What does the milky way look like? – or – does it really look like that?

I think these are some of the more common questions I get.  Apart from “what settings?”  I think to break the answers into two categories.

  • What does it look like?
  • Is/why is it a curve?

Stars on a clear, cool, dark night are brilliant – the density of the stars may be getting close to what you see on many of the milky way image panoramas.  I’ve seen it where it’s posted saying “this is what it looks like”.  From my point of view, there is actually an amount of variability around it.  Some of the factors (not limited) that affect the visibility:

  • Temperature – it’s clearer when it’s cooler.  Apparently cold weather holds less moisture than warm air, hence less atmospheric interference with light refraction.
  • How high is the milky way in the sky – if it’s low on the horizon, there is more atmosphere it has to go through and hence it’s less clear.
  • How much light pollution – the light pollution will bounce off the atmosphere and affect visibility.

I’d suggest that other factors like airglow, pollution and humidity also affect the visibility.  Off course cloud cover and moon luminosity also affect.  What I’m trying to say – is that there’s plenty of stuff that reduces the visibility of the milky way.  Even one persons night vision to another may arguably affect.  The problem with saying the milk way looking like anything on a monitor is the same problem of saying any photo is what it looks like on a monitor or device – what’s the ambient lighting, what’s the calibration like and so on.

RAW file processing

RAW file processing

Some nights when I’ve been out – I’ve seen the faint milky cloudiness of the dust lanes of the milky way core – and while faint, it’s clearly distinguishable.  On other nights that I’ve been out – it only resembles a higher density of stars.  When I have managed to see it – it resembles a pale, faint white cloudiness in the sky.  Even though I’d been shooting the milky way for a few years – I was still held in awe of the sight.

The camera and lens are much more effective at capturing light than our eyes – but can’t quite cover the same dynamic range.  It will bring out more stars and also show the colour of the milky way and also bring out and show the airglow.  A single high sensitivity exposure of even 15-30s in a dark location can yield stunning results.

Not only is the camera more sensitive to light – but it’s more sensitive to a broader range of wavelengths.  Generally – cameras have IR filters to reduce the amount of IR sensitivity.  Broadly speaking – difference between ccd and eyesight – http://www.stemmer-imaging.co.uk/en/knowledge-base/wavelength-of-light/

Is it photoshopped? Usually.  It really depends on what you mean by photoshopped.  All photos shot in the RAW format of the camera really need to be post processed in some manner through a program like photoshop.  The RAW image will often look worse than a straight out of camera photo because the camera will process the image.  Programs like photoshop will take the processing out of the camera and allow greater control rather than leaving it to the manufacturers of the camera.  You can make some adjustments to saturation, noise control, contrast, white balance etc in the camera.  “What sort of post processing?” should really be the question then.

For me – the majority of the post processing is around stitching the panorama (which will cause some distortion and sometimes some fixing if it doesn’t stitch properly), noise control, selective  application (via masking) of – curves (affecting the contrast), colour balancing, and cropping.  I will do more processing where it suits, but if you’ve seen some of my videos, that accounts for the majority of it.  Does it matter how much you do?  Not really, it’s up to you to decide how much is what you want to do.  I personally don’t composite in elements that aren’t there.

What I do however is that I certainly make space a bit more contrasted – to make space look a little black as opposed to grey.  When out in a dark location, it certainly looks black, however even the starlight will reflect off the atmosphere.

Just as an addition to this – I’ve seen people not believing that some exposures are possible as a single exposure.  This is primarily around moon lighting.  Moon lighting is a variable – it’s not on or off at 100% like the sun usually is.  Even within the same day – the light is different.  If you go and see something at sunset, is it the same brightness as the midday sun? – no – the brightness and consequently your exposure will be different.  The moon has phases that affect how bright it is – do you notice the difference between a full moon high in the sky compared to a crescent moon?

Is the Milky way straight or an arch?  Well it’s both.

We believe the milky way to be a spiral disk.  Broadly speaking then it would then be a straight band.  I also note that we’re a part of the milky way.

However when we’re imaging the milky way when it looks like an archway – it’s often at a broader field of view than our immediate eye sight.  With a panorama there is some distortion and also a very broad field of view.  The field of view is sometimes greater than 180 degrees.  Having said that though – it very much does appear as an archway because of how our brains work.  Earlier this year I went out with the specific intention in mind to have a look and double check.  But how is this so?  it’s because our brains anchor onto familiarity – being the horizon and if you have that as your point of reference, the milky way certainly looks like an arch.

Have a look at both of these photos from skysafari – both of them are set for the same time.  One with the horizon straight and the other looking straight up at the zenith.  They’re both right.

Photo 25-04-2016, 18 48 03 Photo 25-04-2016, 18 48 19


an example of panoramic distortion (microsoft ICE)

an example of panoramic distortion (microsoft ICE)