The tradition continued of chasing clear skies to see a lunar eclipse.
It wouldn’t be an eclipse without a chase. Total eclipses of the Sun almost always demand travel, often to the far side of the world, to stand in the narrow path of the Moon’s shadow.
By contrast, total eclipses of the Moon come to you — they can be seen from half the planet when the Full Moon glides through Earth’s shadow.
Assuming you have clear skies! That’s the challenge.
Of the 14 total lunar eclipses (TLEs) visible from here in Alberta since 2000, I have seen all but one, missing the January 21, 2000 TLE due to clouds.
But of the remaining 13 TLEs so far in the 21st century, I watched only three from home, the last home lunar eclipse being in December 2010.
I viewed three TLEs (August 2007, February 2008, and December 2011) from the Rothney Observatory south-west of Calgary as part of public outreach programs I was helping with.
In April 2014, I was in Australia and viewed the eclipsed Moon rising in the evening sky over Lake Macquarie, NSW.
A year later, in April 2015, I was in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border for the short total eclipse of the Moon at dawn.
But of the eclipses I’ve seen from Alberta since 2014, I have had to chase into clear skies for all of them — to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in both October 2014 and September 2015, to the Crowsnest Pass for January 2018, and to Lloydminster for January 2019.
The total lunar eclipse on the morning of May 26, 2021 was no exception.
Leading up to eclipse day prospects for finding clear skies anywhere near home in southern Alberta looked bleak. The province was under widespread cloud bringing much-needed rain. Good for farmers, but bad for eclipse chasers.
Then, two days prior to the eclipse a hole in the clouds was predicted to open up along the foothills in central Alberta just at the right time, at 4 a.m. The predictions stayed consistent a day later.
So trusting the Environment Canada models that had served me well since 2014, I made plans to drive north the day before the eclipse to Rocky Mountain House, a sizeable town on Highway 11 west of Red Deer, where the foothills begin. “Rocky” was predicted to be on the edge of the clearing, with a large swath of clear sky in the right direction, to the southwest where the Moon would be.
Fortunately, COVID restrictions are not so severe here as to demand stay-at-home orders. I could travel, at least within Alberta. Hotels were open, but restaurants only for takeaway.
This was going to be a tough eclipse even under the best of sky conditions, as for us in Alberta the Moon would be low and setting into the southwest at dawn. The Moon would be darkest and in mid-eclipse just as the sky was also brightening with dawn twilight.
However, a low eclipse offers the opportunity of a view of the reddened Moon over a scenic landscape, in this case of the eclipsed Moon setting over the Rockies. That was the plan.
Unfortunately, Rocky Mountain House wasn’t the ideal destination as it lies far from the mountains. I was hoping for a site closer to the Rockies in southern Alberta. But a site with clear skies is always the first priority.
The task is then finding a spot to set up with a clear view to the southwest horizon, which from the area around Rocky is tough — it’s all trees!
This is where planning apps are wonderful.
I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to search for a side road or spot to pull off where I could safely set up and be away from trees to get a good sightline to the horizon and possibly distant mountains.
A site not far from town was ideal, to avoid long pre- and post-eclipse drives in the wee hours of the morning. The timing of this eclipse was part of the challenge — in having to be on site at 4 a.m.
TPE showed several possible locations and a Google street view (not shown here) seemed to confirm that the horizon in that area off Highway 11 would be unobstructed over cultivated fields.
But you don’t know for sure until you get there.
So as soon as I arrived, I went to one site I had found remotely, only to discover power lines in the way. Not ideal.
I found another nearby side road with a clean view. From there I used the PhotoPills app (above) and its augmented reality “AR” mode to confirm, that yes, the Moon would be in the right place over a clear horizon at eclipse time the next morning.
Another app I like for site scouting, Theodolite, also confirmed that the view toward the eclipsed Moon’s direction (with an azimuth of about 220°) would be fine from that site.
As a Plan B — it’s always good to have a Plan B! — I also drove west along Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway, toward the mountains, in search of a rare site away from trees, just in case the only clear skies lay to the west. I found one, some 50 km west of Rocky, but thankfully it was not needed. The Plan A site worked fine, and was just 5 minutes south of town, and bed!
I set up two tripods. One was for the Canon R6 with an 85mm lens for a “time-lapse” sequence of the Moon moving across the frame as it entered the Earth’s umbral shadow.
The other tripod I used for closeups of just the Moon using the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens, then switched to the Canon Ra and a 135mm lens, then the longer 200mm lens once the Moon got low enough to also be in frame with the horizon. Those were for the prime shot of the eclipse over the distant mountains and skyline.
It all worked! The sky turned out to be clearer than predicted, a pleasant surprise, with only some light cloud obscuring the Moon halfway through the partial phases (the first image at top).
The other surprise was how dark the shadowed portion of the Moon was. This was a very short total eclipse, with totality only 14 minutes long. With the Moon passing through the outer, lighter part of the umbral shadow, I would have expected a brighter eclipse, making the reddened Moon stand out better in the blue twilight.
As it was, in the minutes before the official start of totality at 5:11 a.m. MDT, the Moon effectively disappeared from view, both to the eye and camera.
My best shots were of the Moon still in partial eclipse but with the umbral shaded portion bright enough to show up red in the images. The distant Rockies were also beginning to light up pink in the first light of dawn.
My last view was of a sliver-thin Moon disappearing into Earth’s shadow just prior to the onset of totality. I packed up and headed back to bed with technically the Moon still up and in total eclipse, but impossible to see. Still I was a happy eclipse chaser!
It was another successful eclipse trip, thwarted not so much by clouds, but by the darkness of our planet’s shadow, which might have been due to widespread cloud or volcanic ash in the atmosphere of Earth.
The other factor at play was that this was a “supermoon,” with the larger Moon near perigee entering more deeply into the umbra than a normal-sized Moon.
The next lunar eclipse is six months later, on the night of November 18/19, 2021 when the Moon will not quite fully enter Earth’s umbral shadow, for a 97% partial eclipse. But enough of the Moon will be in the dark umbra for most of the Moon to appear red, with a white crescent “smile” at the bottom.
As shown above, from my location in Alberta the Moon will appear high in the south, in Taurus just west of the Milky Way. The winter stars and Milky Way will “turn on” and fade into view as the eclipse progresses.
We shall see if that will be a rare “home” eclipse, or if it will demand another chase to a clear hole in the clouds on a chilly November night.
This short video, below, captures time-lapses of the trails of geostationary satellites through southern Orion. It demonstrates the “crowded sky” we now have above us.
If you have tried photographing the Orion Nebula and Sword of Orion area with long tracked exposures you have no doubt seen these trails in your photos. Here I shot to purposely capture them in a time-lapse, for demonstration purposes.
Please note, these are not Starlink satellites. So do not blame Elon Musk for these!
These are the much more established geostationary or “geosynchronous” satellites that orbit 35,785 kilometres above Earth and so take 24 hours to orbit the planet. As such they remain apparently motionless over the same spot on Earth, allowing fixed dish antennas to aim at them.
The camera is on a mount that is tracking the sky as it turns from east to west, so the stars are staying still. What would normally be satellites fixed in one spot in the sky (after all, they are called “geostationary” for a reason) instead trail into short streaks traveling from west to east (right to left) in the frame. But in reality, it is the stars that are in motion behind the satellites.
The region of sky in Orion below the Orion Nebula (the object at top) lies south of the line that bisects the sky into northern and southern halves called the “celestial equator.” Most geostationary satellites also orbit in Earth’s equatorial plane and so appear along a belt near the celestial equator in the sky.
In this video, however, they appear about 5° to 7° south of the celestial equator (which runs through the famous Belt of Orion off frame at top). That’s because I live north of the equator of the Earth, at a latitude of 51° north. So parallax makes the geosat belt appears south of the celestial equator in my sky. From a site in the southern hemisphere the geosat belt would appear north of the celestial equator.
You’ll notice some satellites travelling diagonally — they are not geosats. You’ll also see some flashing or pulsing satellites — they are likely tumbling objects, perhaps spent rocket boosters.
The satellites are visible because they are high enough to reflect sunlight even in the middle of the night, as the sequences each end about 11:30 to midnight local time.
But in this video the satellites are not flaring — this is their normal brightness. During flare season around the two equinoxes geosats can become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. For a video of that phenomenon see my video shot in October 2020, below.
TECH DETAILS FOR “TRACKS OF THE GEOSATS” VIDEO:
The video at top contains time-lapses shot on two nights: January 18 and 20, 2021. Both are made from hundreds of frames taken through a William Optics RedCat astrograph at f/5 with a 250mm focal length. The field of view is 8° by 5.5°.
Each exposure is 30 seconds long, taken at a one second interval. The camera was a Canon 6D MkII at ISO 3200 on January 18 and ISO 1600 on January 20 in the brighter moonlight that night.
In the first sequence from January 18 the equatorial mount, an Astro-Physics Mach1, is left to track on its own and is unguided. So the stars wobble back and forth slightly due to periodic error in the mount. The field also drifts north due to slight misalignment on the pole. Clouds pass through the field during the shoot.
In the second clip from January 20, taken with a quarter Moon lighting the sky, the mount was autoguided, using an MGEN3 auto-guider. So the stars remained better fixed over the 5.5 hours of shooting. A slight glitch appears near the end where I swapped camera batteries, and the camera turned ever so slightly causing the stars to enlarge a bit for a moment.
The frames were processed in Adobe Camera Raw and LRTimelapse
I then assembled exported JPGs with TimeLapseDeFlicker, using a 3-frame Lighten blend mode to lengthen the trails. The final version was assembled with TLDF’s All Frames mode (shown above) where every frame gets stacked for an accumulated total, to show the busy sky traffic!
Two major eclipses of the Moon and a partial eclipse of the Sun over eastern North America highlight the astronomical year of 2021.
I provide my selection of three dozen of the best sky sights for 2021. I focus on events you can actually see, and from North America. I also emphasize events with the potential for good “photo ops.”
What I Don’t Include
Thus, I’m excluding minor meteor showers and ones that peak at Full Moon, and events that happen with the objects too close to the Sun.
I also don’t include events seen only from the eastern hemisphere, such as the April 17 occultation of Mars by the Moon — it isn’t even a close conjunction for us in North America. The August 15 rare triple transit of three Galilean moons at once on the disk of Jupiter occurs during daylight hours for western North America, rendering it very challenging to see. An outburst on August 31 of the normally quiet Aurigid meteor shower is predicted to happen over Asia, not North America.
I also don’t list the growing profusion of special or “supermoons” that get click-bait PR every year, choosing instead to limit my list to just the Harvest Moon of September as a notably photogenic Moon.
Good Year for Lunar Eclipses
But two Full Moons — in May and in November — do undergo eclipses that will be wonderful sights for the eye and camera. As a bonus, the Full Moon of May is the closest Full Moon of 2021, making it, yes, a “supermoon.”
The New Moon eclipses the Sun on June 10, bringing an annular eclipse to remote regions of northern Canada and the Arctic (including the North Pole!). Eastern North America and all of Europe can witness a partial solar eclipse this day.
