How to Photograph the Milky Way From an Airplane

Lonely Speck founder Ian Norman knows a thing or two about creating astounding astrological images. Colorful, detailed, and full of depth, his nightscapes captivate viewers around the world. Many find themselves wondering how exactly a photographer can reproduce the breathtaking magnificence of the night sky when relegated to the limitations of a DSLR camera. In the following tutorial, Norman explains step by step how captured the beauty of the constellations outside of his red eye flight’s thick cabin window:

One of the most difficult problems to work around was the constant movement and darkness of the aircraft. Short exposures were mired with grain and digital noise, while longer exposures were blurred beyond recognition. One of the keys to photographing the sky from inside of the airplane proved to be finding the happy medium in the individual camera’s settings. In Norman’s case, that happened to fall at f 1.8, ISO 12800, with a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds using a Sony A7S mirrorless digital camera.

But, as it turns out, what makes a great astrological image is not a single image at all. Instead, exposures are made in quick succession and composited together in post processing. This technique, called stacking, makes for a cleaner, more detailed image that is capable of combining the best parts of each individual frame to create something entirely new.

Although the surface of the earth still has a strong motion blur to it, by using the window to support the lens, it is possible to create enough stability to record the sky with some clarity. Using a combination of Adobe Lightroom, After Effects, and Photoshop, Norman goes on to demonstrate how it is possible to sync adjustments and further enhance consistencies among a sequence of images. Once the photos have gone through the necessary edits, he then transforms each frame into a layer in Photoshop before combining the composition into a Smart Object. Afterwards, he is able to take the mean of each frame’s pixel to create a new image based on the average brightness and color throughout the composition. With minimal tweaks to the overall image sharpness as well as individual highlights and shadows, the final piece is formed.

As Norman stresses in his tutorial, the key to perfecting this technique is multiple trials. Because of all of the elements effecting the images, it is unlikely that the first attempt at capturing the galaxy from the seat of a moving airplane will be perfect. This is no reason to become discouraged. With persistence and a little bit of luck on your side, it is more than possible to produce an incredible image from even the most problematic of vantage points.

stars from airplane window

“It’s definitely a little bit of a difficult to perfect, but I think it’s a really good example of how relatively mediocre single exposures can be combined together to form a really cool final image.”

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