Astronomy author and photographer Alan Dyer presents amazing sky sights
Author: Alan Dyer
Alan Dyer, now retired from a career as a writer and producer of science programs for science centres and planetariums, is one of Canada’s best-known astronomy writers. He serves as a regular contributor to SkyNews and Sky and Telescope magazines.
He has co-authored several best selling guidebooks for amateur astronomers, including, with Terence Dickinson, "The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide." He published the multi-media eBook "How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses," available on the Apple Books Store, Amazon Kindle, and as a PDF set from www.amazingsky.com.
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 nights were short and never fully dark, but early June provided a run of clear nights in the Rockies to enjoy Mars and the Milky Way.
Weather prospects looked good for a run of five nights last week so I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot nightscapes from Banff and, as shown here, in Yoho National Park across the Continental Divide in B.C.
The lead image above is a sweeping panorama at Emerald Lake, one of the jewels of the Rockies. Though taken at 1:30 a.m., the sky still isn’t dark, but has a glow to the north that lasts all night near summer solstice. Even so, the sky was dark enough to reveal the Milky Way arching across the sky.
The mountain at centre is Mt. Burgess, home of the famous Burgess Shale Fossils, an incredible collection of fossilized creatures from the Cambrian explosion.
The image is a panoramic stitch of 24 segments but cropped in quite a bit from the original, and all shot with an iPano motorized panning unit. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. One short exposure of the lodge was blended in to reduce its light glare. The original, stitched with PTGui software, is 15,000 x 9,000 pixels.
The view above, a single frame image, shows the view to the south as the Milky Way and galactic centre descend toward the horizon over the south end of the lake. Lights from the Lodge illuminate the trees.
The next night (above) I was at the same spot to shoot Mars in the deepening twilight, and reflected in the calm waters of Emerald Lake, with Cathedral Peak at left.
Another multi-frame panorama, this time sweeping up from the horizon, captures Cassiopeia (the “W”) and the rising autumn constellations reflected in the lake waters.
Vega is at top, Deneb below it, while the stars of Perseus and Pegasus are just rising.
It was a magical two nights in Yoho, a name that means “wonderful!” Both by day and by night.
How many sources of skyglow can you pick out here?
There are at least five:
• the Milky Way (at left),
• green airglow (below the Milky Way),
• all too prevalent light pollution (especially reflected off the clouds coming in from the west at right),
• lingering blue twilight across the north (at left and right), common in May and June from my northern latitude,
• and even a touch of aurora right at the northern horizon at far left.
In this scene from May 28, the Milky Way arches over an abandoned pioneer farmstead from the 1930s and 40s near my home in southern Alberta.
Mars (very bright and in some clouds) and Saturn shine at lower centre, while Jupiter is the bright object in clouds at right just above the old house.
Arcturus is the brightest star here at upper right of centre, made more obvious here by shining through the clouds. The Big Dipper, distorted by the map projection used in the this panorama, is at upper right.
Technical: This is a 360° horizon to zenith panorama taken with the iPano motorized panning unit, using the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, for a stitch of 28 panels, in 4 tiers of 7 segments each. Stitched with PTGui. South is at centre, north to either end. The original is 25,700 x 7,700 pixels.
Just after I shot the panorama I captured the International Space Station passing directly overhead in one of several passes this night.
At this time of year the ISS is lit all night by the Sun that never sets for the astronauts. We see the ISS cross the sky not once but several times in a night at 90-minute intervals.
While the sky near solstice is never dark at my latitude, it does have its compensations and attractions.
Mars is now shining brightly in the evening sky, as close and as bright as it has been since 2005.
Look southeast to south after dark and you’ll see a brilliant reddish “star.” That’s Mars, now at opposition, and retrograding slowly westward each night through Scorpius into Libra.
My image above captures Mars set in the entirety of the northern spring sky, complete with the arch of the Milky Way, twilight glows to the north (at left), some satellite trails …
… and Mars itself as the brightest object just right of centre shining above the landscape of Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Just to the left of Mars is Saturn, while below both is the star Antares in Scorpius, for a neat triangle of objects. Jupiter is the bright object in Leo at far right.
Technical: I shot the lead image on the evening of May 25. It is a 360° and horizon-to-zenith panorama stitched from 44 images, taken in 4 tiers of 11 panels each, shot with a motorized iOptron iPano mount. I used a 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 for 30-second exposures with the Canon 6D at ISO 6400. I stitched the images with PTGui. The original image is a monster 32,500 pixels wide by 8,300 pixels high.
I shot the panorama above earlier in the evening, when Mars and Saturn were just rising in the southeast at left, and the sky to the northwest at right was still bright with twilight.
This shows the geometry of Mars at opposition. It lies opposite the Sun and is so rising at sunset and directly opposite the sunset point. The Sun, Earth and Mars are in a straight line across the solar system with Earth in the middle and as close to Mars as we get.
Actual date of opposition was May 22 but Earth is closest to Mars on May 30. That’s when it will look largest in a telescope. But to the unaided eye it appears as a bright red star.
This is a video 37 years in the making, compiling images and videos I’ve shot of total solar eclipses since my first in 1979.
Though I’ve “sat out” on the last couple of total eclipses of the Sun in 2015 and 2016, I’m looking forward to once again standing in the shadow of the Moon in 2017 – on August 21.
If you have not yet seen a total eclipse of the Sun, and you live in North America, next year is your chance to. It is the most spectacular and awe-inspiring event you can witness in nature.
I hope my video montage relays some of the excitement of being there, as the Moon eclipses the Sun.
As always, click HD and enlarge to full screen.
My montage features images and movies shot in:
• Manitoba (1979)
• Chile (1994)
• Curaçao (1998)
• Turkey (1999)
• Zimbabwe (2001)
• Australia (2002)
• Over Antarctica (2003)
• South Pacific near Pitcairn Island (2005)
• Libya (2006)
• Over Arctic Canada (2008)
• South Pacific near the Cook Islands (2009)
• Australia (2012)
• Mid-Atlantic Ocean (2013)
Out of the 15 total solar eclipses I have been to, only the 1991 and 2010 eclipses that I did go to are not represented in the video, due to cloud. Though we did see much of the 1991 eclipse from Baja, clouds intervened part way through, thwarting my photo efforts.
And I only just missed the 2010 eclipse from Hikueru Atoll in the South Pacific as clouds came in moments before totality. Of course, it was clear following totality.
Cameras varied a lot over those years, from Kodachrome film with my old Nikon F, to digital SLRs; from 640×480 video with a Sony point-and-shoot camera, to HD with a DSLR.
I shot images through telescopes to capture the corona and prominences, and with wide-angle lenses to capture the landscape and lunar shadow. I rarely shot two eclipses the same way or with the same gear.
I hope you enjoy the video and will be inspired to see the August 21, 2017 eclipse. For more information about that eclipse, visit:
Mars is approaching! It now shines brightly in the midnight sky as a red star in Scorpius.
You can’t miss Mars now. It is shining brighter than it has since 2005, and is about to come as close to Earth as it has in 11 years as well.
Mars is now approaching opposition, when the Earth comes closest to Mars, and the Sun, Earth and Mars lie along the same line. Opposition date is May 22. That’s when Mars shines at its brightest, at magnitude -2.1, about as bright as Jupiter. Only Venus can be a brighter planet and it’s not in our sky right now.
A week later, on May 30, Mars comes closest to Earth, at a distance of 75 million kilometres. That’s when the disk of Mars looks largest in a telescope. And you will need a telescope at high power (150x to 250x) to make out the dark markings, north polar cap, and bright white clouds on Mars.
In these views, I show Mars shining as a bright reddish star low in my western Canadian sky. I shot the lead image from Dinosaur Provincial Park on May 16. The image just above was from my backyard the night before.
This week, Mars is passing between Beta and Delta Scorpii, two bright stars in the head of Scorpius, as the red planet retrogrades westward against the background stars.
Saturn shines to the east (left) of Mars now, with both planets shining above the red giant star Antares in Scorpius. In these photos they form a neat triangle.
Even without a telescope to magnify the view, it’ll be rewarding to watch Mars with the unaided eye or binoculars as it treks west out of Scorpius into Libra this spring and summer. It stops retrograding on June 30, then starts looping back into Scorpius, for a rendezvous with Antares and Saturn in late August.
This little compilation of time-lapse movies shows Mars, Saturn, and the rest of the sky, rising into the southeast and across the south on two nights this past week.
Be sure to explore Mars this month and next, whether by eye or by telescope. It’s the best we’ve seen it in a decade.
It’s next close approach in 2018 will be even better, though Mars will appear even lower in our northern sky.
On May 9, a last-minute chase into clear skies netted me a view of the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.
The forecast called for typical transit weather – clear the day before, and clear the day after. But the day of the transit of Mercury? Hopeless at home in Alberta, unless I chanced the prospects of some clearing forecast for central Alberta.
As the satellite image below, for 8:30 a.m. MDT on May 9, shows, that clearing did materialize. But I headed west, as far west as I needed to go to be assured of clear skies – to central BC. Kamloops in fact.
I stayed at the Alpine Motel, got a great room as the end, and set up in the parking lot away from traffic. Not the most photogenic of observing sites, but I was happy! I had my clear skies!
I set up two telescopes, above: a 130mm refractor to shoot through, and an 80mm refractor to look through. Both with dense solar filters!
Both worked great. However, low cloud prevented me seeing the Sun as soon as it cleared the eastern hills. So this was my first good look, below, at the transit as the Sun rose above the clouds.
There it was – the fabled “little black spot on the Sun today.” Mercury is the dot at lower left, with a sunspot group at upper right. This was the first transit of Mercury since November 8, 2006. We see only about 13 Mercury transits a century, so in a lifetime of stargazing (the Sun is a star!) even the most avid amateur astronomer might see only a handful. This was only my third transit of Mercury.
This was the view, above, a little later, as the Sun entered more assuredly clear skies. From about 7 a.m. PDT on, the Sun was in the clear most of the morning, with just occasional puffy clouds intervening now and then.
I shot still images every 30 seconds, to eventually turn into a time-lapse movie (after a ton of work hand registering hundreds of frames!).
But for now, I’ll be content with this composite of 40 frames, below, taken at 7-minute intervals. It shows the progress of Mercury across the Sun over the last 4.5 hours or so of the event, until egress at 11:38 a.m. PDT.
This motion is due to Mercury’s movement around the Sun. A transit is one of the few times you can easily see a planet actually orbiting the Sun.
In this composite, the disks of Mercury are not all perfect dots. The wobbly seeing conditions distorted the images from frame to frame. But I used the actual images taken at that moment, rather than clone some perfect image across the disk to simulate the path.
