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How To Make Milky Way Panorama: A Step by Step Guide

Night panoramas have become very popular in recent years. People from all over the world participate in our photo tours and are very excited and interested to learn how to make a Milky Way panorama with the entire arc of our galaxy, above a breathtaking landscape.

Honestly, this kind of photography gives me incredible emotions, both during the shooting and during the editing phase, in front of the computer.

There are several things you need to know before starting a night photography session to capture a Milky Way panorama and create a beautiful composition and captivating scene. It is not immediately easy. You need some knowledge of particular techniques and methods e and several attempts.

The first thing you must have is the essential camera gear to create a nightscape panorama:

1 – Best gear for Milky Way panoramas

Solid Tripod

A solid tripod is essential for shooting Milky Way panoramas.

It must be capable of supporting the weight of all the equipment and resist the rotational forces that we apply to the camera.

Without a solid tripod, you get blurry images impossible to fix.

A solid tripod such as the carbon fiber one from Sunwayfoto T3240CS.

360 degree rotation panoramic head

A panoramic head lets you rotate the camera around a central point and adjust how much it turns depending on your lens’s focal length.

Suppose you’re using a 14mm lens; in that case, you can rotate approximately 45 degrees, resulting in a 30-degree overlap between consecutive shots.

Personally, I use and recommend this one from SunwayFoto.

360-degree rotation head is included in this panoramic head. This piece is essential to be able to rotate your reflex to the established degrees (Indexing Rotator DDP-64MX).

Leveling Base

Place the spirit level between the tripod and the pan head to easily and quickly align the bubble. It is not an indispensable item like those listed above but, it makes your work much easier and faster, especially during the night and when your tripod is in an awkward position, saving you the hassle of adjusting its legs to level it.

Personally I use Sunwayfoto Leveling base DYH-68.

Wide Angle and Bright Lens

A wide angle and bright lens is crucial for capturing night panoramas without a star tracker. Lenses with big apertures like f/2.8, f/2, or wider (such as a 14mm f/2.8 or even better a 14mm f/1.8) allow more light to reach the sensor, capturing more light.

One of my favorite and main lenses for night photography is Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S.

Camera

Having a more modern sensor provides better tolerance for high ISO settings and a wider dynamic range. This translates to higher quality raw image files. However, it’s important to note that when it comes to learn how to create night panoramas of the Milky way, the choice between a DSLR or mirrorless camera is not the decisive factor.

I personally make my night shots with the Nikon Z6ii astro modified.

When you have all the equipment you need to create captivating night panoramas, let’s move on to the next step: planning.

Prehistory

2 – How to plan a Milky Way panorama

Planning is a very important step determining the right moment to visit the spot you want photograph. For instance, if your goal is to capture the Milky Way over the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, meticulous planning is essential. You must choose the right time when the Milky Way core aligns perfectly over the mountains and ensure visibility from your chosen shooting spot.

There are many apps and websites available to help with this task. Personally, I prefer using PhotoPhills and Google Earth.

Another factor to consider is the weather; clear skies are essential for capturing the night sky in your photographs. I suggest consulting local weather websites for the specific locations where you plan to capture your night shots.

Among the most reliable and well-known ones are Windy and Ventusky.

If you are interested in chasing the darkest skies to best capture the Milky Way, don’t forget to check out the Light Pollution Map.

Recommended reading:

3 – How to Capture a Milky Way Panorama in the field

At the beginning, it can be tough to figure out your camera gear in the dark. It takes some practice to learn how to handle your equipment and set up your camera correctly for great night panoramas.

Now that you know what essential camera gear for Milky Way Panoramas are, it’s time to go out and try it in the field.

Let’s go through what you need to pay attention to:

3.1 – How to manage the equipment

Where should you place the tripod?

This depends on your planned composition and what interests you in the foreground. In a panorama, it’s essential to distribute the main elements across the scene rather than focusing on a single foreground element.

For instance, if the core of the Milky Way is on the right and there’s a imposing mountain in the center, you wouldn’t place the tent on the right. Instead, you’d position it on the left. This way, the scene is balanced: from left to right, you have the tent, then the mountain, and finally, the core of the Milky Way.

How to handle your gear in the field for stunning night panoramas?

Make sure the camera is level here too! You can check this by assembling the camera and looking at its electronic bubble while you rotate it. If the color stays green, you’ve done a great job and can move on to the next step.

Above the ball head, attach the three-axis panoramic head. Lastly, connect the camera to the panoramic head and always remember to position your camera vertically.

3.2 – How to calculate the panoramic rotation

What is the ideal rotation angle for capturing a night panorama with your camera?

