First MW Pano

Hi all!

This image is the result of the overnight shooting that I mentioned in my post last week and I would love to have your feedback.
Mittens and Many Firsts

This was my first attempt at capturing and producing a milky way pano.
I planned the shot to include a foreground lit by the moon and stacked sky shot after moonset.
If you read the story, last week then you know that I arrived at this location after a long day and not much sleep. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel the least bit tired! I’m betting that one or two of you know the exhilarating energy that happens during a shoot.

I did a good bit of research to understand the light direction, shadows, elevations etc. and had a good idea of where I wanted to be in order to get the arch aligned with the mittens…
So when I got there, I didn’t have to wander around a great deal. I found a spot where I was able to place my tripod knowing that I could leave it in place all night.
I made my foreground shots and then removed my camera leaving my tripod in place. I made the short hike back to the car for a nap and returned later to capture the sky.

During the foreground shoot, I made a couple of passes to decide whether to shoot full wide at 16mm or full narrow at 35mm. Logically, it is easier to return the camera to its mount and get matching results if you use mechanical stops, like either end of a zoom range. Okay, so I went the more difficult route and shot it all at 24mm. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: I used a small strip of gaffer tape to fix the zoom ring in place. :wink:
So, this pano is two rows high and 6 panels wide.
Foreground: 6 single shots, so no stacking, 3200 iso, 15sec, f/2.8
Background: 8 shots per panel, stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker, 6400 iso, 10 sec, f/2.8
Pano stitching was all accomplished in Photoshop. I rendered the foreground and then the background and let PS do the work. Then I manually blended the results.
It may be interesting to note that I employed a nodal bar as well.

First time visiting Monument Valley.
First time using a nodal bar.
First time shooting a milky way pano.
First time stitching two horizontal panos to increase vertical field of view.

What technical feedback would you like if any? Any/all.

What artistic feedback would you like if any? Anything that comes to mind.

Any pertinent technical details: see above.

You may only download this image to demonstrate post-processing techniques.
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Sky looks terrific and the PP and stitch is very well done.
I would lower the exposure on the land…


If this is a first… I am very much looking forward to seeing your work once you get better at it!!! :smiley::star_struck: Seriously, this is incredible.

I suppose we could all talk about the brightness of the landscape. Moonlit of course it could be actually brighter than this… I think for most general reactions thinking of maybe standing there and witnessing the night sky and Milky Way, that perhaps the landscape could be a little darker. But we’re in that subjective and personal choice area. Honestly, I’m just darned impressed at what you accomplished here… Kudos for the planning and execution here. Outstanding work.


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Smashing work Tom!! Really looks great. The light on the landscape, luminosity level and stitching all look pretty great and I know sweet fa about milky way photos.

My only critique is that there is a significant distortion of the horizon. I looks like it forming a bowl and thus all the mountains point toward the centre of the frame. It is more significant toward the edges, but is also noticeable in the peak left of centre. This should be a relatively simple fix in photoshop.

Other than that I think this is a great piece!. Well done!

Killer pano! The sky looks perfect in this image. And I love the comp, having the milky way stretch from the mesa on the left stretch over to the mesa on the right.

I agree with the above comment that the foreground is a bit bright, especially in the center-bottom of the image.

Tom, This is an outstanding composition, great work. Your planning obviously paid off handsomely. The sky looks great, but I would even out the tonality in the foreground land. The corners are too dark (maybe due to a vignette), and the center is too bright. I’d go for something in-between, and have a more even tonality across the foreground land.

First time, WOW, well done. Your time and effort to plan this shoot certainly worked out for you.

This image makes quite an impact. I love the formations on the ground and you have a nice and detailed star field above.

My only problem with images of this type (in general) is that they show the Milky Way as an arc. I realize this is because of the wide field of view here (being a pano after all) but it just seems very odd to me. I don’t know how one can address this issue but I think this image would look better if the galazy was straight (and not bent).

Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

Thank you all for your kind words and wonderful compliments!

@Dan_Kearl I will certainly consider the exposure adjustment.

@Lon_Overacker I actually pulled the exposure down in LR and again in PS.
Given that our sensors can see more than our eyes, the subject of brightness is definitely difficult to tease out, especially in blends.
I tend to agree and my tone it down a bit more.