To wrap up, here’s Mercury Transit: The Movie! I shot several HD and zoomed-in “crop mode” movies at the beginning of the transit and again at the final egress. Commentary is from me talking live into the camera mic as I was shooting the clips. Background noise is courtesy Pacific Drive and the Trans-Canada Highway!
Enjoy, and do enlarge to HD and full-screen for the best look.
The next transit of Mercury is November 11, 2019. If you are hoping for a transit of Venus, good luck. The next is not until December 10, 2117!
The sky and sea present an ever-changing panorama of light and colour from the view point of an Australian lighthouse.
Last week I spent a wonderful four nights at the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, in Hat Head National Park, on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. I was after panoramas of seascapes and cloudscapes, and the skies didn’t disappoint.
At sunset, as below, the sky to the east glowed with twilight colours, with the bright clouds providing a beautiful contrast against the darkening sky. The kangaroo at far right was an added bonus as he hopped into frame just at the right time.
At sunrise, the Sun came up over the ocean to the east, providing a stunning scene to begin the day.
The Smoky Cape Lighthouse was lit up for the first time in 1891. It was staffed for decades by three keepers and their families who lived in the cottages visible in the panoramas above. They tended to the kerosene lamps, to cleaning the lenses, and to winding the weight-driven clockwork mechanism that needed resetting every two hours to keep the reflector and lens assembly turning. By day, they would draw the curtains across to keep the Sun from heating up the optics.
The huge optical assembly uses a set of nine lenses, each a massive fresnel lens, to shot focused beams out to sea. The optics produce a trio of beams, in three sets.
Each night you could see the nine beams sweeping across the sky and out to sea, producing a series of three quick flashes followed by a pause, then another three flashes, the characteristic pattern of the Smoky Bay Light. Each lighthouse has its own flashing pattern.
The lead photo, repeated above, shows the beams in the twilight, with the stars of the Southern Cross as a backdrop. Three beams are aimed toward the camera while the other two sets of beam trios are shooting away out to sea.
The image below shows the beam trio shining out over the water toward one of the dangerous rocks off shore.
The Lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1962, when staff was reduced. Then in the 1980s all lighthouses were automated and staff were no longer needed.
While we might romanticize the life of a lighthouse keeper, it was a lonely and hard life. Keepers were usually married, perhaps with children. While that may have lessened the isolation, it was still a difficult life for all.
Today, some of the cottages have been converted into rentable rooms. I stayed in the former house of the main light keeper, filled with memorabilia from the glory days of staffed lighthouses.
The image above takes in the Southern Cross over the moonlit beach in the dawn twilight.
The last image below is my final astrophoto taken on my current trip to Australia, a 360° panorama of the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light from the back garden of the Lighthouse overlooking the beach at Hat Head National Park.
It’s been a superb trip, with over half a terabyte of images shots and processed! The last few blogs have featured some of the best, but many more are on the drives for future posts.
When visiting southern latitudes nothing disorients a northern hemisphere astronomer more than seeing our familiar Moon turned “the wrong way!”
With the Moon now dominating the night sky, my photo attention in Australia turns to it as my celestial subject.
It’s wonderful to see the Moon as a crescent phase in the evening sky, but now flipped around so it looks like the Moon we see from home up north when it is a waning crescent in the morning.
However, the lead image above actually shows the waxing crescent in the evening. It shines above the volcanic hills near Warrumbungles National Park, with the added silhouette of the dome of the Australian Astronomical Telescope, the largest optical telescope in Australia.
After a lifetime of seeing the Moon in its northerly orientation, seeing the austral Moon throws off your sense of time and direction. Are we looking west in the evening? Or east in the morning? The Moon just doesn’t make sense!
Then there’s the Full Moon. It rises in the east, as does the Sun. But like the Sun, the “down under Moon” moves from right to left across the northern, not southern sky. And the familiar “Man in the Moon” figure is upside down, as seen above.
The photo above is from Friday night, and shows the Full Moon rising in the northeast over the Pacific Ocean.
This “HDR” image above from earlier in the evening captures the golden glitter path of moonlight on the ocean waves. I photographed these Full Moon scenes from the Headlands viewpoint at Woolgoolga, a great spot for panoramic seascapes.
The Full Moon this night was the apogee Full Moon of 2016 – the smallest and most distant Full Moon of the year, the opposite of a “supermoon.”
Earlier in the week I was inland, high on the New England Tablelands in New South Wales. This image shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the evening twilight over Ebor Falls on the Guy Fawkes River, one of the few waterfalls on the famed Waterfall Way in New Soith Wales that has water flowing year round.
From southern latitudes the most amazing region of the sky shines overhead late on austral autumn nights.
There is no more spectacular part of the Milky Way than the regions around its galactic centre. Or at least in the direction of the galaxy’s core.
We can’t see the actual centre of the Galaxy, at least not with the cameras and telescopes at the disposal of amateur photographers such as myself.
It takes large observatory telescopes equipped with infrared cameras to see the stars orbiting the actual centre of the Milky Way. Doing so over many years reveals stars whipping around an invisible object with an estimated 4 million solar masses packed into the volume no larger than the solar system. It’s a black hole.
By comparison, looking in that direction with our eyes and everyday cameras, we see a mass of stars in glowing clouds intersected by lanes of dark interstellar dust.
The top image shows a wide view of the Milky Way toward the galactic centre, taking in most of Sagittarius and Scorpius and their incredible array of nebulas, star clusters and rivers of dark dust, all located in the dense spiral arms between us and the galactic core.
Zooming into that scene reveals a panoramic close-up of the Milky Way around the galactic centre, from the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, at left, to the Cat’s Paw Nebula in Scorpius, at right.
This is the richest hunting ground for stargazers looking for deep-sky wonders. It’s all here, with field after field of telescopic and binocular sights in an area of sky just a few binocular fields wide.
The actual galactic core area is just right of the centre of the frame, above the bright Sagittarius StarCloud.
Zooming in again shows just that region of sky in an even closer view. The contrast between the bright star fields at left and the dark intervening dust at right is striking even in binoculars – perhaps especially in binoculars.
The visual impression is of looking into dark canyons of space plunging off bright plateaus of stars.
In fact, it is just the opposite. The dark areas are created by dust much closer to us, hiding more distant stars. It is where the stars are most abundant, in the dust-free starclouds, that we see farthest into the galaxy.
In the image above the galactic centre is at right, just above the small diffuse red nebula. In that direction, some 28,000 light years away, lurks the Milky Way’s monster black hole.
To conclude my tour of the galactic centre, I back out all the way to see the entire sky and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, with the galactic centre nearly overhead in this view from 3 a.m. earlier this week.
Only from a latitude of about 30° South can you get this impressive view, what I consider one of the top “bucket-list” sights the sky has to offer.
Mars outshines his rival red star Antares in the heart of the Scorpion.
This was the view last night from my observing site in Australia, of red Mars shining near the red star Antares, whose very name means “rival of Mars.” But as Mars nears its closest approach to Earth next month it is already far brighter than Antares, easily winning the rivalry now.
The view takes in the head of Scorpius, one of the most colourful areas of the night sky when photographed in long exposures. Uniquely, Antares illuminates a nearby dust cloud with its light which is more yellow than red.
Other dust clouds reflect the blue light of hot young stars in this section of the Milky Way. Red nebulas are emitting their own light from glowing hydrogen.
The area around Antares is also streaked with lanes of dark dust that absorb light and at best appear a dull brown.
Mars reaches its closest point to Earth since 2005 on May 30. All through May and June Mars will shine as a brilliant red star near Antares. A telescope will provide the best view of the red planet we’ve had in a decade.
While you are in the area aim your telescope a little to the east to catch Saturn, also in the area, though technically over the border in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.
In the view above, Saturn is the bright “star” to the left of Mars. Saturn reaches its closest to Earth in early June. Its rings are now wide open and a spectacular picture postcard sight in any telescope.
This final view shows Mars and Saturn rising with Scorpius in the moonlight from two nights ago. From my current latitude of 32° south, Scorpius comes up on his side.
Last week, northerners marvelled at the splendours of the southern hemisphere sky from a dark site in Australia.
I’ve attended the OzSky Sky Safari several times and have always come away with memories of fantastic views of deep-sky wonders visible only from the southern hemisphere.
This year was no exception, as skies stayed mostly clear for the seven nights of the annual star party near Coonabarabran, New South Wales.
About 35 people from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. attended, to take in views through large telescopes supplied by the Australian branch of the Texas-based Three Rivers Foundation. The telescopes come with the best accessory of all: knowledgeable Aussies who know the southern sky and are delighted to present its splendours to us visiting sky tourists.
Here are a few of the night scenes from last week.
The lead image above shows a 360° panorama of the observing field and sky from early in the evening, as Orion sets in the west to the right, while Scorpius rises in the east to the left. The Large Magellanic Cloud is at centre, while the Southern Cross shines to the upper left in the Milky Way.
This panorama, presented here looking south in a fish-eye scene, is from later in the night as the galactic core rises in the east. Bright Jupiter and the faint glow of the Gegenschein are visible at top to the north.
Each night observers used the big telescopes to gaze at familiar sights seen better than ever under Australian skies, and new objects never seen before.
The Dark Emu of aboriginal sky lore rises above some of the 3RF telescopes.
Carole Benoit from Calgary looks at the Orion Nebula as an upside-down Orion sets into the west.
John Bambury hunts down an open cluster in the rich southern Milky Way near Carina and Crux.
David Batagol peers at a faint galaxy below the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way.
The Southern Cross, the iconic constellation of the southern sky, shines high in the south on austral autumn nights.
I’m in one of my favourite places, Australia, in particular at its self-proclaimed “astronomy capital,” Coonabarabran in New South Wales. Down the road from me is the Siding Spring Observatory.
But for 3 weeks I’m using my own telescope gear to observe and photograph the fabulous southern skies.
For part of my time here I’m attending the annual OzSky Star Party, a small and rather exclusive event for observers from around the world who come here to revel in celestial wonders visible only from southern latitudes.
The lead image at top is a 7-panel panorama of the star party in action, on the grounds of the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, with a dozen or more large and premium telescopes set up for our use.
Overhead is the arch of the southern Milky Way, with the Southern Cross here at its highest about local midnight now in early April at the start of autumn. Below the Milky Way is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way, itself a superb target for telescopes.
To the far right in the Milky Way is Sirius amid the gum trees, and the stars of Canis Major diving into the west. To the far left are the bright star clouds of Scorpius and Sagittarius rising in the east, bringing the glowing core of our Galaxy high into the austral sky. Bright Mars and Saturn shine in and around Scorpius.
This is a view of the Milky Way everyone should see – it is should be one of the top items on any amateur astronomer’s bucket list.
