Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

How to Achieve Detailed Foregrounds in Milky Way Photos

During the past year, I’ve been sharing many of my astro-landscapes and one thing that people have repeatedly asked me is how do I get my foregrounds so detailed and clean. Usually the problem photographers have when shooting the night sky is that their foregrounds are too dark, too noisy, or both.

However, there are lot of methods to get detailed, well-lit (but not overly bright) foregrounds that result in clean images. They all boil down to collecting more light so that you don’t have to increase the exposure as much in post and hence reduce the impact of noise. Here are some methods that I’ve used:

Blue hour blend

Take a shot of the foreground during blue hour (the time after the sun has set but before it’s completely dark). Don’t move your tripod or your camera and then expose for the Milky Way once it gets dark. Blend your exposures in photoshop.

Valley of the Moon in Jacumba, CA

Shooting during blue hour

The Milky Way actually starts to become visible during blue hour and you can take your shots for both the foreground and sky at the same time. You won’t have as much contrast between the Milky Way core and the rest of the sky but the scene can still look very nice.

La Jolla Coastline

Shoot the foreground with moonlight

You don’t always have to shoot the Milky Way during the new moon. You can go shooting when the moon is up and use moonlight to illuminate the landscape. For example, in this shot of Font’s Point, I took a picture of the foreground at about 12 AM with the moon 60% illuminated. I then waited until after the moon had set to shoot the sky and Milky Way (about 3 AM).

Fonts Point

If the moon is rising during the night, you can also shoot the sky first and then do the foreground afterwords. It’s also possible to shot both the foreground and sky while the moon is up, but the stars will be dimmer due to the moonlight. I usually check this site for moon rise/set information.

Low level lighting with dim LED panels

F&V Z96 LED light panel. This has been my main astrophotography light for the past year.

Another method is to bring your own lights. I personally like to use very dim stationary LED lights that I put up on a light stand. The brightness is set so low that you can use the same exposure for the sky and foreground and you are not required to blend. When balanced properly, you should barely be able to see the effect of the light panel with the naked eye.

Eagle Rock, Warner Springs, CA The Racetrack Joshua Tree

For this last shot, I used two LED lights. One for the wall and another light placed maybe 50 yards to the side illuminating the mountain in the background.

Usually I put my lights on a stand and raise it to the maximum height (8’) to prevent shadows. But you can also set your camera to a minute or two exposure, and walk around with the panel lighting just the areas you need.

Lake Cuyamaca Bridge

Some people like using a flashlight to light paint but I find that it’s very difficult to get even lighting without hotspots. It’s also not repeatible if you want to do image stacking. For more information check out lowlevellighting.org.

Long exposures with Starlight

The previous methods all involved getting more light, either from the fading sun, the moon, or bringing it yourself. This method is to simply use much longer exposures with star light. For example, I might take a 20s shot for the sky and blend it with a 1-2 minute shot for the foreground. Usually your exposure for the foreground needs to be at least 4-8x longer than the sky.

Lake Cuyamaca Chimney

For this last shot, I did use an LED light to illuminate the inside of the fire place but not the outside.

Even with the longer exposure, you may find that the foreground is still somewhat noisy. In this situation I will often stack many exposures and average them to reduce noise. For example, I might take 7-10, 1 min shots, load them in photoshop and take the average (median blend) to get a cleaner image.

Conclusion

There are many different methods for lighting the foreground and I encourage you to experiment with the different techniques. They all have their pros and cons, and I like to choose the method based on the scene and conditions. Sometimes you don’t have the option of using moonlight or getting there during blue hour so bringing a panel helps. Other times you might have to bring a panel because you’re shooting through a forest canopy or out of a cave where there is very little natural light.