The degree of camera rotation varies based on the focal length you’re using. For instance, with a wide-angle lens like 14mm, you can rotate about 45 degrees between shots. This means after the first shot, you turn the camera 45 degrees, capture the second shot, and so on.

However, for narrower focal lengths like 24mm, reduce the rotation angle to about 30 degrees. With a 50mm lens, a rotation of 10 degrees is sufficient. I recommend minimizing the rotation and taking a few extra shots to compose the entire panorama. This approach provides more overlap when blending the shots, allowing the software to blend them seamlessly.

3.3 – How to focus

How can I focus in night photography?

Focusing in night photography is a common challenge for photographers, especially for beginners. However, with the right technique and practice, it can become a quick and easy process.

Focus on the sky

First and foremost, always switch to manual focus when working in night photography. To start, focus on the sky, specifically infinity. Use a wide-angle lens and focus on a bright spot located a few hundred meters away or a prominent star, essentially setting your focus to infinity.

In situations where you’re under heavy light pollution or in regions where the Milky Way’s visibility is limited, finding a star to focus on might be difficult. In such cases, a useful trick is to locate an external light source, like a distant house, street lamp, or lighthouse, even if it’s outside your composition, and focus on that point.

On the other hand, if the night sky is sufficiently dark and stars are visible, widen your aperture completely, adjust the focus to infinity, and zoom in through the optical viewfinder or live view. Look for a prominent star and turn the focus ring until the star appears as small and sharp as possible, ensuring accurate focus.

Focus on the foreground

When using a wide-angle lens set to focus on the stars at infinity, the landscape is naturally in focus too, except for objects within the nearest ten meters or so. If there are essential elements nearby that you wish to bring into focus, it’s advisable to turn on a light source and illuminate a point about 2/3 meters away from you. Focus manually by adjusting the focus ring until the illuminated point appears perfectly sharp in the live view of your camera, similar to how you focused on the sky.

3.4 – How to choose the best EXIFs for Milky Way photography

What are the best camera settings to capture a Milky Way panorama?

Optimal settings for capturing the Milky Way with a full-frame sensor (without using a star tracker) include:

  • Focal length: 14mm
  • Aperture: f2.8
  • Expo: 16/20 sec
  • ISO: 5000 / 6400
  • WB: 3500k
Focal length

Starting with a 14mm lens can simplify your job due to its wider field of view, although it captures fewer details compared to narrower focal lengths. For your first panoramas, I suggest beginning with the widest lens you have.

Aperture

Choose the brightest lens you have in your kit, ipreferably ranging from f/1.4 to f/2.8.
Avoid using f/4, as without a star tracker, you files will be completely underexposed.

ISO

Choosing the appropriate ISO setting depends on your camera’s sensor. Modern mirrorless cameras designed for night photography, with fewer megapixels, can handle higher ISO values due to their enhanced sensitivity.

For these advanced sensors, shooting at 6400/8000 ISO poses no issues. However, older sensors may be limited to around 3200 ISO. Some photographers hesitate to increase ISO significantly to avoid digital noise. Here’s a valuable tip: don’t fear raising the ISO. It’s better to have some extra digital noise in your raw file than end up with a severely underexposed image!

White Balance (WB)

An ideal white balance setting for capturing the Milky Way is around 3500k.

It’s crucial to manually adjust the white balance and avoid using the automatic setting, especially during panoramic shots. Rotating the camera can introduce many elements in the scene, like artificial lights or clouds, which can drastically change the white balance if left on automatic.

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Alone in the Forest

We’re ready to capture our Milky Way panorama!

Now, it’s time to begin our Milky Way panorama photography. To get the right exposure, you’ll need to take two rows of shots: one for the sky and one for the foreground. This is because the landscape is much darker than the sky, requiring a longer shutter speed. Be careful, though; overly long exposure times can blur the stars, turning them from sharp points into streaks.

Now take the first row of shots for the sky, as clouds might move in and cover the Milky Way later.

For capturing the night sky with a wide-angle lens (between 14mm and 18mm) without using an astro tracker, try using these settings: 16 seconds exposure, 4000 ISO, and f/2.8 aperture.

Once you’re done capturing the sky, return to your starting position and take the same number of shots for the foreground, adjusting the camera settings accordingly.

There are no fixed camera settings for the foreground because it depends on how dark the location is and what the foreground looks like. For instance, a snowy landscape requires a lower exposure compared to a dark volcanic environment. You can start with a 60-second exposure, 4000 ISO, and f/4 aperture. If the result is too dark, increase the exposure time instead of the ISO.

If there are important elements within the first few meters of the scene and you want everything to be sharp, you’ll need to take a third row of shots, identical to the second row. However, in this case, focus is crucial. Since you’re working in the dark, keep your lens in manual focus. Illuminate a point 2 or 3 meters away from you, and adjust the focus ring on your lens until that point appears perfectly sharp in your live view or optical viewfinder.

