Get Away From It All with these Amazing DTM Views of Mars

By day, Kevin Gill is a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But on nights and weekends he takes data from spacecraft and turns them into scenes that can transport you directly to the surface of Mars.

Gill is one of many so-called “amateur” image editing enthusiasts that take real, high-resolution data from spacecraft and create views that can make you feel like you are standing on the surface of Mars, or out flying around the Solar System.

Gasa Crater on Mars. Rendered using Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop. HiRISE data processed using HiView and gdal. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/USGS/image editing by Kevin Gill.

Some of the best data around for these purposes come from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Data known as Digital Terrain Model (DTM) files, the HiRISE DTMs are made from two or more images of the same area of a region on Mars, taken from different angles. This data isn’t just for making stunning images or amazing movies. For scientists, DTMs are very powerful research tools, used to take measurements such a elevation information and model geological processes.

So, just how do you go from this DTM image from HiRISE:

DTM image of the Central Peak of Elorza Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/USGS

To this amazing image?

Martian sunrise over the Central Peak of Elorza Crater. Rendered using Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop. HiRISE data processed using HiView and gdal. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/USGS/image editing by Kevin Gill

I’m going to let Kevin explain it:

To prep the data, I use Photoshop (to convert the JP2 file to a TIFF), and then standard GIS tools like gdal (Geospatial Data Abstraction Library) to create textures for 3D modeling. Using Autodesk Maya, I input those into a material as a color texture (orthoimagery) or displacement map (the DTM data).

I connect that material to a NURBS plane (sort of like a polygon mesh) that is scaled similarly to the physical properties of the data. I set up a camera at a nice angle (it takes a number of low-resolution test renders to get an angle I like) and let it render.

Then I just pull that render into Photoshop where I have a series of monochromatic color tints which gives the image it’s Martian feel. For the sky, I use either a sky from a MSL MastCam image or one that I took outside with my cell phone. If I’m using a sky I took with my cell phone, I’ll adjust the colors to make it look more like it would on Mars. If the colors in the image are still boring at this point, I may run a HDR adjustment on it in Photoshop.

Fissure in the Cerberus region. This false color view of a volcanic fissure in the Cerberus region of Mars was created using a digital terrain model (DTM) from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The horizon was taken from Curiosity Mastcam imagery. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/ image editing by Kevin Gill.

What all this means is that you can create all these amazing view, plus incredible flyover videos, like this one Kevin put together of Endeavour Crater:

Or you can have some fun and visualize where the Curiosity rover is sitting:

Doin’ Science with Curiosity. Created using HiRIST DTM and Ortho data and NASA model of Curiosity. Rendered using Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop. Curiosity Model: Brian Kumanchik, NASA/JPL-Caltech. Image editing by Kevin Gill.

We’ve written about this type of image editing previously, with the work of the people at UnmannedSpaceflight.com and others. Of course, the image editing software keeps improving, along with all the techniques.

Kevin also wanted to point out the work of other image editing enthusiast, Sean Doran.

“Sean’s work is resulting in views similar to mine,” Kevin said via email. “I know he’s using a process very different from mine, but we are thinking along the same lines in what we want out of the end product. His are quite impressive.”

For example, here is a flyover video of the Opportunity rover sitting along the rim of Endeavour Crater:

You can see more of Sean’s work on his Flickr page

And you can see all of Kevin’s Mars DTM images at his Flick page here. Kevin also recently wrote up a great explanation of his image editing for The Planetary Society, which you can read here.

Thanks to Kevin Gill for sharing his images and expertise!

November 2016 Super Moon Images from Around the World

Now updated with more great images!

Although there’s been quite a bit of hype about the Super Moon on November 13, 2016, to many, the full Moon tonight may have appeared quite similar to other full Moon’s you’ve seen. Yes, the “super-ness” of this Moon, while noteworthy, is fairly imperceptible. While, as our own David Dickinson noted in his preview article, this full Moon is not only the closest for the year, but the nearest Full Moon for a 80 year plus span. However, the closest full moon of 2017 will be only 0.02% farther away than this one.

