How to Take a Milky Way Self Portrait

Mike Ver Sprill’s Midnight Explorer series is nothing short of spectacular. Poetic, yet technically impressive, the silhouette portraits entwine seamlessly with colorful nightscapes spattered with stars. But how exactly do you go about building a shot like Ver Sprill’s? By popular demand, he’s revealed step by step just how he manages to make his incredible images:

The trick to capturing so much detail in the dark lies in exposing the foreground and the background separately. To capture the sky, Ver Sprill keeps his camera stable on a tripod and uses a remote trigger to activate a long exposure. Sometimes lasting up to several minutes, long exposures are the best way to capture the swirling lights and colors of the Milky Way within a single exposure.

However, long exposures don’t generally do the best job of capturing moving subjects, making self portraiture a real challenge. For this reason, Ver Sprill began using a speed light outfitted with a light sphere diffuser to light up the foreground with an instant burst of light. To further minimize motion blur, he uses a trigger in conjunction with his camera’s rear curtain sync to set his flash off at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning.

Avalon NJ self portrait

Of course, it’s not always possible to bring a ton of gear while traveling. In instances where flash simply isn’t an option, Ver Sprill is able to get a similar end product with the aid of a UCO light. Compact and equipped with variable brightness settings, it can effectively illuminate its surroundings (though holding it in place for a long period of time can quickly become strenuous).

Joshua Tree self portrait

Later on, Ver Sprill generally stacks multiple exposures to blend noise distortion and mask out imperfect details. Careful post-processing is key to bringing out the best features in the sky and creating a rich, ultra clear end product.

There’s no denying that these pseudo-supernatural shots involve dedication and a certain amount of problem solving to properly execute. That being said, a celestial selfie may very well be easier to attain than you ever could have imagined. Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. With Mike Ver Sprill’s technique in tow, it’s entirely possible to get a dreamy self portrait sure to impress your friends and family!

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