Here, above, I’ve stacked images from a time-lapse to create a star trail scene with the stars of the southern sky rotating about the blank South Celestial Pole. Again, the Southern Cross is at top.
This view, above, focuses on the Milky Way of the deep south, from Vela to Centaurus, passing through Carina and Crux, with the bright Carina Nebula, the Southern Cross, and the dark Coal Sack front and centre.
Here I zoom into the Southern Cross itself, in a mosaic of 3 panels to cover the smallest constellation using a high-resolution astrograph, a 300mm f/4 lens. The Coal Sack is at lower left while numerous star clusters lie embedded within and around the Cross, including the famous “Jewel Box” at left, next to Beta Cruxis, aka Becrux.
I shot the Crux mosaic from my cottage site at Tibuc Gardens, a superb dark sky site and home to a new cottage built after the devastating bush fires of 2013 which destroyed all the other cottages I had stayed at in previous years.
There’s much more to come, as I rapidly fill up my hard drive with time-lapses and deep-sky images of the southern sky. I already have several blogs worth of images processed or about to be. In the meantime, check my Flickr site for the latest images hot off the hard drive and uploaded as best my Oz internet connectivity allows.
My latest music video includes images, time-lapses and real-time videos of the Northern Lights shot in February and March 2016 in Churchill.
While I’ve posted my recent images of the aurora here and at many social media sites, all the videos I shoot take more work before they are ready to unveil to the public. Videos work best when set to music.
In this case, I’m very pleased to have received permission from EverSound Music to incorporate the music of one of my favourite artists, John Adorney, in my latest music video montage. The selection is If a Rose Could Speak, from his 2013 album The Wonder Well. It features vocals by Daya.
The video incorporates still images, as well as time-lapse sequences, and real-time videos of the Northern Lights.
The all-sky time-lapses are intended to be projected in digital planetarium theatres, recreating the scene on their 360° domes.
Please click on the V for Vimeo button to really see the video well. And select 1080p HD for the best image quality. And do share!
ABOUT THE VIDEO
I shot all scenes at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay at a latitude of 58° North. Churchill’s location places it under the usual location of the auroral oval, providing spectacular displays of Northern Lights even on nights when locations to the south are seeing nothing.
I was at the CNSC to present sets of 5-night aurora viewing programs to guests from across North America. Click the link above for more details on their programs. The 2016 aurora season is over, but we’ll have more aurora programs in January and February of next year.
I shot all images with Canon 6D and Nikon D750 DSLR cameras, usually at ISO 3200. The fish-eye all-sky sequences were with a Sigma 8mm lens on the Canon, while most of the still images and other full-frame time-lapses were with the Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Nikon. For the “rapid-cadence” time-lapses I used 1- to 2-second exposures at an interval of one second.
The real-time video clips were with the Nikon – set to ISO 25600 – and the Sigma wide open at f/1.4. While these clips are prone to digital noise, they do record the fast movement and subtle colour of the aurora much as the eye saw it. See my earlier music video with real-time clips shot February 12 for more examples of these.
The all-sky sequences were processed through LRTimelapse v4 software, to handle the huge range in brightness of the Lights. Real-time video clips were processed in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.
Temperatures ranged from a bitter -35° C to just (!) -15° C on most nights.
I kept the long-duration, all-sky, time-lapse camera going by placing it in a Camera Parka (www.atfrostedlens.com) and inserting disposable hand warmer packs inside the insulated parka. It worked very well, making it possible to shoot for up to 3 hours. Without it, the battery died after an hour.
It was a night to remember, when the sky exploded with a jaw-dropping display of Northern Lights.
Warnings went out around the world and the aurora meters were hitting high numbers. By sunset we were charged up with high expectations of seeing the aurora in high gear dancing in the twilight. We were not disappointed.
From our location at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre near Churchill, Manitoba (latitude 58° North), we see aurora almost every clear night, even when indicators are low.
But this night, the Index was reading 7 on the scale of 0 to 9. I was afraid, after all the effort to come north to see the Lights, the Lights would abandon us and head south. Not so!
The night did start with the Lights in the south, as shown in the panorama image at top. It takes in a full 360°, with the aurora arcing from east to west across the southern sky in Orion. The north over the Centre is clear.
But the curtains soon moved back north and engulfed most of our sky for most of the rest of the night.
Participants in our aurora tour group took their aurora “selfies,” and just looked up in awe at one of nature’s great sky shows. When the last of the group turned in at 2:30 a.m. the Lights were still going.
What follows is a selection — just a few! — of the still shots I took. I also shot time-lapse sequences and real-time videos. All those will take more editing to turn them into a music video, still to come.
I present a sweeping panorama of the winter and spring stars on a February night.
The lead image is a panorama I shot last Saturday, February 27 that takes in about 200° of sky from northeast to west, and nearly to the zenith. It encompasses most of the northern spring and winter stars and constellations.
I’ve added the labels to help you pick out the celestial highlights. The winter sky, containing Orion as the central constellation, is at right setting into the west. This area of sky contains a rich collection of bright stars and identifiable constellations.
The left side of the sky contains the spring constellations, now coming into view in the east. Note how that area of sky is sparsely populated by bright stars. You can see the Big Dipper, Regulus in Leo, and Arcturus rising at lower left.
The reason for the difference is the Milky Way – you can see it at right arcing up from the southern horizon passing by Orion and through Gemini, Taurus and Auriga. In that direction we are looking into the outlying spirals arms of our galaxy, toward rich areas of star formation.
To the east, at left, we are looking at right angles out of the plane of our spiral galaxy, toward the galactic North Pole, here just left of Leo. In that direction there are very few bright stars between us and the starless depths of intergalactic space. The spring sky is rather blank compared to the rich winter sky.
But you can see Jupiter, the brightest object in view here, and now prominent in the evening sky.
Note one other subtle glow just above Jupiter. That diffuse glow is the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust opposite the Sun in our solar system and in the plane of the ecliptic.
Jupiter is just east (left) of the Gegenschein here, as Jupiter was then just over a week before its date of opposition, March 8. By then the Gegenschein will have moved to superimpose right over Jupiter, as both then lie opposite the Sun.
I shot this scene from home on February 27, 2016, using the new iOptron iPano motorized “gigapan” unit, which I programmed to move and shoot 36 exposures with the Canon 5D MkII and 35mm lens, arranged in 4 rows high with 9 panels wide in each row from east to west. The result is a huge mosaic, 24,000 by 10,000 pixels.
Each exposure was 25 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200. The camera was not tracking the sky. I stitched the 36 segments with PTGui using its Spherical Fisheye projection. The image has black margins but I think the circular format is more suggestive of the spherical dome of the sky above and around you. But that’s me, a longtime planetarium show producer.
Next time I will shoot the zenith cap images as well!
My 10-minute video captures the Northern Lights in real-time video – no time-lapses here!
I hadn’t tried this before but the display of February 12, 2016 from Churchill, Manitoba was so active it was worth trying to shoot it with actual video, not time-lapse still frames.
I used very high ISO speeds resulting in very noisy frames. But I think the motion and colours of the curtains as they ripple and swirl more than overpower the technical limitations. And there’s live commentary!
Select HD and Enter Full Screen for the best quality.
Scenes have been edited for length, and I did not use all the scenes I shot in the final edit. So the scenes you see in the 10-minute video actually took place over about 20 minutes. But each scene is real-time. They show the incredibly rapid motion and fine structure in the auroral curtains, detail blurred in long multi-second exposures.
I used a Nikon D750 camera at ISO speeds from 12,800 to 51,200. While it is certainly very capable of shooting low-light video, the D750 is not optimized for it. A Sony a7s, with its larger pixels and lower noise, would have been a better camera. Next time!
The lens, however, was key. I used the new Sigma 20mm Art lens which, at f/1.4, is the fastest lens in its focal length class. And optical quality, even wide open, is superb.
The temperature was about -30 degrees C, with a windchill factor of about -45 C. It was cold! But no one in the aurora tour group of 22 people I was instructing was complaining. Everyone was outside, bundled up, and enjoying the show.
It was what they had traveled north to see, to fulfill a life-long desire to stand under the Northern Lights. Everyone could well and truly check seeing the aurora off their personal bucket lists this night.
For more information about aurora and other northern eco-tourism tours offered by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, see churchillscience.ca
From Churchill, Manitoba the Northern Lights dance almost every night over the boreal forest.
This year, as in the last two years, I have traveled to the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay and to the town of Churchill, Manitoba to view and photograph the aurora borealis.
I’m instructing two tour groups at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, one this week and one last week, in the science and sagas of the aurora and on how to shoot the Lights. The participants in the groups are fabulous, keenly interested and unfazed by the cold and wind.
From Churchill’s latitude of 58° N, we are under the main auroral oval almost every night. Even on nights with low official activity levels, as they were on all the nights I shot these images, we still get sky-filling displays.
Here’s a selection of still images from the last week of shooting, with clear skies on all but a couple of nights. There’s still room in our March sessions!
Orion appears in his winter element, over snowscapes on crisp January nights.
A couple of clear-ish winter nights this past weekend allowed me to capture that most iconic of constellations, Orion, over snowy landscapes close to home here in Alberta.
At top, he rises over the famous Hoodoos near East Coulee, Alberta in the Red Deer River valley. Clouds moving in on Sunday night, January 10, added the photogenic glows around the stars, emphasizing their colour and brilliance.
Here, from a shot on Saturday, January 9, Orion appears down the end of my rural country Range Road, with Sirius, his companion Dog Star, following at his heels above the treetops and in some haze.
If this looks cold, it was – at minus 25° C. Though two hours later it was only -15° C and by morning it was 0° C. Winter in Alberta!
Both images are short exposures, 10 to 15 seconds, at f/2 or f/2.8 with the wonderful Sigma 24mm Art lens and my new favourite camera, the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. In both cases the ground is from a stack of several exposures to smooth noise but the sky is from a single exposure to minimize star trailing.
The waning Moon joined Venus and Saturn on a cold winter dawn.
This was the scene this morning, January 6, as the waning crescent Moon met with Venus (bright, at centre) and Saturn (below and left of Venus) in the cold morning twilight.
The grouping appeared above the stars of Scorpius. Antares is just above the treetops.
The top image is with the Canon 60Da and 50mm lens.
The view below, with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 6D camera, is from a half hour earlier before the sky began to brighten with morning twilight.
Venus passes very close to Saturn this weekend, with the two worlds appearing within a telescope field on the mornings of January 8 and 9. Get up early before sunrise and look southeast. Binoculars will provide a superb view.
Venus is hard to miss, but is now dropping lower each morning and will soon be gone from view as it ends its wonderful appearance as a morning star.
The Quadrantid meteors streaked out of the northern sky on a fine winter’s night.