For an authoritative annual guide to the sky and detailed reference work, see the Observer’s Handbook published each year in Canadian and U.S. editions by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. I used it to compile this list.
The RASC has also partnered with Firefly Books to publish a more popular-level guide to the coming year’s sky for North America, in the 2021 Night Sky Almanac, authored by Canadian science writer Nicole Mortillaro. It provides excellent monthly star charts.
However, feel free to print out my blog or save it as a PDF for your personal reference. To share my listing with others, please send them the link to this blog page. Thanks!
The year begins with a chance to see three planets together at dusk.
January 10 — Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn within 2 degrees (°)
Even three weeks after their much publicized Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn are still close and visible low in the evening twilight. On January 10 Mercury joins them to form a neat triangle of worlds, but very low in the southwest. Clear skies and binoculars are a must!
NOTE: The red circle on this and most charts represents the 6.5° field of view of a typical 10×50 binocular. So you can see here how binoculars will frame the trio perfectly. All charts are courtesy the desktop app Starry Night™ bySimulation Curriculum.
January 14 — Thin waxing crescent Moon above line of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn
Saturn disappears behind the Sun on January 23, followed by Jupiter on January 28, so early January is our last chance to see the evening trio of planets, tonight with the crescent Moon.
January 20 — Mars and Uranus 1.6° apart
Uranus will be easy to spot in binoculars as a magnitude 5.8 green star below red Mars, so this is your chance to find the seventh planet. The quarter Moon shines below the planet pair.
January 23 — Mercury at a favourable evening elongation
This and its appearance in May are the best opportunities for northern hemisphere observers to catch the innermost planet in the evening sky in 2021. Look for a bright magnitude -0.8 “star” in the dusk twilight.
This is a quiet month with Mars the main evening planet, but now quite small in the telescope.
February 18 — Waxing Moon 4° below Mars
The pairing appears near the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters high in the evening sky.
Mars shines high in evening sky in Taurus, while the three planets that were in the evening sky in January begin to emerge into the dawn sky.
March 1 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the evening
From sites away from light pollution look for a faint glow of light rising out of the southwest sky on any clear evening for the next two weeks with no Moon.
March 3 — Mars 2.5° below the Pleiades
This will be a nice sight in binoculars tonight and tomorrow high in the evening sky, and a good target for tracked telephoto lens shots.
March 4 — Mercury and Jupiter just 1/2° apart
Close to be sure! But this pairing will be so low in the dawn sky it will be difficult to spot. They will appear equally close on March 5 should clouds intervene on March 4.
March 9 — Line of Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and waning crescent Moon
Three planets and the waxing crescent Moon form a line across the dawn sky but again, very low in the southeast. The even thinner Moon will be below Jupiter on March 10. Observers at low latitudes (south of 35° N) will have the best view on these mornings.
March 20 — Equinox at 5:37 a.m. EDT
Spring officially begins for the northern hemisphere, autumn for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading north. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops.
March 30 — Zodiacal light season again!
With the Moon out of the way, the faint zodiacal light can again be seen and photographed in the west over the next two weeks, but only from a site without significant light pollution on the western horizon.
The inner planets appear in the evening sky, while Mars meets M35.
April 6 — Milky Way arch season begins
With the waning Moon just getting out of view, this morning and for the next two weeks are good nights to shoot panoramas of the bright summer Milky Way as an arch across the sky, with the galactic core in view to the south. The moonless first two weeks of May, June and July will also work this year, but by August the Milky Way is reaching high overhead and so is difficult to capture in a horizontal landscape panorama.
April 24 — Mercury and Venus 1° apart
The two inner planets will be very low in the western evening sky tonight and tomorrow, but with clear skies this is a chance to catch both at once. Use a telephoto lens for the best image.
April 26 — Mars passes 1/2° north of M35 star cluster
This will be a fine scene for binoculars or a photo op for a tracked telephoto lens or telescope in a long enough exposure to reveal the rich star cluster Messier 35 in Gemini.
On May 26 a totally eclipsed Moon shines red in the west before sunrise for western North America.
May 12 — Venus and Moon 1.5° apart
Look low in the western evening sky this night for the pairing of the thin crescent Moon and Venus, and the next night, May 13, for the crescent Moon higher and 4° away from Mercury. These are good nights to capture both inner planets using a short telephoto lens.
May 16 — Mercury at a favourable evening elongation
With Mercury angled up high in the northwest this is the best week of the year to catch it in the evening sky from northern latitudes.
May 26 — Total Eclipse of the Moon
The first total lunar eclipse since January 20, 2019, this “TLE” can be seen as a total eclipse only from western North America, Hawaii, and from Australia and New Zealand. Totality lasts a brief 15 minutes, with the Moon in Scorpius not far from red Antares. The red Moon in a twilight sky will be beautiful, as it was for the April 4, 2015 eclipse at dawn over Monument Valley, Utah shown above.
Those in western North America will see the totally eclipsed Moon setting into the southwest in the dawn hour before sunrise, as depicted here. Over a suitable landscape this will be a photogenic scene, as even at mid-eclipse the Moon will be bright red because it passes so far from the centre of Earth’s umbral shadow.
Unfortunately, those in eastern North America will have to be content with a view of a partially eclipsed Moon setting in the morning twilight.
A bonus is that this is also the closest and largest Full Moon of 2021, with a close perigee of 357,311 kilometres occurring just 9 hours earlier. So the Full Moon that rises on the evening of May 25 will be the year’s “supermoon.”
See Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise.com page for details on timing and viewing regions. The dark region on this map does not see any of this eclipse.
May 26 — Comet 7/P Pons-Winnecke at perihelion
The brightest comet predicted to be visible in 2021 (as of this writing) is the short-period Comet Pons-Winnecke (aka Comet 7/P). It reaches its closest point to the Sun — perihelion — the night of the lunar eclipse and is well placed in Aquarius high in the southeastern dawn sky above Jupiter and Saturn.
But … it is expected to be only 8th magnitude, making it a binocular object at best, looking like a fuzzball, not the spectacular object depicted here in this exaggerated view of its brightness and tail length.
May 28 — Mercury and Venus less than 1/2° apart
Look low in the northwest evening sky for a very close conjunction of the two inner worlds. A telescope will frame them well, with Mercury a tiny crescent and Venus an almost fully illuminated disk.
While eastern North America misses the total lunar eclipse, two weeks later observers in the east do get to see a partial solar eclipse.
June 10 — Annular eclipse of the Sun
Should you manage to get yourself to the path of the Moon’s anti-umbral shadow you will see the dark disk of the Moon contained within the bright disk of the Sun but not large enough to cover the Sun completely. You see a ring of light, as above from a 1994 annular eclipse.
The Moon is near apogee, so its disk is about as small as it gets, in contrast to the perigee Moon two weeks earlier. During the maximum of 3 minutes 51 seconds of annularity the sky will get unusually dark, but none of the dramatic effects of a total eclipse will appear. The annulus of sunlight that remains is still so bright special solar filters must be used at all times, covering the eyes and lenses.
The region with the best accessibility to the path is northwestern Ontario north and east of Thunder Bay. However, the annular phase of the eclipse there occurs at or just after sunrise, so clouds are likely to obscure the view, as are trees!
The eastern seaboard of the U.S. and much of eastern Canada can see a partial eclipse of the Sun, as can most of Europe. For details of times and amount of eclipse see Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise website.
Summer officially begins for the northern hemisphere, winter for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most northerly position above the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the northeast and sets farthest to the northwest, and the length of daylight is at its maximum.
June 22 — Mars passes through the Beehive star cluster
Mars, now at a modest magnitude +1.8, appears amid the Beehive star cluster, aka M44, tonight and tomorrow evening, but low in the northwest in the twilight sky. Use binoculars or a telescope for the best view.
Venus and Mars put on a show low in the western twilight.
July 2 — Venus passes through the Beehive star cluster
Venus (at a brilliant magnitude -3.9) follows Mars through the Beehive cluster this evening, but with the pairing even lower in the sky, making it tough to pick out the star cluster.
July 4 — Mercury at a good morning elongation
Though not at its best for a morning appearance from northern latitudes, Mercury should still be easy to spot and photograph in the pre-dawn sky in Taurus, outshining bright Aldebaran.
July 11 — Grouping of Venus, Mars and waxing crescent Moon
Look low in the evening sky for the line of the thin crescent Moon, bright Venus and dim Mars all in the same binocular field. Venus passes 1/2° above Mars on the next two nights, July 12 and 13.
July 21 — Grouping of Venus, Mars and Regulus
The two planets appear with bright Regulus in Leo, all within a binocular field, but again, low in the northwest twilight. The colour contrast of red Mars with white Venus and blue-white Regulus should be apparent in binoculars.
The popular Perseid meteors peak, and we can see (maybe!) the extremely close conjunction of Mercury and Mars.
August 1 — Milky Way core season opens
For southerly latitudes, the first two weeks of May and June are also good, but from the northern U.S. and much of Canada, the nights don’t get dark enough to see and shoot the bright galactic centre until August. The rich star clouds of Sagittarius now shine due south as it gets dark each night over the next two weeks.
August 2 — Saturn at opposition
Saturn is at its closest and brightest for 2021 tonight, rising at sunset and shining due south in Capricornus in the middle of the night.
August 12 — Perseid meteor shower peaks
The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight with a waxing crescent Moon that sets early, to leave most of the night dark and ideal for watching meteors. Look for the crescent Moon 5° above Venus on August 10.
August 18 — Mars and Mercury only 0.06° apart!
Now this is a very close conjunction, with Mercury passing only 4 arc minutes from Mars (compared to the 6 arc minute separation of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020). But the planets will be very low in the west at dusk and tough to sight. This will be a conjunction for skilled observers blessed with clear skies and a low horizon.
August 20 — Jupiter at opposition
Jupiter, now in Aquarius, reaches its closest and brightest for 2021 tonight, also rising at sunset and shining due south in the middle of the night. On the night of August 21/22, the Full Moon, also at opposition — as all Full Moons are — appears 4° below Jupiter, as shown above.
It’s Harvest Moon time, with this annual special Full Moon occurring close to the equinox this year for an ideal geometry, making the Moon rise due east.
September 5 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the morning
With no Moon for the next two weeks, from sites away from light pollution look to the pre-dawn sky for a faint glow of light rising out of the east before twilight brightens the morning sky.
September 20 — Full “Harvest” Moon
Occurring two days before the equinox, this Full Moon will rise nearly due east (a little to the south of east) at sunset and set nearly due west at sunrise at dawn on September 21, for some fine photo ops.
September 22 — Equinox at 3:21 p.m. EDT
Autumn officially begins for the northern hemisphere, spring for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops.
Mercury adorns the dawn while Venus shines bright but low at dusk.
October 4 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the morning
With the Moon out of the way for the next two weeks, the zodiacal light will again be visible in the east in the pre-dawn hours.
October 9 — The Moon 2.5° from Venus
The crescent Moon passes close to Venus this evening, with the pair not far from the star Antares. The low altitude of the worlds lends itself to some fine photo ops. Look for a similar close conjunction on the evening of November 7.
