The Milky Way My Way

Winter Night, Milky Way Above Tasman Lake, New Zealand

Winter Night, Milky Way Above Tasman Lake, New Zealand
Sony a7SII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
30 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 8000

What’s my problem?

I’ve been sharing lots of Milky Way images lately. But then, so has everyone else. And when I look at some of the other truly spectacular Milky Way images posted online, I realize I’m working at something of a disadvantage—not because of deficient equipment (not even close), a physical or mental handicap (though as I get older…), or even because I think the world is unfair (maybe so, but it’s been pretty good to me). No, my disadvantage is solely the result of self-imposed “rules” that prevent me from photographing anything that can’t be captured with a single click.

Single-click shooting means no focus stacking, no HDR, no blending separately captured foreground and sky. In other words, if I can’t get what I want with one click, I don’t get it. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with combining images—image blending is a tremendous tool that allows digital photographers to transcend the limitations of film photography. And it’s not because blending is “too technical” for me—having spent 20 years working in the high tech industry, I know my way around a computer and have actually played a fair amount with blending images (it’s not rocket science). No, I don’t blend images simply because, as beautiful as they might be, I get no personal satisfaction from the results. And if photography isn’t a source of happiness, why bother?

Every time I bring this up, someone gets defensive, feeling like I’m saying that there’s something wrong with blending images. There isn’t!* I love looking at the work of photographers who use blending to elevate their art. So if you blend and enjoy it, please go forth and shoot to your heart’s content (and keep those defensive comments to yourself). This is about me, and what makes me happy.

*As long as it’s not used to deceive.

Milky Way processing

I’m frequently asked about my processing for Milky Way images, and I’ve always been a little reluctant to share a lot because I don’t do blending, I’m not an expert, and my Milky Way workflow is still a work in process. Nevertheless, I get asked enough that I’ve decided it might still help for me to share my overall mindset and approach. (Plus, it might help others to understand why my images aren’t as dazzling as those that blend.)

I still consider myself a film shooter, albeit with a digital camera. Processing, though not my favorite part of photography, is an essential digital windfall that enables us to extract results from our images that were never possible with film (especially for those of us who shot only color). Like most digital photographers, I couldn’t succeed without processing. And processing is doubly important for Milky Way images.

Given that I don’t blend images (in the case of my Milky Way photography, take one exposure for the foreground and another for the sky), I start with a raw file that needs help. A lot of help. I like foreground detail in my night images, which requires me to compromise with a less than ideal f-stop, shutter speed, and (especially) ISO. And even with these compromises, the image straight from the camera is still darker than ideal.

The right gear

First, if you’re going to do it my way (one click), you need to have the camera and lens to do it. Keep in mind that the heat generated by a long exposure creates a lot of noise, so at any ISO, 30 seconds is inherently much noisier than say 1/30 second. For this reason, my Milky Way body is the Sony a7SII, and my go-to night lens is the Sony 24mm f/1.4. At this writing (July 2019), the a7SII is hands down the best high ISO camera available—I can can get very usable 30-second exposures at ISO 12800 (and sometimes higher). And using an f/1.4 lens means I don’t usually have to go all the way to 30 seconds.

Exposure compromise

My processing choices depend a lot on my exposure choices, which as I said earlier, are all compromises. For example, with my 24mm at f/1.4, I can usually keep my a7SII at ISO 6400 and lower—both compromises, but the results are well within the acceptable range for that lens and camera. But for this image I wanted a wider view than 24mm, so I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens. Losing 2 stops of light, I bumped to ISO 8000 and a 30 second exposure to recover some of that light—the compromise was a little more star movement (mitigated somewhat by the wider focal length), and increased noise. It might help to know that when I photograph the Milky Way, I usually give each composition a variety of exposure settings and choice the best one later, when I can see the images on my computer.

It starts with noise reduction

For all of my images, my standard noise processing is Topaz DeNoise plugin in Photoshop. But for my Milky Way photography, I open the image in Lightroom and immediately transfer it to DxO PhotoLab 2 for their (magic) Prime Noise Reduction (nothing else). As soon as DxO has worked its noise reduction voodoo on my, I send it straight back to Lightroom. What started as a raw file is now a tiff file, but I’m still able to do my basic Lightroom processing on it.

Even though DxO does a great job, when I’m done processing my image in Lightroom, the first thing I do after opening the processed image in Photoshop is a more gentle application of the Topaz DeNoise plugin. For this step, I magnify the view to 100% and apply as much noise reduction as I can without muddying the detail.

