PetaPixel

How I Photograph the Milky Way in the Light-Polluted Skies of Singapore

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When it comes to photographing the elusive Milky Way in one of the most light-polluted major cities like Singapore, timing is critical. Most of the faint details will be washed out by the extreme light pollution and if we were to shoot the Milky Way under unfavorable atmospheric conditions, our attempt would be futile.

Unfortunately, most of the tutorials online only work in locations that are at least 2 stops darker than most of the dark locations in Singapore and so, we need to do more in post-processing to unveil the elusive Milky Way and more complex workflow is required if we’re shooting at much brighter locations.

In this tutorial, I am going to show you how I shoot the Milky Way that’s obscured by the heavy light pollution in Singapore using photography equipment that you may already have and a workflow that probably works in most versions of Photoshop without purchasing additional plugins.

Equipment I Am Using to Shoot the Milky Way in Singapore

  1. Unmodified full-frame DSLR camera (Canon 5D Mark II)
  2. Wide angle lens (Canon 16-35mm f/2.8)
  3. Tripod
  4. Intervalometer
  5. Memory cards and batteries

Step 1

If the atmospheric conditions are favorable, locate the Milky Way using mobile apps like Star Walk or SkySafari for example. I have developed a simple app for the same purpose too and it can be downloaded here.

Step 2

Switch to Bulb mode on your DSLR camera and set the aperture to 2.8, ISO to 6400 and focal length to 16mm. Remember to shoot in RAW format.

Step 3

I use a technique called Expose To The Right (ETTR), a concept that’s been around for more than a decade, to obtain the maximum amount of signals possible with a single exposure. You can produce an ETTR image by pushing its histogram to the far right by increasing the exposure during your shoot. I took mine at 16mm, F2.8, ISO6400 and I exposed my camera for 9 seconds.

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The ETTR technique, however, has its limitations and using just this technique alone won’t work for most parts of Singapore and so further processing is required to bring out the best of what’s recorded in the RAW file. A more complex workflow is required if I shoot from a brighter location.

Step 4

Normalize the image by playing around with the sliders until you’re able to see the elusive Milky Way!

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Step 5

At this juncture, if you’re shooting at a location that’s at least 2 stops darker than mine, which also means you are able to expose your camera for 30 to 40 seconds using the same settings (F2.8, ISO6400 @ 16mm), then you’ll probably be able to get away with a nice image by adjusting the sliders. But unfortunately, we need to do more to make the image pop when it’s taken in Singapore and the post-processing workflow will become more complex if the exposure time is reduced to 5 seconds or less at much brighter locations.

In Photoshop, click on Image -> Adjustments -> HDR Toning. Then play around with the Detail slider along with the rest to achieve to look you want and mask out the overexposed part of the image.

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Step 6

From here onwards, you can tweak the image to your own liking!

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So there you go! Thanks to Photoshop that we can now enhance the data that were recorded in the RAW file to unveil the beautiful Milky Way galaxy which we can’t see with our naked eyes in Singapore. But does Photoshop make the Sentosa image above any less real?

There are definitely many ways to achieve the same or better result and this is just one of the workflows that you can use without purchasing additional Photoshop plugins. As Singapore offers varying degrees of light pollution, different workflows will be required to unveil the elusive Milky Way taken at different locations.

For a full tutorial, please visit the post on my website here.

Here’s some of my images taken in Singapore. Note that not all images below were processed using the workflow presented in this tutorial:

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About the author: Starting out as a self-taught photographer in September 2010, Justin Ng has garnered his photographic experience from a diverse range of subjects, events and locations eventually earning recognition and publication in world-famous media sources like the BBC, CNN, National Geographic, Yahoo!, Space.com, EarthSky, and UniverseToday, just to name a few.

Justin was published as Asia’s top 30 photographers by Signature Weddings, listed as top 6 landscape photographers in the world by Pixoto and recently, he has been named as Canon EOS World Photographer of the Year 2013. He is currently a writer/content contributor at Space.com and SLR Lounge.

To see more of his work, be sure to visit his website or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, 500px or Instagram. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • Alex Minkin

    These are gorgeous, definitely something I’ll try out

  • Tony L.

    Thanks for the tut… will definitely give this a go as well!

  • Pickle

    So Photoshop it in. Got it. By the time you process it that much to the point where it doesn’t resemble anything remotely to what the naked eye can see, then it’s graphics art. Looks great though, but it’s not exactly photography.

  • Kitsu

    No. And it’s obvious you didn’t even read the article. Good job.