October 25 — Mercury at its most favourable morning elongation
The high angle of the ecliptic — the path of the planets — on autumn dawns swings Mercury up as high as it can get in the morning sky, making this week the best for sighting Mercury as a “morning star” in 2021 from northern latitudes.
October 29 — Venus at its greatest angle away from the Sun
While now farthest from the Sun in our sky, its low altitude at this time of year makes this an unfavourable evening appearance of Venus.
The second lunar eclipse brings a mostly red Moon to the skies over North America.
November 3 — Moon and Mercury 2° apart, then a daylight occultation
Before dawn, with Mercury still well-placed in the morning sky, the waning crescent Moon shines 2° above the planet, with Mars below and the star Spica nearby. Later in the day, about noon to early afternoon (the time varies with your location), the Moon will occult (pass in front of) Mercury. This will be a challenging observation even with a telescope, with the pale and thin Moon only 14° east of the Sun. A very clear sky will be essential!
November 19 — 97% Partial Eclipse of the Moon
Though not a total eclipse, this is the next best thing: a 97% partial! And unlike the May 26 eclipse, all of North America gets to see this one.
Mid-eclipse, when the Moon is most deeply embedded in Earth’s umbral shadow, occurs at 4:04 a.m. EST (1:04 a.m. PST) on November 19. While not convenient timing, it ensures that all of the continent can see the entire 3.5-hour long eclipse. The partial umbral phase begins at 3:18 a.m EST (12:18 a.m. PST).
At mid-eclipse, the Moon will resemble Mars — a red world with a bright south “polar cap” caused by the small 3% of the southern edge of the Moon outside the umbra. Its position near the Pleiades and Hyades clusters will make for a great wide-field image.
Remember — this occurs on the night of November 18/19! So don’t miss it thinking the eclipse starts on the evening of November 19. You’ll be a day late!
The year ends with a chance to see four planets together at dusk.
December 4 — Total Eclipse of the Sun
I include this for completeness, but this total solar eclipse (TSE) could not be more remote, as the path of totality lies over Antarctica. Only the most intrepid will be there, in expedition ships and in aircraft. (I took this image over Antarctica at the November 23, 2003 total eclipse one 18-year Saros cycle before this year’s TSE.) Even the partial phases are visible only from southernmost Australia and Africa.
December 6 — Moon 2.5° below Venus
With Venus just past its official December 3 date of “greatest brilliancy” (at magnitude -4.7), the waxing crescent Moon appears close below it, with Saturn and Jupiter further along the line of the ecliptic in the southwest. The Moon appears below Saturn on December 7 and below Jupiter on December 8.
December 13 — Geminid meteor shower peaks
The most prolific meteor shower of the year peaks with a waxing 10-day-old gibbous Moon lighting the sky, so not great conditions. But with luck it will still be possible to see and capture bright fireballs.
December 21 — Solstice at 10:59 a.m. EST
Winter officially begins for the northern hemisphere, summer for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most southerly position below the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the southeast and sets farthest to the southwest, and the length of daylight is at its minimum.
December 31 — Four planets in view
As the year ends the same three planets that adorned the evening sky in early January are back, with the addition of Venus. So on New Year’s Eve we can see four of the naked eye planets (only Mars is missing) at once in the evening sky.
On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226.
As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see.
Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky.
But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years!
Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear.
Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses
Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4.
The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work.
Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context.
For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well.
NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites).
The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night.
As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud.
For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21.
On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects.
However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use.
A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds.
To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800.
TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos.
Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses
However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site.
Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use.
Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds.
You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise.
TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing.
The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope
Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year.
But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars.
While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.
You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.
TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view!
But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same.
However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21!
TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it.
TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others.
TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus!
Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.
Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it.
FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.
Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy!
The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn!
And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!
In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view!
If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry.
Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene.
The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity.
The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal!
The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night.
A Good Year for Geminids
While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:
• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.
• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years.
The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here.
What Settings to Use?
To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:
A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins.
Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:
A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible.
Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
When to Shoot?
The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.
For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14.
For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.
So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold!
Where to Go?
To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north.
While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town.
From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up.
Where to Aim?
You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west.
But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are.
Using a Tracker
Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite.
However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary.
If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky.
Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera
The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses.
The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant.
To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.
Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog.
The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials.
Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.
Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon.
On two clear evenings the Harvest Moon rose red and and large over the Alberta prairie.
I present a short music video (linked to below) of time-lapse sequences of the Harvest Moon of 2020 rising. I shot the sequences through a small telescope to zoom in on the Moon’s disk as it rose over the flat horizon of the prairie near where I live. I love being able to see the horizon!
Note the effects of atmospheric refraction squishing the Moon’s disk close to the horizon. The Moon becomes more normal and spherical as it rose higher.
People sometimes think the refraction effect is responsible for making the Full Moon appear large on the horizon, but the atmosphere has nothing to do with it. The effect is strictly an optical illusion. The Moon is no bigger on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.
The photo below shows a composite of images taken September 30, 2020.
Note in the image below, from October 1, how much redder the Moon appears. That’s the effect of atmospheric absorption, in this case from dust and smoke in the air dimming and reddening the Moon (the same happens to the rising or setting Sun). At times this evening it looked like the Moon was in a total eclipse.
Below is the link to the time-lapse music video on Vimeo. It is in 4K. I used Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Bridge, and LRTimelapse to process the component images as raw files for the time-lapse sequences, as per tutorials in my Nightscape and Time-Lapse ebook, above.
A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot.
My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark.
So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.
How Long Will the Comet be Visible?
The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.
But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night.
As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown.
But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July.
When is the Best Time to Shoot?
The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night.
Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn.
But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks.
Where Do I Look?
In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun.
What Exposures Do I Use?
There is no single best setting. It depends on …
— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).
— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.
— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.
However, here are guidelines:
— ISO 400 to 1600
— Aperture f/2 to f/4
— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds
Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.
As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.
As a rule you want to …
— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.
— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image.
— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens.
So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot.
— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left.
When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination.
If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site.
And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.
Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late!
What Lens Do I Use?
Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well.
Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.
A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots.
Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.
Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show.
Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?
Yes. Whatever you have, try it.
However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually.
In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes.
It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars.
But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot.
What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?
Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure.
What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).
On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.
On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it).
Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards.
Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.
All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod.
What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot?
Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot.
To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:
— First, where the comet will be in the sky,
— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location.
— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!
Planning Where the Comet Will Be
Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.
For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions.
The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.orgBe sure to allow it to access your location.
Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest).
With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction.
Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.
I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.
Planning for the Weather
All is for nought if the sky is cloudy.
For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies.
Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot.
But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.
On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.
Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in.
My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas.
2. Exposure Blending
If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually.
For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus.
To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images.
Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows).
But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them.
4. Tracking the Sky
If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller).
But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing.
The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well.
Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.
But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.
It’s been a marvelous few months following Venus rise and fall across the evening sky, in its best show in eight years.
Venus is now gone from our western sky, but since late 2019 until late May 2020 it had dominated the sky as a brilliant evening star.
Here’s a gallery of Venus portraits I shot during its wonderful show these last few months.
The show began in November 2019 when rising Venus met declining Jupiter on November 23 for a fine conjunction of the two brightest planets in the evening twilight.
A week later I captured the line of the then three evening planets and the Moon across the southwest, defining the path of the ecliptic across the evening sky.
A week after that I took the opportunity to shoot some selfies of me with binoculars looking at Venus, as it met Saturn in a wide conjunction, with Venus then still low in the southwest. It was just beginning its climb up into the western sky.
A month later in mid-winter, Venus was still rather low but brilliant even in a hazy moonlit sky, as I posed for another selfie, this time with a small telescope. These images are always useful for illustrations in books and magazines. And blogs!
By the end of February Venus had climbed high into the west, and was appearing monthly near the waxing crescent Moon. This is another binocular selfie from February 27.
In March I visited Churchill, Manitoba just as the lockdown and travel restrictions were coming into effect. But our lone and last tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre saw some fine auroras, as here on this evening with the Northern Lights appearing even in the twilight. And what’s that bright star? Venus, of course!
Upon my return home to Alberta, I was able to shoot more panoramas on the prairies of the wonderful early spring sky with Orion setting into the twilight and Venus in Taurus shining below the iconic Pleiades star cluster.
March 26 was a superb night for catching Venus now at its highest and almost at its brightest at this appearance, as the waxing Moon appeared below it.
The highlight of the spring Venus season was its close approach to the Pleiades, which it passes only every 8 years. Here I am viewing the conjunction two days before the closest approach, with Orion over my shoulder.
The night of closest approach, April 3, was cloudy, but here is a consolation closeup taken the next night with brilliant Venus departing the Seven Sisters.
Later in April Venus reached its greatest brilliancy, at magnitude -4.7, the date when the size of is disk, phase, and proximity to Earth converge to make Venus as bright as possible. On this night I shot the Moon, then 30° away from Venus and the planet with the same gear to show their relative sizes and similar crescent phase this night. The caption provides more details.
A week later, with Venus just past its point of greatest brilliancy, I shot the planet by daylight in the early evening sky, using a telescope to zoom into the planet to show its waning crescent phase. By this time the phase was obvious in binoculars.
But Venus was now dropping rapidly from sight. By May 23, it was low in the twilight and below Mercury, then at its best for 2020 for an evening appearance from my latitude. Note the thin Moon below the planets. This was a superb sight for binoculars.
By May 29, Venus was now tough to pick out of the evening sky, and a challenge to shoot even by day, as it then stood only 8° away from the Sun. What was once obvious to the naked eye now took a computerized telescope to pick out of the noon-day blue sky. A telescope showed the now razor-thin crescent as Venus approached its June 3 “inferior conjunction” — its passage between Earth and the Sun.
I shot and narrated video footage of the thin crescent Venus, my parting shots of Venus for its evening appearance in 2020.
But in June, post inferior conjunction, it will rise very quickly into our morning sky, providing a mirror-image repeat performance as a morning star for the rest of 2020.
Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I wish you all the best and a safe and healthy time in 2020. Take some solace in what the sky can show us and in the beauty of the night.
I present my top 10 tips for capturing time-lapses of the moving sky.
If you can take one well-exposed image of a nightscape, you can take 300. There’s little extra work required, just your time. But if you have the patience, the result can be an impressive time-lapse movie of the night sky sweeping over a scenic landscape. It’s that simple.
Or is it?
Here are my tips for taking time-lapses, in a series of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that I’ve found effective for ensuring great results.
But before you attempt a time-lapse, be sure you can first capture well-exposed and sharply focused still shots. Shooting hundreds of frames for a time-lapse will be a disappointing waste of your time if all the images are dark and blurry.
For that reason many of my tips apply equally well to shooting still images. But taking time-lapses does require some specialized gear, techniques, planning, and software. First, the equipment.
NOTE: This article appeared originally in Issue #9 of Dark Sky Travels e-magazine.
