Creating captivating Milky Way panoramas showcasing the entire arc above a landscape is not an easy task. It’s something that takes experience, trial and error, and a fair bit of technical understanding.
There’s more to it than simply pointing your camera toward the sky and starting panning. Milky Way panoramas require a planned composition. It requires a balance from left to right where the important elements must be well distributed through the scene, filling the entire frame.
Through this article, I will take you step-by-step through the process of planning, capturing, and stitching a panoramic image of the Milky Way. You’ll learn that there’s more to it than simply pointing your camera at the night sky, but you’ll also learn that with a little preparation, it doesn’t take that much to go from an ‘ok’ photo to a ‘jaw-dropper’.
Let’s dive right into it and see how to make a Milky Way panorama:
Essential Camera Gear for Milky Way Panoramas
There’s no getting around the fact that camera gear plays an important role in panoramic night photography. Without the right equipment, it will be nearly impossible to get great results. Luckily, you don’t need to break the bank and get lots of equipment you already have.
While there are other accessories that will be useful, the most critical equipment includes:
- DSLR or Mirrorless camera with manual functions
- A wide-angle lens with an open aperture, such as f/2.8
- Solid tripod
- Panoramic tripod head
In addition to the above, many astrophotographers prefer working with a star tracker in order to get even more details out of the night sky.
Panoramic Tripod Head
A panoramic tripod head allows you to rotate the camera on a nodal point and decide the degrees of rotation based on the focal length of the lens you are using.
For example, if you’re using a 14mm, you can rotate about 45 degrees, and the shots will have a 30-degree overlap between them.
Personally, I use and recommend the Pano-4 Panoramic Head by SunwayFoto
A solid tripod is essential when capturing Milky Way panoramas. It needs to support the weight of all the equipment and resist the rotational movements that we impose on the camera.
Not having a solid tripod can, in the worst case, lead to blurry images that are beyond the point of repair.
A Fast Wide-Angle Lens
A fast lens is essential for your night panoramic if you’re not using a star tracker. Lenses with wide apertures such as f/2.8, f/2, or even wider allow more light to reach the sensor. This is important in order to capture as many details as possible.
Ultra-wide-angle focal lengths such as 14mm are often preferred for this type of photography as well. Such lenses give a wider field of view but also come with certain technical advantages, such as allowing the use of a longer shutter speed.
The camera itself is of less importance than some of the other equipment. The main criterion is that it’s a DSLR or mirrorless with an automatic function. Modern sensors give higher quality RAW files and, combined with mindful post-processing, most cameras will give good results.
In the field: Capturing a Milky Way Panorama
Now that you know what the essential camera gear for Milky Way panoramas are, it’s time to move out into the field. Here there are four main stages or challenges, if you prefer, that need our attention:
- Assemble the equipment
- Calculating panoramic rotation
- Exif data and camera settings
Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these stages to see what the challenges are and how you can overcome them:
#1 Assemble the Equipment
After finding and visualizing your composition, it’s time to assemble the equipment. The very first step is to position and adjust the tripod. It’s important that the base of the tripod (where the panorama head is mounted) is level. This is done by adjusting the legs and using a level bulb.
Once the tripod is level, you can mount the panoramic head. Again, it’s important that this is level as well. You can also verify that the camera is leveled by using the built-in Virtual Horizon tool. Once the line is green, you’re ready to proceed to the next phase.
Note: Remember to always position your camera in portrait mode!
#2 Calculating How Many Degrees to Rotate Between Panorama Shots
One of the most asked questions I hear is, “How many degrees do you need to rotate the camera between shots in a night panorama?”
This depends on the focal length of your lens. For example, with a 14mm, you can rotate about 45 degrees, while with a 50mm, you can only rotate 10 degrees.
I advise you to always rotate less and instead take a couple more shots to compose the whole panorama. This is because the software has a greater overlap margin when we blend the shots together. In other words, it does a better job of merging the panorama.
