Astronomy author and photographer Alan Dyer presents amazing sky sights
Author: Alan Dyer
Alan Dyer is retired from a career as a writer and producer of science programs for science centres and planetariums. He is one of Canada’s best-known astronomy writers and serves as a contributing editor to SkyNews magazine. He also serves as a contributing editor to Sky and Telescope, writing frequent reviews of equipment.
He has co-authored several best selling guidebooks for amateur astronomers, including, with Terence Dickinson, "The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide." He recently published the multi-media eBook "How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses," available on the Apple iBooks Store.
Alan is a member of the exclusive The World at Night photography group (www.twanight.org).
As an amateur astronomer, his interests include astrophotography and deep-sky observing (he compiled some of the popular deep-sky observing lists in the annual RASC Observer's Handbook). Alan takes the opportunity as often as possible to visit the southern hemisphere to pursue both observing and photography under southern skies.
His other obsession, eclipse chasing, has taken him to every continent, chalking up 15 total solar eclipses. Asteroid 78434 is named for him.
The Northern Lights are amazing from Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
A handful of locations in the world are meccas for aurora chasers. Yellowknife is one of them and, for me, surprisingly accessible with daily flights north.
In a two-hour flight from Calgary you can be at latitude 62° North and standing under the auroral oval with the lights dancing overhead every clear night.
The attraction of going in early September, as I did, is that the more persistent clouds of late autumn have not set in, and the many lakes and rivers are not yet frozen, making for superb photo opportunities.
A single image from a time-lapse sequence, of the auroral curtains converging toward the zenith during the display on September 8/9, 2018, from near Yellowknife, NWT. The curtains show some fringes of pink from nitrogen. This is 2.5 seconds at f/2.8 with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
A single image from a time-lapse sequence, of the auroral curtains converging toward the zenith during the display on September 8/9, 2018, from near Yellowknife, NWT. This is 2.5 seconds at f/2.8 with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
A faint green and red auroral curtain to the northwest over Tibbitt Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. The Big Dipper is right of centre; Arcturus setting on the horizon. This was September 8, 2018. This is a mean-combined stack of 8 exposures for the ground and water to smooth noise, and a single exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony A7III at ISO 1600.
A display of Northern Lights starting up in the twilight, over the river leading out of Tibbitt Lake, at the end of the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife NWT, on September 8, 2018. This was the start of a fabulous display this night. Capella and Auriga are at left; the Pleiades is rising left of centre; the Andromeda Galaxy is at top. This is a mean-combined stack of 7 exposures for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky and partially for the reflection, all 25 seconds at f/2.5 with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.
Lakes down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail, such as Prosperous, Prelude, and Pontoon are popular spots for the busloads of tourists who fly in every year from around the world.
On one magical night I and my local host and guide, Stephen Bedingfield, went to the end of the Trail, to where the Ice Road begins, to Tibbitt Lake, and had the site to ourselves. The aurora was jaw-dropping that night.
On other nights with less certain prospects I stayed in town, and still got a fine show on several nights, the Lights so bright they show up well even from within urban Yellowknife.
A selfie portrait under an all-sky display of Northern Lights in the city of Yellowknife, from the boardwalk at Rotary Park. This was on the night of Sept. 10/11, 2018 during a major solar storm, but in the subsiding hours after the sky cleared at about 2 am. The Big Dipper is at right. The Summer Triangle is at left. Cassiopeia is at the zenith. The view is looking northwest at centre. This is a mean stack of 6 exposures smoothed to reduce noise for the ground and one exposure for the sky and me, all 6 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. The focus is soft.
An all-sky display of Northern Lights in the city of Yellowknife, from the end of the boardwalk at Rotary Park looking over the bay. This was on the night of Sept. 10/11, 2018 during a major solar storm, but in the subsiding hours after the sky cleared at about 2 am. The winter stars of Taurus and Gemini are rising. The Big Dipper is at far left. Cassiopeia is at the zenith. The view is looking east at centre. This is a mean stack of 8 exposures smoothed to reduce noise for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 6 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. The focus is soft.
The Northern Lights over the “United in Celebration” sculpture at the Somba K’e Civic Plaza on Frame Lake in downtown Yellowknife, NWT, on September 14, 2018. The Prince of Wales Museum is at far right. This is a stack of 5 images for the ground to smooth noise and one image for the sky, all 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 400.