TIP 1 — DO: Use a solid tripod
A lightweight travel tripod that might suffice for still images on the road will likely be insufficient for time-lapses. Not only does the camera have to remain rock steady for the length of the exposure, it has to do so for the length of the entire shoot, which could be several hours. Wind can’t move it, nor any camera handling you might need to do mid-shoot, such as swapping out a battery.
The tripod needn’t be massive. For hiking into scenic sites you’ll want a lightweight but sturdy tripod. While a carbon fibre unit is costly, you’ll appreciate its low weight and good strength every night in the field. Similarly, don’t scrimp on the tripod head.
TIP 2 — DO: Use a fast lens
As with nightscape stills, the single best purchase you can make to improve your images of dark sky scenes is not buying a new camera (at least not at first), but buying a fast, wide-angle lens.
Ditch the slow kit zoom and go for at least an f/2.8, if not f/2, lens with 10mm to 24mm focal length. This becomes especially critical for time-lapses, as the fast aperture allows using short shutter speeds, which in turn allows capturing more frames in a given period of time. That makes for a smoother, slower time-lapse, and a shoot you can finish sooner if desired.
TIP 3 — DO: Use an intervalometer
Time-lapses demand the use of an intervalometer to automatically fire the shutter for at least 200 to 300 images for a typical time-lapse. Many cameras have an intervalometer function built into their firmware. The shutter speed is set by using the camera in Manual mode.
Just be aware that a camera’s 15-second exposure really lasts 16 seconds, while a 30-second shot set in Manual is really a 32-second exposure.
So in setting the interval to provide one second between shots, as I advise below, you have to set the camera’s internal intervalometer for an interval of 17 seconds (for a shutter speed of 15 seconds) or 33 seconds (for a shutter speed of 30 seconds). It’s an odd quirk I’ve found true of every brand of camera I use or have tested.
Alternatively, you can set the camera to Bulb and then use an outboard hardware intervalometer (they sell for $60 on up) to control the exposure and fire the shutter. Test your unit. Its interval might need to be set to only one second, or to the exposure time + one second.
How intervalometers define “Interval” varies annoyingly from brand to brand. Setting the interval incorrectly can result in every other frame being missed and a ruined sequence.
SETTING YOUR CAMERA
TIP 4 — DON’T: Underexpose
As with still images, the best way to beat noise is to give the camera signal. Use a wider aperture, a longer shutter speed, or a higher ISO (or all of the above) to ensure the image is well exposed with a histogram pushed to the right.
If you try to boost the image brightness later in processing you’ll introduce not only the very noise you were trying to avoid, but also odd artifacts in the shadows such as banding and purple discolouration.
With still images we have the option of taking shorter, untrailed images for the sky, and longer exposures for the dark ground to reveal details in the landscape, to composite later. With time-lapses we don’t have that luxury. Each and every frame has to capture the entire scene well.
At dark sky sites, expose for the dark ground as much as you can, even if that makes the sky overly bright. Unless you outright clip the highlights in the Milky Way or in light polluted horizon glows, you’ll be able to recover highlight details later in processing.
After poor focus, underexposure, resulting in overly noisy images, is the single biggest mistake I see beginners make.
TIP 5 — DON’T: Worry about 500 or “NPF” Exposure Rules
While still images might have to adhere to the “500 Rule” or the stricter “NPF Rule” to avoid star trailing, time-lapses are not so critical. Slight trailing of stars in each frame won’t be noticeable in the final movie when the stars are moving anyway.
So go for rule-breaking, longer exposures if needed, for example if the aperture needs to be stopped down for increased depth of field and foreground focus. Again, with time-lapses we can’t shoot separate exposures for focus stacking later.
Just be aware that the longer each exposure is, the longer it will take to shoot 300 of them.
Why 300? I find 300 frames is a good number to aim for. When assembled into a movie at 30 frames per second (a typical frame rate) your 300-frame clip will last 10 seconds, a decent length of time in a final movie.
You can use a slower frame rate (24 fps works fine), but below 24 the movie will look jerky unless you employ advanced frame blending techniques. I do that for auroras.
How long it will take to acquire the needed 300 frames will depend on how long each exposure is and the interval between them. An app such as PhotoPills (via its Time lapse function) is handy in the field for calculating exposure time vs. frame count vs. shoot length, and providing a timer to let you know when the shoot is done.
TIP 6 — DO: Use short intervals
At night, the interval between exposures should be no more than one or two seconds. By “interval,” I mean the time between when the shutter closes and when it opens again for the next frame.
Not all intervalometers define “Interval” that way. But it’s what you expect it means. If you use too long an interval then the stars will appear to jump across the sky, ruining the smooth motion you are after.
In practice, intervals of four to five seconds are sometimes needed to accommodate the movement of motorized “motion control” devices that turn or slide the camera between each shot. But I’m not covering the use of those advanced units here. I cover those options and much, much more in 400 pages of tips, techniques and tutorials in my Nightscapes ebook, linked to above.
However, during the day or in twilight, intervals can be, and indeed need to be, much longer than the exposures. It’s at night with stars in the sky that you want the shutter to be closed as little as possible.
TIP 7 — DO: Shoot Raw
This advice also applies to still images where shooting raw files is essential for professional results. But you likely knew that.
However, with time-lapses some cameras offer a mode that will shoot time-lapse frames and assemble them into a movie right in the camera. Don’t use it. It gives you a finished, pre-baked movie with no ability to process each frame later, an essential step for good night time-lapses. And raw files provide the most data to work with.
So even with time-lapses, shoot raw not JPGs.
If you are confident the frames will be used only for a time-lapse, you might choose to shoot in a smaller S-Raw or compressed C-Raw mode, for smaller files, in order to fit more frames onto a card.
But I prefer not to shrink or compress the original raw files in the camera, as some of them might make for an excellent stacked and layered still image where I want the best quality originals (such as for the ISS over Waterton Lakes example above).
To get you through a long field shoot away from your computer buy more and larger memory cards. You don’t need costly, superfast cards for most time-lapse work.
PLANNING AND COMPOSITION
TIP 8 — DO: Use planning apps to frame
All nightscape photography benefits from using one of the excellent apps we now have to assist us in planning a shoot. They are particularly useful for time-lapses.
Apps such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great. I like the latter as it links to its companion TPE 3D app to preview what the sky and lighting will look like over the actual topographic horizon from your site. You can scrub through time to see the motion of the Milky Way over the scenery. The Augmented Reality “AR” modes of these apps are also useful, but only once you are on site during the day.
For planning a time-lapse at home I always turn to a “planetarium” program to simulate the motion of the sky (albeit over a generic landscape), with the ability to add in “field of view” indicators to show the view your lens will capture.
You can step ahead in time to see how the sky will move across your camera frame during the length of the shoot. Indeed, such simulations help you plan how long the shoot needs to last until, for example, the galactic core or Orion sets.
Planetarium software helps ensure you frame the scene properly, not only for the beginning of the shoot (that’s easy — you can see that!), but also for the end of the shoot, which you can only predict.
If your shoot will last as long as three hours, do plan to check the battery level and swap batteries before three hours is up. Most cameras, even new mirrorless models, will now last for three hours on a full battery, but likely not any longer. If it’s a cold winter night, expect only one or two hours of life from a single battery.
TIP 9 — DO: Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all
Processing the raw files takes the same steps and settings as you would use to process still images.
With time-lapses, however, you have to do all the processing required within your favourite raw developer software. You can’t count on bringing multiple exposures into a layer-based processor such as Photoshop to stack and blend images. That works for a single image, but not for 300.
I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge to do all my time-lapse processing. But many photographers use Lightroom, which offers all the same settings and non-destructive functions as Adobe Camera Raw.
For those who wish to “avoid Adobe” there are other choices, but for time-lapse work an essential feature is the ability to develop one frame, then copy and paste its settings (or “sync” settings) to all the other frames in the set.
Not all programs allow that. Affinity Photo does not. Luminar doesn’t do it very well. DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and the free Raw Therapee, among others, all work fine.
HOW TO ASSEMBLE A TIME-LAPSE
Once you have a set of raws all developed, the usual workflow is to export all those frames out as high-quality JPGs which is what movie assembly programs need. Your raw developing software has to allow batch exporting to JPGs — most do.
However, none of the programs above (except Photoshop and Adobe’s After Effects) will create the final movie, whether it be from those JPGs or from the raws.
So for assembling the intermediate JPGs into a movie, I often use a low-cost program called TLDF (TimeLapse DeFlicker) available for MacOS and Windows (timelapsedeflicker.com). It offers advanced functions such as deflickering (i.e. smoothing slight frame-to-frame brightness fluctuations) and frame blending (useful to smooth aurora motions or to purposely add star trails).
While there are many choices for time-lapse assembly, I suggest using a program dedicated to the task and not, as many do, a movie editing program. For most sequences, the latter makes assembly unnecessarily difficult and harder to set key parameters such as frame rates.
TIP 10 — DO: Try LRTimelapse for more advanced processing
Get serious about time-lapse shooting and you will want — indeed, you will need — the program LRTimelapse (LRTimelapse.com). A free but limited trial version is available.
This powerful program is for sequences where one setting will not work for all the frames. One size does not fit all.
Instead, LRTimelapse allows you to process a few keyframes throughout a sequence, say at the start, middle, and end. It then interpolates all the settings between those keyframes to automatically process the entire set of images to smooth (or “ramp”) and deflicker the transitions from frame to frame.
This is essential for sequences where the lighting changes during the shoot (say, the Moon rises or sets), and for so-called “holy grails.” Those are advanced sequences that track from daylight or twilight to darkness, or vice versa, over a wide range of camera settings.
However, LRTimelapse works only with Adobe Lightroom or the Adobe Camera Raw/Bridge combination. So for advanced time-lapse work Adobe software is essential.
A Final Bonus Tip
Keep it simple. You might aspire to emulate the advanced sequences you see on the web, where the camera pans and dollies during the movie. I suggest avoiding complex motion control gear at first to concentrate on getting well-exposed time-lapses with just a static camera. That alone is a rewarding achievement.
But before that, first learn to shoot still images successfully. All the settings and skills you need for a great looking still image are needed for a time-lapse. Then move onto capturing the moving sky.
I end with a link to an example music video, shot using the techniques I’ve outlined. Thanks for reading and watching. Clear skies!
The Beauty of the Milky Way from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
On November 11, I traveled to the near-flung corners of my backyard to observe the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.
History is replete with tales of astronomers traveling to the far corners of the Earth to watch dark objects pass in front of the Sun — the Moon in eclipses, and Mercury and Venus in transits.
On November 11, to take in the last transit of Mercury until 2032, I had planned a trip to a location more likely to have clear skies in November than at home. A 3-day drive to southern Arizona was the plan.
But to attend to work and priorities at home I cancelled my plans. Instead, I decided to stay home and take my chances with the Alberta weather, perhaps making a run for it a day’s drive away if needed to chase into clear skies.
As it turned out, none of that was necessary. The forecast for clear, if cold, skies held true and we could not have had a finer day for the transit. Even the -20° C temperatures were no problem, with no wind, and of course sunshine!
