Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP, CA, USA, panorama-stitching

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley. Four frames stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge. Each frame was 30 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400.

Sometime around the middle of April a small weather system passed through our area, dropping about half an inch of precipitation on Yosemite Valley. In typical fashion, the temperature dropped toward the end of the storm, and rain turned to snow in the valley.

I kept my eye on the weather, as usual, and it became obvious that this small storm wouldn’t clear before sunset. It looked like it would clear sometime during the night, but it was hard to tell exactly when. My best guess, based on the radar and satellite images, was that it would clear sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. Should I grab a couple hours of sleep first, or stay up? Or just skip the whole thing and get a good night’s sleep?

Around 10:00 p.m. I realized that the storm was starting to clear sooner than I expected. Like right now. I hurriedly packed clothes, food, and camera gear, and made the hour-long drive up to Yosemite Valley. When I got there I found a couple inches of snow on the ground, and only a few shreds of mist. Maybe I arrived too late for the mist, or maybe it was too cold, so there never was much mist. In any case, I was there, with snow on the ground and stars in the sky, so there had to be something to photograph.

There was no moon that night, and it occurred to me that the Milky Way would be rising around 2:00 a.m. But that was still a couple hours away, so I headed to one of the oak groves and made some photographs looking up through the trees at the stars. I spent about an hour there, trying different compositions, and ended up with one or two images I liked. Here’s one:

Oaks and stars, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Oaks and stars, Yosemite. 20 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400.

Then I drove back to Gates of the Valley (aka Valley View), and found the Milky Way just starting to rise above the cliffs. I spent another hour there, capturing panoramas of the stars, cliffs, river, and snowy trees. My favorite panorama is shown at the top of this post. It’s four vertical images made with my Rokinon 20mm lens and stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge.

Many people are surprised to learn that it’s possible to stitch nighttime images together like this. How does the software align and stitch everything seamlessly when there’s at least a 45-second interval between exposures and the stars are moving? Honestly I don’t know the answer to that. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. Or at least it usually does.

It helps to leave plenty of overlap between frames; that gives the panorama-stitching software bigger areas to match up and align, and more room to stretch and bend things when necessary. Day or night I always try to leave at least a 50% overlap. More can be even better, but the more the frames overlap the more exposures it takes to complete the panorama, which means the sequence will take longer, leading to more star movement, and a greater chance that car headlights will mess everything up. So I try to make the overlap right around 50% – no more, no less.

Of course it’s hard to see anything through the viewfinder at night, so I use bright stars to guide my compositions. If I’m going from left to right I’ll look for a bright star near the right edge of the frame in my first shot, then move that star to the middle for the second exposure. Or find a star in the middle, and move it to the left edge. And so on.

The Milky Way kept climbing higher, and eventually I couldn’t fit both the Milky Way and river into a vertical frame anymore. That meant either capturing and stitching two rows together, or declaring victory and going home. I chose the latter. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep. But it’s always fun to be out in the wee hours of the morning, when the often-bustling valley is quiet and still.

— Michael Frye

P.S. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!

Related Posts: Sand and Stars; Misty Moonrise; A Clearing Storm by Starlight

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.