A curtain of aurora sweeps over the houseboats moored on Yellowknife Bay in Yellowknife, NWT, on September 11, 2018. The Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus are rising at left. This is a mean-combined stack of 8 images to smooth noise for the ground and water, and a single exposure for the sky and houseboats themselves (as they were moving slightly from exposure to exposure). Each was 13 seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.
On another night we chased into clear skies down Highway 3 to the west, to a rocky plateau on the Canadian Precambrian Shield. Even amid the clouds, the aurora was impressive.
But it was the night at Tibbitt that was the highlight.
Here is the finale music video from movies shot that night, September 8, 2018, with two cameras: the Sony a7III used to take “real-time” 4K videos of the aurora motion, and the Nikon D750 used to take time-lapses.
The movie is in 4K. The music, Eternal Hope, is by Steven Gutheinz and is used by permission of West One Music.
Aurora Reflections from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Click through to Vimeo for more technical info about the video.
Enjoy! And do share!
And make Yellowknife one of your bucket-list locations.
I’m pleased to announce that my “Nightscapes and Time-Lapses” eBook is now available for all devices as a “universal” PDF!
First published in 2014, and revised several times since then, my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses eBook had been available only for Apple devices through the Apple iBooks Store. Not any more!
Over the years, many people have inquired about an edition for other devices, notably Android and Windows tablets. The only format that I can be sure the wide array of other devices can read and display as I intend it is PDF.
To convert the interactive Apple iBook into a PDF required splitting the content into two volumes:
Volume 1 deals just with Photography in 425 pages.
Volume 2 deals just with Processing, also in 425 pages.
Volume 2 includes all the same step-by-step tutorials as the Apple edition, but spread over many more pages. That’s because the Apple Edition allows “stacking” many processing steps into a one-page interactive gallery.
In the PDF version, however, those same steps are shown over several pages. And there are about 50 processing tutorials, including for selected non-Adobe programs such as Affinity Photo, ON1 Photo RAW, and DxO PhotoLab.
The other main difference is that, unlike the Apple version, I cannot embed videos. So all the videos are provided by links to Vimeo feeds, many “private” so only my ebook owners have access to those videos.
Otherwise, the combined content of the two PDFs is the same as the Apple iBooks edition.
I’ve also updated the Apple iBooks version (to v3.1) to revise the content, and add a few new pages: on Luminosity Mask panel extensions, southern hemisphere Milky Way and Moon charts, and even the new Nikon Z6 camera. It is now 580 pages.
Owners of the previous Apple iBooks edition can get the updated version for free. In iBooks, check under Purchased>Updates.
Both Apple and PDF editions are now in sync and identical in content. I think you’ll find them the most comprehensive works on the subject in print and in digital.
I spent a wonderful week touring the star-filled nightscapes of southwest Saskatchewan.
On their license plates Saskatchewan is billed as the Land of Living Skies. I like the moniker that Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor gives it – the sky with nothing to get in the way.
Grasslands National Park should be a mecca for all stargazers. It is a Dark Sky Preserve. You can be at sites in the Park and not see a light anywhere, even in the far distance on the horizon, and barely any sky glows from manmade sources.
The lead image shows the potential for camping in the Park under an amazing sky, an attraction that is drawing more and more tourists to sites like Grasslands.
This is a multi- panel panorama of the Milky Way over the historic 76 Ranch Corral in the Frenchman River Valley, once part of the largest cattle ranch in Canada. Mars shines brightly to the east of the galactic core.
Mars and the Milky Way over the tipis at Two Trees area in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan on August 6, 2018. Some light cloud added the haze and glows to the planets and stars. Illumination is by starlight. No light painting was employed here. This is a stack of 8 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and a single untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400 with LENR on.
Mars (at left) and the Milky Way (at right) over a single tipi (with another under construction at back) at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. I placed a low-level warm LED light inside the tipi for the illumination. This is a stack of 6 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
The Big Dipper and Arcturus (at left) over a single tipi at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. This is a stack of 10 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Light cloud passing through added the natural star glows, enlarging the stars and making the pattern stand out. No soft focus filter was employed, and illumination is from starlight. No light painting was employed. Some airglow and aurora colour the sky. A Glow filter from ON1 Photo Raw applied to the sky to further soften the sky.
