How do you capture the Milky Way and airglow in a panorama? by John Wood

“Loud crashing waves and the immense loneliness of the place after midnight were dramatic.”

First pick a place noted for dark skies – the Maine coast in the Northeastern United States in this case. Schoodic Point is in a national park with public access. Next pick an evening with a new moon, below the horizon, and hope for clear skies. Several photo planning applications will allow you to pick a night when the Milky Way is overhead at the proper hour. Strong cold winds from the northwest mean bring long underwear and other winter clothing.
 
Next comes hardware.  I chose a Nikon D850 with Nikkor 8-15mm zoom set at 13 mm focal length, wide open at f/4.2. This rig captures a 17,000 by 8,500 spherical panorama with only four shots plus the nadir. White balance was set for 3,700 degK and ISO at 1,600 to ensure low noise images. Now comes the challenge:  This camera/lens combination requires exposures be 20 seconds or less, otherwise the star images will be streaked, also known as star trails. The long exposure solution has long been employed in astronomical telescopes and that is a motor drive that matches the Earth’s rotation to keep the stars fixed in the camera frame.
 
I chose the iOptron SkyGuider Pro which handles the weight of the camera and Nodal Ninja panorama head quite well. Four four-minute exposures captured the delicate details of sky with no star trails. However, anything on Earth, namely the foreground is badly blurred by this motion. Also the starlight provided poor illumination of the terrain. Turning off the motor drive allowed four eight-minute exposures to capture the foreground, and the nadir. These two sets of images were masked and blended using the PTgui program. The horizon shows small errors thanks to the conflict between moving and stationary images.
 
Another piece of hardware was needed to achieve good results. Radiational cooling on a cold clear night means that dew droplets will most likely form on the camera lens, ruining the images. I used a Kendrick micro-D controller with a heating pad wrapped around the lens to prevent dew formation.  The controller is powered by a 12 volt portable battery and has another advantage—it provides power to the camera. You’d rather not depend on the camera battery in keeping the shutter open for nearly an hour.
 
Finally I urge the reader to look up “airglow”.  The clouds in the panorama are not ordinary clouds. Now you are fully trained and I look forward to seeing more images like this on 360cities.net.
 
 

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