Plus being only steps from home and a warming coffee helped!
As it turned out, the site in Arizona I had booked to stay was clouded out for the entire event. So I was happy with my decision!
For my site in Alberta, as for all of western North America, the Sun rose with the transit in progress. But as soon as the Sun cleared the horizon there was Mercury, as a small, if fuzzy, black dot on the Sun.
As the Sun rose the view became sharper, and was remarkable indeed — of a jet black dot of a tiny planet silhouetted on the Sun.
I shot through two telescopes, my 4-inch and 5-inch refractors, both equipped with solar filters of course. I viewed through two other telescopes, for white-light and hydrogen-alpha filtered views.
I was able to follow the transit for three hours, for a little more than half the transit, until Mercury exited the Sun just after 11 a.m. MST. The view below is from moments before Mercury’s exit, or “egress.”
I shot still frames every 15 seconds with each of the two cameras and telescopes, for a time-lapse, plus I shot real-time videos.
At this transit Mercury passed closer to the centre of the Sun’s disk than it will for any other transit in the 21st century, making this event all the more remarkable. That point is recorded above, from a shot taken at 8:19 a.m. MST.
Stacking a selection of the time-lapse frames, ones taken 1-minute intervals, produced this composite of the transit, from just before mid-transit until Mercury’s egress.
I assembled all the best images and 4K videos together into a movie, which I narrated live at the telescope as the transit was happening. I hope this provides a sense of what it was like to view this rare event.
The Transit of Mercury from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
We won’t see another until 2032, but not from North America. The next transit of Mercury viewable from here at home is not until 2049! This was likely my last transit, certainly for a while!
I had the chance to test out an early sample of Canon’s new EOS Ra camera designed for deep-sky photography.
Once every 7 years astrophotographers have reason to celebrate when Canon introduces one of their “a” cameras, astronomical variants optimized for deep-sky objects, notably red nebulas.
In 2005 Canon introduced the ground-breaking 8-megapixel 20Da, the first DLSR to feature Live View for focusing. Seven years later, in 2012, Canon released the 18-megapixel 60Da, a camera I still use and love.
Both cameras were cropped-frame DSLRs.
Now in 2019, seven years after the 60Da, we have the newly-released EOS Ra, the astrophoto version of the 30-megapixel EOS R released in late 2018. The EOS R is a full-frame mirrorless camera with a sensor similar to what’s in Canon’s 5D MkIV DSLR.
Here, I present a selection of sample images taken with the new EOS Ra.
Both versions of the EOS R have identical functions and menus.
The big difference is that the EOS Ra, as did Canon’s earlier “a” models, has a factory-installed filter in front of the sensor that transmits more of the deep red “hydrogen-alpha” wavelength emitted by glowing nebulas.
Normal cameras suppress much of this deep-red light as a by-product of their filters cutting out the infra-red light that digital sensors are very sensitive to, but that would not focus well.
I was sent an early sample of the EOS Ra, and earlier this autumn also had a sample of the stock EOS R.
Both were sent for testing so I could prepare a test report for Sky and Telescope magazine. The full test report will appear in an upcoming issue.
• How the Ra compares to previous “a” models and third-party filter-modified cameras
• How the Ra works for normal daylight photography
• Noise levels compared to other cameras
• Features unique to the EOS Ra, such as 30x Live View focusing
UPDATE — November 25, 2019
As part of further testing I shot the Heart and Soul Nebulas in Cassiopeia through my little Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph with both the EOS Ra and my filter-modified 5D MkII (modified years ago by AstroHutech) to compare which pulled in more nebulosity. It looked like a draw.
Both images are single 8-minute exposures, taken minutes apart and developed identically in Adobe Camera Raw, but adjusted for colour balance to equally neutralize the sky background. The histograms look similar. Even so, the Ra looks a little redder overall. But keep in mind a sky or nebula can be made to appear any shade of red you like in processing.
The question is which camera shows more faint nebulosity?
The modified 5D MkII has always been my favourite camera for this type of astrophotography, picking up more nebulosity than other “a” models I’ve tested, including the Nikon D810a.
But in this case, I’d say the EOS Ra is performing as well as, if not better than the 5D MkII. How well any third-party modified camera you buy now performs will depend which, if any, filter the modifier installs in front of the sensor. So your mileage will vary.
For most of my other testing I shot through my much-prized Astro-Physics Traveler, a 105mm aperture f/6 apochromatic refractor on the Astro-Physics Mach1 mount.
To connect the EOS Ra (with its new RF lens mount) to my existing telescope-to-camera adapter and field flattener lens I used one of Canon’s EF-EOS R lens adapters.
The bottom line is that the EOS Ra works great!
It performs very well on H-alpha-rich nebulas and has very low noise. It will be well-suited to not only deep-sky photography but also to wide-field nightscape and time-lapse photography, perhaps as Canon’s best camera yet for those applications.
WHAT ABOUT THE PRICE?
The EOS Ra will sell for $2,500 US, a $700 premium over the cost of the stock EOS R. Some complain. Of course, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it. This is not an upgrade being forced upon you.
As I look at it, it is all relative. When Nikon’s astronomy DSLR, the 36 Mp D810a, came out in 2015 it sold for $3,800 US, $1,300 more than the EOS Ra. It was, and remains a fine camera, if you can find one. It is discontinued.
A 36 Mp cooled and dedicated CMOS astro camera, the QHY367, with the same chip as the D810a, goes for $4,400, $1,900 more than the Ra. Yes, it will produce better images I’m sure than the EOS Ra, but deep-sky imaging is all it can do. At a cost, in dollars and ease of use.
And yes, buying a stock EOS R and having it modified by a third party costs less, and you’ll certainly get a good camera, for $300 to $400 less than an Ra. But …
• The EOS Ra has a factory adjusted white balance for ease of “normal” use — no need to buy correction filters. So there’s a $$ saving there, even if you can find clip-in correction filters for the EOS R — you can’t.
• And the Ra retains the sensor dust cleaning function. Camera modifier companies remove it or charge more to reinstall it.
• And the 30x live view magnification is very nice.
• The EOS Ra also carries a full factory warranty.
Do I wish the EOS Ra had some other key features? Sure. A mode to turn all menus red would be nice. As would an intervalometer built-in, one that works with the Bulb Timer to allow sequences of programmed multi-minute exposures. Both could be added in with a firmware update.
And providing a basic EF-EOS R lens adapter in the price would be a welcome plus, as one is essential to use the EOS Ra on a telescope.
That’s my take on it. I’ll be buying one. But then again I bought the 20Da, twice!, and the 60Da, and I hate to think what I paid for those much less capable cameras.
BONUS TEST — The RF 15-35mm L Lens
Canon is also releasing an impressive series of top-class RF lenses for their R mirrorless cameras. The image below is an example astrophoto with the new RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L zoom lens, an ideal combination of focal lengths and speed for nightscape shooting.
Below is a further set of stacked and processed images with the RF 15-35mm L lens, taken in quick succession, at 15mm, 24mm, and 35mm focal lengths, all shot wide open at f/2.8. The EOS Ra was on the Star Adventurer tracker (as below) to follow the stars.
Click or tap on the images below to view a full-resolution version for closer inspection.
The RF 15-35mm lens performs extremely well at 15mm exhibiting very little off-axis aberrations at the corners.
Off-axis aberrations do increase at the longer focal lengths but are still very well controlled, and are much less than I’ve seen on my older zoom and prime lenses in this focal length range.
The RF 15-35mm is a great complement to the EOS Ra for wide-field Milky Way images.
I was impressed with the new EOS Ra. It performs superbly for astrophotography.
It was a fabulous week of clear skies and dancing auroras in and around Yellowknife in Canada’s North.
For the second year in a row I traveled due north from home in Alberta to visit Yellowknife, capitol of Canada’s Northwest Territories. At a latitude of 62° North, Yellowknife lies directly under the auroral oval and so enjoys views of the Northern Lights on almost every clear night.
During my 8-night stay from September 3 to 10 almost every night was clear and filled with auroras.
Somba K’e Park
The Lights can be seen even from within the downtown core, as the opening image shows, taken from the urban Sombe K’e Park looking over Frame Lake and the Prince of Wales Museum.
The Museum is lit with rippling bands of coloured light that emulate the aurora borealis.
A favourite urban site for viewing the Lights is the Pilot’s Monument lookout in the middle of Yellowknife’s Oldtown district. This panorama sweeps from northeast at left to west at far right, looking mostly south over the downtown core.
This night even the urban lights were not enough to wash out the Lights as they brightened during a brief substorm.
Another good urban site that gets you away from immediate lights is the open spaces of Rotary Park overlooking the houseboats anchored in Yellowknife Bay. This panorama again sweeps from east to west, looking toward to the waxing Moon low in the south.
Again, despite the urban lights and moonlight, the Lights were spectacular.
The main viewing sites for the Northern Lights are down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail east of the city away from urban lights.. One of the closest stops is a parking lot on the shore of a backwater bay of Prosperous Lake. It’s where many tourist buses stop and unload their passengers, mostly to get their selfies under the Lights.
But with patience you can get your own photos unencumbered by other lights and people, as I show below.
On one of my nights I stopped at Prosperous on the way to sites farther down Ingraham Trail to catch the twilight colours in the stunningly clear sky.
This small lake and picnic site farther along the Trail serves as a great place to shoot the Lights reflected in the calm waters and looking north. I spent one of my nights at Madeline Lake, a popular spot for local residents to have a campfire under the Lights.
And it’s popular for tour buses, whose headlights shine out across the lake as they arrive through the night, in this case casting my long shadow across the misty lake.
However, again with patience it is possible to get clean images of the aurora and its reflections in the lake.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm and misty waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left. Capella is at right. This is a single 13-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left; Capella at far right. This is a single 8-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
Farther down the Trail is a spot the tour buses will not go to as a visit to the Ramparts waterfall on the Cameron River requires a hike down a wooded trail, in the dark with bears about. Luckily, my astrophoto colleague, amateur astronomer, and local resident Stephen Bedingfield joined me for a superb shoot with us the only ones present at this stunning location.
The view looking the other way north over the river was equally wonderful. What a place for viewing the Northern Lights!
The view from a viewpoint early on the trail down to the Ramparts and overlooking the Cameron River yielded a superb scene with the low Moon and twilight providing the illumination as the Lights kicked up early in the evening.
A favourite spot is the major camping and boat launch area of Prelude Lake Territorial Park. But to avoid the crowds down by the shoreline, Stephen and I hiked up to the overlook above the lake looking north. A few other ardent photographers joined us. This was another spectacular and perfect night.
September is a superb time to visit as the lakes are still open and the autumn colours make for a good contrast with the sky colours.
The panorama below takes in the Big Dipper at left, Capella at centre, and with the Pleiades and Hyades rising at right of centre.
I used the 8mm fish-eye lens to capture the entire sky, the only way you can really take in the whole scene on camera. When the Lights fill the sky you don’t know which way to look or aim your camera!