The temperature was mild and skies clear in the early evening for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a prolific but short-lived shower with a brief peak. The cold and low altitude of its radiant point keeps this shower from becoming better known.
This was the first year I can recall shooting it. I had some success during a 2-hour shoot on January 3, from 9 to 11 pm MST.
The result above is a stack of 14 images, the best out of 600 shot that recorded meteors. The ground and sky comes from one image with the best Quad of the night, and the other meteor images were masked and layered into that image, with no attempt to align their paths with the moving radiant point.
However, over the 2 hours, the radiant point low in the north would not have moved too much, as it rose higher into the northern sky.
Most of the meteors here are Quads, but the very bright bolide at left, while it looks like it is coming from the radiant, it is actually streaking toward the radiant, and is not a Quadrantid. But oh so close! I left it in the composite for the sake of the nice composition!
Light clouds moving in added the natural star glows around the Big Dipper stars.
All frames were 10 seconds at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
I present a horizon-to-zenith panorama of the pantheon of autumn constellations.
Yes, I know it’s winter, but as it gets dark each night now in early January the autumn stars are still front and centre. I took the opportunity during a run of very clear nights at home to shoot a panorama of the autumn sky.
It is a mosaic that sweeps up the sky and frames many related Greek mythological constellations:
• from the watery constellations of Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus at the bottom near the horizon…
• to Pegasus and Aries in mid-frame…
• on up to Andromeda and Perseus at upper left…
• and finally Cassiopeia and Cepheus at the top of frame embedded in the Milky Way overhead. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is just above centre.
Here, I’ve labeled the participating constellations, though only a few, such as the “square” of Pegasus and the “W” of Cassiopeia, have readily identifiable patterns.
Most of these constellations are related in Greek mythology, with Princess Andromeda being the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus, who was rescued from the jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster by Perseus the Hero, who rode on Pegasus the Winged Horse in some accounts.
Zodiacal Light brightens the sky at bottom right in Aquarius, and angles across the frame to the left.
I shot this from home on a very clear night January 2, 2016 with the Zodiacal Light plainly visible to the naked eye.
This is a mosaic of 5 panels, each a stack of 5 x 2 minute exposures, plus each panel having another stack of 2 x 2 minute exposures blended in, and taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the fuzzy star glows to make the constellations stand out.
All were shot with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5DMkII at ISO 1600. All tracked on the AP Mach One mount.
All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. Final image size is 8500 x 5500 pixels and 3.6 gigabytes for the layered master.
The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.
It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).
Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).
I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.
Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.
That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way, from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.
It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.
The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.
In a sweeping panorama, here is the entire northern hemisphere Milky Way from horizon to horizon.
This is the result of one of the major projects on my recent trek to Arizona and New Mexico – a mosaic of images shot along the Milky Way over several hours.
The goal is a complete 360° panorama of the entire Milky Way, and I’ve got most of the other segments in previous shoots from Alberta, Australia and Chile. But I did not have good shots of the northern autumn segments, until now.
The panorama sweeps from Cygnus (at top, setting in the western sky in the evening), across the sky overhead in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (in the middle), and down into Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis (at bottom, low in the southern sky at midnight).
The view is looking outward to the near edge of our Milky Way, in the direction opposite the centre of our Galaxy. In this direction the Milky Way becomes dimmer and less defined. Notable are the many red H-alpha emission regions along the Milky Way, as well as the many lanes of dark interstellar dust nearby and obscuring the more distant stars.
However, a diffuse glow in Taurus partly obscures its Taurus Dark Clouds — that’s the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles directly opposite the Sun and marking the anti-solar point this night, by coincidence then close to galactic longitude of 180° opposite the galactic centre.
Here I provide a guided map of the mosaic. Orion is at lower right, while the Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy lie near the right edge. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only thing in this image that is not part of the Milky Way.
The bright star Canopus is just rising at bottom, in haze. Vega and Altair are just setting at the very top. So the panorama sweeps from Altair to Canopus.
The sky isn’t perfect! Haze and airglow in our atmosphere add discolouration, especially close to the horizon. In my final 360° pan, I’ll use only the central portions of this panorama.
Now let’s put the horizon-to-horizon panorama into cosmic perspective…
In this diagram, based on art from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope Institute, I show my Northern Milky Way Panorama in perspective to the “big picture” of our entire Galaxy, using artwork based on our best map of how our Galaxy is thought to look.
We are looking in a “god’s eye” view across our Galaxy from a vantage point on the far side of the Galaxy.
Where we are is marked with the red dot, the location of our average Sun in a minor spiral arm called the Orion Spur.
The diagram places my panorama image in the approximate correct location to show where its features are in our Galaxy. As such it illustrates how my panorama taken from Earth shows our view of the outer portions of our Galaxy, from the bright Cygnus area at right, to Perseus in the middle, directly opposite the centre of the Galaxy, then over to Orion at left.
The panorama sweeps from a “galactic longitude” of roughly 90° at right in Cygnus, to 180° in Perseus, over to 240° in Orion and Canis Major at left.
In the northern autumn and early winter seasons we are looking outward toward the outer Perseus Arm. So the Milky Way we see in our sky is fainter than in mid-summer when we are looking the other way, toward the dense centre of the Galaxy and the rich inner Norma and Sagittarius arms.
Yet, this outer region contains a rich array of star-forming regions, which mostly show up as the red nebulas. But this region of the Milky Way is also laced with dark lanes of interstellar “stardust.”
The panorama is composed of 14 segments, most being stacks 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and 35mm lens at f/2.8.
The end segments near the horizons at top and bottom are stacks of 2 x 2.5-minute exposures.
Each segment also has an additional image shot through a Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows, to make the bright stars show up better.
The camera was oriented with the long dimension of the frame across the Milky Way, not along it, to maximize the amount of sky framed on either side of the Milky Way.
The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. I shot the segments for this pan from Quailway Cottage, Arizona on December 8/9, 2015, with the end segments taken Dec 10/11, 2015. I decided to add in the horizon segments for completeness, and so shot those two nights later when sky conditions were a little different.
Meteors from the Geminid shower rain over the dishes of the VLA radio telescope.
Sunday night was a prime night for the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. To capture it, I traveled to the Plains of San Agustin in the high desert of New Mexico.
It’s there that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the most photogenic – and photographed – astronomical facilities in the world.
I set up at a viewing point near the entrance, to look northwest over the dishes, arrayed that night, and all season, in its most compact configuration, with all the dishes clustered closest together.
It was an active meteor shower! One particularly bright meteor left a persistent “train” – a smoke trail that lasted over 15 minutes. It creates the fuzzy cloud around the meteor at right. The bright bolide is on two frames, as the shutter closed then opened again as the meteor was still flying! So its bright streak got cut in two. Pity!
I shot with two cameras. The image here is from one, using a 35mm lens to shoot 334 frames over 3 hours. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200.
I’ve taken about two dozen of the frames, the ones with meteors, and stacked them here, with the sky and ground coming from one frame. The camera was not tracking the sky.
Bands of natural airglow and clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque to the north add colour to the sky.
I would have shot for longer than three hours, but this was a very cold night, with a brisk wind and temperatures below freezing. A snowstorm had even closed some roads the day before. Three hours was enough on the high plains of San Agustin this night.
The sky of December contains an amazing array of bright stars and deep-sky delights.
At this time of year we peer out toward the edge of our Galaxy, in the direction opposite to what we see in July and August. Even though we are looking away from the centre of our Galaxy, the Milky Way at this time of year contains a stunning collection of sights – for the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
I can’t list them all here, but most are in the lead image above! The image is a mosaic of the northern winter Milky Way, including the brilliant stars and constellations in and around Orion the Hunter.
The Milky Way extends from Perseus in the north at top, to Canis Major in the south at bottom. Throughout the scene are dark lanes and dust clouds, such as the Taurus Dark Clouds at upper right.
The Milky Way is dotted with numerous red “hydrogen-alpha” regions of emission nebulosity, such as the bright Rosette Nebula at lower left and the California Nebula at upper right. The curving arc of Barnard’s Loop surrounds the east side of Orion. Orion is below centre, with Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, at lower left.
The constellation of Taurus is at upper right and Gemini at upper left. Auriga is at top and Perseus at upper right.
There’s an unusually bright area in Taurus just right of centre in the mosaic which I thought might be an image processing artifact. No. It’s the Gegenschein – a glow of sunlight reflected off comet dust directly opposite the Sun.
Two highlights of this sky that are great regions for binoculars are the Hyades cluster in Taurus ….
…and the Belt and Sword of Orion.
The Hyades – the face of Taurus – is one of the nearest and therefore largest open star clusters.
Orion the Hunter, who battles Taurus in the sky, contains the famous Orion Nebula, here overexposed in order to bring out the much fainter nebulosity in the region.
The magenta and blue arcs in the image below are photographic targets, but the bright Orion Nebula in Orion’s Sword is easy in binoculars, shining below the trio of his Belt Stars.
For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion and company are winter sights. But for those down under, in the southern hemisphere, this is the summer sky. So pardon the northern chauvinism in the title!
Either way, on a dark, moonless night, get out and explore the sky around Orion.
I shot the segments for the main mosaic at top on a very clear night on December 5, 2015 from the Quailway Cottage at Portal, Arizona. This is a mosaic of 8 segments, in two columns of 4 rows, with generous overlap. Each segment was made of 4 x 2.5-minute exposures stacked with mean combine stack mode to reduce noise, plus 2 x 2.5-minute exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter layered in with Lighten belnd mode to add the star glows. Each segment was shot at f/2.8 with the original 35mm Canon L-series lens and the filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, riding on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. The soft diffusion filter helps bring out the star colors in this area of sky rich in brilliant giant stars.
Comet Catalina sports two tails as it moves past Venus in the dawn sky.
This was the view this morning, December 9, from my site in Arizona, of Comet Catalina near Venus in the dawn sky. This is a telephoto lens shot that provides a view similar in size to what binoculars show.
However, the blue ion tail visible here stretching back several degrees is mostly a photographic target. Visually, just Catalina’s short, stubby dust tail at lower right is obvious.
The ion tail points away from the Sun, while the dust tail extends along the comet’s orbit, showing where the comet has been.
The view, both visually and photographically, of the comet will improve as it climbs higher into the eastern morning sky and as it moves away from the glare of Venus. The Moon is also now gone from the dawn, at least for the next couple of weeks.
The comet is dimmer than expected but should at least maintain this brightness for the next month or so.
This is a stack of 5 x 90-second exposures, taken with the 135mm telephoto and 1.4x extender for a focal length of 190mm, at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, tracked on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. Two other exposures, of 15s and 1s, were blended in with luminosity masks to reduce the glare of Venus to a smaller size.
What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.
December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.
At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.
An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.
I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!
Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.
For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.
All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.
To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.
