Inspiration strikes from the weirdest places. One night I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook when a targeted ad for Michigan pops up. The ad featured two images: one of a concert and one of the Milky Way. The tag line was “Take on the city lights or head out for the night lights.” Little did I know when I clicked on it that it would lead me to write about the Top Milky Way Photography Tricks That Aren’t Tricks!
Naturally, I’m a sucker for anything Milky Way, so I clicked on the link. Against my better judgment, started to read the comments.
Comments, Oh, The Comments!
Maybe three comments in, someone claimed that the Milky Way image was CGI and that there’s no way you can get the stars and a sunset in the same shot. What he was actually looking at was light pollution. But he was SO SURE it was a sunset that he took a screenshot of the image and cropped it in.
Many People Don’t Understand Milky Way Photography
This conversation disturbed me on two levels:
- The complete lack of understanding surrounding the ramifications of light pollution and how far reaching it is.
- The lack of understanding of how long exposures work.
After a few arguments back and forth, he backpedaled on the GGI comment. Insisted it was “trick photography.” The conversation went on to describe time-lapse photography as “trick photography,” instead of animation, since its a series of still photos run together.
There was another comment stating that night sky images are only possible with professional equipment and 15 filters. Oie!
So without further A-do, here’s my…
Top Milky Way Photography Tricks That Aren’t Tricks!
Long exposure photography or slow shutter, is a technique where the photographer holds the shutter open for an extended period. The effect on the image is that all the stationary objects stay sharp, and object with motion blurs. It is popular for shooting sunsets/sunrises with clouds or waves since this creates a dream-like effect. For our purposes, we use long exposures to capture the dim light from stars. This effect brings out beautiful detail in the night sky, which our eyes cannot see.
Time-Lapse Photography is a type of animation. A series of photographs taken in sequence at a given interval. That interval can vary depending on the effect desired. Those images are run together to make a movie, precisely like animation. The result is a “time-crunched” movie clip. These are great for showing motions of clouds, stars, or anything you desire. The commentator on the Pure Michigan ad swore that the Milky Way image used was time-lapse “trick photography.” This comment doesn’t make sense. For one, it is a still image, not an animation.
Star Tracking takes long exposure photography up a notch. A tracking device, or equatorial mount, moves with the camera with the Earth’s rotation. Once aligned with the celestial North or South pole, you can take incredibly long exposures without star trailing. Lengthening the exposures allows for the use of lower ISO’s. Thus, retaining more color detail and less noise. The downside is that unless you are shooting Deep Sky Objects, you’ll need to shoot another exposure for the foreground, un-tracked, to keep everything sharp and crisp. Tracking is bordering the realm of composites because of this. However, if shot back to back and blended, to most this doesn’t count, as the subject matter didn’t change. You are working with the limitations of the equipment.
A star trail is created by holding the shutter open for a VERY long time. This effect is the exact opposite effect from using a Star Tracker. The motion of the stars record as streaks across the sky. You can also take several shorter exposures and stack that series in post-processing to get a similar effect. Below is an example using the stacking method.
Use of Filters
Neutral Density, Polarizers, Gradients, oh my! You’ve probably heard all of those terms. These are different filters you can use on your lens to achieve different effects. Some bring out more color detail in the sky on a bright day. Other times they are used so you can use long exposures on subjects such as waterfalls in broad daylight. Polarizers help cut back on glare, which lessens reflections on the surfaces of glass and water. If you have a full-spectrum modified camera, this will open the door to filters like H-alpha and Infrared, which will filter for those specific wavelengths.
Tricks That ARE Sort-Of “Trick Photography”
Now, we cannot ignore the fact that there are some methods to night photography that do straddle the line of being “trick photography.” Compositing is the trickiest one, as it has to be used with tracking. But those that stick true to the ethics of not moving a tripod location, and shooting at the same time of night can get away with it. The composting I’ll be referring to below are some of the super fantastical images that flood Instagram. While beautiful, these art pieces consist of elements brought together, sometimes not even from the same place.
Blue Hour Time Blends
Blue hour blends take a foreground image made during “blue hour,” and blends it with a Milky Way shot taken later. Also known as a “time blend.” Taking a foreground during blue hour lets you capture much more detail due to more available light. The general consensuses are that if your tripod and camera do not move at all, then this can still pass as not being a composite. However, because the milky way moved positions from the first shot to the last, it does straddle that line of a composite. Thus, we classify this as “sort of” trick photography.
Ah yes, and here we are. The EVIL COMPOSITE. This hotly debated topic among all photography groups is one of those rabbit holes that can consume your entire day if you let it. A composite image consists of a combination of multiple images merged into a single surface. Oh no! That means virtually anything can be a composite! HDR – Composite. Exposure Blending – Composite. Focus Stacking – Composite.
But these all portray the same scene without anything added in or taken out. And herein lies the grey area. Methods that don’t mess with the original composition are generally not regarded as composites. So your awesome HDR focus-stacked flower image is not a composite.
Composites, for most of us, are when you create an entirely new scene from various images. We like to know this distinction, as those created scenes cannot be viewed in real life. Disclosure is important. You wouldn’t want to travel to a place to capture a Milky Way photograph only to find out that the Milky Way doesn’t even rise over that specific subject, right? That’s the harm in composites – at least the ones not advertised as such.
How does this fit into “trick photography”? Well, the composite was made from existing images. So yeah, this would borderline be trick photography. Even though the elements are real, but the scene is not.
The image above caused quite a stir on a Facebook group, as it conjured up many accusations of being a composite. While it IS an exposure blend, all the elements were there, and nothing moved between the two exposures.
The reason for the accusations is that the heavy light pollution from the bridge would obscure the sky so much that no detail in the Milky Way could be resolved. That is just not true, for comparison, here’s a true composite:
Focal Length Blends
Focal length blends are the combining of two images taken at different focal lengths, and they could be taken at the same time or not. What could be the advantage of this? Let’s say you love the look of your foreground with an ultra-wide lens, but don’t like how puny the Milky Way looks. Well, if you shoot the Milky Way at 50mm and combine it with a wide-angle shot of the ground, then you have created a pretty epic looking image. This epicness is because using a longer focal length on the sky with a wide-angle foreground greatly exaggerates and enhances the size of the Milky Way in your frame. This technique is probably the closest thing to trick photography on the list because of how the perspective changes between the two shots.
Light pollution is a concept very few understand. Rightfully so! Since we grew up with electricity. This person from the posts above actually mistook light pollution as a setting sun. That is an eye-opener for me. What he saw in the Pure Michigan advert and mistook for the sunset is the light bloom from Traverse City, MI. If you never took a long exposure night shot before, this will be an eye-opener.
Light pollution will only continue to get worse as the years go on. Luckily, organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association are at the forefront in educating people on the subject, designating areas as “dark sky places,” and working with communities to use better and more thoughtful light solutions.
We All Can Help!
We all can help others learn about the wonderful world of night photography. This is a relatively new genre, as the technology used for capturing such beautiful scenes only started getting “good enough” within the past 10 years. In a world full of compositing – from magazine covers to advertisements and movies, it can become confusing.
People become skeptical and rightfully so! What we can do as photographers
The best thing we can do is be upfront and honest. Be clear with your message. And be an advocate for dark skies! Our images are THE BEST visual examples out there on why light pollution is a problem!