Mystic Highway of Legends

Mystic Highway of Legends

Milky Way Over Highway 12

One of my best Milky Way photos was captured on my first attempt to capture the Milky Way with a camera back in October 2015. In addition to my inexperience, I was using an entry-level DSLR camera, but I did have a decent quality manual focus wide-angle lens. The success of that photo says a lot about the relative importance of the lens versus the camera for capturing quality images. A couple of weeks ago while we were in Cuchara over the Columbus Day weekend, I decided that I could re-shoot that image and get much better quality since I am now so much more experienced and have a far superior camera.

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
Milky Way Over the Devil’s Staircase, October 2015
14 mm, f/2.8, 25 sec, ISO 1600 (Sony a58 with 14 mm f/2.8 lens)

Of course, pride comes before a fall, and needless to say, my attempt was a colossal failure-I did not even get the stars in focus! However, I did have an idea for another nighttime photograph of the Milky Way over the Devil’s Staircase shot from the middle of Highway 12. The irony is that while I was out taking the photos, I was sure that the images I captured from the highway were terrible while I felt like I got some good photos of the valley.

Getting the Shots

The featured image for this post is a composite of two photos, a 10-second exposure of the sky and a 30-second exposure for the landscape, both shot at ISO 1600. I had wanted to capture a series of sky exposures so that the images could be stacked to reduce noise but, standing in the middle of the highway at 8:00 on a Sunday evening, I found it difficult just to get the two exposures. Aside from the cars, pickups, SUVs, and even a loaded cattle trailer coming up and down the road (note that I do not recommend ever taking photographs while standing in a roadway, especially when alone in complete darkness), I was stalked by a red fox-he even posed in the road for the 30-second foreground exposure although he wouldn’t hold his head still.

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
The Highway of Legends
55 mm, f/10, 1/125 sec, ISO 125 (Sony a58)

Reviewing the image previews on the camera, I felt like the composition was a failure. The image I had visualized in my head was based on an old photo of the Staircase (above) that I had captured from the backseat of a Jeep with the centerline of the road leading directly to the Staircase and Milky Way above. Unfortunately, I didn’t confirm the location of this photo, and I walked the wrong way up the road so the center stripes didn’t align with the Milky Way. But as soon as I saw the images on the computer, I realized that this composition would work.

Processing the Photos

The raw base images were pre-processed in Lightroom to remove noise and match the white balance and overall exposure prior to blending. Although 30 seconds is relatively short for a nighttime foreground exposure, it still provided 1.5 stops more light than the sky exposure, resulting in much better color and detail for the foreground image. A two or three minute exposure would have been even better, but I was working in a hurry in the middle of the road to get both exposures while the road was clear. The night was very dark, and the headlights of a vehicle even miles away would be visible in the image.

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
Foreground and Sky Raw Exposures

Noise removal was accomplished on both images using Denoise in Lightroom which produced excellent results. I experimented using Denoise at the default level of 50 and also at values of 1 and 30. At 30, the images were still too noisy, and 50 looked better. I also tried a value of 1 to check for reduced artifacting in the sky exposure generated by the AI algorithm while still getting superior color noise reduction. However. I didn’t really see any difference compared to the higher Denoise settings, and again, 50 produced a much cleaner image.

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
Denoised Raw Exposures at 100%

The base exposures were opened as Smart Objects in Photoshop for compositing so that I could make adjustments to the raw images as needed. I found that the Lightroom masking tools provided a perfect Sky mask (using Todd Dominey’s Select Sky minus Invert Select Sky method), but as far as I know the masks from Lightroom or Camera Raw can’t be copied into Photoshop. I ended up using the Quick Select and Select and Mask tools to create the sky mask which worked well and only required minimal manual correction.

Once the two exposures were blended, I made some minor corrections to each in Camera Raw then created duplicate raster layers of each. Power lines, power poles, airplane light trails, and other distractions were removed with Generative Fill. Foreground edits were basically all made in Lightroom; in Photoshop all that was needed was a slight darken adjustment using Curves and application of the NightFromDay LUT with low opacity.

Milky Way Processing

It’s been about three years since I have processed a Milky Way photo, so I took some time to check out Youtube to brush up and look for new techniques. A couple of these are noted below. (This is not an image processing tutorial, so I haven’t described how to implement these techniques. There are plenty of tutorials readily available if you want to learn how to use the techniques.)

