How to Photograph the Milky Way in Places with Light Pollution

In this short yet detailed video tutorial, Ian Norman dissects an incredibly useful process of photographing the Milky Way in really difficult conditions. The technique, known as “expose to the right” (ETTR), overcomes conditions of extreme light pollution which are normally unsuitable for photographing the Milky Way:

Photographers striving to capture the Milky Way crave for a really dark location, absolutely devoid of any light pollution. Light pollution is the worst possible condition, and some photographers are known to go great distances just to be beyond the reach of city lights.

But what if you are stuck in a location where there is unavoidable light pollution? What if you have no means to travel out of the city? The ETTR method is the answer.

ettr comparison

Comparison of noise between an ETTR exposure and a normal exposure

When using this method, the trick is in over-exposing the scene so that enough light is captured. The benefit in doing this is that the final images have a better signal to noise ratio as is visible in the comparison above. The histogram for images shot with this technique appear stacked to the right (thus the name). However, one thing that you need to keep an eye on is too much over-exposure; there is a risk of losing details, which cannot be corrected in post-processing. Start with one stop of over-exposure and then gradually increase if necessary.

Exposure Settings

milky way

Milky Way captured at Death Valley by Ian Norman

Norman used the following exposure settings in most of his Milky Way photos:

  • Manual
  • RAW
  • 30 seconds
  • f/2.8
  • ISO 6400

He uses these settings regardless of whether he is shooting in very dark conditions or at a highly light polluted area.

Post-processing

  1. Reduce the exposure slider and adjust the histogram so that it now stacks more toward the center of the graph.
  2. Push the saturation and vibrance all the way to the right (if you are using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom).
  3. Adjust the white balance so that you can see a larger chunk of color tones in the images.
  4. Slide back the vibrance and saturation sliders so that they are now back to neutral.
  5. Adjust the contrast. Feel free to push it to the edge. Use the tone curve to add some more spicy contrast.
  6. If your image starts to show some vignetting, correct this by pushing the vignetting slider to the right. Balance the vignetting and exposure settings so that the final look appears natural.
ettr raw

Before: unedited RAW image using the ETTR method

ettr post-processing

After: the same image after post-processing

For further training: Shooting Stars — How to Photograph the Moon and Stars

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One response to “How to Photograph the Milky Way in Places with Light Pollution”

  1. Paul says:

    It’s Dolby noise reduction for images! The metaphor isn’t perfect, because Dolby uses frequency shifts and this is using amplitude shifts, but it’s close.

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