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019, with photographers in the foreground shooting the Lights from the viewpoint above the lake. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 10 seconds at ISO 3200. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 20 seconds at ISO 1000. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
There are many other scenic spots along the Trail, such as Pontoon Lake, Reid Lake, and Tibbitt Lake at the very end of Ingraham Trail. For images and movies I shot last year at Tibbitt Lake, see my blog post at Aurora Reflections in Yellowknife.
But in my 8 nights in Yellowknife this year I managed to hit many of the key aurora spots for photography and viewing. I recommend a visit, especially in September before autumn clouds roll in later in the season, and while the lakes are not frozen and nighttime temperatures are mild.
Here’s a 3-minute music video of clips I shot from all these sites showing the motion of the Lights as it appeared to the eye in “real-time,” not sped up or in time-lapse.
The Northern Lights of Yellowknife from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
A new low-cost sky tracker promises to simplify not only tracking the sky but also taking time-lapses panning along the horizon. It works but …
If you are an active nightscape photographer chances are your social media feeds have been punctuated with ads for this new low-cost tracker from MoveShootMove.com.
For $200, much less than popular trackers from Sky-Watcher and iOptron, the SiFo unit (as it is labelled) offers the ability track the sky, avoiding any star trails. That alone would make it a bargain, and useful for nightscape and deep-sky photographers.
But it also has a function for panning horizontally, moving incrementally between exposures, thus the Move-Shoot-Move designation. The result is a time-lapse movie that pans along the horizon, but with each frame with the ground sharp, as the camera moves only between exposures, not during them.
Again, for $200 this is an excellent feature lacking in trackers like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyTracker. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini does, however, offer both tracking and “move-shoot-move” time-lapse functions, but at a cost of $300 to $400 U.S., depending on accessories.
All these functions are provided in a unit that is light (weighing 700 grams with a tripod plate and the laser) and compact (taking up less space in your camera bag than most lenses). By comparison, the Star Adventurer Mini weighs 900 grams with the polar scope, while the original larger Star Adventurer is 1.4 kg, double the MSM’s weight.
Note, that the MSM’s advertised weight of 445 grams does not include the laser or a tripod plate, two items you need to use it. So 700 grams is a more realistic figure, still light, but not lighter than the competition by as much as you might be led to believe.
Nevertheless, the MSM’s small size and weight make it attractive for travel, especially for flights to remote sites. Construction is solid and all-metal. This is not a cheap plastic toy.
But does it work? Yes, but with several important caveats that might be a concern for some buyers.
What I Tested
I purchased the Basic Kit B package for $220 U.S., which includes a small case, a laser pointer and bracket for polar alignment (and with a small charger for the laser’s single 3.7-volt battery), and with the camera sync cable needed for time-lapse shooting.
I also purchased the new “button” model, not the older version that used a knob to set various tracking rates.
The ball head needed to go on top of the tracker is something you supply. The kit does come with two 3/8-inch stud bolts and a 3/8-to1/4-inch bushing adapter, for placing the tracker on tripods in the various mounting configurations I show below.
The first units were labelled as ‘SiFo,” but current units now carry the Gauda brand name. I’ll just call it the MSM.
I purchased the gear from the MSM website, and had my order fulfilled and shipped to me in Canada from China with no problems.
Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes
The attraction is its tracking function, allowing a camera to follow the sky and take exposures longer than any dictated by “500” or “NPF” Rules to avoid any star trailing.
Exposures can be a minute or more to record much more depth and detail in the Milky Way, though the ground will blur. But blending tracked sky exposures with untracked ground exposures gets around that, and with the MSM it’s easy to turn on and off the tracking motor, something not possible with the low-cost wind-up Mini Track from Omegon.
The illustrations and instructions (in a PDF well-hidden off the MSM Buy page) show the MSM mounted using the 1/4-20 bolt hole on the side of the unit opposite the LED-illuminated control panel. While this seems to be the preferredmethod, in the first unit I tested I found it produced serious mis-tracking problems.
With a Canon 6D MkII and 50mm f/1.4 lens (not a particularly heavy combination), the MSM’s gears would not engage and start tracking until after about 5 minutes. The first exposures were useless. This was also the case whenever I moved the camera to a new position to re-frame the scene or sky. Again, the first few minutes produced no or poor tracking until the gears finally engaged.
This would be a problem when taking tracked/untracked sets for nightscapes, as images need to be taken in quick succession. It’s also just plain annoying.
However, see the UPDATE at the end for the performance of a new Gauda-branded unit that was sent to me.
The solution was to mount the MSM using the 3/8-inch bolt hole on the back plate of the tracker, using the 1/4-20 adapter ring to allow it to attach to my tripod head. This still allowed me to tip the unit up to polar align it.
Tracking was now much more consistent, with only the first exposure usually badly trailed. But subsequent exposures all tracked, but with varying degrees of accuracy as I show below.
When used as a tracker, you need to control the camera’s exposure time with an external intervalometer you supply, to allow setting exposures over 30 seconds long.
The MSM offers a N and S setting, the latter for use in the Southern Hemisphere. A 1/2-speed setting turns the tracker at half the normal sidereal rate, useful for nightscapes as a compromise speed to provide some tracking while minimizing ground blurring.
For any tracker to track, its rotation axis has to be aimed at the Celestial Pole, near Polaris in the Northern Hemisphere, and near Sigma Octantis in the Southern Hemisphere.
I chose the laser pointer option for this, rather than the polar alignment scope. The laser attaches to the side of the MSM using a small screw-on metal bracket so that it points up along the axis of rotation, the polar axis.
The laser is labeled as a 1mw unit, but it is far brighter than any 1mw I’ve used. This does make it bright, allowing the beam to show up even when the sky is not dark. The battery is rechargeable and a small charger comes with the laser. Considering the laser is just a $15 option, it’s a bargain. But ….
UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1
Since I published the review, I have had the laser professionally tested, and it measured as having an output of 45 milliwatts. Yet it is labeled as being under 1 milliwatt. This is serious misrepresentation of the specs, done I can only assume to circumvent import restrictions. In Canada it is now illegal to import, own, or use any green laser over 5 milliwatts, a power level that would be sufficient for the intended use of polar aligning. 45mw is outright illegal.
So be warned, use of this laser will be illegal in some areas. And use of any green laser will be illegal close to airports, and outlawed entirely in some jurisdictions such as Australia, a fact the MSM website mentions.
The legal alternative is the optical polar alignment scope. I already have several of those, but my expectation that I could use one I had with the same bracket supplied with the laser were dashed by the fact that the bracket’s hole is too narrow to accept any of the other polar alignment scopes I have, which are all standard items. I you want a polar scope, buy theirs for $70.
However, if you can use it where you live, the laser works well enough, allowing you to aim the tracker at the Pole just by eye. For the wide lenses the tracker is intended to be used with, eyeball alignment proved good enough.
Just be very, very careful not to accidentally look down the beam. Seriously. It is far too easy to do by mistake, but doing so could damage your eye in moments.
Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images
How well does the MSM actually track? In tests of the original SiFo unit I bought, and in sets of exposures with 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses, and with the tracker mounted on the back, I found that 25% to 50% of the images showed mis-tracking. Gear errors still produced slightly trailed stars. This gear error shows itself more as you shoot with longer focal lengths.
The MSM is best for what it is advertised as — as a tracker for nightscapes with forgiving wide-angle lenses in the 14mm to 24mm range. With longer lenses, expect to throw away a good number of exposures as unusable. Take twice as many as you think you might need.
With a 135mm lens taking Milky Way closeups, more than half the shots were badly trailed. Really badly trailed. This is not from poor polar alignment, which produces a gradual drift of the frame, but from errors in the drive gears, and random errors at that, not periodic errors.
To be fair, this is often the case with other trackers as well. People always want to weight them down with heavy and demanding telephotos for deep-sky portraits, but that’s rarely a good idea with any tracker. They are best with wide lenses.
That said, I found the MSM’s error rate and amount to be much worse than with other trackers. With the Star Adventurer models and a 135mm lens for example, I can expect only 20% to 25% of the images to be trailed, and even then rarely as badly as what the MSM exhibited.
See the UPDATE at the end for the performance of the replacement Gauda-branded unit sent to me with the promise of much improved tracking accuracy.
Yes, enough shots worked to be usable, but it took using a fast f/2 lens to keep exposure times down to a minute to provide that yield. Users of slow f/5.6 kit-zoom lenses will struggle trying to take deep-sky images with the MSM.
In short, this is a low-cost tracker and it shows. It does work, but not as well as the higher-cost competitors. But restrict it to wide-angle lenses and you’ll be fine.
Panning the Ground
The other mode the MSM can be used in is as a time-lapse motion controller. Here you mount the MSM horizontally so the camera turns parallel to the horizon (or it can be mounted vertically for vertical panning, a mode I rarely use and did not test).
This is where the Move-Shoot-Move function comes in.
The supplied Sync cable goes from the camera’s flash hot shoe to the MSM’s camera jack. What happens is that when the camera finishes an exposure it sends a pulse to the MSM, which then quickly moves while the shutter is closed by the increment you set.
There is a choice of 4 speeds, marked in degrees-per-move: 0.05°, 0.2°, 0.5°, and 1.0°. For example, as the movie below shows, taking 360 frames at the 1° speed results in a complete 360° turn.
The MSM does the moving, but all the shutter speed control and intervals must be set using a separate intervalometer, either one built into the camera, or an outboard hardware unit. The MSM does not control the camera shutter. In fact, the camera controls the MSM.
Intervals should be set to be about 2 seconds longer than the shutter speed, to allow the MSM to perform its move and settle.
This connection between the MSM and camera worked very well. It is unconventional, but simple and effective.
Too Slow or Too Fast
The issue is the limited choice of move speeds. I found the 0.5° and 1° speeds much too fast for night use, except perhaps for special effects in urban cityscapes. Even in daytime use, when exposure times are very short, the results are dizzying, as I show below.
Even the 0.2°-per-move speed I feel is too fast for most nightscape work. Over the 300 exposures one typically takes for a time-lapse movie, that speed will turn the MSM (300 x 0.2°) = 60 degrees. That’s a lot of motion for 300 shots, which will usually be rendered out at 24 or 30 frames per second for a clip that lasts 10 to 12 seconds. The scene will turn a lot in that time.
On the other hand, the 0.05°-per-move setting is rather slow, producing a turn of (300 x 0.05°) = 15° during the 300 shots.
That works, but with all the motion controllers I’ve used — units that can run at whatever speed they need to get from the start point to the end point you set — I find a rate of about 0.1° per move is what works best for a movie that provides the right amount of motion. Not too slow. Not too fast. Just right.
UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019
From product photos on the MoveShootMove.com website now it appears that the tracker is now labeled MSM, as it should have been all along.
Most critically, perhaps in response to this review and my comments here, the time-lapse speeds have been changed to 0.05, 0.075, 0.1 and 0.125 degrees per move, adding the 0.1°/move speed I requested below and deleting the overly fast 0.5° and 1.0° speeds.
Plus it appears the new units have the panel labels printed the other way around so they are not upside down for most mounting situations.
