A Starry Starry Summer Night

Since the beginning of July, I had been waiting for a crystal-clear moonless night to photograph the Milky Way with the snow-covered Mount Baker (Washington State) as “underground”. That night came when a small scale rain system dissipated in the afternoon of July 24 and made room for a multi-day high pressure cloudless sky, with the moon setting in the first few hours of the night. So I drove up to the Artist Point of Mount Baker with a couple of friends. Yes, drove up, because it just happened, so luckily for us, that the road to the Artist Point was cleared of snow and opened to the public from that day on. Of course, except for the parking lot, the high grounds around the Artist Point are still snow-covered, which was perfect for a snow camping setting. My little cheap tent is always a nice prop for night photography in the wilderness.

Before the moon set at about 10 pm, I asked my friend to take a forced-perspective photo of me pointing a finger to the moon, just for fun. Well, my body blurred, ’cause I couldn’t hold myself perfectly still during the 13-second exposure.

 

By 11 pm, the sky was perfectly dark and the Milky Way became visible and even colorful. I made a couple of quick test shots to look for a proper exposure. My basic gears for the task are Canon 5D II and 17-40mm f4L wide angle lens. The sky was so dark that I had to use the widest aperture of the lens at ISO6400 to keep exposure within 30 seconds. Longer exposure would create star trails. This is my first real shot of the Milky Way (with minimum post processing in Lightroom):

The city lights of Sedro Wolley from the left of Mount Baker did not “contaminate” the sky but actually complemented the scene by highlighting the silhouette of the mountain and positioning the Milky Way. However, the image quality is not satisfactory due to high ISO setting. The picture is very noisy and no noise reduction, in-camera or off-camera, can make it good enough for large print.

I then shot a series of photos to make a panorama that includes both Mount Baker in the south and Mount Shuksan in the east in the picture. This is a bit challenging in post processing. A clear sky is never easy to stitch and the very dark “undergrounds” have few details to help the stitch. Moreover, the choice of projection mode would seriously affect the final image.  Fortunately, PTGui Pro 9.0 is a very capable software for the task and manages to stitch a quite realistic panorama with its “stereographic” projection mode (the more regularly used “rectilinear, cylindrical or equirectangular” modes are no good for this task).

The component images:

This is the panorama created in PTGui Pro 9.0, with touchup in Photoshop CS6:

The Milky Way is beautiful, isn’t it? There were a few long strokes of light on the sky. I think they were meteors, because I’ve checked online that there was no satellite flying across that part of the sky at the time.

To get a larger sky and longer Milky Way, I then shot a series of vertical images. This is the panorama produced in the similar way as described above:

 

Did I forget my little tent? If I had had a wider lens, I would have made a Milky Way panorama that also includes my tent in the image. For this time, I am content with this one:

 

After mid-night, we spent most of the time shooting star trails and other fun images. The Milky Way moved little by little towards west and became less and less prominent. The color of the sky also changed. This is how the starry night looked at 3:47am:

We did not sleep at all during the entire night. What a waste to close your eyes under such a beautiful starry starry night !

 

 

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