This post has been a long time coming: a showcase of the incredible night skies I experienced back in April 2016 on the Akiki Trail of Mt. Pulag. The quantity and quality of images I shot on that one trip was easily worth 3-6 months of average shooting. On this post, I take you through my best shots of the trip and the process of shooting and post-processing them --- in effect, this is my first virtual night sky workshop!
And coolest of all: my first 180-degree VR panorama of the Milky Way!
The trek on the Akiki Trail --- known as the "Killer Trail" for its seemingly never-ending steep ascents --- is worth a Photo Diary of its own, but for this post, I'll be focusing solely on the night sky shots.
Coming into the trip, I was optimistic and excited to shoot the night sky because the conditions were just right:
It was the peak of the Milky Way season in the Philippines, right in the middle of the summer;
It was just after the New Moon, and the weather forecast was good;
I had two full nights to shoot because it was a three day trek;
and, because we were on the difficult Akiki Trail, it was guaranteed there would be few other hikers to ruin my shots with their errant headlamps and indiscriminate selfies.
For that reason, I made sure to bring every single piece of gear I owned, despite the weight, even on such a physically demanding trail, because who knows when conditions like that would repeat themselves? Luckily I was able to hire a porter to bring my camp pack so I only had my camera bag with me during the trek.
The first day of the trek was, as expected, exhausting, and when I finally stumbled into Marlboro Camp just before 5:00 pm, I was ready to call it a day so I could get up energized at 2:00 am. As it got dark, and the temperature plummeted, the clouds rolled in. By 8:00pm, we were completely socked in. No early evening stars for me, so after dinner, I went straight to bed.
My alarm rang promptly at 2:00 am, prompting me to question why the hell I put myself through this stuff. After taking about half an hour to bundle up for the cold and gather my gear in the dark, I opened our tent.
What I saw almost brought me to tears: it was the brightest, most visible Milky Way I had seen in my entire life. No squinting or star tracking apps necessary: it was right there, outside my tent, clear as day. It was so incredible that I almost didn't want to shoot anymore. But of course I did. This is the best impression I can give of what it looked like to the naked eye:
First thing you'll notice about this photo: It's really dark. If you've never seen the Milky Way with your own eyes before, you'll find most photos taken of the Milky Way, including mine, might seem misleading, because more advanced cameras, paired with fast lenses, gather much more light than the naked eye can. This is actually one of "dirty secrets" of night photography: The Milky Way, the Northern Lights, etc --- they're actually dim to the naked eye, and it takes a good camera to see their "true" colors. This is why sometimes, even when your eyes can't see the Milky Way, a good camera can still take decent photos of it. I also adjusted the white balance towards blue, even though it's "technically" wrong, because that more closely matches my perception of how it looked.
During this night, with absolutely zero light pollution, and high up on the shoulder of Cordillera's highest, the naked-eye brightness of the Milky Way was stupendous: it appeared as a majestic, luminous bow of stars spanning all the way across the sky. For most of my night sky photos, I have to do a little wrangling in Lightroom before the Milky Way becomes clearly visible, but that night, the galactic core was shining bright straight out of camera:
Here's the final version of that shot, a composite of a 2-minute and a 20-second exposure:
Some of you might be wondering why I don't use the 2-minute exposure so I can use a lower ISO. This is because an exposure any longer than 20-30 seconds would make the stars begin to trail, which is not what I want:
The reason I use this pseudo-HDR technique is that I hate how unnatural lighting the foreground with a headlamp can look, especially when the foreground is a wide area. I'll detail the compositing process in a future post!
For now, I wanna show off my new thing: a 180-degree VR panorama of the full Milky Way over Marlboro Camp, courtesy of Facebook. Click through to experience it!
This was created using one of these downloadable templates that allows Facebook to recognize panoramas that don't come from 360 cameras or smartphone. Below is the original, 153-megapixel panorama stitch made up of 11 vertical photos:
This screenshot highlights the individual 42-megapixel images that make up the panorama:
More shots of the unbelievable sky that first night:
After taking so many photos for the panorama, I was tired and cold, so I decided to go back to sleep and prepare for another grueling day of struggling uphill.