I got the comet but it isn’t what was hoped for – a faint fuzzball in binoculars.
This was Comet Catalina (aka C/2013 US10) in the dawn sky this morning, December 6, with the comet appearing as a fuzzy star below brilliant Venus in binoculars, and just revealing its two short tails in photos. It’s the cyan-colored object near the centre. Venus is the brilliant object.
This image is with a telephoto lens, and covers a little more of the sky than typical binoculars would show. I knew this would be a binocular comet at best, but it’s barely that. This is more a comet for telescopes.
But as the Moon departs the scene and the comet climbs higher the view may improve. Still, if you are pining for views of Comet Catalina and are stuck under cloudy winter skies at home, don’t be worried. You aren’t missing too much. Except …
This was the view of the autumn Milky Way from here in Arizona last night. Pretty impressive under nearly perfect sky conditions. And then there’s this …
This was the winter Milky Way with Orion setting into the west over the Chiricahuas at dawn. Turn around from looking at the comet and this was the view. So who cares if the comet isn’t too great? There’s lots more to see and shoot. With no snow, no frost, no dew.
Cloud hid Comet Catalina but added a halo around the waning Moon, intersected by the line of the ecliptic.
I’m in Arizona, just inside the state line with New Mexico, on a quest to shoot Comet Catalina at dawn. Clouds prevented any view of the faint comet this morning but provided a fine consolation prize.
The waning crescent Moon was surrounded by an ice crystal halo, a rare sight around a thin Moon. The Moon was between Mars and Jupiter, heading toward a conjunction with Venus, below, on December 7.
The line of Venus, Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter, plus the stars Spica and Regulus defined the line of the ecliptic beautifully in the pre-dawn sky.
It was a show of circles and lines, real and imagined, in the morning sky.
With luck, clouds will clear to reveal Comet Catalina, which is likely fainter and less spectacular than hoped. But such is the way of comets. Regardless of what the comet does, it is a good time to be in the desert southwest, typing this blog on a sunny front porch under blue desert skies.
A new comet is coming into our morning sky, for our binocular viewing pleasure.
Comet Catalina, aka C/2013 US10, has emerged from behind the Sun and is beginning to rise into our northern hemisphere dawn sky. The new comet promises to be visible in binoculars, but likely won’t be obvious to the unaided eyes.
On the morning of December 7 the comet sits within a binocular field of the waning crescent Moon which itself sits just above brilliant Venus. That in itself will be a remarkable view, best appreciated in binoculars, and a fine photogenic sight for the camera.
The close conjunction of the crescent Moon with Venus alone will be enough of an attraction on December 7, but the comet should add to the scene.
December 7 Venus Occultation
Even more, later in the day the Moon actually passes in front of, or “occults,” Venus in the daytime sky for most of North America.
That occultation happens in the morning for western North America and in the early afternoon for eastern North America. However, you’ll need a telescope to see it well, and very clear blue skies.
Use planetarium software (the free Stellarium program, for example, shown above, if you do not own astronomy software) to simulate the sky and provide the occultation times for your location. Zoom into the Moon and run time back and forth on December 7 to see when Venus goes behind the Moon and reappears. The screen shot above is for Calgary.
Back to the Comet
Comet Catalina was discovered in October 2013 at the Catalina Observatory in Arizona. The comet spent the last few months in the southern hemisphere sky, but is now coming north and into our sky, but at dawn.
It rises higher and higher each morning through December and into the new year. It may remain at fifth magnitude, bright enough to be easily visible in binoculars from a dark site, but likely not naked eye.
The chart above plots the comet at daily intervals, from December 4 to January 1. The comet is shown for December 15. Note that on the morning of January 1 it sits within a telescope field of the bright star Arcturus.
The distance from Earth to the comet decreases through December and early January, keeping the comet at a constant brightness even as it recedes from the Sun. We are closest to Catalina on January 17, at a far distance of 108 million km. But in late January the comet fades rapidly to become a telescope target.
To see Comet Catalina this month, get up 1 to 2 hours before sunrise and look southeast to east. But you will need dark skies to see it well. This will not be a good urban comet.
Nevertheless, as far as we know, this will be the best comet of 2016.
Last night I shot into the autumn Milky Way at the Heart Nebula.
I’m currently just finishing off a month of testing the new Nikon D810a camera, a special high-end DSLR aimed specifically at astrophotographers.
I’ll post a more thorough set of test shots and comparisons in a future blog, but for now here are some shots from the last couple of nights.
Above is the setup I used to shoot the image below, shot in the act of taking the image below!
The Nikon is at the focus of my much-loved TMB 92mm refractor, riding on the Astro-Physics Mach One mount. The mount is being “auto-guided” by the wonderful “just-press-one-button” SG-4 auto-guider from Santa Barbara Instruments. The scope is working at a fast f/4.4 with the help of a field flattener/reducer from Borg/AstroHutech.
I shot a set of 15 five-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and stacked, aligned and averaged them (using mean stack mode) in Photoshop. I explain the process in my workshops, but there’s also a Ten Steps page at my websitewith my deep-sky workflow outlined.
The main advantage of Nikon’s special “a” version of the D810 is its extended red sensitivity for a capturing just such objects in the Milky Way, nebulas which shine primarily in the deep red “H-alpha” wavelength emitted by hydrogen.
It works very well! And the D810a’s 36 megapixels really do resolve better detail, something you appreciate in wide-angle shots like this one, below, of the autumn Milky Way.
It’s taken with the equally superb 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom lens. Normally, you would never use a zoom lens for such a demanding subject as stars, but the 14-24mm is stunning, matching or beating the performance of many “prime” lenses.
The D810a’s extended red end helps reveal the nebulas along the Milky Way. The Heart Nebula, captured in the close-up at top, is just left of centre here, left of the “W” forming Cassiopeia.
The Nikon D810a is a superb camera, with low noise, high-resolution, and features of value to astrophotographers. Kudos to Nikon for serving our market!
The summer Milky Way sets into the southwest on a late November night.
On Saturday, November 28, well into winter here in Alberta, the stars of the Summer Triangle and the summer Milky Way set into the southwest on a clear, though slightly hazy, late November night.
This is the last of the summer Milky Way, with the centre of the Galaxy now long gone, but the Summer Triangle stars remaining in the evening sky well into autumn. Glows from light pollution in the west light the horizon, in a quick series of images shot in my rural backyard.
In the Summer Triangle, Vega is at right, as the brightest star; Deneb is above centre, and Altair is below centre, farthest south in the Milky Way.
I shot this as a test image for the Nikkor 14-24mm lens, here wide-open at f/2.8 and at 14mm, where it performs beautifully, with very tight star images to the corners. It does very well at 24mm, too! This is astonishing performance for a zoom lens. It matches or beats many “prime” lenses for quality.
The camera was the 36-megapixel Nikon D810a, Nikon’s “astronomical DSLR” camera, also on test. Here it shows its stuff by picking up the red nebulas in Cygnus and Cepheus.
Thorough tests of both the camera and lens will appear later in the year. Stay tuned.
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For the even more technically-minded, this image is a stack, mean combined, of five 2-minute tracked exposures, at f/2.8 and ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. So the stars are not trailed but the ground is! I made no attempt here to layer in an untracked ground shot, as there isn’t much detail of interest worth showing, quite frankly.
At least not in the ground. But the Milky Way is always photogenic.
Orion ascends into the sky on a clear autumn night, with its stars drawing trails behind it as it rises.
Only on November nights is it possible to capture Orion rising in the evening sky. Here, I used the light of the waxing gibbous Moon to illuminate the landscape … and the sky, creating the deep blue tint.
The lead image above is an example of a star trail, a long exposure that uses Earth’s rotation to turn the stars into streaks across the sky. In the old days of film you would create such an exposure by opening the shutter for an hour or more and hoping for the best.
Today, with digital cameras, the usual method is to shoot lots of short exposures, perhaps no more than 20 to 40 seconds each in rapid succession. You then stack them later in Photoshop or other specialized software to create the digital equivalent of a single long exposure.
The image above is a stack of 350 images taken over 2.5 hours.
With a folder of such images, you can either stack them to create a single image, such as above, or string them together in time to create a time-lapse of the stars moving across the sky. The short video below shows the result. Enlarge the screen and click HD for the best quality.
For the still image and time-lapse, I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions from StarCircleAcademyto do the stacking in Photoshop and create the tapering star trail effect. A separate exposure after the main trail set added the point-like stars at the end of the trails.
My tutorial on Vimeo provides all the details on how to shoot, then stack, such a star trail image…
… While this video illustrates how to capture and process nightscapes shot under the light of the Moon.
Learn the basics of shooting nightscape and time-lapse images with my three new video tutorials.
In these comprehensive and free tutorials I take you from “field to final,” to illustrate tips and techniques for shooting the sky at night.
At sites in southern Alberta I first explain how to shoot the images. Then back at the computer I step you through how to process non-destructively, using images I shot that night in the field.
Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights
This 24-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at a lakeside site in southern Alberta on a night with a fine aurora display, through to the steps to processing a still image and assembling a time-lapse movie.
Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes
This 28-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at Waterton Lakes National Park on a bright moonlit night, to the steps for processing nightscapes using Camera Raw and Photoshop, with smart filters, adjustment layers and masks.
Tutorial #3 – Star Trails
This 35-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at summer solstice at Dinosaur Provincial Park, then through the steps for stacking star trail stills and assembling star trail time-lapse movies, using specialized programs such as StarStaX and the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop.
As always, enlarge to full screen for the HD versions. These are also viewable at my Vimeo channel.
The morning planets are now strung out along the ecliptic, visualizing this line in the sky.
This was the view this morning, November 14, of the three dawn planets lined up along the ecliptic, with the stars Spica and Regulus also defining this imaginary line.
The ecliptic is the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun projected into the sky. So it is along this line that we see the Sun appear to move around the sky over a year. But it is also the path along which we find the seven other major planets – in this case, three of them: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
These three worlds were clustered together in October, but are now spreading out along the ecliptic, as Venus drops lower but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.
The stars Spica and Regulus also lie along the ecliptic, where the Moon can occasionally pass in front of, or occult, these stars.
So the two stars and three planets are now nicely drawing the ecliptic line for us in the dawn sky. At this time of year, the ecliptic is also steeply angled above the eastern horizon.
The main image above is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm.
This image just above is with the same gear but with the lens at the 24mm setting to more tightly frame the planets.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sky at dawn, Orion and his winter sky friends were setting into the west (image below).
All the images here are shot with the Nikon D810a camera and the amazing Nikkor 14-24mm lens, two items in hand this month for testing and review. A thorough test will appear in future blogs.
Of course, as wonderful as the gear is, it cannot extract the ecliptic line and labels from the sky – those are added in Photoshop!