At the Two Trees site visitors can stay in the tipis and enjoy the night sky. No one was there the night I was shooting. The night was warm, windless, and bug-less. It was a perfect summer evening.
From Grasslands I headed west to the Cypress Hills along scenic backroads. The main Meadows Campground in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, another Dark Sky Preserve, is home every year to the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. About 350 stargazers and lovers of the night gather to revel in starlight.
The Perseid meteor shower over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, on August 10, 2018, with an aurora as a bonus. The view is looking north with Polaris at top centre, and the Big Dipper at lower left. The radiant point in Perseus is at upper right. The sky also has bands of green airglow, which was more prominent in images taken earlier before the short-lived aurora kicked up. The aurora was not obvious to the naked eye. However, the northern sky was bright all night with the airglow and faint aurora. This is a composite of 10 images, one for the base sky with the aurora and two faint Perseids, and 9 other images, each with Perseids taken over a 3.3 hour period, being the best 9 frames with meteors out of 360. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 4000. I rotated all the additional meteor image frames around Polaris to align the frames to the base sky image, so that the added meteors appear in the sky in the correct place with respect to the background stars, retaining the proper perspective of the radiant point.
A Perseid meteor streaks down the Milky Way over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan, at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a Dark Sky Preserve. The Milky Way shines to the south. About 350 stargazers attend the SSSP every year. Observers enjoy their views of the sky at left while an astrophotographer attends to his camera control computer at right. This is a single exposure, 25 seconds, with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III camera at ISO 3200.
This year coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower and we saw lots!
Most nights were clear, and warmer than usual, allowing shirt-sleeve observing. It was a little bit of Arizona in Canada. Everyone enjoyed the experience. I know I did!
SSSP and Cypress Hills are stargazing heaven in Canada.
From Cypress Hills I drove due north to finally, after years of thinking about it, visit the Great Sandhills near Leader, Saskatchewan. Above is a panorama from the “Boot Hill” ridge at the main viewing area.
The Sandhills is not a provincial park but is a protected eco zone, though used by local ranchers for grazing. However, much of the land remains uniquely prairie but with exposed sand dunes among the rolling hills.
There are farm lights in the distance but the sky above is dark and, in the panorama above, colored by twilight and bands of red and green airglow visible to the camera. It’s dark!
In the twilight, from the top of one of the accessible sand dunes, I shot a panorama of the array of four planets currently across the sky, from Venus in the southwest to Mars in the southeast.
This is the kind of celestial scene you can see only where the sky has nothing to get in the way.
If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.
Three perfect nights in July provided opportunities to capture the night sky at popular sites in Banff National Park.
When the weather forecast in mid-July looked so promising I made an impromptu trip to Banff to shoot nightscapes and time-lapses under unusually clear skies. Clouds are often the norm in the mountains or, increasingly these days, forest fire smoke in late summer.
But from July 15 to 17 the skies could not have been clearer, except for the clouds that rolled in late on my last night, when I was happy to pack up and get some sleep.
My first priority was to shoot the marvellous close conjunction of the Moon and Venus on July 15. I did so from the Storm Mountain viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, with a cooperative train also coming through the scene at the right time.
This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.
The next night, July 16, was one of the most perfect I had ever seen in the Rockies. Crystal clear skies, calm winds, and great lake reflections made for a picture-perfect night at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. Above is a 360° panorama shot toward the end of the night when the galactic centre of the Milky Way was over Bow Glacier.
Streaks of green airglow arc across the south, while to the north the sky is purple from a faint display of aurora.
This is a rare appearance of the unusual STEVE auroral arc on the night of July 16-17, 2018, with a relatively low Kp Index of only 2 to 3. While the auroral arc was visible the ISS made a bright pass heading east. This is a blend of a single 15-second exposure for the sky and ground, with seven 15-second exposures for the ISS, but masked to reveal just the ISS trail and its reflection in the water. The ISS shots were taken at 3-second intervals, thus the gaps. All with the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Taken from Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta.
