NP101: How To Capture and Process Nightscape Panoramas

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 To Capture 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!

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28 Responses to “NP101: How To Capture and Process Nightscape Panoramas”

  1. Bill, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada says:

    Wow, Mike! Thanks very much for taking the time and effort to give us a tutorial on how you did this. I’m pretty much a beginner with a DSLR and panoramas and all the post processing you describe, so I’ve never done one of the night sky. I’d love to try it though–the Milky Way in a dark sky is one of the Universe’s most awe-inspiring experiences!!

  2. Sue says:

    Mike! This is truly amazing… the technical stuff aside, that you have the vision to create such an outstanding image. You are so talented, 1 in a million, and I was incredibly fortunate to be one of your students on this night! Thanks sooooo much for putting this tutorial on your web page, you will inspire a great many with your talent and skill.

  3. Epic stuff Mike, nicely explained. :)

  4. Holger says:

    Again, thanks for taking the time to write these awesome explanations and inspiring aspiring photographers.
    If only more photographers were this cool to share their techniques.
    Much photo love coming from this blog.
    Thumbs up!!

  5. Pete Hodgson says:

    Great stuff Mike, I’m inspired by this tutorial and will try this next time I’m out in the bush.

  6. Oleg, Kharkiv, Ukraine says:

    It’s very interesting post! I will try to make similar photos. Thanks, Mike!

  7. Kathy says:

    Hi Mike, great article and information and wonderful image. Have shared a link to this article on our Facebook page for you. All the best.

  8. [...] I have since written a detailed guide on how I captured and processed the image, How To: Capturing and Processing the Arching Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles. [...]

  9. [...] I wrote a detailed guide on how I captured and processed the image, How To: Capturing and Processing the Arching Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles. [...]

  10. Margaret says:

    Wow … just discovered your website … amazing and stunning work! Thanks for the information. Although I am a beginner photographer I find your willingness to share your techniques very encouraging and inspiring. I have aspirations now … cheers!

  11. [...] How to Capture and Process Nightscape Panoramas [...]

  12. Dear Mike,

    thanks for the great article, and congrats on your fantastic photos! Some time back I wrote up a few blog entries on nightscapes that I had made, and it’s interesting that we both hit on pretty much the same techniques, similar settings, etc. It’s amusing that you also call these images “nightscapes”. I hope the word sticks. Anyway, if you’re interested you can have a look at my posts below. I’d be extremely pleased with any feedback.
    Best regards,
    Florian

    http://floriansphotographs.blogspot.com/2012/08/quiver-trees-by-night-1.html
    http://floriansphotographs.blogspot.com/2012/08/quiver-trees-by-night-2.html
    http://floriansphotographs.blogspot.com/2012/12/quiver-trees-by-night-1-2-3.html
    http://floriansphotographs.blogspot.com/2013/01/quiver-trees-by-night-2-remastered.html

    • Mike Salway says:

      Hi Florian
      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
      I’ve seen your Quiver Trees images around social media – fantastic images. I enjoyed reading your blogs too.

      Well done on the success in the competitions and magazines too.

      Cheers and all the best.

  13. Nathan says:

    Excellent tutorial Mike and it is the probably the part I needed to learn about the most. I was wondering with this shot how you managed to fix the alignment error to the right of the main domes. I just see it in the picture you are warping and then it disappears in the next picture shown. Did you reject that particular frame, or something else?

  14. Annette says:

    Hi Mike, great read. Just wondering if you used any sort of pano head for the pano shots or just a ball head on the tripod. thanks

    • Mike Salway says:

      Hi Annette. Thanks for your feedback and for your comment.
      I don’t use any pano head – just my ball head on the tripod. I’ve thought about getting a ‘really right stuff’ pano head but haven’t made the investment yet.
      Cheers

  15. Scott says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the great article. I’m curious how you deal with the movement of the stars between your frames. If you used 13 x 30 second frames to make your panorama there must have been at least 6.5 minutes (more if you do in camera noise reduction) between the first image and the last one. Wouldn’t the movement in the stars during this time make it very hard to stitch the images? I wondered the same thing about the clouds in your other images, as clouds tend to move even faster than the stars.

    Cheers,

    Scott

  16. Thanks for the great article! Feeling a little inspired and have a 14mm Samyang on the way. Going to see if I get get some good results underwater… may be challenging with a manual lens.

    Cheers Mike!

    Louis

    • Mike Salway says:

      Hi Louis, thanks so much for your feedback.
      Underwater with a Samyang 14mm? Do you have an underwater housing?
      I guess you’d have to focus it to infinity before you head underwater :)

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