February 16, 2017

Making of My Sedona Milky Way Reflections Photo

Above is a shot I made on February 14th, 2016, in Sedona, Arizona. This image was taken at 5:45 AM, just prior to sunrise. Something I tried for the first time with this photo is taking 10 consecutive shots of the sky at a higher ISO (5000) and shorter shutter speed (15s), and then stacking the photos, which gives you awesome pinpoint stars with minimal noise.

Here’s a walkthrough of how I made the shot:

Ever since I moved to Flagstaff, I have always wanted to get a shot of the Milky Way rising over Cathedral Rock in Sedona, AZ from this particular location. In order to determine when the galactic center of the Milky Way would rise over Cathedral Rock from this particular vantage point, I used the app PhotoPills on my iPhone. This told me the exact time and location this would happen.

The Milky Way was going to rise above the horizon a little after 4 am local time, so a friend and I arrived at the location around 3am. This would give us enough time to find the composition we wanted and take some shots of the foreground, using light painting to illuminate everything since the moon set the previous evening.

Shooting the Foreground

Here are the two unedited shots I used for the foreground, each 30 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8. In hindsight, I should have taken more in order to get more of the cactus in focus, but you live and learn. I took these two photos into Photoshop, aligned them, and then used layer masks to get as much of the foreground in focus as possible. I paid no attention to the sky or Cathedral Rock in the distance. I also did not do anything with the reflection in the water - you'll see why in a minute.

Unedited RAW Images for Foreground

Untitled photo

Stacking the Shots For the Sky

The next step was to bring 10 shots taken simultaneously of the sky into Starry Landscape Stacker. I used 10 RAW images that only had edits done to fix lens distortion. Here is an example of what one of those images looked like. The rest looked nearly the same. The only difference is that the stars were a little higher in the sky with each shot since they were taken over a period of about two and a half minutes.

Unedited RAW Image of the Sky

Untitled photo

After taking the 10 images into Starry Landscape Stacker I had a much cleaner image of the sky and reflection in the puddle of water. Using this process allowed me to remove as much noise as possible and also made it possible to get pinpoint stars - something you wouldn't be able to get with a 30 second exposure with this lens (Tamron 15-30mm f2.8).

Blending All the Images in Photoshop

The next step was to blend the three images (two for the foreground and one for the sky/reflection) in Photoshop. I used the stacked sky image as my base image (first image below). I then added a layer mask with the image that had the part of the foreground nearest the camera in focus and proceeded to "paint" in all the areas that were in focus. This is the second image below.

Next, I added a layer mask with the foreground image that had the rest of the rocks towards the center of the image in focus (the third picture below). This edit was much trickier than it looks. It was rather time consuming to get all the grass that was overlapping the water just right. Then I had to blend the much darker reflection of the stars in the water in with the much lighter foreground. This took a lot of trial and error, but in the end, all it took was a lot of patience and about 2 hours and I was able to get it to look the way I wanted (luckily I can do this much faster now that I have had plenty of practice). The last thing I did in Photoshop was add a curves layer to the sky (fourth image below). I do most of my Milky Way editing in Lightroom, so keep reading to see how I edited that portion of the image.

Base Image

Base Image

Image after using Starry Landscape Stacker.

Editing the Sky in Lightroom

I then took the last image from above into Lightroom to make my edits on the Milky Way, reflection, and rest of the sky. The first thing I always do is color correct the image by adjusting the white balance. I ended up only having to make minor adjustments and lowered the Temperature by 4 and the Tint by 20. I also bumped up the overall clarity to +30. From this point on, every edit was done with the brush tool. I painted in Cathedral Rock as well as the rest of the surrounding darker landscape and the rock reflection in the water. All I did with this was raise the exposure by about 1 stop.

Next, I painted over the entire Milky Way and upped the contrast, added a bit of clarity, nudged the exposure up, and added just +5 of the Dehaze feature. Whatever changes I made to the sky that were in the reflection, I had to also make to the reflection. With another brush tool I then painted over all the brightest parts of the Milky Way. I raised the exposure by only 0.07 on these areas. I did the same for the darker parts of the Milky Way with another brush (lowering the exposure by just 0.05). After a few other minor touchups to the image and a little cropping, I got my final result. The first image below is before any Lightroom Edits were made, and the second image is the final image.

Added curves layer to the sky.

Added curves layer to the sky.

I hope this helps if you try to do something similar! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Thanks for reading!

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