Milky Way Panorama over Elephant Canyon

Milky Way Panorama over Elephant Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Just try to wrap your head around these numbers: there are between 100 and 400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in the universe. Our galaxy is shaped roughly like a plate, not a sphere. The Milky Way is the diffuse band of light we see as we look along the plane of our galaxy. Look east in the spring, an hour or two before astronomical dawn, and you’ll see that the Milky Way makes a gigantic arch in the sky. This arch is far too large to be captured in a single image with even the widest available rectilinear lens. Shooting the full width of a Milky Way arch requires shooting a series of overlapping images with the camera mounted on a panoramic tripod head.

In April 2017 I hiked to Chesler Park, in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, and camped for three nights. During a similar trek the year before I had discovered a spectacular vantage point for shooting a Milky Way panorama over nearby Elephant Canyon. I had shot a Milky Way panorama at that time, but a combination of cloudy skies and an inadequate lens had compromised the image I came up with. I wanted a rematch.

This time I was equipped with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, a brilliant optic that renders the stars in the corners of the frame as points even when shooting wide open. I also brought the same Really Right Stuff multi-row panorama kit I had used the previous year. I shot sunset near my campsite, slept for a few hours, got up again at 1 a.m. and hiked to my shooting location just half a mile away. Once there I began shooting multi-row panoramas. For the land I shot two rows, nine camera positions per row, four frames per camera position, 40 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 6400. For the sky I again shot two rows, nine camera positions per row, four frames per camera position, but this time exposed for the sky, 10 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 6400. 

Once I returned home, I stacked each group of four identical land frames in Photoshop and reduced noise using Stack Mode>Median. The stars moved in between frames in each group of sky images, so I used RegiStar software to re-align the stars, then reduced noise using a RegiStar utility that is similar to Photoshop’s Stack Mode>Median. Then I stitched all the completed land images into a panorama, stitched all the completed sky images into a panorama, and finally blended the land and sky panoramas together in a way my visual system found believable. The final image has sufficient resolution to be printed seven feet wide with low noise and excellent sharpness.

Glenn Randall Photography

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