Creating a Milky Way Panorama

by Steven Smith | Jul 1, 2023 | 0 comments

milky way panorama

There are few things more beautiful than a breathtaking landscape or nightscape—especially one that includes the Lord’s incredible Milky Way! A panorama enhances everything we love about landscapes, because panoramas show us in a single picture what we cannot see all at once with our human eyes.

Capturing panoramic nightscapes is so thrilling because we never know for certain what the foreground will look like until we actually capture it. A foundational element in that capture is a sturdy tripod with a panoramic head.

To capture nighttime panoramas, I recommend a lens capable of shooting at around 28 mm at f/2.8 or wider. A prime lens is always sharpest and best, but your zoom lens may also work. Many lenses do a poor job of capturing stars, so make certain that yours meets your expectations. The fairly wide 28 mm focal length usually allows me to capture both the foreground and stars in focus, while at the same time capturing quite a large area per frame. This eliminates the need for capturing two rows of photos. Photos from super wide-angle lenses cannot be stitched because they contain too much distortion.

Before heading out to capture your nightscape, you should first do some daytime preparation. You need to find out where infinity is on your lens and tape it securely. Also make sure that your lens is set to manual focus.

In your pano, you want to be careful not to rotate the camera too far with each frame. Many instructors suggest between a 30% and 50% overlap, but I have found this to be confusing and misleading. I can tell you this—the stitching software I use will not stitch properly if the camera is rotated too far. This is especially true concerning night shots.

Your tripod should have degree markings, showing you exactly how many degrees you are rotating. With my full-frame camera turned vertically with a 28 mm lens, I find that if I swing 15° per frame, the software will stitch properly. With this amount of rotation, it takes me twelve or thirteen frames to capture the entire Milky Way arch. A crop-sensor camera will require a different amount of rotation, so the best thing to do is experiment in the daytime before your big night out. Learn what your stitching software will and will not do.

Now let’s talk equipment and settings. First, you need a flashlight with a white cloth rubber banded across the end to diffuse the light. Obviously, this will allow you to see what’s going on without blinding yourself, but it will also function as a light painting tool to illuminate select foregrounds.

Here are my settings with a 28 mm lens: camera set to capture RAW, manual mode, lens set to manual and taped to infinity, f/2.8 (as wide as I can go), ISO 6400, and 15-second exposures taken with a 2-second timer engaged. For the white balance, I also dial in a Kelvin setting of 4000. This will produce a neutral palate from which I can edit in any direction.

I realize that many of you who have crop-sensor cameras may not be able to shoot at ISO 6400. Just shoot as high as you are comfortable with. My captures show more noise when underexposed at ISO 4000, than when properly exposed at ISO 6400.

Concerning length of exposure, if you shoot longer than 15 seconds, you will notice streaking in the stars at 28 mm. Concerning proper exposure, your camera’s RGB histogram should not show the colors completely pushed all the way to the left. Yes, the main peaks will be left, but a small section of each color should also reach the middle of the graph.

Your capture should not appear dark charcoal gray on your LCD screen—rather a medium bluish gray (almost like a twilight shot). Even if you like your Milky Way pictures really dark, you will get a lot less noise if you correctly expose them and then darken the finished product in post-processing.

Do not use auto white balance, and do not use a filter on your lens. Keep in mind that your stitched picture will be so large and have such high resolution, that once you downsize it after stitching, it will have far less noise than your normal one-shot capture!

Also, decrease the brightness of your camera’s LCD screen if you notice that it shows your pictures to be much brighter than they actually are. On my Canon, I have the LCD brightness set to the center mark and it looks reasonably fine. But, it’s the histogram which really tells the accurate story concerning exposure.

So that special night has finally come, and it’s time to head out. I’m also bringing along my widest spare lens. Before long, I have arrived at Salt Fork State Park.

It is 2:40 a.m., and my goal is to photograph the Milky Way rising above three maple trees in an open, grassy area. I passed over this location once before because of the bright lights on the horizon coming from the marina, which I figured would ruin the exposure. But like I said before, you never know what the results will look like until you’ve captured it! Stellarium (a free, real-time planetarium software) showed me when the Milky Way would rise in the south, so I knew the proper time to arrive.

My goal in this composition is to have the trees centered under the Milky Way arch. This means that I will have to stand at a precise location to have them properly centered. This is why I brought along that super wide-angle lens.

After taking a test shot with my Rokinon 14 mm, I can clearly see that I’m not standing far enough to the right. After moving over another twenty paces and firing an additional shot, I see that I’m now at approximately the right place. If the trees end up being a little bit off center, I can always shift them over in post-processing without too much trouble. The trees will be in perfect focus along with the sky because they are far enough away from the camera.

Now it’s time for the real deal! I attach my 28 mm lens, then check my tripod’s level. Since I am set up on a rather flat, grassy area, I find the level bubble is centered, so I don’t need to adjust the tripod legs. Now I shift my camera to the vertical position and click my camera’s internal level button, adjusting my camera until it reads level.

It is important to make the pano quite a bit larger than I think it needs to be, so I line up my first shot way to the right of the core area to make sure I don’t cut it off. Stitching software is not perfect, so I must capture plenty of space at the ends. I’m beginning at the right side and swinging left, because this is the brighter end of The Milky Way. It is much easier to see, so I know for sure that I am starting at the right spot.

When composing the shot, it is critical to capture as much sky as possible. I align my framing so that I’m getting only a small portion of the ground in the shot, just enough to cover the area of ground where the trees are anchored. After firing a couple of test shots along the panning plain, all looks good. I then delete the test shots to avoid confusion later.