But any chance to get the public to look up at the night sky is a good one! And we’ll also take this opportunity to share some of the great images from around the world posted on Universe Today’s Flickr page, as well as on social media. Enjoy!

Here’s a “classic” but gorgeous look at the Moon:

The Moon just before full on November 13, 2016 imaged through cloud from London. Credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.
The Moon just before full on November 13, 2016 imaged through cloud from London. Credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.
Supermoon over Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, England on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Tim Graham/TJG Photography.
Supermoon over Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, England on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Tim Graham/TJG Photography.
Some astrophotographers took this opportunity to take close-ups of the Moon's surface. Pythagoras and Babbage Craters are seen here in this image from the UK on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright:  Alun Halsey.
Some astrophotographers took this opportunity to take close-ups of the Moon’s surface. Pythagoras and Babbage Craters are seen here in this image from the UK on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright:
Alun Halsey.
The 'Super Moon' over Rome on November 14, 2016. Credit and copyright: Gianluca Masi.
The ‘Super Moon’ over Rome on November 14, 2016. Credit and copyright: Gianluca Masi.
A view of the supermoon as seen from Lahore, Pakistan, with color added for contrast. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
A view of the supermoon as seen from Lahore, Pakistan, with color added for contrast. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
Moon and clouds as seen from the UK on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Sculptor Lil on Flickr.
Moon and clouds as seen from the UK on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Sculptor Lil on Flickr.

Pale Moon rising, as seen from North Bedfordshire, UK on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Dawn Sunrise on Flickr.
Pale Moon rising, as seen from North Bedfordshire, UK on Nov. 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Dawn Sunrise on Flickr.

Noted NASA photographer Bill Ingalls is in Russia for the next launch of astronauts to the International Space Station. He took this image from Baikonur, Kazakhstan and also provided some tips on photographing the Moon.

And former astronaut Clayton Anderson shared this images from Houson, Texas:

Moonrise near Keene, Ontario on November 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Rick Stankiewicz.
Moonrise near Keene, Ontario on November 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Rick Stankiewicz.

A comparison of ‘super’ and ‘mini’ Moons and how they appear in the sky:

A perigee 'Supermoon' versus an apogee 'Minimoon'. Image credit and copyright: Raven Yu.
A perigee ‘Supermoon’ versus an apogee ‘Minimoon’. Image credit and copyright: Raven Yu.

Thanks to everyone for sharing their images, and be sure to check out UT’s Flickr pool for the most recent shots.

Link to the lead image by Owen Llewellyn can be found here.

Some Of The Deepest & Sharpest Shots of The Moon from Earth

Who doesn’t love to gaze at the Moon on a clear night? But astrophotographer Thierry Legault now taken Moon-gazing to new heights. Legault traveled to the Alps in August and set up his Celestron C14 Edge HD and ZWO ASI1600MM camera. The results are absolutely stunning.

“These are the largest and sharpest quarters ever,” Legault said via email, adding that he created mosaic images of 10 fields for a definition of 150 million pixels!

Above you can see incredible detail in the 58 mile-wide (93 km) impact crater Copernicus.

Below is a lunar quarter taken on August 24, 2016:

Image of the Moon taken on August 24, 2016 from the Alps. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.
Image of the Moon taken on August 24, 2016 from the Alps. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

Legault has been known to travel wherever it takes to get the best shots, for example traveling through Germany, France and Spain to capture shots of space shuttle Endeavour on its final mission, or finding the best locations for stunning and sometimes ground-breaking shots of the International Space Station crossing the Sun or Moon, or views of spy satellites in orbit.

In his book, “Astrophotography,” Legault said that for clear close-ups of the Moon, good atmospheric conditions are a must, as well as having a finely tuned or collimated telescope. Below is a close-up view of Triesnecker crater and the surrounding region near the central part of the Moon’s near side, including sharp view of the rilles.

Triesnecker crater in the central part of the Moon's near side is 26 km in diameter and 2.7 km deep. A system of rilles can also be seen. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.
Triesnecker crater in the central part of the Moon’s near side is 26 km in diameter and 2.7 km deep. A system of rilles can also be seen. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

For processing these images Legault used AutoStakkert!2 (AS!2), PTGui stitching software and Photoshop.

You can see more of these stunning shots at Legault’s website, where he says he’ll have posters of these images available soon.

Of course, you can try seeing these features on the Moon yourself. Even binoculars or a small telescope can provide wonderful views of our closest companion in space. An upcoming full Moon (Super Moon!) on November 14, 2016, will feature the closest full Moon (356,509 kilometers away) until November 25, 2034 (356,448 kilometers away.)

Our thanks to Thierry Legault for sharing these wonderful new images of the Moon!

Incredible Images of Mars from Earth

What did you do during your summer this year? Award-winning astrophotographer Damian Peach spent much of his 2016 summer capturing incredibly clear images of Mars during opposition, when the Red Planet was closest to Earth. Peach has now compiled a wonderful “rotating planet” movie of images taken between June 4th – 18th, 2016, showing amazing detail of the planet.


At its closest point this year, Mars was about 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) from Earth.

Peach’s astrophotography truly sets “a new standard” as one commenter said, and Peach just won another prize in the “Planets, Comets & Asteroids” division of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016, awarded at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England last night.

Peach has said this summer held “excellent seeing,” both from his home in the UK and from a photography trip to Barbados. He even captured a fleeting localized dust storm on Mars during mid-June over Mare Erythraeum, one of the prominent dark areas on the planet that were once thought to be seas. In the image below of the dust storm, Peach also pointed out the “linear cloud streak in the southern hemisphere – clearly those Martian flying saucer pilots have been having fun!”

Images of Mars from Earth on Jun 15, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
Images of Mars from Earth on Jun 15, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

See more of Peach’s excellent astrophotography work at his website , or on Twitter. See a larger version of the lead image here.

Mars is still visible in the night sky, but if you missed seeing this planet at its brightest in 2016, the next time Mars will be at opposition will be in 2018, with close approach on July 31, 2018.

At ISO 400,000, This 6-Minute Film Shows Why We Love the Night Sky

Obviously, you’ve seen timelapse videos of the night sky because we share them here on Universe Today all the time. But you’ve probably not seen a video like this one before. This one isn’t a timelapse, and you’ll see the night sky in all its splendor, in real time.

“I think this one may be the beginning of something damn interesting,” said filmmaker Ben Canales, who along with cohort John Waller of Uncage The Soul Productions, shot this video with new low-light technology. Using the new Canon MH20f-SH, which has the capability of shooting at 400,000 ISO, they were able to “film in the quiet moments that have been impossible to capture until now.”

“Since 2013, I’ve been tinkering with all sorts of camera/lens/software combinations trying to move beyond a long exposure still to real time video of the stars,” Canales said on Facebook. “Sooner or later, we have to move beyond a frozen photo of the stars to hear, see, feel what it is really like being out there!”

In addition to showcasing this wonderful new low-light shooting, Infinity² really captures the emotional side of amateur astronomy and the beauty of being under the night sky. He took a group of high school students out to witness the Perseid Meteor Shower in Oregon, and the students got together with the Oregon Star Party. Together, they answer the simple question “What do you feel?”

As Canales says, “Something internal and personal draws us out to the night sky.”

Check out more on Uncage The Soul Productions, Canales’ astrophoto website and Facebook.

Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.

Infinity ² from Uncage the Soul Productions on Vimeo.

I Actually Learned to Photograph the Milky Way

Milky Way by Fraser Cain

Milky Way by Fraser Cain
Wow, my first acceptable image of the Milky Way. Credit: Me/Cory & Tanja Schmitz

I’m really fortunate to live in a region of the world with pretty dark skies. And, I’ve got pretty nice camera gear that we use to make all our YouTube videos. But for some reason, I’ve never been able to take an acceptable photo of the Milky Way, and I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going wrong. Turns out… I was going wrong everywhere; wrong exposure, aperture, ISO, JPG vs RAW.

I finally reached out to two of the best astrophotographers I know, Cory and Tanja Schmitz from PhotographingSpace.com. Both are world-class astrophotographers, with amazing shots of the Milky Way, galaxies, star clusters, nebulae and other deep space objects. And you should see their timelapses. They generously agreed to give me direct advice using the gear I have available, and then helped turn the raw photos into something usable through Photoshop (which is another area of dark wizardry).

I ended up using my Canon 5D MkII camera, which we shoot all our Guide to Space videos on. I tried taking pictures with its regular lens, and then got better results with a Rokinon 14mm lens that I actually don’t really use very often. It’s the wide angle lens we use in the car driving up to Comox Lake.

I captured the image at f/2.8, 30 second exposure, ISO 3200. Our shooting location had pretty dark skies, but it was earlier in the evening, and there was some light pollution off to the southern skies.

Here’s the final collaboration video, where Tanja and Cory give me their advice on which gear to use, how to set up and take the picture, and then how to clean it all up in Photoshop afterwards.

This is just the beginning of a whole new rabbit hole hobby for me, so hopefully you’ll see me improve over time as I learn to get more out of my gear, and find darker and darker skies.

Of course, you should check out Cory and Tanja’s PhotographingSpace.com, follow them on Instagram, and begin your own journey of learning how to shoot the night sky.

Experience the Glorious Night Sky Over Yellowstone National Park

Tomorrow, August 25, 2016, the US National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, and the NPS has been celebrating all year with their “Find Your Park” promotion. But the first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was created 144 years ago. Yellowstone is known for its dramatic canyons, lush forests, and flowing rivers, but might be most famous for its hot springs and gushing geysers.

This new timelapse offers you a chance to “find your dark skies” at Yellowstone, and features the many geysers there, showing the dramatic geothermal features under both day and night skies. But the night skies over these geyser explosions steal the show! It was filmed by Harun Mehmedinovicas part of the Skyglow Project, an ongoing crowdfunded project that explores the effects and dangers of urban light pollution in contrast with some of the most incredible dark sky areas in North America.

SKYGLOWPROJECT.COM : HADES EXHALES from Harun Mehmedinovic on Vimeo.

The Skyglow Project works in collaboration with International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit organization fighting to educate the public about light pollution and to preserve the dark skies around the world.

Coming up this weekend, you can enjoy free admission to all 412 national parks from August 25-28, 2016. You can “find your park” and read about special events happening all around the country at FindYourPark.com

A still from the timelapse video 'Hades Exhales,'  a timelapse journey through several of Yellowstone National Park's geyser basins.  Credit: Harun Mehmedinovic/Skyglow Productions.
A still from the timelapse video ‘Hades Exhales,’ a timelapse journey through several of Yellowstone National Park’s geyser basins. Credit: Harun Mehmedinovic/Skyglow Productions.

Many thanks to Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures for continuing their great work with the Skyglow Project and for sharing their incredible videos with Universe Today. Consider supporting their work, as all donations go towards the creation of more videos and images.

A still from the video 'Hades Exhales,' a timelapse journey through several of Yellowstone National Park's geyser basins.  Credit and copyright: Harun Mehmedinovic/Skyglow Productions.
A still from the video ‘Hades Exhales,’ a timelapse journey through several of Yellowstone National Park’s geyser basins. Credit and copyright: Harun Mehmedinovic/Skyglow Productions.

A Dark Region Is Growing Eerily On The Sun’s Surface

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA

NASA has spotted an enormous black blotch growing on the surface of the Sun. It looks eerie, but this dark region is nothing to fear, though it does signal potential disruption to satellite communications.

The dark region is called a coronal hole, an area on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than the surrounding areas. The magnetic fields in these holes are open to space, which allows high density plasma to flow out into space. The lack of plasma in these holes is what makes them appear dark. Coronal holes are the origin of high-speed solar winds, which can cause problems for satellite communications.

The images were captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on July 11th. Tom Yulsman at Discover’s ImaGeo blog created a gif from several of NASA’s images.

High-speed solar winds are made up of solar particles which are travelling up to three times faster than the solar wind normally does. Though satellites are protected from the solar wind, extremes like this can still cause problems.

Coronal holes may look like a doomsday warning; an enormous black hole on the surface of our otherwise placid looking Sun is strange looking. But these holes are a part of the natural life of the Sun. And anyway, they only appear in extreme ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths.

The holes tend to appear at the poles, due to the structure of the Sun’s magnetosphere. But when they appear in more equatorial regions of the Sun, they can cause intermittent problems, as the high-speed solar wind they generate is pointed at the Earth as the Sun rotates.

In June 2012, a coronal hole appeared that looked Big Bird from Sesame Street.

The "Big Bird" coronal hole appeared on the Sun in June 2012. It caused a powerful storm that was considered a near miss for Earth. Image: NASA/AIA
The “Big Bird” coronal hole appeared on the Sun in June 2012. It was the precursor to a powerful storm that was considered a near miss for Earth. Image: NASA/AIA

The Big Bird hole was the precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years. Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, said of that storm, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.” We were fortunate that it missed us, as these enormous storms have the potential to damage power grids on the surface of the Earth.

It seems unlikely that any solar wind that reaches Earth as a result of this current coronal hole will cause any disruption to us here on Earth. But it’s not out of the question. In 1989 a solar storm struck Earth and knocked out power in the province of Quebec in Canada.

It may be that the only result of this coronal hole, and any geomagnetic storms it creates, are more vivid auroras.

Those are something everyone can appreciate and marvel at. And you don’t need an x-ray satellite to see them.

Gorgeous Photos of Earth and the Night Sky: TWAN Photo Contest Winners Announced

The winners of the 7th annual Earth & Sky Photo Contest have been announced, and wow, these images are absolutely stunning! The contest really highlights the beauty of the night sky, and its mission is to spread the message to cut down on light pollution while helping to preserve the last remaining natural night environments and night skies in the world. The contest was organized by The World at Night (TWAN) and other sister organizations.

“The sky above us is an essential part of our nature, a heritage for us and other species on this planet,” said TWAN founder and contest chair, Babak Tafreshi.”The contest main goal is to present the night sky in this broader context that helps preserving the natural night sky by reconnect it with our modern life.”

See more winning photos below:

The second place winner in the ‘Against the Light’ category is Carlo Zanandrea from Italy for "All that Glitters is not Gold" taken in December 2015 showing constellation Orion rising over lights and fog in the province of Treviso in northeastern Italy. Credit and copyright: Carlo Zanandrea.
The second place winner in the ‘Against the Light’ category is Carlo Zanandrea from Italy for “All that Glitters is not Gold” taken in December 2015 showing constellation Orion rising over lights and fog in the province of Treviso in northeastern Italy. Credit and copyright: Carlo Zanandrea.

Just last week, a group of Italian and American scientists unveiled a new global atlas of light pollution, and sadly, they said the results show the Milky Way is “but a faded memory to one-third of humanity and 80 percent of Americans.”

“We’ve got whole generations of people in the United States who have never seen the Milky Way,” said Chris Elvidge, a scientist with NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “It’s a big part of our connection to the cosmos — and it’s been lost.”

These photos from Earth & Sky Contest really display that important connection, with people and places on Earth being a big part of many of the images – the classic definition of “TWAN-style” photography. According to the contest theme of “Dark Skies Importance,” the submitted photos were judged in two categories: “Beauty of The Night Sky” and “Against the Lights.”

“The selected images are those most effective in impressing public on both how important and delicate the starry sky is as an affecting part of our nature, and also how bad the problem of light pollution has become,” TWAN said in their press release. “Today, most city skies are virtually devoid of stars. Light pollution (excessive light that scatters to the sky instead of illuminating the ground) not only is a major waste of energy, it also obscures the stars, disrupts ecosystems and has adverse health effects.”

"The Photographer" by Nicholas Roemmelt from Austria is the second place winner in the 'Beauty of the Night Sky category, taken in March 2015 in Stockiness, Iceland. Credit and copyright: Nicholas Roemmelt
“The Photographer” by Nicholas Roemmelt from Austria is the second place winner in the ‘Beauty of the Night Sky category, taken in March 2015 in Stockiness, Iceland. Credit and copyright: Nicholas Roemmelt

The winning images were chosen on their “aesthetic merit and technical excellence,” said David Malin of the judging panel, who is well-known pioneer in scientific astrophotography. “We believe they accurately reflect the state of the art in TWAN-style photography. The competition encourages photographers with imagination to push their cameras to their technical limits, and to produce eye-catching images that appear perfectly natural and are aesthetically pleasing.”

This photo, "Viking Lights" by Adam Woodworth from USA, won in the composite section of the ‘Beauty of the Night Sky’  category, where frames of various exposure or focus settings are blended. This image was captured in Newfoundland, Canada in June, 2015. Credit and copyright: Adam Woodworth.
This photo, “Viking Lights” by Adam Woodworth from USA, won in the composite section of the ‘Beauty of the Night Sky’ category, where frames of various exposure or focus settings are blended. This image was captured in Newfoundland, Canada in June, 2015. Credit and copyright: Adam Woodworth.
In the photo sequence submissions, the winner in the Beauty category is "Total Solar Eclipse from Svalbard" by Thanakrit Santikunaporn from Thailand. He captured the eclipse phases every 3 minutes over frozen landscape of Svalbard, Norway on March 20, 2015. Credit and copyright: Thanakrit Santikunaporn.
In the photo sequence submissions, the winner in the Beauty category is “Total Solar Eclipse from Svalbard” by Thanakrit Santikunaporn from Thailand. He captured the eclipse phases every 3 minutes over frozen landscape of Svalbard, Norway on March 20, 2015. Credit and copyright: Thanakrit Santikunaporn.

The contest was open to anyone of any age, anywhere in the world; to both professional and amateur/hobby photographers. It has been an annual event since 2009 (initially for the International Year of Astronomy) by TWAN, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and Global Astronomy Month from Astronomers Without Borders. The contest supports efforts of the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and other organizations that seek to preserve the night sky.

The images were taken in 57 countries and territories including Algeria, Antarctica, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Guam, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lithuania, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Morocco, Norway, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Reunion (France), Romania, Russia, Scotland, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Ukraine, and USA.

See all the images and more information about them at TWAN. Click on each image for larger versions. A larger version of the lead image can be found here.

You can see the global atlas of light pollution here, which was created from data from the NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite and calibrated by thousands of ground observations.

And here’s a video that includes all the winning images:

Metropolitan Milky Way

JanikAlheit-CPTMilkyPano

This article was written by contributing author Janik Alheit, and is used by permission from the original at PhotographingSpace.com.

When it comes to my style of photography, preparation is a key element in getting the shot I want.

On this specific day, we were actually planning on only shooting the low Atlantic clouds coming into the city of Cape Town. This in itself takes a lot of preparation as we had to keep a close eye on the weather forecasts for weeks using Yr.no, and the conditions are still unpredictable at best even with the latest weather forecasting technology.

We set out with cameras and camping gear with the purpose of setting up camp high up on Table Mountain so as to get a clear view over the city. The hike is extremely challenging at night, especially with a 15kg backpack on your back! We reached our campsite at about 11pm, and then started setting up our cameras for the low clouds predicted to move into the city at about 3am the next morning. For the next 2 hours or so we scouted for the best locations and compositions, and then tried to get a few hours of sleep in before the clouds arrived.

At about 3am I was woken up by fellow photographer Brendon Wainwright. I realised that he had been up all night shooting timelapses, and getting pretty impressive astro shots even though we were in the middle of the city. I noticed that the clouds had rolled in a bit earlier than predicted and had created a thick blanket over the city, which was acting as a natural light pollution filter.

I looked up at the skies and for the first time in my life I was able to see the core of the Milky Way in the middle of the city! This is when everything changed, the mission immediately became an astrophotography mission, as these kind of conditions are extremely rare in the city.

How to Photograph the Milky Way
Learn how to shoot the Milky Way at PhotographingSpace.com!

Composition

After shooting the city and clouds for a while, I turned my focus to the Milky Way. I knew I was only going to have this one opportunity to capture an arching Milky Way over a city covered with clouds, so I had to work fast to get the perfect composition before the clouds changed or faded away.

I set my tripod on top of a large rock that gave me a bit of extra height so that I could get as much of the city lights in the shot as possible. The idea I had in my mind was to shoot a panorama from the center of the city to the Twelve Apostles Mountains in the southwest. This was a pretty large area to cover, plus the Milky Way was pretty much straight above us which meant I had to shoot a massive field of view in order to get both the city and the Milky Way.

The final hurdle was to get myself into the shot, which meant that I had to stand on a 200m high sheer cliff edge! Luckily this was only necessary for one frame in the entire panorama.

Gear and settings

I usually shoot with a Canon 70D with an 18mm f/3.5 lens and a Hahnel Triad 40Lite tripod. This particular night I forgot to bring a spare battery for my Canon and by the time I wanted to shoot this photo, my one battery had already died!

Luckily I had a backup camera with me, an Olympus OMD EM10 mirrorless camera. I had no choice but to use this camera for the shot. The lens on that camera was an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5 kit lens, which was not ideal, but I just had to make it work.

I think this photo is a testament to the fact that your gear is not nearly as important as your technique and knowledge of your surroundings and your camera.

I started off by shooting the first horizontal line of photos, in landscape orientation, to form the bottom edge of the final stitched photo. From there I ended up shooting 6 rows of 7 photos each in order to capture the whole view I wanted. This gave me 42 photos in total.

For the most part, my settings were 25 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 2000, with the ISO dropped on a few of the pictures where the city light was too bright. I shot all the photos in raw as to get as much data out of each frame as possible.

Editing

Astrophotography is all about the editing techniques.

In this scenario I had to stitch 42 photos into one photo. Normally I would just use the built-in function in Lightroom, but in this case I had to use software called PTGui Pro, which is made for stitching difficult panoramas. This software enables me to choose control points on the overlapping images in order to line up the photos perfectly.

After creating the panorama in PTGui Pro, I exported it as a TIFF file and then imported that file into Lightroom again. Keep in mind that this one file is now 3GB as it is made up of 42 RAW files!

In Lightroom I went through my normal workflow to bring out the detail in the Milky Way by boosting the highlights a bit, adding contrast, a bit of clarity, and bringing out some shadows in the landscape. The most difficult part was to clear up the distortion that was caused by the faint clouds in the sky between individual images. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to blend so many images together perfectly when you have faint clouds in the sky that form and disappear within minutes, but I think I did the best job I could to even out the bad areas.

JanikAlheit-CPTMilkyPano
Photo: Janik Alheit

A special event

After the final touches were made and the photo was complete, I realized that I had captured something really unique. It’s not every day that you see low clouds hanging over the city, and you almost never see the Milky Way so bright above the city, and I managed to capture both in one image!

The response to the image after posting it to my Instagram account was extremely overwhelming. I got people from all over the world wanting to purchase the image and it got shared hundreds of time across all social media.

It just shows you that planning and dedication does pay off!