In a “10 Steps” tutorial I review my tips for going from “raw to rave” in processing a nightscape or time-lapse sequence.
NOTE: Click on any of the screen shots below for a full-res version that will be easier to see.
In my preferred “workflow,” Steps 1 through 6 can be performed in either Photoshop (using its ancillary programs Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw) or in Adobe Lightroom. The Develop module of Lightroom is identical to Adobe Camera Raw (ACR for short).
However, my illustrations show Adobe Bridge, Camera Raw and Photoshop CC 2014. Turn to Photoshop to perform advanced filtering, masking and stacking (Steps 7 to 10).
To use Lightroom to assemble a time-lapse movie from processed Raw frames you need the third-party program LRTimelapse, described below. Otherwise, you need to export frames from Lightroom – or from Photoshop – as “intermediate” JPGs (see Step 6), then use other third party programs to assemble them into movies (Step 10B).
Step 1 – Bridge or Lightroom – Import & Select
Use Adobe Bridge (shown above) or Lightroom to import the images from your camera’s card.
As you do so you can add “metadata” to each image – your personal information, copyright, keywords, etc. As you import, you can also choose to convert and save images into the open and more universal Adobe DNG format, rather than keep them in the camera’s proprietary Raw format.
Once imported, you can review images, keeping the best and tossing the rest. Mark images with star ratings or colour labels, and group images together (called “stacking” in Bridge), such as frames for a panorama or “high dynamic range” set.
Always save images to both your working drive and to an external drive (which itself should automatically back up to yet another external drive). Never, ever save images to only one location.
Step 2 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Basics
Open the Raw files you want to process. From Bridge, double click on raw images and they will open in ACR. In Lightroom select the images and switch to its Develop module.
In Adobe Camera Raw be sure to first set the Workflow Preset (the blue link at the bottom of the screen) to 16 bits/channel and ProPhoto RGB colour space, for maximum tonal range. This is a one-time setting. Lightroom defaults to 16-bit and the AdobeRGB colour space.
The Basics panel (the first tab) allows you to fix Exposure and White Balance. For the latter, use the White Balance Tool (the eyedropper, keyboard shortcut I) to click on an area that should be neutral in colour.
You can adjust Contrast, and recover details in the Highlights and Shadows (turn the latter up to show details in starlit landscapes). Clarity and Vibrance improves midrange contrast and colour intensity.
Use Command/Control Z to Undo, or double click on a slider to snap it back to zero. Or under the pull-down menu in the Presets tab go to Camera Raw Defaults to set all back to zero.
Step 3 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Detail
The Detail panel allows you to set the noise reduction and sharpness as you like it, one of the benefits of shooting Raw.
Generally, settings of Sharpness: Amount 25, Radius 1 work well. Turn up Masking while holding the Option/Alt key to see what areas will be sharpened (they appear in white). There’s no need to sharpen blank, noisy sky, just the edge detail.
Setting Noise Reduction: Luminance to 30 to 50 and Color to 25, with others sliders left to their defaults works well for all but the noisiest of images. Luminance affects the overall graininess of the image. Color, also called chrominance, affects the coloured speckling. Turning the latter up too high wipes out star colours.
Turn up Color Smoothness, however, if the image has lots of large scale colour blotchiness.
Zoom in to at least 100% to see the effect of all noise reduction settings. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have the best noise reduction in the business. Without it your images will be far noisier than they need to be.
Step 4 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Lens Correction
Wide angle lenses, especially when used at fast apertures, suffer a lot from light falloff at the corners (called vignetting). There’s no need to have photos looking as if they were taken through a dark tunnel.
ACR or Lightroom can automatically detect what lens you used and apply a lens correction to brighten the corners, plus correct for other flaws such as chromatic aberration and lens distortion.
Use the Color tab to “Remove Chromatic Aberration” and dial up the Defringe sliders.
For lenses not in the database (manual lenses like the Rokinons and Samyangs will not be included, nor will any telescopes) use the Manual tab to dial in your own vignetting correction. This can take some trial-and-error to get right, but once you have it, save it as a Preset to apply in future to all photos from that lens or telescope.
I usually apply Lens Corrections as a first step, but sometimes find I have to back it off it as I boost the contrast under Basics.
Step 5 – Bridge or Lightroom – Copy & Paste
For a small number of images you could open them all, then Select All in ACR to apply the same settings to all images at the same time.
Or you can adjust one, then Select All and hit Synchronize.
Another method useful for processing dozens or hundreds of frames from a star trail or time-lapse set is to choose one representative image and process it. Then in Bridge choose Edit>Develop Settings>Copy Camera Raw Settings. If you are in Lightroom’s Library module, choose Photo>Develop Settings>Copy Settings.
With either program you can also right-click on an image to get to the same choices. Then select all the other images in the set (Command/Control A) and use the same menus to Paste Settings.
A dialog box comes up for choosing what settings you wish to transfer.
If you cropped the image (a good idea for images destined for an HD movie with a 16:9 aspect ratio), pick that option as well. In moments all your images get processed with identical settings. Nice!
Step 6 – Lightroom or Photoshop – Export
You now have a set of developed Raw images. However, the actual Raw files are never altered. They remain raw!
Instead, with Adobe Camera Raw the information on how you processed the images is stored in the “sidecar” XMP text files that live in the same folder as the Raw files.
In Lightroom’s case your settings are stored in its own database, unless you choose Metadata>Save Metadata to File (Command/Control S). In that case, Lightroom also writes the changes to the same XMP sidecar files.
To convert the images into final Photoshop PSDs, TIFFs or JPGs you have a couple of choices. In Lightroom go to the Library module and choose Export. It’s an easy way to export and convert hundreds of images, perhaps into a folder of smaller JPGs needed for assembling a time-lapse movie.
To do that from within Adobe Bridge, select the images, then go to Tools>Photoshop>Image Processor. The dialogue box allows you to choose how and where to export the images. Photoshop then opens, processes, and exports each image.
Step 7 – Photoshop – Smart Filters
For a folder of images intended to be stacked into star trails (Step 10A) or time-lapse movies (Step 10B), you’re done processing.
But individual nightscape images can often benefit from more advanced work in Photoshop. The next steps make use of a non-destructive workflow, allowing you to alter settings at any time after the fact. At no time do we actually change pixels.
One secret to doing that is to open an image in Photoshop and then select Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object. Or go to Filter>Convert for Smart Filters.
OR … better yet, back in Adobe Camera Raw hold down the Shift key while clicking the Open Image button, so it becomes Open Object. That image will then open in Photoshop already as a Smart Object, which you can re-open and re-edit in ACR at any time later should you wish.
Either way, with the image as a Smart Object, you can now apply useful filters such as Reduce Noise, Smart Sharpen, and Dust & Scratches, plus third-party filters such as Nik Software’s Dfine 2 Noise Reduction, all non-destructively as “smart filters.” They can be re-adjusted or turned off at any time.
Step 8 – Photoshop – Adjustment Layers
The other secret to non-destructive processing is to apply adjustment layers.
Go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer, or click on any of the icons in the Adjustments panel. If that panel is not visible at right, then under the Window menu check “Adjustments.”
This panel is where you can alter the colour balance, the brightness and contrast, the vibrancy, and many other choices. I find Selective Color most useful for tweaking colour.
Curves allows you to bring up detail in dark areas. Levels allows setting the black and white points, and overall contrast.
The beauty of adjustment layers is that you can click on the layer’s little icon and bring up the dialog box for changing the setting at any time. You never permanently alter pixels.
The image adjustment “Shadows & Highlights” is also immensely useful, but appears as a smart filter, not as an adjustment layer. It’s one of the prime tools for creating images with great detail in scenes lit only by starlight.
Step 9 – Photoshop – Masks
The power of adjustment layers is that you can apply them to just portions of an image. This is useful in nightscapes where the sky and ground often need different processing.
To create a mask first select the region you want to work on. Try the Quick Selection Tool (found near the top of the Tool palette at left). Use it to brush across the sky, or the ground, so that the entire area is outlined by “marching ants.”
Use the Refine Edge option to tweak the selection by brushing across intricate areas such as tree branches.
Once you have an area selected, hit one of the Adjustments to add an adjustment layer with the mask automatically applied. Double click on the mask to tweak it: hit Mask Edge to clean up the edge, or turn up the Feather to blur the edge.
To apply the same mask to another adjustment layer, drag the mask from one layer to another while holding down the Option/Alt key.
Invert the mask (or select it and hit Command/Control I) to apply it to the other half of the image. Paint the mask with black or white brushes if you need manually alter it. Remember – black “conceals,” while white “reveals.”
When done, be sure to always save the image as a layered “master” .PSD file.
Never, ever flatten and save – that will wipe out all your non-destructive filters and adjustment layers.
If you need to save the image as a JPG for social mediia or emailing, then Flatten and Save As … Or use Photoshop’s File>Export>Export As .. function.
Step 10A – Photoshop or 3rd Party Programs – Stack for Star Trails
One popular way to shoot images of stars trailing in arcs across the sky is to shoot dozens or hundreds of well-exposed frames at a fairly high ISO and wide aperture, and at a shutter speed no longer than 30 to 60 seconds. You then “stack” the images to create the equivalent of one frame shot for many minutes, if not an hour or more. The image above is an example.
There are several ways to stack.
From within Photoshop CC (or using an Extended version of the older CS5 or CS6) one method is to go to File>Scripts>Statistics. In the dialog box, drill down to the images you wish to stack (put them all in one folder) and choose Stack Mode: Maximum, and uncheck “Attempt to Automatically Align.” The result is a huge (!) smart object. This method works best on just a few dozen images. In this case, you’ll need to use Layers>Flatten to reduce its size.
Other options for stacking hundreds of images include the free program StarStax (Windows and Mac), which requires a folder of “intermediate” TIFFs or JPGs. See Step 6 above.
Step 10B – Photoshop or 3rd Party Programs – Assemble for Movies
The same folder of images taken for star trail stacking can also be turned into a time-lapse movie. Instead of stacking the images on top of one another in space, you string them together one after the other in time.
There are many methods for assembling movies. Free or low cost programs such as Quicktime 7 Pro, Time-Lapse Assembler, Sequence (a Mac program shown above), VirtualDub, or Time-Lapse Tool can do the job, all offering options for the final movie’s format.
Generally, an HD video of 1920×1080 pixels in the H264 format, or “codec,” is best, rendered at 15 to 30 frames per second.
Most movie assembly programs will need to work from a folder of JPGs of the right size, produced using one of the choices listed under Step 6: Export.
But … you can also use Photoshop to assemble a movie.