The unusual STEVE auroral arc across the northern sky at Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta on the night of July 16-17, 2018. The more normal green auroral arc is lower across the northern horizon. But STEVE here appears more pink. The STEVE aurora was colourless to the eye but did show faint fast-moving rays, here blurred by the long exposure. They were moving east to west. The Big Dipper is at left. The lights are from Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This is a single exposure for the sky and a mean-stacked blend of 3 exposures for the ground to smooth noise. All 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Earlier that night the usual auroral arc known as Steve put in an unexpected appearance. It was just a grey band to the eye, but the camera picked up Steve’s usual pink colours. Another photographer from the U.S. who showed up had no idea there was an aurora happening until I pointed it out.
My last night was at Herbert Lake, a small pond great for capturing reflections of the mountains around Lake Louise, and the Milky Way. Here, brilliant Mars, so photogenic this summer, also reflects in the still waters.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the peaks of the Continental Divide at Herbert Lake near Lake Louise, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at left is Mount Temple. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of the small Lake Herbert this night on July 17, 2018. This is a stack of 100 images for the star trails, stacked with the Long Streak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Clouds moving in added the odd dark patches in the Milky Way that look like out of place dark nebulas. The reflected star trails are really there in the water and have not be copied, pasted and inverted from the sky image. They look irregular because of rippling in the water.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the Rocky Mountains at Bow Lake, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at centre is Bow Peak. Crowfoot Glacier is at far left; Bow Glacier is at right below the Milky Way. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of Bow Lake this night on July 16, 2018, though they appear large and out of focus. This is a stack of 300 images for the star trails, stacked with the Ultrastreak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laowa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Bands of airglow add the green streaks to the sky.
The stars trailing as they move east to west (left to right), ending with the Milky Way and Galactic Centre (right) over Storm Mountain and the Vermilion Pass area of the Continental Divide in Banff National Park, Alberta. Mars is the bright trail at left. Saturn is amid the Milky Way at right. This was July 15, 2018. The lights at left are from the Castle Mountain interchange at Highways 1 and 93. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, plus 200 exposures for the star trails, and one exposure, untracked, for the fixed sky taken about a minute after the last star trail image. All 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Dynamic Contrast filter from ON1 applied to the ground, and Soft and Airy filter from Luminar applied to the sky for a soft Orton effect.
At each site I shot time-lapses, and used those frames to have some fun with star trail stacking, showing the stars turning from east to west and reflected in the lake waters, and with a single still image taken at the end of the sequence layered in to show the untrailed sky and Milky Way.
But I also turned those frames into time-lapse movies, and incorporated them into a new music video, along with some favourite older clips reprocessed for this new video.
Banff by Night (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Enjoy! And do enlarge to full screen. The video is also in 4K resolution.
One of my aurora images now appears on a new stamp issued by Canada Post to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
It is always a treat to see one of your images in print, but this is a rare privilege indeed. On June 29 Canada Post unveiled a new set of astronomy stamps, one of which features an aurora image from me, shot March 14, 2016 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba. I shot it from the second floor observing deck, looking east to the rising sky.
The other stamp features a Milky Way image shot by fellow RASC member Matt Quinn taken from the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario.
If you view the stamps under UV “black light” more image information is revealed!
The stamps were issued to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, which began as an exclusive “gentlemen’s club” in Toronto in 1868. It is much more inclusive today, as it should be, with a membership of 5500 people from across Canada.
The stamps were unveiled at a ceremony at the RASC’s annual General Assembly, this year held in Calgary where I live. Representatives from Canada Post, and of course the RASC executive were in attendance.
This shows (L to R): me, David Foote (author, eclipse chaser, and member of the Stamp Advisory Committee), Chris Gainor (incoming RASC President), and Colin Haig (outgoing RASC President) at the unveiling. Matt Quinn was not able to attend. All those present (including members of the local Philatelic Society) received first day covers which David and I autographed.
This was certainly a great honour, a once-a-lifetime event I’m sure. I am grateful to the RASC officials such as Randy Attwood who lobbied for the stamp issue, a process that began three years ago.
I was first contacted by Canada Post in October 2016 though the final image was not selected until October 2017. Since then, its use was to be kept secret until the “Big Reveal” unveiling at the General Assembly. For the most part, it was!
This is a shot I took of some of my fellow RASC members and friends from across Canada enjoying me taking a picture of them at the ceremony at the University of Calgary.
Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.
Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.
Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.
Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.
From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.
The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.
A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.
These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.
Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.
An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.
The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.
You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).
Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.
The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.
The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.