Night Sky Panorama Photography – Mungo National Park


n this blog, I’ll give some advice on Night Sky Panorama Photography. After months of planning, the Lake Tyrrell Astro Weekend Workshop was here but I decided to head off a week early to Mungo National Park. Located in the far South West of New South Wales about  90 minutes drive north of the Victorian border. It is an ancient lake that dried up over the last 140,000 years. As the water receded, the wind and rain has carved unique structures into the surrounding lake edge. 

Mungo has been on my radar for a while now but is really on the way to nowhere. So it is basically a trip in it’s own right. However the beauty of it’s location is incredibly dark skies with unique interesting foregrounds which make it a drawcard for us astrophotographers. 

This blog is a mix of video and stills along with some explanations of how and why I shot the way I did. So – into it!

One of the images I did just after dinner was a Panorama as the moon was rising. This was occurring  during the later stages of twilight which meant there was just enough sunlight glow from behind me to illuminate the foreground tree and grass. The actual scene was considerably darker than the image shows but there is still a surprising amount of light around that your eyes can’t see but the camera can. After shooting a few standard images, it just wasn’t the composition I wanted so I decided to try a panorama.

How to Capture it.

I rotated the camera to a portrait orientation and did a hand panorama. By that I mean the camera was on a tripod but I had to hand rotate it using my best judgement to get the required overlap and then raise the camera angle and repeat the process. This can be a bit hit and miss resulting in images that Lightroom can’t process. Lightroom needs at least a 50% overlap to “guarantee” success with night images. Daytime can be much less but nighttime needs the 50% or more. I shot several panoramas as insurance that at least 1 or 2 would fail, and they did! 

Another tip is to try and shoot each row in the same order. For example, shoot the 1st row Left to Right, then the 2nd row Left to Right, etc. Why? Given each image can take about 10secs to shoot plus repositioning and you shoot say 4 images in the row, if you go Left to Right, move up and then go Right back to left, it will be about 3 mins before you get back to the same area of sky and during that time the stars have moved a fair bit. This could make stitching harder. By going say left to right, move up and then left to right again, it is now only a bit over a minute so your chances of a successful result are improved.

The other method is to use an automated unit like my Syrp Genie or the Benro Polaris to configure and automatically capture the images for you. You basically program the unit with what size lens you are using, what sensor/camera and how much overlap you want. You then set a start and stop point. It calculates the number and position of images it needs and then starts shooting them. Your chances of success are much higher but this obviously requires time to set up.

With my hand shooting, these are the images I captured. 

Note the order of the images, left to right with foreground then left to right with sky. Lightroom doesn’t actually care what the order is so long as they overlap enough. This is just the suggested capture order. 

Select all images in lightroom and then Photo-Photo Merge-Panorama. Lightroom will assemble them and you have a choice of Spherical, Cylindrical or Perspective. Just use whatever gives the best results.

The other CRITICAL thing you MUST do is to have both your tripod and camera level. It is one thing to have your camera level for one shot but you must also have the tripod level so that as you rotate the camera, the horizon stays level. If the tripod is not level, each image will be further and further tilted as you rotate the camera. This has 2 serious effects, it will make it much harder for Lightroom to combine the images into a panorama and will most likely fail. If Lightroom IS able to combine them, you will have a weird curved horizon generally starting level at one end and curving down or up at the other end. This is extremely difficult to correct even with perspective controls or warping. Much easier to spend a minute getting everything level at the start.

The Results

The image below is the unedited DNG result of the Panorama Merging Process.

The Raw Panorama Image

and here is the finished image below.

The Final Panorama Image

Finally, just a short timelapse of the moonrise while I was shooting this panorama and making dinner. 

This brings an end to my first day at Mungo National Park and the start of my first night sleeping in the back of my Subaru. And that’s an entirely different story for another day!

If you would like to learn more about this or other techniques, check out my  Astro Photography Training Courses which I run monthly during winter. 

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