How to Create Stunning Panoramas of the Night Sky
It’s a common problem for photographers that enjoy creating images of the night sky - the gorgeous celestial bodies might not be close enough to fit into one frame. What’s more, the beauty of the night sky and the beauty of the landscape below it might not be able to fit in a single frame either.
Enter the panoramic photo of the night sky!
Panoramas look complex and complicated, to be sure. And while there is a bit of extra work involved, it’s really just a few extra steps than a normal shot to get a stunning view of the night sky.
Here’s a few tips to get you started.
Get Geared Up
Where you can use nothing more than a camera, a good lens, and a tripod to create pretty good images of a landscape or nature scene, when taking on night sky photography, you need to add a good mount that helps you control, among other things, the shutter for long exposures and adjustments to settings for panoramas.
Though there are plenty of choices, the Sky-Watcher AllView mount is at the top of our list. The beauty of the AllView is that it is purpose-built for things like night photography and panoramas. In fact, you can capture a full 360-degree panorama for a truly breathtaking image of the night sky and the landscape below. With an electronic shutter release, the mount will automatically trigger your camera during the process of creating the panorama as well.
Better still, the AllView has Go-To electronics that will find any one of the 42,000 celestial objects in its memory, automatically. That means if you want a certain feature of the night sky in your shot, just dial it in, and the AllView will center the object in the eyepiece and track it across the sky on your behalf.
If that’s not enough, consider this: when you’re done creating your panorama of the night sky, you can use the AllView to record video, create time-lapses, or just gaze at the stars by attaching a telescope. That kind of versatility only increases the value of the Sky-Watcher AllView.
Other gear you’ll need: A fast lens (prime or zoom, though primes are often preferred), a solid tripod, a level to keep your horizons straight, and a headlamp so you can see what you’re doing.
Plan It Out
Obviously, there is a healthy dose of planning involved in creating a panorama of the night sky. Not only do you need to identify the celestial bodies you want in the shot, but you also need to consider the foreground elements in the landscape that will give additional interest to the photo. Remember, though the sky is the primary focus of the shot, if there is nothing in the foreground to draw the viewer’s eye into the photo, the image might suffer.
What’s more, it’s prudent to have stationary objects - a rock formation, trees, a mountain peak, or the like - in the foreground so that the motion captured in the sky is enhanced. In other words, having an interesting rock formation in the foreground will make the star trails in the sky look that much more active.
The weather is also of concern. Naturally, you’ll need to keep an eye on the forecast and plan your shoot for an evening when the sky is predicted to be clear. Also consider the location relative to light pollution. Though light pollution can add an interesting element to nighttime panoramas, it’s generally a good idea to try to minimize extraneous light.
As with any photo, shooting in RAW is highly recommended because you have the greatest degree of editing flexibility. Additionally, set your camera to manual mode so you have the greatest leeway regarding exposure settings so that each image you take is equally well-exposed. Your focus should be set to manual as well - dial it in at infinity, then switch from auto to manual. Doing so means that you will have the same point of focus from one shot to the next.
When it comes to exposure settings, they will obviously depend on where you’re at, how much light pollution there is, and how much ambient light is still available (i.e. if you begin shooting as the sun is setting and end when it is completely dark). That said, it’s generally a good idea to keep the ISO low - say, at 100 or 200 to reduce noise. Of course, some cameras have better ISO performance than others, so experiment with the ISO and see what values you can use without getting too much noise.
Since you will want the foreground in focus as well as the sky, choose an aperture that allows you to do so. Bear in mind that a number of factors influence depth of field, of which aperture is just one. The distance to the nearest foreground element, the focal length of your lens, and even the size of your camera’s sensor will determine depth of field as well. Again, experiment with your settings to determine what aperture values get you the desired results.
In terms of shutter speed, there are a couple of considerations. First, if you wish to create star trails, the shutter speed will obviously be much longer than if you want to create a panorama without any indicated movement in the sky. Second, you’ll have to consider the exposure implications of the shutter speed you use. Make adjustments to ISO and aperture such that all three components work together for a well-exposed image throughout.
It’s All in the Technique
Remember, panoramas require you to stitch various images together, so ensure you’ve got good overlap from one frame to the next (usually around 30 percent overlap will suffice with 50 percent overlap being more ideal). Naturally, using a mount like the Sky-Watcher AllView will help in this endeavor.
Additionally, don’t pigeonhole yourself into creating only horizontal panoramas. Don’t be afraid to tilt your camera on its side and try some vertical panoramas as well. Doing so will allow you to incorporate that all-important foreground into the shot while also giving you a great view of the night sky.
Practice and patience are part of the technique here as well. You won’t create a magazine-worthy panorama of the night sky your first time out, and that’s okay! Keep trying, keep experimenting with your camera settings, and continue to plan your nighttime photography adventures to maximize your success. And, of course, make things easier on yourself by getting the best astrophotography gear to help you create gorgeous nighttime panoramas.