#3 The Best EXIF Data for Milky Way Photography
The best camera settings for Milky Way panoramas depend somewhat on the situation you’re in, but here’s an example of what works in most cases (when not using a star tracker):
- Focal length 14mm
- Aperture: f/2.8
- Expo: 18 sec
- ISO: 5000 to 6400
- White Balance: 3500k
Focal Length – 14mm
An ultra-wide-angle lens such as the 14mm gives you a greater field of view. It captures fewer details in the night sky than a longer focal length, but it’s less complicated, making it an ideal focal length for your first panoramic Milky Way images.
Aperture – f/2.8
The wider the aperture, the better exposure you’ll get at night. Wide-angle lenses with the widest aperture of f/2.8 or wider are ideal for night photography. At f/4, without using a star tracker, you will get completely underexposed files.
Recommended Reading: Mastering Aperture in Photography [An Essential Guide]
ISO – 5000 to 6400
Many landscape photographers are afraid to increase the ISO. This is something you can’t fear when doing Milky Way photography. It’s better to have some extra digital noise in the RAW file than to have a severely underexposed file.
The exact ISO depends a lot on the type of sensor you have. More modern sensors allow you to shoot at values of 6400 or 8000 without problems. Older sensors are not so forgiving, and you are limited to about ISO3200.
Recommended Reading: ISO in Digital Photography [A Comprehensive Guide]
White Balance – 3500K
It’s important that you set the White Balance already in the field. You might know that it’s something you can easily adjust in post-processing when photographing in RAW, but the last thing you want is for the colors to change between the panorama shots.
Auto White Balance should be avoided. The reason is that the camera finds different elements in the scene when rotating the camera. This could be artificial light or clouds, but what they have in common is that they will affect the White Balance when left in automatic.
Therefore, it’s better to use Kelvin Mode and manually set the values to 3500K. This is a great starting point, as it’s a more neutral white balance.
#4 Finding the Focus and Capturing the Panorama Rows
The final steps are to focus and capture the panoramic rows. Finding the best focus in night photography can be tricky and often requires some fine-tuning.
It’s important to note that you need to use manual focus. Autofocus is improving but is yet to work great at night.
Follow these steps when finding the focusing and capturing the panorama rows:
- Focus on the sky: You should always start by capturing the sky images. The sharpest result is found when you focus near infinity. When you are in areas with light-polluted skies or in high altitudes, such as the Arctic, the signal will be weak, and you often struggle to see the stars. In this case, I recommend a simple trick to get sharp stars; find a light source such as a distant house, a street lamp, or a lighthouse (even outside your composition) and use this as your focus on this point. Just rotate the focus until this light source is as small as possible. With a wide-angle lens, both a house that is 300 meters away and the stars will be at the same focus distance, infinity.
- Expose for the foreground: Once you’ve taken all the images in the top row of your Milky Way panorama, proceed to take the same number of shots for the foreground with the same infinity focus. Don’t touch the focus, just change the EXIF data (longer shutter speed to get more details in the landscape) and get your row for the foreground.
- Focus on the foreground: If you have important elements in the immediate foreground, such as flowers, roots, or ice, you need to take a third row of shots. This row needs to have the exact same EXIF data as the previous one, but in this case, you need to change the focus to about two or three meters from you. To do this, I advise you to turn on the light by illuminating a point near you and always in manual focus.
Practical Tips for Capturing a Milky Way Panorama
Now that we have sorted and assembled the necessary equipment and learned how much you need to rotate the camera between the shots, what settings to use, and how to focus, it’s time to capture the shots.
Below are four practical tips for photographing Milky Way panoramas:
- Always begin the panorama by photographing the sky row. This ensures you get the best possible merge of the night sky. Keep in mind that not only does the Milky Way rotate (albeit slowly), clouds or other elements can arrive and interfere with the sky. Therefore, you want to capture the sky images first.
- Double exposures are always necessary because there’s a significant light difference between the sky and foreground. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t exceed 18 seconds for the sky exposure before stars start creating trails.
- Return to the starting position when you finish taking sky exposures. Tilt the camera down and continue by taking the same number of shots for the foreground. You only change the camera settings (not the focus) for the first foreground row. If needed, shoot a bottom row where you also change the focus to get the nearest elements sharp.
- The exact camera settings for the foreground depend on how dark the location is. For example, a snow-covered landscape is brighter than volcanic rocks, meaning you don’t need the same exposure time. I suggest taking a test shoot at 60 seconds with an ISO of 4000 and an aperture of f/4. If the image is underexposed, you can choose a slower shutter speed.