Choose the Window>Workspace>Motion to bring up a video timeline. Then File>Open to drill to your folder of processed and down-sized JPG files. Select one image, then check “Image Sequence.” Choose the frame rate (15 to 30 fps is best). Then go to File>Export>Render Video to turn the resulting file into a final H264 or Quicktime movie suitable for use in other movie editing programs.
Advanced Techniques: Using LRTimelapse
The workflow I’ve outlined works great when you can apply the same development settings to all the images in a folder. For star trail and time-lapse sequences shot once it gets dark and under similar lighting conditions that will be the case.
But if the Moon rises or sets during the shoot, or if you are taking a much more demanding sequence that runs from sunset to night, the same settings won’t work for all frames.
The answer is to turn to the program LRTimelapse (100 Euros for the standard version, and available in a free but limited trial copy). LRTimelapse works with either Lightroom or Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw.
To use it you process just a few selected “keyframes” – at least two, at the start and end of the sequence, and perhaps other frames throughout the sequence, processing them so each frame looks great. You read that processing data into LRTimelapse and, like magic, it interpolates your settings, creating a folder of images with every setting changing incrementally from frame to frame, something you could never do by hand.
It can then work with Lightroom to export the frames out to a video in formats from HD up to 4K in size. For serious time-lapse work, LRTimelapse is an essential tool.
Much, much more information and tutorials are included in my multimedia Apple eBook, linked to below.
But I hope this quick tutorial helps in providing you with tips to make your images and movies even better! If you found it useful, please feel free to share a link to this blog page through your social media channels. Thanks!
This was the trio of planets at their best in the morning sky.
On the morning of October 28, Mars, Venus and Jupiter formed a neat isosceles triangle in the twilight. Venus, the brightest, was in the middle, with Mars below and Jupiter above. The grouping shone amid the stars of Leo, with its brightest star, Regulus, above the windmill in the lead image above. The rest of Leo lies above the planets.
To capture the scene I drove west at 5 am to a farmstead I had shot at before, in June, to capture Venus and Jupiter, also then in Leo near Regulus, but in the evening sky looking west. Click here for that blog post from mid-June.
This morning, the Moon, just past full as the annual Hunter’s Moon, shone in the west off camera lighting the landscape.
The dawn sky colours and the moonlit red barn made for a fine colour contrast.
After today, the planet configuration breaks up, as Venus descends to meet Mars on November 2 and 3, while Jupiter climbs higher. But another great morning sight awaits on November 7 when the waning crescent Moon will shine near the Venus-Mars pairing, with Jupiter above.
On the way home I stopped at fog-bound Lake MacGregor to capture the planets in a brightening dawn sky over the misty waters.
This morning the three planets lay just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to frame in high-power binoculars.
We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky — as opposed to being so close to the Sun we really can’t see them — until November 21, 2111.
Skies were clear at dawn this morning for a fabulous view of the rare conjunction of three planets. And I could not have been at a more photogenic site.
This was the view before dawn on October 25, as brilliant Venus and dimmer Jupiter shone just a degree apart in the dawn sky. Mars, much fainter, shines just below the close duo. The three planets could easily be contained in a high power binocular field.
Not until November 2111 will these three planets be this close together again in a darkened sky.
Indeed, Venus could not have been higher, as it is just now reaching its maximum elongation from the Sun, placing it high in the eastern morning sky.
I shot from the shores of Lake Annette, site of one of the major events, the Friday star party, at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which just concluded, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Festival celebrates the Park’s status as one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.
The hotels and restaurants were full with stargazers from around the world, making the Festival a huge success, both educationally and financially. I was honoured to be able to present some of the public and school talks.
But this dawn sky was a fine way to end a fabulous weekend of astronomy.
The image above is a panorama in the twilight, sweeping from the planets in the east, to the winter stars and constellations, including iconic Orion, in the south and southwest.
Earlier in the morning, before twilight began to brighten the sky, I shot another even wider panorama from the south shore of the lake.
In this and other photos, high haze adds the glows around the stars and planets naturally. No special effects filters here!
But Venus and Jupiter are so close and bright their images almost merge into one glow.
Here they are, with Mars below, shining in the dark sky over the Watchtower peak and over the misty waters of Lake Annette.
Four planets appear in the dawn sky outlining the morning ecliptic.
This morning, October 20, I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky, arrayed along the ecliptic.
From bottom to top they are: Mercury (just past its point of greatest elongation from the Sun), dim Mars, bright Jupiter, and very bright Venus (just 6 days away from its point of greatest elongation from the Sun). Above Venus is Regulus, in Leo.
I’ve added in the labels and the line of the ecliptic, rising steeply out of the east in the autumn dawn sky.
Of course, there is a fifth unlabelled planet in the scene, quite close in the foreground.
The image below is an unlabeled version.
Mercury will be disappearing from view very quickly now as it drops back down toward the Sun.
But over the next week the three higher planets will converge into a tight triangle just 4.5 degrees apart. We won’t see these three planets this close together in a darkened sky until November 2111.
I shot the scene from home in southern Alberta. The image is a composite stack, with manually created masks (not an HDR stack), of 5 exposures, from 15 seconds to 1 second, to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer star-filled sky higher up. All are with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.
You might have already seen Venus shining brightly in the morning sky. And perhaps you’ve seen a slightly less bright object below it. That’s Jupiter.
But there’s a third, even dimmer planet accompanying Venus and Jupiter — reddish Mars. On the morning of Saturday, October 17 (chart above ⬆️) Mars and Jupiter pass just 1/2 degree apart, for a mismatched double “star” at dawn.
The planets put on an even better show in the following 10 days as all three converge to form a tight triangle of worlds in the morning sky.
On October 23 ⬆️, Venus, Mars and Jupiter appear in a close grouping just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to each other to be easily contained in the field of typical binoculars, the circle shown in these charts.
Two mornings later, on October 25 ⬆️, Venus and Jupiter are at their closest apparent separation, just 1 degree apart, for a brilliant double “star” in the morning twilight. If you miss this morning, on the next morning, October 24, the two planets appear about the same distance apart as well.
By October 28 ⬆️, the three planets have switched positions, as Venus drops lower but Jupiter climbs higher. But they again appear in a triangle, 4.5 degrees wide.
The motion you’re seeing from day to day is due to a combination of the planets’ own orbital motions around the Sun, as well as our planet’s motion.
Keep in mind, the planets aren’t really close together in space. They lie tens, if not hundreds, of millions of kilometres apart. They appear close to each other in our sky because they lie along the same line of sight.
Do try to get up early enough — between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. should do it — to look east to see the changing configuration of planets as they dance at dawn. Binoculars will provide the best view.
This is a rare sight! We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky until November 20, 2111!
The Moon appeared along with four planets in the dawn sky.
The sky was filled with planets this morning, as all four of the closest planets to the Sun appeared along the ecliptic in the morning sky. Plus there’s a fifth planet in the picture – Earth.
Here, the waning crescent Moon, lit by Earthshine, appears with four planets on the morning of October 9, 2015, with the planets from bottom left to top right:
• Mercury, just above the horizon between the low cloud bands, at lower left
• Jupiter, bright at centre
• Mars, reddish and above Jupiter
• Venus, brightest at upper right and in some thin cloud.
The bright star Regulus in Leo is above and to the left of Venus.
Above is an unlabeled version of the image.
It’s a blend of four exposures: a long 4-second exposure for most of the sky and ground, plus shorter 2, 1, and 1/2 second exposures for the bright twilight area and around the Moon and Venus, to prevent those areas from being blown out. Blending is with masks, not HDR. All were shot with the Canon 6D at ISO 400 and 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.5.
The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.
What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.
If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.
The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major. Click on the image to bring it up full screen.
The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.
Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!
Look east this week to see a wonderful conjunction of the waning Moon with three planets in the morning sky.
A great dance of the planets is about to begin in the dawn sky.
Venus, Mars and Jupiter are now all prominent in the eastern sky before sunrise, with Venus by far the brightest. Below it shines slightly dimmer Jupiter. But between those two brightest of planets shines dim red Mars.
The three planets are converging for a mutual close meeting in the third week of October, when from October 23 to 28 the trio of planets will appear within a binocular field of each other.
But this week, with the three planets still spread out along a line, the Moon joins the scene to start the planet dance. It shines near Venus on the morning of October 8 (as shown here). and then near Mars and Jupiter on October 9.
Look east between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. local time. All the planets are easy to see with unaided eye even in the city, but binoculars will frame the Moon-Venus pairing on October 8 and the Moon-Mars-Jupiter trio on October 9.
My multiple-exposure composite shows the complete September 27, 2015 total lunar eclipse to true scale, with the Moon accurately depicted in size and position in the sky.
From my location at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada, the Moon rose in the east at lower left already in partial eclipse.
As it rose it moved into Earth’s shadow and became more red, while the sky darkened from twilight to night, bringing out the stars.
Then, as the Moon continued to rise higher it emerged from Earth’s shadow, at upper right, and returned to a brilliant Full Moon again, here overexposed and now illuminating the landscape with moonlight.
The disks of the Moon become overexposed in my composite as the sky darkened because I was setting exposures to show the sky and landscape well, not just the Moon itself. That’s because I shot these frames – and many more! – primarily for use as a time-lapse movie where I wanted the entire scene well exposed in each frame.
Indeed, for this still-image composite of the eclipse from beginning to end, I used just 40 frames taken at 5-minute intervals, selected from 530 I shot, taken at 15- to 30-second intervals for the full time-lapse sequence.
All were taken with a fixed camera, a Canon 6D, with a 35mm lens, to nicely frame the entire path of the Moon, from moonrise at lower left, until it exited the frame at top right, as the partial eclipse was ending.
In the interest of full disclosure, the ground comes from a blend of three frames taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the sequence, and so is partly lit by twilight and moonlight, to reveal the ground detail better than in the single starlit frame from mid-eclipse. Lights at lower left are from the Park’s campground.
The background sky comes from a blend of two exposures: one from the middle of the eclipse when the sky was darkest, and one from the end of the eclipse when the sky was now lit deep blue. The stars come from the mid-eclipse frame, a 30-second exposure.
MY RANT FOR REALITY
So, yes, this is certainly a composite assembled in Photoshop – a contrast to the old days of film where one might attempt such an image just by exposing the same piece of film multiple times, usually with little success.
However … the difference between this image and most you’ve seen on the web of this and other eclipses, is that the size of the Moon and its path across the sky are accurate, because all the images for this composite were taken with the same lens using a camera that did not move during the 3-hour eclipse.
This is how big the Moon actually appeared in the sky in relation to the ground and how it moved across the sky during the eclipse, in what is essentially a straight line, not a giant curving arc as in many viral eclipse images.
And, sorry if the size of the Moon seems disappointingly small, but it is small! This is what a lunar eclipse really looks like to correct scale.
