Extreme Milky Way Vertorama in the Red Rocks of Sedona, Arizona

Extreme Milky Way Vertorama in the Red Rocks of Sedona, Arizona

You may know I am a Platypod Pro. As such, sometimes I am tasked with putting the equipment trough some extra paces. In this case, the challenge was to create an extreme vertorama, including the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Vertorama’s in an of themselves are a challenge. You can see a couple of the original vertoramas I created here and here. Milky Way captures by themselves can be difficult as well. I liken their creation to playing a 4D chess game. Create a vertorama featuring the Milky Way all the way to the horizon behind you? Are you crazy? Am I crazy? You bet! Challenge accepted!

Thought process and planning

When making vetoramas, an interesting foreground is important. You also need an interesting background 180 degrees in the opposite direction. That was challenge number one. I thought about possibilities for eight months or so. The ideas I tested were often squelched as soon as I realized that the locations I scouted weren’t working as I thought they might. Continued the search and finally found a strong possibility.

The second part of the image comes with the vagaries of photographing the Milky Way. When will it be in proper position? Is the moon too bright when it is? Will the weather hold when all the pieces come into play? I attempted this shot on a couple occasions with no luck.

Final blended panorama with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.

The pieces finally fell into place. Patience and tenacity are a photographer’s friends. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” I found a location and confirmed with PhotoPills that the Milky Way would be upright over Bell Rock and stretching to the Mermaid red rocks directly behind. At around 2 a.m. Oh well, we suffer for our art.

I hiked out and scouted the location to ensure no surprises in the afternoon. I knew the moon would be up until midnight which would allow me to have detail in the landscape. if I arrived before moonset and made the foreground photos.

Arrive at the location at 10:30 p.m. after the 3/4 of a mile hike. Reconfirm with PhotoPills the time the Milky Way would be upright and in place. Set the tripod up to capture images of the red rocks lit by the moon. Tripod is now locked and loaded in place until the stars begin to shine. That’s where the beauty of a second camera shines. It gives me something to do until it’s time to do the final captures, about 3+ hours hence.

Equipment set up

Pieces you will want. Platyball or solid ball head. Solid tripod. L-Bracket. Macro rail. Indexing rotator.

Photographing vertoramas calls for a strong steady tripod. For this shoot I used a Fotopro T-Roc MAX tripod. It is a light yet solid support. Note that I am a Fotopro featured photographer and if you get in touch, I can get you a discount. I replaced the Fotopro OEM ball head with the Platyball Elite ball head. Because the camera is mounted out to the side during vertorama captures, the ball head needs to be solid. Really solid. Ideally, the camera lens will be rotating around the light entry point. For that, you either need a macro rail or a longer Arca Swiss plate. Having a rail makes switching lenses and dialing into the light entry point easier. I wrote an article on finding the light entry point, so check it out.

behind the scenes of the camera setup for milky way panorama
Fotopro T-Roc Tripod with Platyball mounted to the side. A Macro Rail with an Indexing Rotator and a 12mm Lumix f/1.4 lens mounted on an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III.

When capturing panoramas or vertoramas, you need to overlap your image captures. It is even more important that when making multiple panoramas for blends such as for Milky Way images as they need to be consistent. One more item which makes this work is an indexing rotator. An indexing rotator helps to make multiple panorama or vertorama sequences start and end at the same place. It also registers your overlap to keep things consistent. When making your first vertorama, pass count the number of frames. Moving the camera back to the beginning of the sequence is easy. Even better, when you stitch the different captures and place them together they overlap very closely. ie exposure for the land will be different from the exposure for the Milky Way at night. Blending them together makes it all come together.

Checking before you make your first exposure. Camera in a horizontal orientation. Tripod level. Platyball level. Camera oriented next to the light entry point. Proper click stops set for the indexing rotator for the overlap.

Shooting sequence and settings

With the camera set as described above it’s time to get shooting. I mounted a Panasonic Leica Summilux 12mm f/1.4 lens on an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III camera. Panasonic Lumix and Olympus have the same micro 4/3rds mount so lenses are interchangeable.

I like the current Olympus cameras because of the Starry Skies Auto-Focus. When you use this setting and the camera indicates it is in focus, you know it’s right on. I have my focus set to the back button of the camera. There is no need to focus again unless you change lenses, or bump the focus on your camera.

panorama sequence of images
First sequence made while the moon was still in the sky. The indexing rotator was used to make the night sky exposure below match better during post production. The images are rotated to the vertical to help Photoshop with the panorama stitching.

After setting the focus, set the aperture to its widest point. In this case, I chose f/1.4. If you have a foreground subject extremely close to the camera you MIGHT want to close down a couple of stops but with a wide-angle lens, I don’t find it necessary often. I chose a shutter speed and ISO to get detail in the shadow areas for the land. 60 seconds at ISO 800.

milky way extreme panorama sequence of images
Same number of exposures made as the moonlight exposures above. Both sets were turned into a panorama and blended together.

Star exposure is f/1.4 with shutter set to a speed that yields little to no star trailing. PhotoPills can offer you settings for your specific camera, aperture and shutter speed. I used 13 seconds and bracketed exposure by changing the ISO. Ultimately, ended up at ISO 6400.

Post processing

Final step is the following day in Adobe Bridge, Camera RAW and Photoshop. Eight images were processed for the land portion of the scene. Since there was no detail in the sky, Photoshop could not make a complete vertorama. It was able to make four image vertoramas. Then, I merged the sky image including the Milky Way as my base. The land detail images were stripped in over the nighttime landscape. Post processing brought out the detail in both areas and blended for a unified look.

1690545316 716 Extreme Milky Way Vertorama in the Red Rocks of Sedona | Theedgesm
The moonlight panorama needed to be processed in two halves as the was no sky detail for the software to merge into a full panorama. There was no problem stitching the Milky Way panorama because of the detail available.

Pleased

As Star Wars character Yoda might say, “Pleased, I am, with the final result.”

If you would like to learn more about night sky photography in a workshop join me in the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, an International Dark Sky rated location.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob