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blog post

How I got the shot: Milky Way at Chair 26

February 15, 2016

This post is part of a regular How I got the shot series, for this and more subscribe to my monthly newsletter

For those who follow me on social media, you’ll know I have just returned from a quick trip home to Colorado. It had been quite a while since I had seen my family and it was important to make the trip back.

Of course, this also meant spending some time in one of the beautiful places in the world with my camera. Having quite a bit of local knowledge (I did spend the majority of my life there after all), it was a great opportunity to show off the best Colorado has to offer.

While I took plenty of landscape and skiing photos, one image, in particular, garnered quite a bit of attention, a shot of the Milky Way above Chair 26 at the top of Vail Mountain.


The Milky Way shining bright over Chair 26

Of all the photos from my trip this was my favorite, and quite a few people have asked about my camera settings and post processing.  Read on to find out exactly how I produced this image.

The Location

For astrophotography the location and assessing the light pollution is arguably more important that your camera or lens choice. If there is too much light pollution from your surroundings, i.e. you’re still in town, you won’t be able to see the stars or the Milky Way.

I actually didn’t have high hopes for this initial set up. Floodlights from the Gondola building were lighting up the area and there was a bit of glow from the town below on the horizon. I decided to take the shot anyway and I’m glad I did.

The Gear

Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3 MP Full Frame CMOS with 1080p Full-HD Video Mode Digital SLR Camera (Body)

Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM Ultra-Wide Zoom Lens for Canon EOS SLR Cameras

ProMaster XC525 Blue Tripod With Head

Petzl – REACTIK+ Headlamp 300 Lumens, Bluetooth Enabled



The Setup

Even with the lights from the gondola building, the Milky Way was still bright. There was bit of light pollution from the valley below, but with a bit of shuffling around and careful positioning I was able to block out the city glow with the lift station.

The floodlights on the side of the building actually helped the image quite a lot by providing enough ambient light to illuminate the lift terminal and the snow around me.

When shooting the Milky Way it’s also important to keep something in the foreground to give an idea as to where you are and what your surroundings look like. We’ve all seen (and probably taken) photos of just the stars in the sky and they’re prettying boring. Using your surrounds helps to tell the story.


Notice the red light at the bottom of the image.
This is the read/access light just below the LCD screen

*Pro tip: if you’re shooting at night with the camera low to the ground, use a piece of tape to cover the little red read/access light on the back of the camera. You’ll more than likely be able to see it lighting up the ground around your camera and it can be a real pain to edit out.

The Exposure

For any sort of astrophotography it’s not as simple as just putting your camera on a tripod and taking a long exposure.

First and foremost you need to find the Milky Way in the sky. There’s plenty of smartphone apps out there that show you where the are constellations in the sky, but personally I like Star Chart from Escapist Games. As you move your phone across the sky, the app uses your GPS location and ‘accurate 3D universe’, to show the current location of every star and planet visible from earth in real time.

Next, you’re going to need a sturdy tripod. For shots like this one you’ll be looking at exposures up to 30 seconds, and nobody can hold a camera completely still for that long. On that same note, remove your camera strap. The shutter is going to be open for a long time and your camera will pick up on vibrations from the strap flowing in the wind. Also a remote shutter release is not required but it will make your life easier.

While the camera settings differ from situation to situation, the first step to decided whether you’re after star trails or sharp dot points. As the earth is spinning at about 1000mph the stars, even though we can’t perceive it, are moving across the sky, and with longer exposures this can cause star trails.

For this image I wanted sharp dot point stars so I determined my shutter speed using the 500 rule — 500 Divided By the Focal Length of Your Lens = The Longest Exposure (in Seconds) Before Stars Start to “Trail”


Using the 500 rule to determine the shutter speed
allowed me to capture the stars as points rather than trails. Screen grab at 800-percent zoom

My focal length was 15mm, so, 500 / 15 = 33.333-seconds. I find it’s better to round down rather than up so I opted for a 30-second exposure.

Next you’re going to be shooting wide open and they say you need a lens that’s max aperture is 2.8 to get a good bright Milky Way. I shot this with an f/4 lens and bumped the ISO up a touch.

As for the ISO I usually start at 6400 and play around until I get the image I am looking for.

My final exposure was 30.0-seconds at f/4.0, and ISO 8000.

Post Processing


A few selective adjustments make all the
difference is guiding your eye across the image

I don’t like to do drastic edits in Photoshop and Lightroom especially when I am working with a single exposure. In most cases an image like this would have been multiple exposures, at least one for the night sky and one for the foreground; lucky for me the floodlights on the Eagles Nest Gondola building lit up the lift station perfectly when I exposed for the sky.

There are a few tonal corrections, with contrast being set with the ‘white’ and ‘black’ sliders in Lightroom as well as a touch of clarity and vibrance to make the foreground and the colors pop. I’ve also added some brightness to the the midtones as well as some additional selective saturation and luminance added to the purple and blue channels to really make the Milky Way pop. And as you would imagine at 8000ISO there is a fair bit of noise to deal with, and Lightroom’s noise reduction does a fantastic job.

The last thing I do is a bit of selective darkening to accentuate the brightness of the Milky Way and help draw your eye where I want to it go.

Simple right! Happy Shooting!

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