The land here is indeed a bit of a bowl. Speaking relative to sea level: the area below Sentinel Mesa, on the left, is about 5,300 ft. Between the West Mitten and Merrick Butte, the surface is at about 5,160 ft. and to the right, below Mitchell Mesa, is about 5,400 ft.
The “peak left of center” is the West Mitten. It is taller on the left than on the right.

@Luiz_A_Arroyo Noted! :slight_smile:

@Ed_McGuirk The sides are darker because of the texture of the land. The center of the frame is far more flat and catching a lot of light whereas the left and right sides of the image have more vertical surfaces and therefore more shadows. The pano blend actually nullifies the vignette.

The arc is not due to the wide field of view. If you actually go stand there and face SSE, the milky way dips below the horizon. As you turn slowly to the left, toward east, you see the band higher in the sky. If you continue to turn toward north, you will see that the band drops back down to the ground. This happens because we are looking at the inside of the disc or ring at an angle. Later in the year, as we move around the sun, the ends of the band will become vertical and we will have to look straight up to see the center.
Picture standing in a hula hoop. Hold it parallel to the ground and at eye level and it will look flat. Move the front up and the back down and it will become more arced as you go up.

So far, you have all made a common point and I agree.
There is a feel of unbalance in light toward the center of the frame. I will consider making an adjustment to reduce the affect.

Thanks again for all your feedback!


Hi Tom,

Your example of the hula hoop is not correct. The Milky Way is a flat spiral galaxy. The solar system happens to be located near the middle (on the inner side) of one of its minor spiral arms, but on the same plane. So the galaxy should appear as a straight band. The earth’s motion around the sun doesn’t really displace us that much from this plane, especially when considering the size of the galaxy.

The curve you see in the picture is due to the distortion that occurs when projecting a spherical view (the sky) onto a 2-dimensional planar view (the photograph). It is more dramatic in panoramic photos because they typically cover very large angular distances in the sky.

If you search on the Internet you will find several articles that discuss this topic.

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Tom - I love this picture and the rich description of how you’d planned it out and then executed on your plan. Very inspiring on both a creative and process level. Thank you.


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Be wary; according to the internet, the earth is flat.
The arc is best explained using geometry and an understanding of our view angles from the surface of the earth.
But that discussion would be better placed on an astronomy, science or math forum.

As photographers, it is more relevant to discuss what we actually see when we stand out on the earth.
I don’t have a plan just yet, but if you’d like to join me on a future star shoot, I will let you know when and where to meet me. Then we can stand side by side and see if it is arced or flat.

Or, since you are on the west coast and up for a personal adventure, head out into the Eastern Sierras or Death Valley on a clear March night and look south east. Find the core and follow the band. Let me know what you find.

Happy shooting!

Fantastic image, Tom. If you like the brightness level in the foreground that works for me. I am partial to slightly darker. Great balance between the mesas and the monuments. You did a great job of planning and thanks again for the write up.

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@Tom_Herriman yes, I can see the change in elevation across the valley. I just noticed that the shape of the valley was exaggerated by distortion at the edges. I indicated on the first image how the strata on the edges dip significantly toward the centre of the frame and as a result the vertical cracks in the buttes do the same. It creates the bowl I was suggesting and you can see that the very sides of the image “curled up”.

When you correct for the distortion you’ll notice that the strata underneath the cap rocks flatten out more (they will never be completely flat, but I used google images as a reference). You still see the elevation change across the basin but this time without horizon distortion (from the effect of using a wide angle lens). Due to the nature of the way you shot your pano, where the images overlay more in the middle, there will be less distortion and much more at the edges. The correction has actually done very little to the middle portion of the image. I think that wit h the correction it gives a slightly more natural perspective to the scene.

Please don’t get me wrong here, I think this is a really magical shot.


Here are some screen shots from Google Earth. The bowl isn’t from distortion, it’s from the hand of nature.

Inspiring… now that’s a good feeling! Thank you!

I’m not convinced to keep the brightness as is. I’m going to let it stew in me a bit. :wink:

I’m glad you guys enjoyed the write up!