  • superduckz

    sigh… don’t people even read the articles before commenting anymore…

  • Kitsu

    Nice edit, but again. Incorrect. If you’ve been in a light polluted area you can still see the night sky and the stars. It is photography, he didn’t drop in another sky, he adjusted the exposure that the camera “saw”.

  • http://tiboine.com/ Tor Ivan Boine

    dont feed the troll

  • Pickle

    The title clearly states “How I PHOTOGRAPH” the milky way”. I thought maybe he had some trick with filters to get rid of pollution or perhaps some sort of sensor hack, but nope – Just overexpose the picture and then mask mask mask in photoshop until it’s nothing like a real picture anymore. Did YOU read the article?

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    with you 100% on this one. nothing new in this post. I’m a little confused why its here at all

  • Pickle

    I guess the cool thing on here is when you disagree with an opinion, you tell them that they haven’t read the article as if you can’t even imagine that someone might disagree with someone else on the internet.

  • Kyle Sanders

    I am kind of surprised he did not say to create a multi-shot image concluding with a Hydrogen-Alpha filter for a false-color sky like they do with astrophotography. Then again, a 77mm h-alpha filter would be prohibitively expensive.

  • Pickle

    Resorting to name calling doesn’t give you any moral high ground, Tor.

  • Kitsu

    It would be cuter if you said this before you edited your original post. ETTR is exposing correctly for the highlights, but I’m not going to lecture you on proper exposure techniques because you apparently know everything.

  • Black Light Shoots

    ^This guys always trolls on articles. Ignore him next time.

  • MrNoSox

    Photography – the process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy, as x-rays, gamma rays, or cosmic rays.

    Don’t you love when folks think they have the right to define a term by their own beleifs? Photography to you may very well be something very different than it is to me. I have no real desire to catch only what the naked eye can see. I can see that stuff any time with my eyes. Sometimes, it may be enough. Most times? It’s not for me. I love producing art that I want to look at. That’s my photography.

  • deakinsgarlic

    Well said. Too many snooty-pants on here. I’ll take regular pants that I can shoot in thanks.

  • OtterMatt

    These are definitely a different look than what you typically see for MW photography. The night sky juxtaposed against an almost daylit foreground is a pretty striking image. I’m definitely going to have to try this out myself with the Austin skyline sometime soon.

  • slyman

    i don’t necessarily agree with him here but being negative ≠ being a troll. trolling would mean he doesn’t necessarily believe what he says and does it just in an attempt to get a rise out of people.

  • slyman

    i mean, you could say that about a lot of astrophotography. i can see a hell of a lot more stars in a 30 second exposure than i can with my eyes.

  • slyman

    you guys have posted another article that talks about ETTR for night sky photography before, i prefer the other one by Ian Norman i think it was. i might try out this guys hdr toning technique though.

  • Grive

    This is photography, in all senses of the word.

    He doesn’t even add stuff in photoshop, just plays with the information already given. If you think you have ever seen a single photograph (even yours!) that does not apply some sort of post-processing, you’re quite naïve.

    In any case, why do you insist in defining “photography” as “what the eye can see”? It’s like saying the only music is waltz music, everything else is noisemaking. Should long exposures be out of photography? Should extremely short exposures be? Flash is definitively out of the question, and I’m sure IR photography certainly is, too. Maybe we can hold some filter burnings?

    C’mon. Broaden your horizons a itty wittle bit.

  • Pickle

    I didn’t edit anything out of my original post. The first two sentences are the same. Just added more for sensitive folks like yourself.

  • Pickle

    I don’t even think I’m negative without reason. The other article was about someone peeing on their negative. C’mon.

  • highfructosecorn

    how is masking different than dodging and burning film prints?

  • Eirik

    why not just PS it in?

  • Mike

    Pickle, he DID NOT add in a new sky. No brushes were used, no masks, no other images. All the data used was already in the frame.

    What he did is not much different from exposure and development techniques that might have been used by Ansel Adams. If you object to what he did, you object to fundamental principles of the darkroom.

    Furthermore, if you are as big of the fan of the NFL champion Seahawks as your avatar indicates, you bring shame to your team by using their logo to spread untruths and make fun of those who try to show you the facts.

  • maverickmage

    How about you try not contradicting yourself. The article clearly states that the photographer is photographing the milky way that the naked eye can’t see in a light polluted city, but you thought that he had some sort of “trick with filters to get rid of pollution” or a “sensor hack”. Is it still photography if you have to resort to filters and sensor hacks to takes pictures of what the naked eye can’t see? Because your definition seems to hinge around that fact.

