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How to Take a 360 Pano with Northern Lights and Milky Way

A Step By Step Guide To Amazing Extreme Night Panoramas 

The Milky Way and the Northern Lights are two elements that attract many landscape photographers who love night photography. Both require technical knowledge and experience before being captured at their best.

In this article, I will explain step by step how to create a 360-degree night panorama with the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together in the night sky, above a scenic landscape.

Before continuing with this read, I recommend checking out this article, “Night Photography – How to Capture Milky Way and Northern Lights Together“, where you’ll learn how to plan such night panoramas.

Inception

The photo you see above, I took on October 1, 2022 at the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway. After posting it on my channels in a few days it went around the world and was published by NASA as the “astronomical photograph of the day” on December 13, and by many other world-famous magazines such as Forbes, Focus, National Geographic, The Guardian, etc.

I can say that it is so far my most popular night photography and now I will explain how I made this 360-degree night panorama, from the stage of shooting in the field to blending the different files on the computer.

Since this is an advanced panorama, I recommend that you first read a tutorial I wrote, in which I explain what is the best photographic equipment you need and how to make a night panorama from the ground up.

That night I reached the top of the mountain in before sunset so that I could study the composition well before darkness came.

It was 11 pm, the tripod was set up with my astro-modified Nikon Z6II ready for action. To my right, I could already see faint Northern Lights forming a rainbow-shaped display stretching from east to west.

The shape and position were already perfect, but I still had to wait for 30 minutes to achieve total darkness and better capture the Milky Way, which was not yet visible to the naked eye.

At 11:30 pm, I finally began shooting, starting with the sky. The Nikon Z6II was mounted on a panoramic head, enabling me to rotate the camera 360 degrees and tilt it upward to capture the entire arc of the Milky Way, which sits high in the October sky.

Every 30 degrees, I took a shot, completing the full 360-degree turn. Upon returning to the starting position, I lowered the camera angle, adjusted the settings, and took the same number of shots for the landscape.

Finally, with a lantern in hand, I positioned myself in the scene, creating a synergy among all the elements, and took a selfie with a remote shutter release in my hand.

I made this panorama capturing 21 shots arranged in 2 horizontal rows with the camera in portrait mode and here below you can see the Exif data.

EXIF:

  • 12 shots for the SKY: Untracked, ISO 5000, f/2.8, 14mm, 13 sec
  • 8 shots for the LANDSCAPE: ISO 4000, f/4, 14mm, 50 sec
  • Last shot for MYSELF: ISO 8000, f/4, 14mm, 8 sec
  • White Balance: 3500K

EDIT:

  • I merged all files with PTgui, subsequently edited using Camera Raw and Photoshop.

How to take a 360 night panorama at its best

Let me explain why I took more photos for the sky than the landscape, even though I always shot at 14mm. The reason for this is the distortion of the lens when you tilt up to be able to take the whole arc of the Milky Way. In October the Milky Way is high in the sky and in order to create a panorama of it you have to have your camera pointed upward and this leads to a lot of distortion with a 14mm focal length. This distortion causes PtGui (the software I use to merge an extreme panorama) to have difficulty recognizing the equal attachment points (control points) and thus fails to merge the panorama. 

The trick is to rotate the panoramic head less between shots, intersecting the photos with each other more so that there is more equal surface area between them. This way PtGui has more points between the photos that it can recognize and can handle the merger better. 

When I took the row for landscape my nikon Z6II was about level and the distortion is greatly reduced, thus being able to increase the degrees of rotation between shots. PtGui or other professional panning softwares will have no difficulty in handling and merging the shots.

How To Place Your Silhouette in the Night Landscape

Once you’ve completed the row of shots for the landscape, rotate the camera back to the desired position for placing yourself in the scene. Adjust the EXIF data if necessary, set the shutter timer, or simply hold the remote shutter release with the camera in the BULB mode (I prefer the second option as it allows me to capture multiple shots, changing my position in the landscape and the lantern’s light intensity; in the end, I can choose the best shot). Move to the selected position, turn on the lantern, and shoot.

Below I will tell you how to handle and blend this shot into the landscape using Photoshop.

Don’t miss reading the article “How to Capture Milky Way and Northern Lights Together”, it will help you plan these kinds of panoramas. 

How to stitch a 360 degrees night panorama

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

We have two rows of shots, as you can see from the images below: one capturing the sky, another for the landscape, and an additional photo with myself.

Before we dive into Ptgui and mount the panoramic, we need to merge the silhouette into the landscape. 

How to blend your silhouette into the night landscape

I open both shots in Photoshop: one of the landscape and the other in the same position, but with me holding a lantern.

  1. Open both files in the same document.
  2. Place the layer with the silhouette above the photo.
  3. Select both layers (shift + left-click).
  4. Open the ‘Edit’ dropdown menu, then click on ‘Auto Align Layers.’
  5. In the popup that appears, choose the ‘Auto’ icon and press the ‘Ok’ button.
Photoshop recognizes the matching pixels of the two photos and aligns them.
  1. Select the first layer at the top.
  2. Hold down the ALT key and left-click on the “Layers Masks” button.
With the black mask, we have hidden the first layer of the silhouette, revealing the underlying layer of the landscape.
  1. Let’s use a white brush with the following characteristics:
    • Mode: Normal
    • Opacity: 100%
    • Hardness: 0%
    • Size: slightly larger than the outline
  2. Brush over the black mask where the outline is underneath (1/2 clicks are enough).
  3. Double the size of the white brush, reduce the opacity to 50%, and make 2 more clicks on the black mask.
  4. Double the size of the white brush again, reduce the opacity to 25%, and make 2 more clicks on the black mask.
At this point, your silhouette and light should be perfectly blended and in synergy with the landscape.
  1. Select both layers (Shift + left-click).
  2. Right-click and choose “Merge Layers.”

Now, we have our photo ready to be aligned with the other photos that make up the landscape row.

How to stitch the files in PtGui creating the panorama

Let’s begin with the row containing the 12 photos of the sky.

  1. Open the files Tiff in Ptgui.
  1. 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. Remember that, being a spherical 360-degree panorama, the last photo must be connected to the first one.
  1. 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 12 images, resulting in a single file the entire night sky.

Being a 360-degree panorama, you can rotate it along the horizontal axis to choose the composition you prefer. The position of natural elements will not change; only the composition will.

As you can see, there is a significant distortion caused by the highly tilted wide-angle lens. This is not a problem; we will correct this later in Photoshop.

  1. Return to “project assistant” then click on “create panorama”. Set the file format “photoshop large”, 16 bits No compression and click on “create panorama”.
  1. You’ll end up with your panorama of the sky ready to be edited in Adobe Photoshop.
  2. Next, you need to repeat the same process with the 8 shots for the foreground (landscape).

Finally you’ll have 2 files: the first one capturing the entire night sky, and the second one showing the complete panorama of the landscape.

Now, let’s blend these two files in Adobe Photoshop

Before starting to blend these files, we have to correct the distortion caused by wide-angle lens.

To do that:

  1. With the sky layer selected, press COMMAND/CONTROL + T,
  2. Right-click and choose “Distort”,
  3. Drag the points in the image where you want to correct the distortion.

Next, we proceed to the merging of the two panoramas, foreground and sky.

  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.
  1. Create a new file large enough to fit both the sky and foreground images.
  2. Drag both images into this new document. Open the file and drag the images over. For the foreground image, drag also the previously created group.
  3. 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.
  1. Use the “Move Tool” to manually align the two layers. There you have it – your 360 night  panorama is complete! From here, make any additional adjustments you find necessary.
  1. The 360 night panorama is now ready to be edit.
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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