This will be a 3 part series on Night Sky Panoramas, Stacking and then ending with Stacked Panoramas for ultimate image quality. In this post I want to talk mostly about the fundamentals of shooting a night sky panorama. Over the last 5 years I have worked with many people to help them bring their night photography to the next level and beyond. Once people learn the basics of night photography (focus and exposure in the dark) they often want to take it one step further and try a panorama. This is pretty exciting because it allows you to do a couple significant things. 1. Create larger file sizes – having a larger file size will reduce the appearance of visible noise in your image. Think of it like this, If you have a 35mm negative and try to enlarge it to a 40×60 inch print chances are it’s not gonna look the best. If you have an 8×10 sheet of film and enlarge it to a 40×60, it’s gonna look pretty dang good simply because you don’t have to enlarge it too much. Does that make sense? Same goes for digital. If you have a 12mp camera (4000×3000 pixels) and you want to make a print that’s 40×30 you essentially have to cut your 300 dpi resolution down to 100dpi to get a print that size. If you have a 46mp camera(8256×5504 pixels) and want to make the same size print you can do so with 2x the resolution at 206dpi. A native print size from 46 mp is 18×27 at 300 dpi, from 12 mp is 10×13 inches. Creating a panorama with a file size of 18000×6000 with let you print a a 20×60 inch print with no loss of resolution. That’s crazy and fun! I currently have a 39×117 print hanging up over my couch in our living room. It’s the larges print I have ever done. It’s made up of 7 vertical images stitched in Photoshop creating a 24089×7379 file that prints 25×80 inches at 300dpi. That being said, it would easily print 50×160 without any loss of detail. “Colorado Winter Wonderland”
What does it take to create a good night sky panorama and what are important processes I need to keep in mind?
Camera Settings – When shooting panoramas it’s good to choose a specific color temp for your white balance. I really like something close to 3800K. This not only keeps the color in my images consistent but it also gives the sky a nice dark blue tone like it should have. Color Space should be set to Adobe RGB. Always shoot on RAW, turn off noise reduction for both the High ISO and Long Exposure.
- Once you’re in the field and set up in front of your scene, turn off all lights and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. In about 15 min you will be blown away at how much you can see. Unless you’re in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, then you still wont see anything because it’s so dark!
- Look around, get familiar with the scene. Know where you want your panorama to begin and end. This is very important because you want to make sure you overshoot your corners and sides to allow for cropping when stitched together.
- Now that your eyes are adjusted you can turn your camera off, lens cap off and look through your viewfinder. Loosen your camera on your ball head and do a quick pan through to make sure the lens you have decided to use will include all the sky and the land that you want in your final image. This is crucial. For example, if you have a 20mm lens on and you notice that the top of the Milky Way is right at the top of the frame then chances are that you will want a wider lens or you may need to shoot 2 rows of images to make sure you include everything and a little extra.
- Take your test shot. Make sure you have your focus and exposure dialed in and your camera is level. Your tripod does not have to be level to have your camera level. This is something I see people struggle with all the time. You don’t want to spend all your time trying to perfectly level your tripod on uneven ground when all you need is your camera to be level. Most cameras have an internal level now which makes it very easy to create level images every single time! Almost no excuse for a tilted image anymore. The camera only needs to be level horizontally, not vertically. If the camera is level in each position of the panorama with the horizon you will not have any issues stitching your images together.
- Take a black frame. This will indicate the beginning of the sequence. You can do this with either your hand in front of the lens, lens cap on or just run your shutter speed down to about 1/10th second and snap one and then take it back up to your desired shutter speed for the pano.
- Remember you are aiming for 40% overlap. Take your first shot, turn the camera off, look though the viewfinder and move the camera accordingly. Turn the camera back on and shoot. I always start my panos on the left side…not sure why but that’s how I do it. So I take the right edge of the frame and move the camera until it’s just to the left of center. Level camera, tighten tripod and repeat. Do this until you have shot past what you want on the end of your pano.
- Take another black frame to indicate the end of the sequence. I have found this to be extremely helpful in eliminating trouble when processing. It’s a fool proof way to make sure you don’t include all your test shots into your stitching and have it come out not right.
If you are working with a pano head on your tripod and don’t want to have to rely on looking through the viewfinder after each shot then I suggest you take note of how wide your field of view is for any particular lens. This chart below will help you so that all you need to do is shoot, move camera and shoot again. If you are using a 18mm lens on a full frame camera and your field of view is 100 degrees then you would simply need to move your camera 60 degrees to get a 40% overlap.
Below you will see an image I shot a couple years ago. I used my Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens to try and do a multiple row pano. As you can see I failed epically. There is no way I could make a straight image from this and keep all the content on the sides and top or bottom. This is a prime example of what NOT to do.
This image on the other hand is a prime example of what your pano should look like when you stitch it together. These collages are to give you a better visual understanding of not only overlap but also how level the images should be. As you can see, I have left enough room on the top, bottom and sides to allow for cropping. I used my Sigma 20mm to make sure I captured everything I needed.
Final Cropped and Edited
If you have any questions please let them in the comments below and I will answer them for you as soon as possible.