Basic edits (exposure, contrast, clarity, dehaze, and color) for the Milky Way were primarily done in Camera Raw (on a duplicate raw smart object) and selectively applied with a layer mask. Back in Photoshop, I applied additional contrast, brightness, and darkening selectively using Curves layers and luminosity masks.

Star Reduction

Once the Milky Way was processed where I thought it needed to be, there were a lot of very bright small stars near the top of the photo that were harsh and distracting, and I realized Star Reduction would really improve the image. This technique was entirely new to me, but it was easy to apply and really improved the photo.

The basic formula involves using the minimum filter on a selection of the stars, then adjusting the opacity of this layer to dim the stars. I found that I needed two copies of the star removal layer to achieve the needed reduction in star brightness in the upper and lower parts of the sky in my image. I used a linear gradient to mask in the second layer to the top of the image where the stars were brighter.

Star Glow

Another new technique I tried with this image is to create a soft glow around some of the prominent stars in the image. This is done by adding a new layer in Screen blend mode, then painting directly one the layer with a very low opacity brush using the same color as the star. I think it gives a really nice soft glow effect, but it’s easy to overdo it.

Milky Way High Pass

The final new technique I tried out for this image is to use a High Pass filter with a large radius (I used 120 px) to add definition to the Milky Way nebulae, then subtly paint in the effect on a layer mask. It’s a perfect finishing touch for drawing attention to the galactic core.

Finishing Touches

With all of the major editing done, the finishing touches included adding a vignette (actually two), and applying a subtle bluish split tone to give the image a cohesive nighttime feel. I also made a Warp adjustment so that the highway stripes lead directly to the first stair step of the dike.

Mystic Highway of Legends
Mystic Highway of Legends
Final Composite Image, 12 mm, f/2, 10/30 sec, ISO 1600
Sony a6600 with Samyang 12 mm f/2 lens

About the Fox

The fox seriously did sit in one spot while I was capturing these photos, and most of his body is clear, but he moved his head around so it is completely blurred out as you can see in the noise comparison images above. My first instinct was to remove the fox entirely, but since Milky Way photos are not strictly “photo-realistic,” I decided instead to replace the actual fox with a stock photo of a fox blended in to match the scene. This is the first and only time I have ever composited in an image that I did not capture (the only others being when I have used a separate photo of my own to replace the moon). I think having the fox adds to the mystique of the photo and, given the difficulty in capturing a clear photo of a wild animal in total darkness, I don’t feel too bad about using a stock image of the fox.

Other Images

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
35 mm, f/1.8, 10/30 sec, ISO 1600/6400 (Sony a6600 with 35 mm f/1.8 DT lens)

Although I didn’t get a superior replacement for my original 2015 image, a couple of the other compositions from that evening produced some pretty images (if not gallery-quality, at least Instagram worthy). The first of these is another composite of two exposures. Although the star image is not in sharp focus, the foreground is sharp. I captured the foreground at ISO 1600 and ISO 6400, both for 30 seconds. After applying Denoise to both exposures, I noticed that the ISO 6400 image looks sharper with better color detail. The ISO 1600 image needed +2 exposure adjustment in Lightroom to achieve the same brightness as the ISO 6400 image. This example demonstrates that sometimes it’s better to use a higher ISO even with ISO invariant cameras, particularly when there are no highlights in the image to preserve (the main drawback to higher ISO is loss of dynamic range and ability to capture detail in the brightest parts of the scene).

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
Comparison of Denoised foreground exposures, 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and ISO 1600

The second passable photo is a single 30-second exposure processed entirely in Lightroom. For this composition, my sky images were hopelessly out of focus, so while 30 seconds to far too long to produce sharp stars, streaky stars are better than blurry stars. This image is a great example of what is possible now in Lightroom using the advanced masking tools. I was able to completely isolate the foreground from the sky and essentially process the two areas independently.

Mystic Highway of Legends a6600, astrophotography, Colorado, Cuchara, lightroom, Milky Way, photography, Sony
12 mm, f/2, 30 sec, ISO 6400 (Single Exposure)
Sony a6600 with Samyang 12 mm f/2 lens


  1. Great photos and fascinating accompanying text. Hubby and I came to LaVeta for the Celtic Festival last month (6th time) and I found your 2024 calendar at the Mercantile. I’ve seen so many of your beautiful photos, but you always find new ones. The Milky Way ones are spectacular!

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