Since I started using moon lighting for the milky way in 2013, I have been planning for a couple of years the back lighting of the milky way in a panorama.  A back lit image, just like a setting sunset can cause long shadows leading into the scene.

Unfortunately with the majority of shooting being limited to weekend shoots, the availability has been somewhat limited.   Conditions that need to present for me are:

  • Setting milky way and moon –  The setting MW effectively stretches north/south with the moon to the west.  A rising MW to the west for my location will only allow for a side lit position as the moon rises to the west.  You can do other images with a rising MW back lit, just not a full arch panorama.
  • Moon – relatively low luminosity and elevation of the moon.  Through my previous tests, I’ve shot across a wide range of moon luminosities and elevations.  Just like any normal landscape, the light source needs to be low enough to cast the shadows that I wanted for a back lit situation.  The moon luminosity drops off quite sharply as the moon gets close to the horizon (just like a setting sun).  I also needed enough separation between the moon and the milkyway.  I did shoot with the moon right on top of the core before (before I started with the panoramas) and it washed out the MW core.
  • Satisfactory cloud cover – being either negligible or low.  I actually do like some cloud in my milky way shots as it creates an additional element.  I do want to do a back lit milky way with some cloud – the moon will light the cloud in a back/side lit situation.

I specifically wanted to come to the Pinnacles (Nambung National Park in Western Australia) for the back lit milky way to cause the monoliths that are the pinnacles to cast long shadows.  In 2014 I ventured to this location 3 times to do a back lit milky way, and even though the weather forecasts were acceptable, it clouded out in each instance.

Getting to near sunset I managed a very quick scout.  I’ve been to the Pinnacles for a back lit shooting before so already had some ideas of where I wanted to go.  I marked out 3 different locations to shoot from and managed 2 of them.  I took 3 panoramas as I could see how quickly the light from the moon was dropping (it does take a long time to image each panorama) so the 2nd and 3rd panorama were only about 10-15m away from each other.

Due to time of year and time past sunset – I had the zodiacal light providing an additional element.  The zodiacal light is the sunlight reflecting off dust in the inner solar system.  You can see across the 3 images on how the light drops as it gets later into the night.

This was the first panorama that I took – and the last one that I processed.  It had stitching issues and required manual control points in PTGui.  Also due to the closeness to sunset, the colour balancing was much more of a challenge.  I realised at this time that positioning of the moon is an interesting as a component, so elevated the tripod to have the moon on top of a Pinnacle and also taking this as the first frame of the panorama (take your compositionally important frame first).

Dark Wasteland

This was the second panorama image that I took – the colour balancing was much easier and it was very easy to place the moon on top of a Pinnacle.  Interesting that when I first came out here that I hadn’t really thought of placing the moon like that, so hadn’t featured in my scouting for compositions.  You can see in the distance under the moon and behind the Pinnacle – the light of the moon reflecting off the ocean.

I’m very honoured to say that this image “The Light Within” – has won the 1st Nightscape category of the Photonightscape awards for 2015.

The Light Within

The third image for the night – I’ll have to confess that I’m not too happy with.  Due to how the moon was setting fast, I didn’t have time to relocate to the third site.  The image doesn’t have the right balance that I would like to have.  It’s weighted too much to the left with the moon and the large Pinnacle to the left.  This is perhaps closer to my original visualisations of a back lit milky way with the Pinnacles.  I have done 2 youtube videos showing the construction of this image in post processing – part 1 and part 2.


I deliberately didn’t use one of my “signature” self portraits when shooting the panoramas.  This would have created an additional major light source that would have confused the image and made it messy with too many competing elements.  I will probably do a moon lit self portrait in due course though.