How to Stitch a Milky Way Panorama in Post-Processing
Now that we’ve captured two or more rows of our Milky Way panorama, it’s time to head back to the computer and merge the files. In the example below, I’ll show the exact steps of merging two rows, one consisting of sky images and one of the foregrounds.
PtGui is my preferred panorama photo stitching software and is what I’ll be using in this example.
Step #1: Open the Sky Files
The first step in stitching a Milky Way Panorama is to open the series of images that make up the sky row. In this case, our row consists of six images:
Step #2: Set Control Points
In order to create a seamless blend, we need to select control points within all the images. This tells the software what points are the same between the photos, i.e., giving it better instructions on how to merge the files.
To do this, go to the Control Points tab and select the first two photos. Here you simply click on three places that are the same in both images.
Repeat this process for all the photos (set control points for photos 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, etc.)
Step #3: Align Images
When you’ve set all the control points, navigate back to the Project Assistant tab. Here you need to input what lens you used and then click on Align Images. In my case, I used a normal 14mm Rectilinear Lens.
At this point, Ptgui creates the project by merging the panorama of the sky. From the six images, we are now left with a single file with the complete arc of the Milky Way.
Step #4: Create Panorama and Save the File
The fourth step is to merge the sky images and save the file. Return to the Project Assistant tab and select Create Panorama. There you set the file format to Photoshop Large and its settings to 16 bits No Compression. Make sure to choose an output location, such as your desktop, and click on Create Panorama.
PtGui will now merge the images based on the control points you set in Step 2. After a few minutes (depending on your computer’s processing power), you’ll end up with the merged sky panorama. We will set this file aside for now and return to it a little later in the process.
Step #5: Repeat Steps 1 to 4
To get our full panorama of the Milky Way, we need to repeat steps one to four with the foreground images as well. This will give us two (or more, depending on how many rows you shot in the field) separate files that we can now merge together in Photoshop.
The first file is for the sky with the complete arc of the Milky Way, and the second file is for the foreground with the complete panorama of the landscape.
Step #6: Blend the Panorama Rows in Photoshop
Now that we have both the foreground and sky rows, it’s time to blend them together and enjoy the full Milky Way panorama you photographed.
Start by opening the two files separately in Adobe Photoshop.
Next, select the foreground file. In order to create a better blend, we need to hide the sky from this image. You can do this by creating a group containing the background layer. This is done by selecting the layer and pressing CMD+G(MAC) or CTRL+G (PC). Now, add a white mask to the group, make a selection of the sky, and delete it. The sky should now be removed from the image and become black on the Layer Mask.
The next step is to create a new file. Make sure that this file is big enough to fit both the sky and foreground rows.
Now, drag both images into this document. You can do this by navigating to the file and dragging it over to the new one. For the foreground image, you’ll drag the group you just made.
The new document should now contain both files, and the images should be visible on top of the white canvas. Make sure that the foreground image (with the group) is placed above the sky layer in the layers panel.
Now simply use the Move Tool to manually align the two layers, and, voila, your Milky Way panorama is complete! From here, you can apply any additional adjustments you see fit.
Making a Milky Way panorama comes with its challenges, but by following a few simple steps, you’ll get results that you’re proud to share. There are two aspects that you need to master: photographing the panorama (in-field) and merging the images (post-processing).
To capture the best panoramas of the night sky, you need to:
- Use a DSLR or Mirrorless with manual mode, a fast wide-angle lens, a tripod, and a panorama head.
- Find the focus
- Apply settings such as f/2.8, ISO5000, and 18 seconds shutter speed. Don’t forget to use a manual white balance.
- Calculate the degree of rotation between each shot
- Photograph one or more rows to complete your panorama
After capturing the images in the field, it’s time to get back in front of the computer and follow these steps:
- Open the images of the first row in PtGui
- Add Control Points
- Align the images
- Create and save the panorama
- Repeat the steps above with your next row(s)
- Merge the rows in Photoshop
I hope this Milky Way panorama tutorial helped clarify some of the questions you had about either capturing or merging such images. Feel free to share your images or questions in a comment below!
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