Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Recognizing the Milky Way in a Light-Polluted Sky

Milky Way rising over Silver Lake near Brighton, Utah ~ © Royce Bair (click to enlarge).
Reddish glow on the left is light pollution from Park City, and on the right is from Heber City.
Last Friday, I participated in an evening photowalk with about 100 local photographers. With the help of a lecture I gave a few days before, I guided many on their first ever photographs of a starry night sky. For several, it was a dream-fulfilled to see and photograph their first Milky Way.

People from big cities throughout the world often write and tell me that they'd love to see and photograph the Milky Way, but it is too light-polluted in their region. For the most part, that's true. However, in almost any area of the world, you can still see the Milky Way if you're willing to drive a few miles and train your eyes to see the shape and features of our galaxy—viewed from the perspective of our planet.

The above photo was taken only 11 miles from the edge of Salt Lake City, and we are still in a 'orange' zone according to Dark Sky Finder's map of the area. Even after the Milky Way appeared at 11:00 PM, in the region that I had predicted, many still could not see it until I photographed it and showed it to them on my camera's LCD monitor:

Even this raw, unprocessed view is 4X brighter than the naked eye view, because of the
light-gathering power of a 20-seconds time exposure, a fast lens, and a high ISO.
It's not hard to recognize the Milky Way in the top, post-processed photo, but it takes some education, experience, and practice to recognize the features of our galaxy, especially in a light-polluted sky, where the contrast and colors of the stars are muted by stray, artificial light.

More light-gathering: The top photo is a double-exposure of the middle image and this 3X exposure to increase the detail in the landscape and the reflection in the lake water:

A 60-seconds exposure washes out the sky and blurs the stars, but adds detail to the landscape. Adding the post-processed sky (mainly contrast adjustments in Photoshop's 'Curves') from the middle image produces the final photo (top).


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  2. Hi Royce. You say the post processing is mainly contrast adjustments in Curves but could you go into a bit more detail on how you pull out so much detail? Or point me to some reference on how to do that?

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