Time-Lapse Tips from Adobe

I’ve learned of a new technique for creating time-lapse movies that I wanted to pass along.

Time-lapse imaging is an entirely new area of astrophotography previously accessible only to those who had access to expensive custom-made movie cameras, at least in the film days. Now anyone with a Digital SLR camera can take time-lapse movies of the night sky and landscapes with lots of Wow! factor. Here, as examples, are a couple of recent sequences I’ve done.

Moonrise over Vermilion Lakes, Banff

Trains in Twilight at Morant’s Curve, Banff

(You can see more of my time-lapse movies at my Amazing Sky channel on YouTube.)

One of the other wonderful, if not breathless, aspects of the digital technology is how tools and techniques are always improving. Thanks to a new tutorial at Adobe, I realize there is a better way to assemble the hundreds of frames that make up a typical time-lapse movie, using a tool I already had, Adobe Photoshop. For years I had been using Apple’s Quicktime Pro software to string together movie frames — each frame being a time-exposure still image. Quicktime works very well but any processing of the frames had to be done while they were still images, before stringing them together into a movie.

Adobe’s tutorial, linked to below and here from Adobe TV, demonstrates how to use the special “Extended” version of Adobe Photoshop — that’s the extra-cost scientific edition of Photoshop — to do the same thing: pick a folder of images and then automatically string them into a movie at a frame rate you pick. The secret is selecting the “Motion” workspace to reveal the motion picture timeline.

The beautiful thing about this technique is that the entire movie can then be processed using Adjustment Layers and other usual Photoshop processing methods. By turning the movie layer into a Smart Object you can even apply filters like Sharpening and Noise Reduction to the entire movie, but do it non-destructively. Anyone who has taken my DSLR Astrophotography workshops will know my penchant for non-destructive editing using the superb tools that Photoshop provides. Non-destructive editing is my mantra.

Being able to stay within Photoshop for working on movies, as well as the original still images, is a tremendous advantage. Again, I am a big proponent of simplifying the workflow by staying within the one software package as much as possible.

Yes, Adobe Photoshop is costly, and the Extended Edition more costly still, but it is worth it for what it can do for us demanding astrophotographers. For example, the Extended Edition also has superb but little-known tools for stacking, registering and combining images in one fell swoop, essential for deep-sky photography. Now I know it handles time-lapse movies as well, all the more reason to get it. You learn something new every day!


— Alan, March 27, 2011

A Magical Moment in the Planetarium

This isn’t really an astrophoto as such, but it certainly captures a special moment under the stars, in this case the artificial sky of the Discovery Dome planetarium theatre where I work. At the TELUS World of Science we currently have a wonderful exhibit featuring artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Titanic. To complement the exhibition, I’ve been organizing a series of evening special events, such as lectures and concerts. Here, performers from the Cantos Music Foundation in Calgary are performing some of the music the Titanic Band played on the ship’s fateful maiden voyage 99 years ago.

The special point of the concert for me came when Kasia, on a vintage Steinway piano, and Bob, on tin whistle, played the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee,” reputedly the last song the band played before the ship went down. All aboard Titanic that night described the sky as a clear and star-filled (a thin waning Moon did not rise till just before dawn). As one passenger described it —

There was no Moon, and I have never seen the stars shine brighter. They appeared to stand out of the sky, sparkling like diamonds. It was the kind of night that made one feel glad to be alive.” — Jack Thayer, First Class Passenger.

We set up the Digistar II to project the sky as it appeared on the night of  April 14/15, 1912, and let it roll through the night from sunset to stop the stars as they were at about 2:30 am local time, when the ship disappeared, leaving only the lifeboats with about 700 survivors on the Atlantic under the cold night sky.

It was a powerful moment, one of the best of my long career as a planetarium producer.

Jupiter and Mercury Amid the Clouds

One of the rules of astrophotography is that clouds always position themselves right over the objects you are trying to shoot. When the subject in question is a pair of planets, then a cloud will always cover one or the other planet, making it impossible to capture both at once and therefore record the conjunction.

Tonight, March 15, I chased out west of Calgary to get the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter over the scenic skyline of the Rockies. Of course, clouds drifted slo-0-0-0-w-ly across the sky. But with a little patience (and I do have very little to spare in situations like this!) I was able to catch a few moments when both Jupiter (at left here) and Mercury (upper right) shone in view amid the clouds.

The highway (Highway 66 to Bragg Creek) adds a nice touch, with cars seeming to come and go from the distant planets.

Again, as with the previous night’s shot, this is a “high dynamic range” stack of three shots taken in quick succession but with EV values 1 1/3rd f-stops apart, to retain both ground and sky detail in an inherently contrasty situation. Photoshop CS5’s HDR Pro feature does a great job. This is with the Canon 7D and 135mm lens.

– Alan, March 15, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Mercurial Encounter

Mercury is the elusive planet. Yet, when conditions are right, it is surprisingly easy to see. And you wonder what everyone is complaining about!