I have not tested this new version, but these speeds sound much more usable for panning time-lapses. Bravo to MSM for listening!
Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse
The additional complication is trying to get the MSM to also turn at the right rate to follow the sky — for example, to keep the galaxy core in frame during the time-lapse clip. I think doing so produces one of the most effective time-lapse sequences.
But to do that with any device requires turning at a rate of 15° per hour, the rate the sky moves from east to west.
Because the MSM provides only set fixed speeds, the only way you have of controlling how much it moves over a given amount of time, such as an hour, is to vary the shutter speed.
I found that to get the MSM to follow the Milky Way in a time-lapse using the 0.05° rate and shooting 300 frames required shooting at a shutter speed of 12 seconds. No more, no less.
Do the Math
Where does that number come from?
At its rate of 0.05°/move, the MSM will turn 15° over 300 shots. The sky moves 15° in one hour, or 3600 seconds. So to fit 300 shots into 3600 seconds means each shot has to be no longer than (3600/300) = 12 seconds long.
The result works, as I show in the sampler movie.
But 12 seconds is a rather short shutter speed on a dark, moonless night with the Milky Way.
For properly exposed images you would need to shoot at very fast apertures (f/1.4 to f/2) and/or high and noisy ISO speeds. Neither are optimal. But they are forced upon you by the MSM’s restricted rates.
Using the faster 0.2° rate (of the original model) yields a turn of 60° over 300 shots. That’s four hours of sky motion. So each exposure now has to be 48 seconds long for the camera to follow the sky, four times longer because the drive rate is now four times faster.
A shutter speed of 48 seconds is a little too long in my opinion. Stars in each frame will trail. Plus a turn of 60° over 300 shots is quite a lot, producing a movie that turns too quickly.
By far the best speed for motion control time-lapses would be 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed. (DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: That speed seems to now be offered.)
Yes, having only a limited number of pre-wired speeds does make the MSM much easier to program than devices like the Star Adventurer Mini or SYRP Genie Mini that use wireless apps to set their functions. No question, the MSM is better suited to beginners who don’t want to fuss with lots of parameters.
As it is, getting a decent result requires some math and juggling of camera settings to make up for the MSM’s limited choices of speeds.
Time-Lapse Movie Examples
This compilation shows examples of daytime time-lapses taken at the fastest and dizzying 0.5° and 1.0° speeds, and night time-lapses taken at the slower speeds. The final clip is taken at 0.05°/move and with 12-second exposures, a combination that allowed the camera to nicely follow the Milky Way, albeit at a slow pace. Taking more than the 300 frames used here would have produced a clip that turned at the same rate, but lasted longer.
The MSM is powered off an internal rechargeable battery, which can be charged from any 5-volt charger you have from a mobile phone.
The MSM uses a USB-C jack for the power cable, but a USB-A to USB-C cord is supplied, handy as you might not have one if you don’t have other USB-C devices.
The battery lasted for half a dozen or more 300-shot time-lapses, enough to get you through at least 2 or 3 nights of shooting. However, my testing was done on warm summer nights. In winter battery life will be less.
While the built-in battery is handy, in the field should you find battery level low (the N and S switches blink as a warning) you can’t just swap in fresh batteries. Just remember to charge up before heading out. Alternatively, it can be charged from an external 5V battery pack such as used to prolong cell phone life.
The MSM does not offer, nor does it promise, any form of automated panorama shooting. This is where the device turns by, say, 15° to 45° between shots, to shoot the segments for a still-image panorama. More sophisticated motion controllers from SYRP and Edelkrone offer that function, including the ability to mate two devices for automated multi-tier panoramas.
Nor does the MSM offer the more advanced option of ramping speeds up and down at the start and end of a time-lapse. It moves at a constant rate throughout.
While some of the shortcomings could perhaps be fixed with a firmware update, there is no indication anywhere that its internal firmware can be updated through the USB-C port.
UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019
Since I published the review, MSM saw the initial test results and admitted that the earlier units like mine (ordered in June) exhibited large amounts of tracking error. They sent me a replacement unit, now branded with the Gauda label. According to MSM it contains a more powerful motor promised to improve tracking accuracy and making it possible to take images with lenses as long as 135mm.
I’m sorry to report it didn’t.
In tests with the 135mm lens the new, improved MSM still showed lots of tracking error, to the point that images taken with a lens as long as this were mostly unusable.
Tap or click on the images to download full-res versions.
The short movie above takes the full-frame images from the zenith set of 24 frames taken over 48 minutes and turns them into a little time-lapse. It shows how the mechanism of the MSM seems to be wobbling the camera around in a circle, creating the mis-tracking.
Comparison with the Star Adventurer
As a comparison, the next night I used a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (the full-size model not the Mini) to shoot the same fields in the northeast and overhead with the same 135mm lens and with the same ball-head, to ensure the ball-head was not at fault. Here are the results:
The Star Adventurer performed much better. Most images were well-tracked. Even on those frames that showed trailing, it was slight. The Star Adventurer is a unit you can use to take close-ups of deep-sky fields with telephoto lenses, if that’s your desire.
By contrast, the MSM is best used — indeed, I feel can only be used practically — with wide-angle lenses and with exposures under 2 minutes. Here’s a set taken with a 35mm lens, each for 2 minutes.
With the more forgiving 35mm lens, while more images worked, the success rate was still only 50%.
What I did not see with the new Gauda unit was the 5-minute delay before the gears meshed and tracking began. That issue has been resolved by the new, more powerful motor. The new Gauda model does start tracking right away.
But it is still prone to significant enough drive errors that stars are often trailed even with a 35mm lens (this was on a full-frame Canon 6D MkII).
UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)
The MSM tracker is low-cost, well-built, and compact for easy packing and travel. It performs its advertised functions well enough to allow users to get results, either tracked images of the Milky Way and constellations, or simple motion-control time-lapses.
But it is best used — indeed I would suggest can only be used — with wide-angle lenses for tracked Milky Way nightscapes. Even then, take more shots than you think you need to be sure enough are well-tracked and usable.
It can also be used for simple motion-control time-lapses, provided you do to the math to get it to turn by the amount you want, working around the too-slow or too-fast speeds. The new 0.1° per move speed (added in models as of December 2019) seems a reasonable rate for most time-lapses.
However, I think aspiring time-lapse photographers will soon outgrow the MSM’s limitations for motion-control sequences. But it can get you started.
If you really value its compactness and your budget is tight, the MSM will serve you well enough for tracked nightscape shooting with wide-angle lenses.
But if you wish to take close-ups of starfields and deep-sky objects with longer lenses, consider a unit like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer for its lower tracking errors. Or the Star Adventurer Mini for its better motion-control time-lapse functions.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, my contribution was to produce a planetarium show about the missions.
I’ve been retired from active planetarium show production and science centre work for more than 5 years now. But it’s great to get back in the Dome now and then.
The opportunity came this summer with the hugely popular 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11. Everyone was hosting events and parties.
To contribute to the local science centre’s event, TELUS Spark in Calgary kindly gave me the keys to the Evans and Sutherland Digistar planetarium system to produce a special lecture/show for the Dome about the Apollo landings.
It was part of Spark’s well-attended Moon Landing Party night July 20. A collage of iPhone images shows some of the other activities that evening.
It was a capacity crowd, and both my shows were “sold out” with full houses. Indeed, I’m presenting extra shows by popular demand in the coming week so those who couldn’t get tickets on July 20 can see the program.
For you to see the show, and to document it for my posterity, I shot time-lapses of me presenting the show, first in rehearsal with some staff present shot from the audience point of view, then in the first presentation from the stage (my) point of view.
The time-lapses compressed the hour-long show into two 1-minute clips. It really wasn’t that frantic in real life! Here’s the video, from my YouTube channel.
I was impressed and surprised at how popular the Apollo anniversary has been. For most today the Moon landings are old history, before their time. Yet, the Apollo missions continue to inspire and amaze.
Panoramas featuring the arch of the Milky Way have become the icons of dark sky locations. “Panos” can be easy to shoot, but stitching them together can present challenges. Here are my tips and techniques.
My tutorial complements the much more extensive information I provide in my eBook, at right. Here, I’ll step through techniques for simple to more complex panoramas, dealing first with essential shooting methods, then reviewing the workflows I use for processing and stitching panoramas.
What software works best depends on the number of segments in your panorama, or even on the focal length of the lens you used.
PART 1 — SHOOTING
What Equipment Do You Need?
Nightscape panoramas don’t require any more equipment than what you likely already own for shooting the night sky. For Milky Way scenes you need a fast lens and a solid tripod, but any good DSLR or mirrorless camera will suffice.
The tripod head can be either a ball head or a three-axis head, but it should have a horizontal axis marked with a degree scale. This allows you to move the camera at a correct and consistent angle from segment to segment. I think that’s essential.
What you don’t need is a special, and often costly, panorama head. These rotate the camera around the so-called “nodal point” inside the lens, avoiding parallax shifts that can make it difficult to align and stitch adjacent frames. Parallax shift is certainly a concern when shooting interiors or any scenes with prominent content close to the camera. However, in most nightscapes our scene content is far enough away that parallax simply isn’t an issue.
Though not a necessity, I find a levelling base a huge convenience. As I show above, this specialized ball head goes under the usual tripod head and makes it easy to level the main head. It eliminates all the fussing with trial-and-error adjustments of the length of each tripod leg.
Then to level the camera itself, I use the electronic level now in most cameras. Or, if your camera lacks that feature, an accessory bubble level clipped into the camera’s hot shoe will work.
Having the camera level is critical. It can be tipped up, of course, but not tilted left-right. If it isn’t level the whole panorama will be off kilter, requiring excessive straightening and cropping in processing, or the horizon will wave up and down in the final stitch, perhaps causing parts of the scene to go missing.
NOTE: Click or tap on the panorama images to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
Shooting Horizon Panoramas
While panoramas spanning the entire sky might be what you are after, I suggest starting simpler, with panos that take in just a portion of the 360° horizon and only a part of the 180° of the sky. These “partial panos” are great for auroras (above) or noctilucent clouds, (below), or for capturing just the core of the Milky Way over a landscape.
The key to all panorama success is overlap. Segments should overlap by 30 to 50 percent, enabling the stitching software to align the segments using the content common to adjacent frames. Contrary to some users, I’ve never found an issue with having too much overlap, where the same content is present on several frames.
For a practical example, let’s say you shoot with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 16mm lens on a cropped-frame camera. Both combinations yield a field of view across the long dimension of the frame of roughly 80°, and across the short dimension of the frame of about 55°.
That means if you shoot with the camera in “landscape” orientation, panning the camera by 40° between segments would provide a generous 50 percent overlap. The left half of each segment will contain the same content as the right half of the previous segment, if you take your panos by turning from left to right.
TIP: My habit is to always shoot from left to right, as that puts the segments in the correct order adjacent to each other when I view them in browser programs such as Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, with images sorted in chronological order (from first to last images in a set) as I typically prefer. But the stitching will work no matter which direction you rotate the camera.