Once you’ve achieved focus, return to your starting position and capture the same number of shots for this third set.

Landing on Mars

Let’s summarize the steps for capturing a night panorama in the field:

  1. Set up your tripod securely at your chosen spot.
  2. Attach your camera equipment, ensuring the tripod and ball head are level. Add the three-axis panning head.
  3. Determine the rotation degrees between shots based on your focal length.
  4. Configure the correct camera settings (EXIF data).
  5. Focus on a star.
  6. Take shots of the sky row
  7. Return to the exact starting position, adjust settings for the landscape (while maintaining focus at infinity), and capture the same number of shots you took for the sky.
  8. If there are interesting elements nearby, illuminate a spot 2 or 3 meters away, focus on it, and take another row of shots for the foreground.
  9. You now have three rows of shots: one for the sky and two for the landscape (the first with focus at infinity and the second with focus on the foreground).

4 – How to stitch a milky way panorama

Let’s see how to manage all the files taken in the field and merge them together

Before blending the rows to create the panorama, it’s essential to handle the focus stacking for the landscape shots.

Remember the two rows of shots we took with different focus points to ensure the landscape is sharp from infinity to the foreground?

Now, we need to work on the columns, merging the first column of two shots. The first shot is sharp at infinity, while the second shot focuses on the first few meters.

How to menage the focus stacking in Adobe Photoshop

1. Open the two files in the same document

2. Select both layers (shift + left click)

3. Open the ‘Edit’ dropdown menu, then click on ‘Auto Align Layers’.

4. From the popup that appears, select the ‘Auto’ icon and press the ‘Ok’ button.

5. Open the ‘Edit’ dropdown menu, and then click on ‘Auto Blend Layers’ this time.

6. Translate: From the popup that appears, select ‘stack image,’ click on ‘seamless tones and colors,’ and then click ‘ok’.

Repeat these steps for all seven columns, thus merging the two rows of shots into a single row where the entire landscape is perfectly sharp.

Now, we have two rows of photos: one for the sky and another for the landscape.

For creating panoramas, one of the best software options is Ptgui.

Let’s begin with the row containing the seven photos of the sky.

1. Open the files Tiff in Ptgui.

2. To create a seamless blend of your photos, you need to identify the same points in each image. This helps the software merge the files accurately.

Here’s how: go to the Control Points tab and select the first two photos. Click on three points that are the same in both images. This step guides the software on how to merge the photos smoothly.

3. When you have given Ptgui all the control points, return to the Project Assistant tab. Here, specify the lens you used, and then click on “Align Images.” In my case, I used a standard 14mm Rectilinear Lens.

Now, Ptgui merges the sky panorama using the seven images, resulting in a single file the entire arc of the Milky Way.

4. Return to “project assistant” then click on “create panorama”.

Set the file format “photoshop large”, 16 bits No compression and click on “create panorama”.

5. You’ll end up with your panorama of the sky ready to be edited in Adobe Photoshop.

6. Next, you need to repeat the same process with the 7 shots for the foreground (landscape).

Finally you’ll have 2 files: the first one capturing the entire arc of the Milky Way in the sky, and the second one showing the complete panorama of the landscape in the foreground.

Now, let’s move on to blending these two files in Adobe Photoshop

1. Open the two files in the same document in Photoshop.

2. Select the foreground file. To blend it seamlessly, you need to hide the sky from this image. Create a group with the foreground layer inside (CMD+G for MAC or CTRL+G for PC). Then, select the landscape and with the group selected click on the white mask. In this way you have hidden the sky from the landscape file.

3. Create a new file large enough to fit both the sky and foreground images.

4. Drag both images into this new document. Open the file and drag the images over. For the foreground image, drag the previously created group.

5. The new document should now display both images on the white canvas. Make sure the foreground image (with the group) is above the sky layer in the layers panel.

6. Use the Move Tool to manually align the two layers. There you have it – your Milky Way panorama is complete! From here, make any additional adjustments you find necessary.

7. The Milky Way panorama is now ready to be edit.

Now you can move on to the next step and you’re ready to create more complicated 360-degree night panoramas.

You can learn how to do that here:

The author

Giulio Cobianchi

Hello, I am Giulio Cobianchi, a full-time landscape photographer and co-founder of Gotophototour. Passionate about travel and photography, especially nightscapes photography, I enjoy combining these two elements by exploring and capturing landscapes where wild nature shines at its best. Through Gotophototour, I can pursue my passion, share it with others, and guide them to discover and immortalize the most fascinating places in the world.
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