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Milky Way Panorama over Chesler Park

Milky Way Panorama over Chesler Park

Milky Way over Chesler Park, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

In April 2017, I spent a week searching the Needles District, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, for the ideal place to shoot a panorama of the Milky Way arcing over dramatic sandstone towers. I knew that at the right time of night, at the right time of year, the Milky Way makes a gigantic arch in the sky that stretches from horizon to horizon. I used an Android and iOS app called Sun Surveyor to determine the direction to the galactic center, the most photogenic part of the Milky Way, at a time when the galactic center would be 10 degrees above the horizon and therefore above the bright band of sky found along the horizon both day and night. I also used Sun Surveyor to determine the altitude (angular elevation above a level horizon) of the highest point of the Milky Way arch at the correct time of night.

After much searching, I found a great location in Chesler Park, but ran out of time before I could shoot it. I returned in April 2018. This time I had reserved three nights at a backcountry site in Chesler Park so I could wait out bad weather. As it turned out, I endured three days and nights of clouds and high winds, with gusts ranging from 30 to 50 miles per hour, before the weather finally cleared. At 2 a.m., under magnificent starry skies, I mounted a Canon 5D Mark IV and Canon 35mm f/1.4 lens on a Really Right Stuff multi-row panorama head and began shooting. I started by shooting the sky, four frames each at the eight camera positions, rotating the panorama head in between each set of images. After shooting six sky sequences, I shot the land, again using four exposures per camera position.

When I returned home, I used Photoshop’s Stack Mode>Median utility to reduce noise in each group of land images, then stitched the land images together in Lightroom. The stars moved in between each of the sky exposures, so I used RegiStar software to re-align the stars, then used RegiStar’s Median-Mean stacking utility to reduce noise in each group of star images. I used Lightroom to stitch together the sky images, then used Photoshop to combine the sky and land panoramas into a believable whole. The result of all this planning, scouting, shooting, and processing is an image that can be printed eight feet wide with excellent quality. It is also, I hope, an image that conveys the wonder I felt as I stood under a canopy of stars in one of the darkest and most spectacular national parks in the United States.

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