Photographing the Milky Way From a Drone

Aerial Twilight Milky Way at Head Harbour Lighthouse

Aerial Twilight Milky Way at Head Harbour Lighthouse

It still amazes me how well the gimbals works on modern drones, allowing long exposures from the sky, and ever since I got the DJI Mini 3 I’ve been wondering if its bright f/1.7 aperture would be able to capture the Milky Way, even with the tiny sensor and limited 2 second max shutter speed. Plus the fact that the Mini 3 can shoot vertically is a really nice feature for when the Milky Way is vertical in the sky.

It took a few attempts to get everything right but it definitely works early in astronomical twilight and/or with the moon up so the sky is fairly bright so the tiny sensor can capture enough light, although the Milky Way won’t have much detail. If it’s too dark the 2 second exposure just isn’t capturing enough light, even with star stacking to improve the detail, but other drones with larger sensors and/or longer shutter speeds may be able to shoot with darker skies and thus capture more detail in the Milky Way. Even with the Mini 3 I’m pretty sure I could shoot slightly later in twilight and get more detail but that will have to wait until the next new moon cycle.

The foreground also needs to be bright to get any detail even with stacking, or use a shot from earlier in twilight if you have enough battery power to keep the drone in the same spot, or find the same spot again on a second battery.

The above photo was shot on the DJI Mini 3 @ f/1.7, ISO 6400, 2 seconds for all shots. Sky: Exposure (star) stack of 20 shots stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker for low noise. Foreground: Exposure stack of 40 shots in Long Exposure Stacker for low noise. Long Exposure Stacker is a sibling of Starry Landscape Stacker, both made by Ralph Hill and available on macOS. On Windows you can use Sequator for the star stacking and Photoshop for the foreground stacking.

The same set of 40 exposures was used for the sky and foreground, processed separately. I tried stacking all 40 for the sky but just in that short amount of time the sky was too bright to get enough stars for the first 20 or so exposures, so I used only the last 20 to get a bit darker sky with more star detail.

 
Aerial Twilight Milky Way at Head Harbour

Aerial Twilight Milky Way at Head Harbour

DJI Mini 3 @ f/1.7. Sky: Exposure (star) stack of 20 shots each at 2 seconds and ISO 6400, stacked in Starry Landscape Stacker for low noise. Foreground: Single exposure of 1/2 second at ISO 800, taken right before the star shots, the harbor was very bright from the lights. The sky was extra bright because of the 42% moon that was low in the sky to the right of the frame.
 
This entry was posted in astrophotography, drone, landscape astrophotography, Milky Way and tagged , , , , , .

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