Chasing the Milky Way

After seeing some awesome photographs of the Milky Way, presented as a night time landscape commonly known as nightscape, I decided I wanted to try to capture a nightscape of my own.

As is my usual method I began to research online what I needed to know to create such a shot. There are many things to consider and over time I picked up what I needed to know.

The basics were ;

  • A Camera capable of manual control. In addition this needs to perform well at high ISO settings. I already had a Canon DSLR so this was already in place.
  • A wide angle lens with a reasonably wide maximum aperture to maximise the amount of light possible to gather at any given time. Again I had a wide angle zoom lens at 2.8 so this was also already in place.
  • A Tripod. This needs to be sturdy as it will be hold the camera and lens steady for some potentially long exposures. I have a slightly heavy, but robust Manfrotto so was all set here too.

I was ready for my first attempt. All I had read pointed to the requirement of an interesting location; interesting for foreground context. Additionally, the location had to be away from bright city lights and in an area that was very dark at night.

Then I had to know where the milky way was going to appear in relation to my foreground and I needed to know a date when there would little or no moon in the sky. The brighter the moon is, the better the lighting on the foreground, but the harder it is to see and capture the milky way.

There are a number of apps available to help with this but my particular favourite is Photopils. Once I had chosen the location I identified a date and waited to see if the weather was going to be kind as to make it even more difficult an uncontrollable; a cloudless sky is preferred.

My chosen location was St Hubert’s Church at Idsworth and the weather looked set so off I went. Using an ISO of about 3200 and an exposure time of about 25 seconds (to try to minimise the star trail effect) I captured this image;

St Hubert’s Initial Capture.

Well, I can make out the church and there are some stars in the sky! Even on the back of the camera I could see that the illuminated cross (who knew that would be there?) was way over exposed. This is a result of the image being beyond the dynamic range of my camera’s sensor. It was unable to capture the entire range of tones from brightest to darkest in one exposure.

So I made another capture to try to capture just the cross so I could blend it in later;

Just the Cross.

So looking at the back of my camera screen (in the dark) it looked like I had everything I needed. Mission accomplished.

Back at home, it quickly became evident that I did not have any ideal captures. The first image had some of what I needed but you could not see enough of the stars or the church.

So in Lightroom I adjusted two copies, one to show the foreground and one for the sky. I then combined them in Photoshop (Open in Photoshop as layers) and stacked them, aligned them, along with the cross image and used masks to reveal the parts of each image I wanted until i got this;

St Hubert’s Under the Milky Way.

I was relatively happy for a first attempt but have seen much better versions. So I went back to researching. I discovered that a good way to increase the visibility of astronomical objects in the night sky was a technique known as stacking.

Stacking maximises the detail, whilst helping to eliminate noise, without resorting to longer exposures which would usually cause the stars to blur and create star trails. They can be effective but that was not what I was after.

The stacking programs stack the photos on top of each other and ensure that the starts are kept in register. If they did not do this, then you would end up with multiple versions of all the stars in the image as they move across the night sky.

It is possible to use tracking devices to allow the camera to track the stars as they move, but I do not currently have access to one of these.

So, it was back to a stacking program. Collective wisdom seemed to favour Sequator on PC (which is what I have) and it has the added benefit of a function to mask out any foreground from the registration part.

This meant the next time I wanted to capture the Milky Way, I would need to take multiple exposures of the sky to feed into Sequator for processing.

My next opportunity came when I went to Halnaker Windmill with a camera club friend to try again;

Halnaker Mill under the Milky Way.

Again, not too bad but nowhere near as good as I wanted. There was way more light pollution coming from nearby Chichester than I expected and this really made the image hard to process. I also noted that the foreground was extremely noisy. I later found that the solution to that was to either paint in the foreground with light from a torch, or take a low ISO but long exposure just for the foreground to blend into the final image in Photoshop.

After that the Milky Way season ended for the year and I would have to wait until the next season in 2019.

Fast forward to March 2019. I was chatting with another friend on Facebook about my efforts and he agreed he would also like to have a go, so we started to talk about locations.

We felt that the New Forest might be a good idea, and another friend suggested Mogshade Pond near Bratley View. So I fired up Photopills;

And this indicated that our next opportunity would arise in a few weeks time. I took the opportunity to pop down one afternoon to explore and the location showed promise;

Mogshade Pond by day.

We planned to stay up all night the following weekend and give it a go. At 1.00 am I picked up my friend and we headed out. Unfortunately, it was too close to the city of Southampton and the light pollution was killing any chance we might have. But we gave it a go;

Mogshade Pond by night.

After about an hour of waiting to see if the clouds would pass and the light would improve we agreed it was a lost cause. So we decided to head west, away from Southampton. We jumped into the car and eventually ended up on the cricket green in the village of Hyde, between Fordingbridge and Ringwood.

This location still suffered a little light pollution, but was much better than Mogshade Pond.

After an hour we were happily firing away until dawn started to appear. This is what came out of the camera;

Hyde under the Milky Way (before processing).

There was potential here, even though I had once again forgotten the low ISO long exposure for the foreground.

Still, I stacked the images in Sequator and then brought them back into lightroom. I then processed one of the images to bring out the foreground better and blended it with the stacked image for the sky in Photoshop.

After that it was back to lightroom for some final touches to the editing until I ended up with the final image below;

Hyde under the Milky Way (after processing)

We both enjoyed the experience but feel we can do better so we are planning to go even further west when the opportunity arises; they say “practice makes perfect” so I guess we’ll see.


Following the image at Hyde, I wanted to improve further so in October of 2019 I kept an eye on the conditions in hope that the fates would align and give me another opportunity to try again. It seems the odds are stacked against you trying to get a weekend (I work all week) wher the milky way is visible, there is no moon and the cloud conditions are right. Combine that with the fact I have to drive to Dorset (1.5 hours) to get any real hope of a sky with no light pollution.

On this particular weekend it all looked like it was going to line up, apart from the fact it was going to be windy.

I jumped in the car at around 11.00 pm and headed for Swanage and Durlston Lighthouse. Whilst its a long way out, made worse by a diversion due to an accident somewhere. I eventually arrived at about 12:45 am. The sky was amazing. This was what came out of the camera;

Raw capture at Durlston Lighthouse.

Looked promising. I took lots of these images for stacking in Sequator and this time I remembered the lower ISO foreground shots.

Follwing the sky stacking and then the exposure blending in Photoshop. This is what I ended up with;

Final image after stacking and blending in Sequator and PhotoShop.

That was much more like it.

Since then we have had the world change dramatically due to Coronavirus, but even so, I did get another opportunity to try another milky way shot, literally the weekend before Lock Down bit.

I headed off to Knowlton Church, a location I had visited before to try my luck. It is not as dark as Dorset, but is a little closer. similar processing to the lighthouse shot, here is the result;

Knowlton Church under the Milky Way.

In the best tradition, I have gone back and re-edited this image…

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