In the example of a 24mm lens and a camera in landscape orientation you could turn at a 45° or 50° spacing and yield enough overlap. However, turning the camera at multiples of 15° is usually the most convenient, as tripod heads are often graduated with markings at 5° increments, and labeled every 15° or 30°.
Some will have coarser and perhaps unlabeled markings. If so, determine what each increment represents, then take care to move the camera consistently by the amount that will provide adequate overlap.
To maximize the coverage of the sky while still framing a good amount of foreground, a common practice is to shoot panoramas with the camera in portrait orientation. That provides more vertical but less horizontal coverage for each frame. In that case, for adequate overlap with a 24mm lens and full-frame camera shoot at 30° spacings.
TIP: When shooting a partial panorama, for example just to the south for the Milky Way, or to the north for the aurora borealis, my practice is to always shoot a segment farther to the left and another to the right of the main scene. Shoot more than you need. Those end segments can get distorted when stitching, but if they don’t contain essential content, they can be cropped out with no loss, leaving your main scene clean and undistorted.
Shooting with a longer lens, such as a 50mm (or 35mm on a cropped frame camera), will yield higher resolution in the final panorama, but you will have much less sky coverage, unless you shoot multiple tiers, as I describe below. You would also have to shoot more segments, at 15° to 20° spacings, taking longer to complete the shoot.
As the number of segments goes up shooting fast becomes more important, to minimize how much the sky moves from segment to segment, and during each exposure itself, to aid in stitching. Remember, the sky appears to be turning from east to west, but the ground isn’t. So a prolonged shoot can cause problems later as the stitching software tries to align on either the fixed ground or the moving stars.
Panoramas on moonlit nights, as I show above, are relatively easy because exposures are short.
Milky Way panoramas taken on dark, moonless nights are tougher. They require fast apertures (f/2 to f/2.8) and high ISOs (ISO 3200 to 6400), to keep individual exposures no more than 30 to 40 seconds long.
Noise lives in the dark foregrounds, so I find it best to err on the side of overexposure, to ensure adequate exposure for the ground, even if it means the sky is bright and the stars slightly trailed. It’s the “Expose to the Right” philosophy I espouse at length in my eBook.
Advanced users can try shooting in two passes: one at a low ISO and with a long exposure for the fixed ground, and another pass at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure for the moving sky. But assembling such a set will take some deft work in Photoshop to align and mask the two stitched panos. None of the examples here are “double exposures.”
Shooting 360° Panoramas
More demanding than partial panoramas are full 360° panoramas, as above. Here I find it is best to start the sequence with the camera aimed toward the celestial pole (to the north in the northern hemisphere, or to the south in the southern hemisphere). That places the area of sky that moves the least over time at the two ends of the panorama, again making it easier for software to align segments, with the two ends taken farthest apart in time meeting up in space.
In our 24mm lens example, to cover the entire 360° scene shooting with a 45° spacing would require at least eight images (8 x 45 = 360). I used 10 above. Using that same lens with the camera in portrait orientation will require at least 12 segments to cover the entire 360° landscape.
Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas
More demanding still are 360° panoramas that encompass the entire sky, from the ground below the horizon to the zenith overhead. Above is an example.
To do that with a single row of images requires shooting in portrait orientation with a very wide 14mm rectilinear lens on a full-frame camera. That combination has a field of view of about 100° across the long dimension of the sensor.
That sounds generous, but reaching up to the zenith at an altitude of 90° means only a small portion of the landscape will be included along the bottom of the frame.
To provide an even wider field of view to take in more ground, I use full-frame fish-eye lenses on my full-frame cameras, such as Canon’s old 15mm lens (as shown at top) or Rokinon’s 12mm. Even a circular-format fish-eye will work, such as an 8mm on a full-frame camera or 4.5mm on a cropped-frame camera.
All such fish-eye lenses produce curved horizons, but they take in a wide swath of sky, making it possible to include lots of foreground while reaching well past the zenith. Conventional panorama assembly programs won’t work with such wide and distorted segments, but the specialized programs described below will.
Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas
The alternative technique for “all-sky” panos is to shoot multiple tiers of images: first, a lower row covering the ground and partway up the sky, followed by an upper row completing the coverage of just the sky at top.
The trick is to ensure adequate overlap both horizontally and vertically. With the camera in landscape orientation that will require a 20mm lens for full-frame cameras, or a 14mm lens for cropped-frame cameras. Either combination can cover the entire sky plus lots of foreground in two tiers, though I usually shoot three, just to be sure!.
Shooting with longer lenses provides incredible resolution for billboard-sized “gigapan” blow-ups, but will require shooting three, if not more, tiers, each with many segments. That starts to become a chore to do manually. Some motorized assistance really helps when shooting multi-tier panoramas.
Automating the Pan Shooting
The dedicated pano shooter might want to look at a device such as the GigaPan Epic models or the iOptron iPano, (shown below), all about $800 to $1000.
I’ve tested the latter and it works great. You program in the lens, overlap, and angular sweep desired. The iPano works out how many segments and tiers will be required, and automates the shooting, firing the shutter for the duration you program, then moving to the new position, firing again, and so on. I’ve shot four-tier panos effortlessly and with great success.
However, these devices are generally bigger and heavier than I care to heft around in the field.
Instead, I use the original Genie Mini from SYRP, (below), a $250 device primarily for shooting motion control time-lapses. But the wireless app that programs the Genie also has a panorama function that automatically slews the camera horizontally between exposures, again based on the lens, overlap, and angular sweep you enter. The just-introduced Genie Mini II is similar, but with even more capabilities for camera control.
While combining two Genie Minis allows programming in a vertical motion as well, I’ve been using just a regular tripod head atop the Mini to manually move the camera vertically between each of the horizontal tiers. I don’t feel the one or two moves needed to go from tier to tier too arduous to do manually, and I like to keep my field gear compact and easy to use.
The Genie Mini (now replaced by the Mini II) works great and I highly recommend it, even if panoramas are your only interest. But it is also one of the best, yet most affordable, single-axis motion control devices on the market for time-lapse work.
When to Shoot the Milky Way
While the right gear and techniques are important, go out on the wrong night and you won’t be able to capture the Milky Way as the great sweeping arch you might have hoped for.
In the northern hemisphere the Milky Way arches directly overhead from late July to October for most of the night. That’s fine for spherical fish-eye panoramas, but in rectangular images when the Milky Way is overhead it gets stretched and distorted across the top of the final panorama. For example, in the Bow Lake by Night panorama above, I cropped out most of this distorted content.
The prime season for Milky Way arches is therefore before the Milky Way climbs overhead, while it is still across the eastern sky, as above. That’s on moonless nights from March to early July, with May and June best for catching it in the evening, and not having to wait up until dawn, as is the case in early spring.
TIP: The best way to figure out when and where the Milky Way will appear is to use a desktop planetarium program such as Starry Night or Sky Safari or the free Stellarium. All can realistically depict the Milky Way for your location and date. You can then step through time to see how the Milky Way will move through the night, and how it will frame with your camera and lens combination using the “field of view” indicators the programs provide.
When shooting in the southern hemisphere I like the April to June period for catching the sweep of the southern Milky Way and the galactic core rising in late evening. By contrast, during mid austral winter in July and August the galactic centre shines directly overhead in the evening, a spectacular sight to be sure, but tough to capture in a panorama except in a spherical or fish-eye scene.
That said, I always like to put in a good word for the often sadly neglected winter Milky Way (the summer Milky Way for those “down under”). While lacking the spectacle of the galactic core in Sagittarius, the “other” Milky Way has its attractions such as Orion and Taurus. The best months for a panorama with that Milky Way in an arch across a rectangular frame are January to March. The Zodiacal Light can be a bonus at that season, as it was above.
TIP: Always shoot raw files for the widest dynamic range and flexibility in recovering details in the highlights and shadows. Even so, each segment has to be well exposed and focused out in the field.
And unless you are doing a “two-pass” double exposure, always shoot each segment with identical exposure settings. This is especially critical for bright sky scenes such twilights or moonlit scenes. Vary the exposure and you might get unsightly banding at the seams.
There’s nothing worse than getting home only to find one or more segments was missed, or was out of focus or badly exposed, spoiling the set.
PART 2 — STITCHING
Developing Panorama Segments
Once you have your panorama segments, the next step is to develop and assemble them. For my workflow, the process of assembling a panorama from its constituent segments begins with developing each of those segments identically.
NOTE: Click or tap on the software screen shots to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
I like to develop each segment’s raw file as fully as possible at this first stage in the workflow, applying noise reduction, colour correction, contrast adjustments, shadow and highlight recovery, and any special settings such as dehaze and clarity that can make the Milky Way pop.
I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions.
There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.
The key is developing each raw file identically, usually by working on one segment, then copying and pasting its settings to all the others in a set. Not all raw developers have this “Copy Settings” function. For example, Affinity Photo does not. It works very well as a layer-based editor to replace Photoshop, but is crude in its raw developing “Persona” functions.
While panorama stitching software will apply corrections to smooth out image-to-image variations, I find it is best to ensure all the segments look as similar as possible at the raw stage for brightness, contrast, and colour correction.
Do be aware that among social media groups and chat rooms devoted to nightscape imaging a lot of myth and misinformation abounds about how to process and stitch panoramas, and why some don’t work. Someone having a problem with a particular pano will ask why, and get ten different answers from well-meaning helpers, most of them wrong!
Stitching Simple Panoramas
For example, if your segments don’t join well it likely isn’t because you needed to use a panorama head (one oft-heard bit of advice). I never do. The issue is usually a lack of sufficient overlap. Or perhaps the image content moved too much from frame to frame as the photographer took too long to shoot the set.
Or, even when quickly-shot segments do have lots of overlap, stitching software can still get confused if adjoining segments contain featureless content or content that changes, such as segments over rippling water with no identifiable “landmarks” for the software to latch onto.
The primary problems, however, arise from using software that just isn’t up to the task. Programs that work great on simple panoramas (as the next three examples show) will fail when trying to stitch a more demanding set of segments.
For example, for partial horizon panos shot with 20mm to 50mm lenses, I’ll use the panorama function now built into Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom Classic, and also in the mobile-friendly Lightroom app. As I show above, ACR can do a wonderful job, yielding a raw DNG file that can continue to be edited non-destructively. It’s by far the easiest and fastest option, and is my first choice.
Another choice, not shown here, is the Photomerge function from within Photoshop, which yields a layered and masked master file, and provides the option for “content-aware” filling of missing areas. It can sometimes work on panos that ACR balks at.
Two programs popular as Adobe alternatives, ON1 PhotoRAW (above) and the aforementioned Affinity Photo (below), also have very capable panorama stitching functions.
However, in testing both programs with the demanding Bow Lake multi-tier panorama I used below with other programs, ON1 2019.5 did an acceptable job, while Affinity 1.7 failed. It works best on simpler panoramas, like this partial scene with a 24mm lens.
Even if they succeed when stitching 360° panoramas, such general-purpose editing programs, Adobe’s included, provide no option for choosing how the final scene gets framed. You have no control over where the program puts the ends of the scene.
Or the program just fails, producing a result like this.