The method to my madness

This is where things start to get more vague because my approach is less an explicit series of processing steps than it is finding the best way to achieve the results I want, steps that can vary a lot from image to image. Sometimes I can do what I want mostly in Lightroom, other times I lean more heavily on Photoshop—usually it’s a fairly even balance of the two.

Given my hit-and-miss approach, it’s probably most important to explain what makes a successful Milky Way image. Here’s what I’m going for:

  • Minimal noise: Asked and answered
  • The right sky color: As far as I’m concerned, the color of the sky in a Milky Way image the photographer’s creative choice because no one knows what color it’s supposed to be. If you look at my recent Milky Way images, you’ll see that I tend to avoid a blue/cyan sky in favor of something more blue/purple. It just feels more night-like to me. But that’s just my opinion and I empower you to go with whatever color makes you happy (more on that below).
  • Foreground detail: The amount varies with the foreground, and how much light I can give it without too much noise.
  • Uniform sky tone and hue (as much as possible): I don’t like a huge difference between the sky near the horizon and up toward the top of the frame
  • The stars should pop: I want the sky to be fairly dark, but the stars to stand out
  • No part of the Milky Way should be blown out: While I want the stars bright, I don’t want them too bright

Before I continue, you need to know that I make extensive use of Lightroom and Photoshop’s History panels. There’s no single best way to do anything, so I make a lot of what-if?, trial-and-error adjustments that I only keep if I’m satisfied. So you’re not going to get specific steps from me as much as you’ll get things to try and accept/reject. The other thing I want to emphasize is to magnify the image to 100% (1:1) when you’re trying to decide whether or not to accept an adjustment.

I always play with the Highlights/Whites/Shadows/Blacks sliders—lots of up/down trial-and-error adjustments to find the right balance (love that History panel). The Lightroom Clarity and Texture sliders will make the stars pop (and sometimes the foreground), but be especially gentle with these to avoid exaggerating the noise). And Dehaze will add contrast to the sky that really enhances the Milky Way, but it also might darken parts of the scene too much.

I use lots of techniques to get the color I want—often just one or two adjustments are enough, and sometimes it requires a lot of adjustments. In Lightroom, I play with Color Temperature and Tint. That usually means cooling the temperature to somewhere in the 3000-4000 range, and nudging the Tint slider slightly to the right (less cyan, more purple). Sometimes I do this for the entire image, but often I use the Lightroom Graduated Filter tool. When those things don’t do the job, I’ll play with Lightroom’s HSL sliders.

To tweak the color in Photoshop, I usually select the area I want to adjust, Feather it fairly loosely (large Feather Radius), and create Color Balance or Saturation layer. I do lots of trial-and-error moves with Color Balance; with Saturation I almost always work on specific colors, and will adjust some combination of Hue, Saturation, and Lightness until I’m satisfied. Also, I find that some of the other adjustments I make in Lightroom and Photoshop pump up the color too much, so I usually desaturate the sky a fair amount in Photoshop.

To make the Milky Way more prominent, a few passes with the Dodge brush set to Highlights can do wonders, brightening the stars without affecting the sky. I usually prefer multiple passes at low Opacity (<20).

Probably the trickiest thing to contend with is a different hue near the horizon than I get in the rest of the sky. I can usually mitigate it somewhat with a feather selection and a Color Balance or Saturation layer, described above. And sometimes, if I’m really brave, I’ll select the offending area, Feather it, use the Eyedropper tool to pick the color I want, and the Paint Bucket tool to apply the color to the selected area. I usually get better results with Tolerance set fairly high (>50) and Opacity fairly low (<30). If you do this, don’t expect it to work every time, and always examine the results at 100% because it can introduce some pretty nasty blotchiness that doesn’t jump right out at you on first glance at lower magnification.

With most of my images, the last thing I do before saving is sharpen. But since night images are rarely about fine detail, and sharpening exacerbates noise, I no longer sharpen my Milky Way images.

These tips are not intended to be the final word on Milky Way processing—I just wanted to give you some insight into my approach, both my goals and the steps I take to achieve them. I’ve been using Photoshop for a long time, but don’t consider myself a Photoshop expert, not even close. There may be (and probably are) better ways to do many of these things. But I’ve always been a simple-first photographer: Do things the simplest possible way, until you find some way that’s better, or until you encounter something you just can’t do. And if you take nothing else away from this, I hope you at least feel empowered to experiment until you achieve results that make you happy.

About this image

I wrote about this day and a similar image from this shoot in my Longest Day post. Look for the “You’re gonna need a bigger lens” section near the bottom. The only difference, besides the fact that I went vertical here for more Milky Way, is that I used my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens.

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4 Comments on “The Milky Way My Way

  1. Pingback: Grand Canyon After Dark | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart

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