The Ultimate Chess Game: Capture and Process the Milky Way

I liken capturing a solid image of the Milky Way with the galactic core to a 4D board game. You need to know where the Galactic Center will be, but that’s just the beginning.

Other factors include where, when, and how bright the moon is. Is there light falling in the foreground? Is there an interesting foreground subject? And don’t talk to me about the weather!

It’s been a long time

It was as if the stars had been put away for the season. I hadn’t seen the Milky Way for a few months. The monsoon season full of clouds and rain appeared throughout the summer. The rain was welcome, but I needed some astro action.

Eventually the opportunity presented itself and I jumped on it even though there were less than ideal conditions for the spot I had in mind.

Milky Way’s final mix on the backside of Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

The location

The Back O’ Beyond road leads to Cathedral Rock Trail in Sedona, AZ. Using the PhotoPills app, I knew that the galactic center of the Milky Way would fall around the corner from the Cathedral Rock formation. I also knew that a new moon allows the stars to shine the foreground would make the silhouette almost complete. A foreground is not ideal when everything is black. I had planned to add some light on a prominent tree to add interest. It wasn’t working very well.

The kit

platypus with platyball olympus camera photographing the milky way
Platypod eXtreme with Platyball supporting the camera. Makes it easier to lower and level the camera. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III has Starry Sky AF, which makes it easy to lock onto stars.

A handy feature with the Olympus is Starry Sky Autofocus (AF), which takes the guesswork out of having stars in focus. My camera was mounted on the Platypod eXtreme base with a Platyball head. This made it easy to get close to the ground while still being able to easily level and lock the camera into position. This setup worked well with my 8mm fisheye lens. I didn’t need to make any adjustments to the framing in post; the curvature worked well for this composition.

Exposure and processing

photoshop layer palette
Photoshop Layers panel for Milky Way blended image. See below for capture and processing information.

My exposure was 10 seconds, ISO 6400 and f/1.8. The stars were processed in Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS) to gather more light without having star trails. The “500 rule” suggests you can leave the lens open for 30 seconds, but it definitely shows star trails. SLS blends multiple images and stacks the stars taking into account the motion of the Earth.

Dark frames are also made with the lens cap to help tame noise. 22 star images and five dark images were processed. The main rock formation at the top was lit by light pollution from the city.

The star image was then taken in Photoshop and enhanced and then blended with the foreground scene lit by the wayward car.

In short, Starry Landscape Stacker is only available on Mac. If you have a PC, there is a similar program called Sequator.

All in all a great evening with some solid footage!

Your creative photography, Bob

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