That was certainly the case tonight, March 14, 2011. I just walked out, looked west and there it was, shining bright and obvious to the right of Jupiter. No binoculars needed! Having brighter Jupiter nearby helps to be sure. But Mercury is certainly not dim. It’s wonderful that this week is the best time of the year for us northerners to spot Mercury, just as NASA’s Messenger probe enters orbit around the inner planet, becoming the first to orbit, not just fly past, Mercury. It is always nice to look up and see the planet that you can point to and say, “We have a probe exploring that world.” Later this year, one will be on its way to Jupiter as well — the Juno orbiter.

This shot shows the scene with Mercury (at right) approaching its March 15 close conjunction with Jupiter in the evening twilight. This image captures the view much as the eye saw it. But to do that I took a “High Dynamic Range” composite of three exposures about 1 stop apart, taken in rapid succession with a Canon 7D camera and Sigma 50mm lens.

– Alan, March 14, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Reliving Apollo

When I first walked into this exhibit hall at the Kennedy Space Centre, I was floored. This image only shows part of the vast Saturn V rocket lying on its side, surrounded by artifacts and memorabilia from the glory days of the Apollo moon landing program, including an actual lunar module (at upper right), though one that never flew — if it had, it wouldn’t be here to be on display. The immensity of the Saturn V rocket is overwhelming. I regret never having seen one go up.

The actual Command Module from Apollo 14 is here, as well as the Saturn launch control room faithfully recreated from the original consoles, and brought to life in a multi-media show.

It is a stunning exhibit, and a space enthusiast’s dream, located at the site of the VIP launch viewing area. Across the water are the launch pads and Vertical Assembly Building still used, though not for long, by the Space Shuttle.

On the day we were there, March 5, by good fortune we did manage to see a launch, of an Atlas V rocket carrying the secret X37B spaceplane into orbit. That was pretty neat, though seeing a Shuttle go up would be even better. Only two more chances for that!

And then, I hope, those amazing Shuttles will find retirement homes in exhibit complexes as fine as this one at KSC. The last 30 years of Shuttle missions have provided some of the most memorable moments in space exploration, both highs and lows, and they deserve to be commemorated in suitable fashion in impressive exhibits. It would be a pity if, after spending billions and billions on the Shuttle program, no one can come up with ~ $100 million to house and display at least one of the retired orbiters properly.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Looking Up at Arecibo

Visiting one of the world’s great observatories is always a highlight for any astronomy enthusiast. Most of us “collect” observatories, and try to get to as many as possible in our lifetime of travels and explorations. This last week provided me an opportunity to visit a place of legendary status in astronomy, the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. This is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and consists of a 1000-foot metal dish suspended in a natural bowl in the island landscape.

In this shot, our tour group, part of the “Cosmic Trails” Caribbean cruise I was on that week, is standing underneath the metal mesh dish, looking up toward the antennas suspended high above the dish. This is a rare and privileged place to stand — driving down into and under the dish isn’t on the usual tourist tour. Had they been beaming powerful radar signals out to some solar system target that afternoon we would not have been able to stand here. As it was, they were listing to signals from pulsars. We also got into the main control room to talk to the observers and technicians at work that afternoon.

I won’t provide all the background about this remarkable observatory (you can read about it yourself at Wikipedia or visit the telescope’s webpage). However, movie fans will know this location from its appearance in the movie Contact and in the James Bond film Goldeneye. And it is well-known for its role in broadcasting signals to potential aliens and for listing to signals from extraterrestrials. However, one of its main roles these days is bouncing radar signals off passing near-Earth asteroids, and producing radar “images” of those asteroids. Arecibo also discovered, back in the 1960s, the true rotation rate of Mercury, now visible at its best in the evening sky.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Sailin’ Toward the Moon

For the past week I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, on a “cruise and learn” voyage, serving as one of the guest speakers to a group of astronomy enthusiasts who wanted an immersive vacation learning about the latest in astronomy research and, in my presentations, about the hobby side: choosing a telescope and doing astrophotography. The cruise was organized by Insight Cruises and by Sky and Telescope magazine.

The trip went great, with fabulous weather all along, and a welcome break to an awful winter in the north. However, a cruise ship is not the best place to actually do astrophotography!

This is a shot taken on Friday, March 11, from the upper deck and bow of the ship, the Holland America Line’s “Nieuw Amsterdam,” as we sailed on a northwest course back to Fort Lauderdale from our most southerly port of call in St. Maartens in the eastern Caribbean. The Moon is overexposed at right, and is directly ahead of us, making it look like we were sailing toward the Moon. At left is Orion and Canis Major, tipped over on their sides compared to our northerly view. This was from a latitude of about 20° North.

To keep the stars looking like stars (and not seagulls) and freeze the rolling of the ship, I had to bump the camera up to ISO 6400 and use a 5 second exposure at f/2.8 (wide open) with the 16-35mm lens. Not the best combination of settings, but it’s what it took to capture the “seascape” night scene.

— Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

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