    The fact that you thought there was a filter or a sensor hack seems to imply that you have no idea how your equipment works. Furthermore… why would you need a sensor hack? If you read the article, it shows that the sensor as-is captured the data of the milky way. It’s not like the photographer added the starry backdrop into the shot.

    Oh wait, maybe it’s because you have a gripe with the use of photoshop… maybe if it’s done in camera with some “trick with filters” or a “sensor hack” than it’s more legit… because, you know, those shows what the naked eye can see right?

  • Zos Xavius

    Just go enjoy your coolpix bro and leave us photographers alone.

  • spiralphoto

    Except that your opinion is, in fact, wrong.

  • uni

    @disqus_gw9Zdzxc4y:disqus probably just didn’t understand. lol.

  • uni

    yep, you’re a troll alright…

  • Fakhri Khuzaimi

    JustinNg are georgeous, his work on mount bromo timelapse, indonesia are incredibly awesome

  • NickGHK

    By suggesting that photography is limited to recording “what the naked eye can see,” you successfully prove your own ignorance. Enlighten us: What is “exactly photography”?

  • Wouter Nieuwerth

    The article was nice (I’ll give this a try sometime), but the comments were even more fun to read. ;)

  • http://www.flyingsuicide.net/ Oj0

    NOTHING more than closing your eyes and thinking back, cause the camera records high resolution across the entire frame whereas the eyes only have high resolution near the center.

  • superduckz

    Well then if that’s your stance then you have no clue as to what the generally accepted meaning to “photoshop it in” actually is.

  • Rob Elliott

    This is Photography. There are two parts of Photography, capturing the light, and then developing the image.

    Ansel Adams didn’t capture a photo stick it in fluid once and send it to a gallery. He developed, redeveloped, dodged, burned, adjusted and finally after a lot of manipulation of the original negative he got his image.

    This is exactly the same thing. This is capturing the light and then manipulating the negative to achieve a result. He isn’t adding or removing anything (at least he doesn’t claim to be) from the original negative.

    Post processing isn’t a bad thing, it is something most great photos have in common. From a portrait to a landscape, 50 years ago or 50 days ago.

  • derekdj

    Beautiful, thanks for the tutorial.

  • Pickle

    I’m all for post processing and think it’s lazy not to do it, but there is correcting the white balance and completely destroying a picture and compositing new things over it where every pixel is so far removed from the original picture that it doesn’t resemble it. Call it art. Call it whatever, but it’s not photography any more than Trey Ratcliff’s stuff is.

  • Pickle

    I disagree.

  • Pickle

    This ain’t it. Once a picture has bee manipulated to the point of not appearing even remotely realistic, it’s not a photo.

  • NickGHK

    OK, that’s what photo isn’t. You obviously have a clear idea of where the boundaries lie. Seriously, if that’s not, what is?

  • NickGHK

    That’s an observation of the differences between the human and mechanical optical systems. It doesn’t come close to defining what a photograph is – or isn’t.

  • http://www.flyingsuicide.net/ Oj0

    My message is to demonstrate how silly Pickle’s definition is.

  • NickGHK

    Fair enough. Oh, look – Pickle’s comments have been deleted.

  • NickGHK

    Well said. Actually, using bleach to reduce the density of an overexposed or overdeveloped neg is/was quite common. Adams was the master of controlled development – I learned my darkroom craft by following his Zone System – but I bet even he occasionally got it wrong.

  • http://www.blakebronstad.com Blake Bronstad

    Nice. Will definitely have to give this a try in Southern California. If I can capture stars in Los Angeles, then I will find you Justin and give you twelve high fives

  • http://www.valentenphotography.com Valenten

    Great looking pictures !

  • Sander

    I tried this many times in the Netherlands without any good results even in the most “remote” places. I’d really like to see a real-time screen capture clip to see how to do it and to a certain extend believe it is possible. But besides that, they look great.

  • http://www.tens.asia Stu Harry

    Hey Justin, great blog & really interesting. Do you have any hints and tips for catching sunrises? I can’t seem to manage to get the picture anywhere near some other peoples and I have looked around a little.

    I’ve recently got into photography but am streets behind and want to learn quickly. I’ve done my first blog and you can see some of the photos here – http://tens.asia/a-proposal-in-bagan/

    May be a bit basic for this blog but looking for any other hints and tips possible.

    Cheers, Stu.