After capturing my first shot, I slightly loosen my pano knob and slowly rotate the camera until my 15° overlap is achieved. After capturing that shot, I repeat the process until I have covered the entire arch of the Milky Way. When I get to the north end, it is hard to tell when I have covered it, so I shoot a couple of more frames than I think I will need. In the end, I found that thirteen frames covered it all.

Because I will be capturing the entire Milky Way in a single row, I must arrive when the arch first rises. If the Milky Way gets too high in the sky, it will require an additional row of pictures for our stitch, which thus far I have had no success in accomplishing using my free stitching program. It will do multiple rows for daytime shots, but struggles with night stuff.

After capturing the sky, it’s time to concentrate on the ground. I loosen my pano knob and swing my camera back around to the core area, then orient the camera into the horizontal position. My goal now is to capture a pano of the larger portion of ground in front of the trees at a much lower ISO, which I am going to light paint with my diffused LED flashlight. For the finest results in nightscapes, it is always best to deal with the foreground separately, when possible. You can shoot it at a lower ISO, yielding less noise and better detail.

After firing a few test shots, I discover that if I increase my shutter speed to 30 seconds, I can lower my ISO to 1000. This will not be part of the sky pano, but will be a separate stitch that I will layer into the sky pano later in post-processing.

Once again, I adjust my camera’s level, this time centering the horizon in the middle of the frame, which will yield plenty of ground in my pano. Then I again commence the panning process, but this time during each long exposure, I illuminate the ground in front of the trees with my flashlight. Stepping to the side, I shine the light for a couple of seconds in front of each panned area, resulting in a pleasing, subtle glow all the way across the front of the composition.

Because the camera is now in the horizontal position, it requires fewer frames than the sky pano to cover the same width.

After downloading the pictures, I first transport my sky pictures to Canon’s Digital Photo Professional to prepare the RAW files for stitching.

I choose the first picture in the queue, then adjust the shadows slider to +5 and the contrast slider to -2. This significantly reduces the vignetting in the picture, evening out the tone. This is important because I will get a much more even tone throughout my stitch if the tone is even in each individual picture. The brightness can also be increased if the pictures are somewhat underexposed.

Yes, this is going to make our pictures appear washed out and flat looking—but do not fear. All of the information we captured in our RAW photos will remain, and those details will shine forth like beacons in the night with further editing after our pano is stitched.

Now I paste the “recipe” (the shadows and contrast adjustments I have made to the picture) to the clipboard, select all of the pictures, then copy the recipe to all of the sky pictures.

Next I convert all of the pictures to 8-bit TIFFs at 300 dpi. It is important that they are 8 bits because the stitching programs I have tested will not properly render 16-bit TIFFs using Windows 10. We want the TIFF format because it will allow for the substantial editing that must follow without degrading our pano. (A JPEG degrades every time you save.)

After transporting my pictures back to my picture storing program (FastStone Image Viewer), they are now ready to upload to the stitching program. The stitching program I am using is Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor), which is a free software for Windows. Microsoft is no longer offering the program, but it can still be downloaded from Softonic and other sources. After opening ICE, I click “File” at the top left, and then “New Panorama.” This will allow me to locate the folder where my sky pictures are kept. Next I select them all and click “Open.”

In a very short time, my newly stitched pano appears on the screen! Sometimes (depending on the type of horizon) the pano might look distorted (shaped like a horseshoe). If this occurs, I click the Box icon at the upper left, which will open the “Projection” tab. Now, I hover my mouse over the upper or lower line across my picture and press the left mouse button. This enables me to pull the picture up or down to level the horizon.

Clicking on the “Projection” box will reveal other perspective options which can change the look of my Milky Way. If I like these changes, I click “Apply.” If I want to return to the previous view, I click “Revert,” then click the box with the blue line (the “Crop Box”) to return to my original picture and begin cropping.

Now I can adjust the lines to crop my picture. If there are some small gaps in the cropped picture, these can later be filled using a clone tool in another program.

After adjusting the crop lines where I want, I go to the “Export Box” and change the image format to TIFF. I then click on the “Export To Disc” box on the right, and click “Save.”

After the program has finished saving, I click “Exit.” Lastly I click either “Save” or “Discard” to save or discard the picture within ICE. Now my newly stitched pano will appear in my pictures folder! I repeat the same procedure for my land pano, which will easily be combined with my sky pano using simple layers in Paint.Net.

One of the notable things about my panorama is that it is absolutely huge (over 15,000 pixels on the long side)! This will be a problem for my editing software to handle. So, while large pictures are valuable if we are going to get them published or make large prints, they only need to be so big.

High resolution photos that are 5200 pixels on the long side are large enough for a two-page spread in a magazine. Pictures that are 7000-9000 pixels on the long side will allow us to do a 60-inch print. So, the bottom line is…DOWNSIZE IT!

I immediately downsized mine in FastStone Image Viewer to 8000 pixels on the long side, and, in the end, further downsized it to 6800 pixels.

Some stitching software will struggle to stitch original-sized pictures. If you run into long delays during the stitching process, exit the program, downsize your pictures, and restitch. Just make sure the pictures are all uncropped, and identical in size and resolution.

Sometimes there will be a few slightly darker areas in our pano where it has been stitched. This should be quite subdued and not be a problem to remedy using simple layers in Paint.Net, or masking techniques in Photoshop or Lightroom.

At this point, the most involved part of finishing our pano still lies ahead. We must study and learn how to edit our scenes. This includes how to add significant contrast and brightness to the core, as well as how to achieve our exposure and color goals throughout the composition.

One thing I discovered about my panorama is that the horizon lights I thought would ruin the picture, actually added some really incredible lighting to the trees and overall scene, making this my favorite Milky Way capture yet!

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