Day 2 on the Akiki Trail was still tough, though not as bad as Day 1. Before long, we topped out on the grassland ridge and saw the Saddle Camp spread out before, with the summit of Mt. Pulag finally visible and dominating the landscape.
Standing in the spot where I shot the panorama above, I fired up PhotoPills to preview Milky Way placement for that night --- and that's when I got really excited. If the sky was going to be clear in the early morning, I knew I was in for something special.
However, I didn't have to wait that long: unlike the night before, the night was clear the minute the sun went down. So as early as 7:00 pm, I started shooting. Here in Saddle Camp, unlike in Marlboro Camp where there was basically only a view on one side, I could shoot facing any direction.
I love this shot with my friends' headlamps shining with the bright light in the sky --- which was not a star, but actually a thin crescent moon.
Fast forward to 2:00am - sleepless and freezing, wearing all the layers that had kept me warm in the Andes, but still cold! I squirmed sullenly out of my sleeping bag and stepped out. Fortunately, the sky was still perfectly clear, and PhotoPills proved right on the money: the Milky Way was perfectly lined up, rising behind the summit of Mt. Pulag.
To get the image above, I employed the same technique as the image from the night before: expose for two minutes to get a naturally brighter foreground, and then expose for 15 seconds to get pinpoint stars. Like in the previous image, the composite was hand-masked in Photoshop CC. These were the original exposures:
Looking back in the direction I was shooting earlier in the evening, the Milky Way galactic core was now ablaze in all its glory --- making me wish I hadn't been too lazy to shoot a time-lapse!
For this shot, as you can see, I employed the same technique as above. These are the before and after photos:
I also shot this pano from camp, but the ultrawide 14mm is not an ideal panorama-making lens (note the crooked horizon to the right):
This next shot is one of my all-time favorites. Why does the Milky Way suddenly look dark and blue here? As I mentioned earlier, for certain shots I prefer a "realistic" look that more closely matches how my eyes perceived the Milky Way, and this means making it much dimmer and bluer than the standard edit.
This edit employs a similar technique to the shots above, only this time, I only used a single RAW file, but duplicated with two different sets of settings as my layers. To do this, I imported the RAW photo as a Smart Object in Photoshop, duplicated the layer as another Smart Object, and did RAW adjustments separately for the sky and the foreground, then hand-masked it. This is one of the "before" shots, edited only for the sky and not the foreground:
Even after bagging that shot, there was still so much to shoot! I was giddy just shooting keeper after keeper.
Finally, it was time to head out of camp and stumble in total darkness to get the shot I came here for. Just as PhotoPills promised, there it was:
I was thrilled to get a full Milky Way over my favorite mountain in the Philippines. It's composed of 8 vertical shots at 24mm, f/1.4, 15s, ISO 6400.
Even after getting that shot though, my night wasn't over. I was still able to get some exposures on my walk back from the latrine, as my friends began to stir from their tents to prepare for the summit assault.
Finally, dawn began to break, and it was time for the summit assault. Just seconds before the daylight made the Milky Way disappear from view, I was able to get this shot, which is another favorite because of the unique colors at the crack of dawn:
And so ended my epic nights under the stars on Mt. Pulag. I was extremely lucky to have all the conditions line up for me so well that I was able to have a very high keeper rate. It's a trip I'll always look back on as one of my best. I hope this post was able to give you some ideas on how to take your night photography further and also help inspire you to get out there and see the stars the way they were meant to be seen: far from city lights and the noise of your notifications.
Thanks for reading, and I'll catch you next time.
This trip was arranged and guided by Trail Adventours. This was not a sponsored trip. I highly recommend them if you are interested in getting to know Philippine hiking.
Several of the images from this post are available as beautiful, long-lasting prints from my online shop.
For more tutorials, click here.