use images from the same time that I didn’t originally plan for the mosaic. Auto Pano Pro was clever enough to take all of my frames and make something of them.

So in the end I captured 13 panels, all with the same settings – ISO3200, 30s exposures, f/2.8, 14mm.

example of single images

All 13 images, straight out of the camera

The screenshot above shows the single images I captured, pretty much straight out of the camera and exported from LR as TIF.

Stitching

I import my images into Lightroom for categorisation, ranking and initial post-processing. Usually that’s a little noise reduction, saturation boost and applying the lens profile for the Samyang 14mm to remove some of the distortion. I then export the 13 panels as full-size TIF’s.

I use AutoPano Pro for stitching my panoramas – it’s a great piece of software, really easy to use, handles all of my panoramas seamlessly and is good value at only 99 Euros.

I use default settings with cylindrical projection in most cases. I save the panorama as a 16-bit TIF, which I then import back into Lightroom or Photoshop.

image before pano created

The initial panorama creation in AutoPano Pro. You can see it really needs some work!

Post Processing

My post-processing of the panorama involved the following steps:

1. Noise reduction

I use Topaz DeNoise photoshop plugin, with the RAW medium or RAW light setting depending on the image. I find it does a great job at reducing the noise of high ISO shots while still retaining star and foreground detail.

I simply apply the noise reduction to the background layer.

2. Straighten the panorama, crop

In most cases, the panorama will come out distorted and unless you crop out huge amounts of your photo, you need to apply some warping to get the horizon straight. Because of the wide field of view, this will result in the milky way being curved like a rainbow across the sky.

image of before warping

I increased the canvas size to allow some stretching and cropped the top

After increasing the canvas size and doing an initial crop, I duplicate the background layer, and use Edit->Transform->Warp, grab the edges and pull them in the directions needed to get the photo how I want it. 

image after panorama straightened

The warp tool is a life saver!

I can then crop any remaining parts away to get the panorama ratio I’m after, and use the clone tool to fill in any minor gaps around the edges.

3. Levels and curves

The camera captures a lot of detail in the sky but requires some post-processing to give it more contrast and make it pop. I do this by small increments of levels and curves layers, paying careful attention not to clip too much off the black end or white end.

4. Saturation and colour balance

The Milky Way can stand up to generous amounts of saturation or vibrance layers, in small increments. You want the yellows, oranges and reds of the central bulge of the milky way to stand out more, but without introducing colour noise or blotchiness. 

Finally some colour balance adjustments to get the sky background to a pleasing neutral colour and to correct any colour cast such as reds or yellows or blues that may have been introduced by the bright Moon or by any of your other adjustments.

Your aim is that the sky looks fairly natural and not overly processed.

5. Layer Mask for the foreground

With all these adjustments for the sky, the foreground can end up too contrasty or with too much orange or yellow – especially with the bright Moon lighting up the foreground and the already natural yellow/orange colour in the beehive domes.

So I duplicate the base warped layer and use a layer mask to reveal just the foreground. I then applied any levels, curves and saturation adjustments as clipping masks just to that foreground layer to ensure it looks as natural as possible, while revealing the detail you’re after.

show photoshop layered image

Showing the various layers applied in Photoshop

6. Flatten and Resize for web

I save the whole layered image as a PSD, and then flatten the layers to do some sharpening and resize to around 1200px wide with a final smart sharpen for web presentation.

final image

Ancient Arches: The Arching Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles (click for larger view)

That’s it!

And that’s all there is to it! The combination of beautiful dark skies, a stunning location and foreground scene, the right camera and lens combination and the right settings – the rest is fairly straight forward and it’s something that everyone can achieve.

About The Author

Mike Salway is a passionate amateur astronomer and photographer based in Central Coast of NSW, Australia. You can follow his amazing work on his blog and Facebook page.

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