By comparison, many lunar eclipse composites you’ve seen are made of giant moons shot with a telephoto lens that the photographer then pasted into a wide-angle sky scene, often badly, and pasted in locations on the frame that usually bear no resemblance to where the Moon actually was in the sky, but are just placed where the photographer thought would look the nicest.
You would never, ever do that for any other form of landscape photography, at least not without having your reputation tarnished. But with the Moon it seems anything is permitted, even amongst professional landscape photographers.
No, you cannot just place a Moon anywhere you like in your image, eclipse or no eclipse, then pass it off as a real image. Fantasy art perhaps. Fine. But not a photograph of nature.
Sorry for the rant, but I prefer accuracy over fantasy in such lunar eclipse scenes, which means NOT having monster-sized red Moons looming out of proportion and in the wrong place over a landscape. Use Photoshop to inform, not deceive.
I could not have asked for a more perfect night for a lunar eclipse. It doesn’t get any better!
On Sunday, September 27, the Moon was eclipsed for the fourth time in two years, the last in a “tetrad” of total lunar eclipses that we’ve enjoyed at six-month intervals since April 2014. This was the best one by far.
The timing was perfect for me in Alberta, with the Moon rising in partial eclipse (above), itself a fine photogenic site.
In the top image you can see the rising Moon embedded in the blue band of Earth’s shadow on our atmosphere, and also entering Earth’s shadow on its lunar disk. This was a perfect alignment, as lunar eclipses must be.
For my earthly location I drove south to near the Montana border, to a favourite location, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, to view the eclipse over the sandstone formations of the Milk River.
More importantly, weather forecasts for the area called for perfectly clear skies, a relief from the clouds forecast – and which did materialize – at home to the north, and would have been a frustration to say the least. Better to drive 3 hours!
This was the second lunar eclipse I viewed from Writing-on-Stone, having chased clear skies to here in the middle of the night for the October 8, 2014 eclipse.
I shot with three cameras: one doing a time-lapse through the telescope, one doing a wide-angle time-lapse of the Moon rising, and the third for long-exposure tracked shots during totality, of the Moon and Milky Way.
That image is above. It shows the eclipsed Moon at left, with the Milky Way at right, over the Milk River valley and with the Sweetgrass Hills in the distance.
The sky was dark only during the time of totality. As the Moon emerged from Earth’s shadow the sky and landscape lit up again, a wonderful feature of lunar eclipses.
While in the above shot I did layer in a short exposure of the eclipsed Moon into the long exposure of the sky, it is still to accurate scale, unlike many dubious eclipse images I see where giant moons have been pasted into photos, sometimes at least in the right place, but often not.
Lunar eclipses bring out the worst in Photoshop techniques.
Above is a single closeup image taken through the telescope at mid-totality. I exposed for 8 seconds to bring out the colours of the shadow and the background stars, as faint as they were with the Moon in star-poor Pisces.
I shot a couple of thousand frames and processing of those into time-lapses will take a while longer, in particular registering and aligning the 700 I shot at 15-second intervals through the telescope. They show the Moon entering, passing through, then exiting the umbra, while it moves against the background stars.
On Sunday, September 27 the Moon undergoes a total eclipse, the last we’ll see until January 2018.
This is a sky event you don’t want to miss. Whether you photograph it or just enjoy the view, it will be a night to remember, as the Full Moon turns deep red during a total eclipse.
Note — For this article I’m giving times and sky directions for North America. For Europe the eclipse occurs early in the morning of September 28, as the Moon sets into the west. But for here in North America the timing could not be better. Totality occurs in the evening of Sunday, September 27 as the Moon rises into the east.
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon — and it can only be Full — passes through the shadow cast into space by Earth. The Sun, Earth and Moon are in near-perfect alignment.
All total eclipses of the Moon consist of 3 main parts:
• The initial partial eclipse occurs as the Moon slowly enters the dark central portion of our planet’s shadow, the umbra. This lasts about an hour.
• Totality begins as the entire disk of the Moon is within the umbra. For this eclipse, totality lasts a generous 72 minutes.
• Totality ends as the Moon emerges from the umbra to begin the final partial eclipse lasting another hour.
WHERE TO SEE IT
All of North America, indeed most of the western hemisphere, can see this eclipse. In North America, the farther east you live on the continent the later in your evening the eclipse occurs and the higher the Moon appears in the southeast.
For example, in the Eastern time zone, totality begins at 10:11 p.m. EDT and ends at 11:23 p.m. EDT, with mid-totality is at 10:47 p.m. EDT with the Moon about 35 degrees up, placing it high in the southeast sky for southern Ontario, for example.
For me in the Mountain time zone, the total eclipse begins at 8:11 p.m. MDT and ends at 9:23 p.m. MDT, with mid-totality is at 8:47 p.m. MDT, with the Moon just 13 degrees up in the east from here in southern Alberta. From my time zone, and from most location in the Rocky Mountain regions, the Moon rises with the initial partial phases in progress.
For locations on the west coast viewers miss most of the partial eclipse phase before totality. Instead, the Moon rises as totality begins, making for a more challenging observation. Viewers on the coast will need clear skies and a low horizon to the east, but the reward could be a beautiful sight and images of a red Moon rising.
This eclipse of the Moon is the last in a series of four total lunar eclipses that occurred at six-month intervals over the last two years. We won’t enjoy another such “tetrad” of total lunar eclipses until 2032-33.
But this eclipse is unique in that it also coincides with the annual Harvest Moon, the Full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Harvest Moons are known for their orange tint as they rise into what is sometimes a dusty autumn evening.
But what is making internet headlines is that this Full Moon is also the year’s “supermoon,” the Full Moon of 2015 that comes closest to Earth. In recent years these “perigee” Full Moons have been dubbed “supermoons.”
Call it what you will, it does make this Full Moon a little larger than usual, though the difference is virtually impossible to detect by eye. And it makes little difference to the circumstances or appearance of the eclipse itself.
HOW TO SEE IT
Just look up! You can enjoy the eclipse with the unaided eye, and even from within city limits.
Unlike eclipses of the Sun, the eclipsed Moon is perfectly safe to look at with whatever you wish to use to enhance the view. The best views are with binoculars or a telescope at low power.
Look for subtle variations in the red colouring across the disk of the Moon, and even tints of green or blue along the dark edge of the Earth’s advancing or retreating shadow during the partial phases.
If you can, travel to a dark site to enjoy the view of the stars and Milky Way brightening into view as the Full Moon reddens and the night turns dark.
HOW TO SHOOT IT
1. On A Tripod
The easiest method is to use a camera on a tripod, with a remote release to fire the shutter and prevent vibration from blurring the image. What lens you use will depend on how you wish to frame the scene and how high the Moon is in your sky.
From eastern North America you’ll need a wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) to frame the eclipsed Moon and the ground below. The Moon will appear as a small red dot.
While you can shoot the Moon with longer focal lengths it takes quite a long lens (>300mm) to really make it worthwhile shooting just the Moon itself isolated in empty sky. Better to include a landscape to put the Moon in context, even if the Moon is small.
From western North America the lower altitude of the Moon allows it to be framed above a scenic landscape with a longer 35mm to 50mm lens, yielding a larger lunar disk.
From the west coast you could use a telephoto lens (135mm to 200mm) to frame the horizon and the eclipsed Moon as it rises for a dramatic photo.
Use Live View (and zoom in at 10x magnification) to manually focus on the horizon, distant lights, or bright stars. The Moon itself my be tough to focus on.
Exposures will depend on how bright your sky is. Use ISO 400 to 800 and try metering the scene as a starting point if your sky is still lit by twilight. Use wide lens apertures (f/4 to f/2) if you can, to keep exposures times as a short as possible.
The apparent motion of the Moon as the sky turns from east to west will blur the image of the Moon in exposures lasting more than a few seconds, especially ones taken with telephoto lenses.
The maximum exposure you can use before trailing sets in is roughly 500 / lens focal length.
2. On a Tracker or Equatorial Mount
If you can track the sky using a motorized tracker or telescope mount, you can take exposures up to a minute or more, to record the red Moon amid a starry sky.
For this type of shot, you’ll need to be at a dark site away from urban light pollution. But during totality the sky will be dark enough that the Milky Way will appear overhead. Use a wide-angle lens to capture the red Moon to the east of the summer Milky Way.
3. Through a Telescope
The most dramatic closeups of the eclipsed red Moon require attaching your camera body (with its lens removed) to a telescope. The telescope becomes the lens, providing a focal length of 600mm or more, far longer than any telephoto lens most of us own.
You’ll need the appropriate “prime focus” camera adapter and, to be blunt, if you don’t have one now, and have never shot the Moon though your telescope then plan on shooting with another method.
But even if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope, capturing sharp images of the dim red Moon demand special attention.
The telescope must be on a motorized mount tracking the sky, preferably at the “lunar,” not sidereal, drive rate. Focus on the Moon during the partial phases when it is easier to focus on the bright edge of the Moon.
Exposures during totality typically need to be 5 to 30 seconds at ISO 800 to 3200, depending on the focal ratio of your telescope. Take lots of exposures at various shutter speeds. You have over an hour to get it right!
I’d suggest attempting time-lapses only if you have lots of experience with lunar eclipses.
Exposures can vary tremendously over the partial phases and then into totality. Any time-lapse taken through a telescope, or even with a wide-angle lens, will require a lot of manual attention to ensure each frame is well-exposed as the sky and Moon darken.
However, even if you do not get a complete set of frames suitable for a smooth, continuous time-lapse, selected frames taken every 5 to 10 minutes may work well in creating a multiple-exposure composite (as above), by layering exposures later in Photoshop.
Whatever method – or methods — you use, don’t get so wrapped up in fussing with cameras you forget to simply enjoy the eclipse for the beautiful sight it is.
This is the last total eclipse of the Moon anyone on Earth will see until January 31, 2018. So enjoy the view of the deep red Moon in the autumn sky.
Venus, now at its brightest as a morning star, shines amid the subtle glow of the Zodiacal Light.
This was the scene this morning, September 17, on a very frosty dawn at 5 a.m. from my backyard in southern Alberta.
Here, Venus shines nearly as bright as it can be, at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky as a brilliant “morning star.”
Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching diagonally from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs vertically down the frame from top centre to bottom right.
Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right.
The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right.
Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame.
The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning. It was a marvellous dawn sky delight.
This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean-combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.
Here are my top tips for shooting terrific still-image nightscapes … and time-lapse movies of the night sky.
1. Go for pixel size, not pixel count
When choosing a camera for night sky scenes, the most important characteristic is not number of megapixels. Just the opposite.
The best cameras are usually models with more modest megapixel counts. Each of their individual pixels is larger and so collects more photons in a given exposure time, yielding higher a signal-to-noise ratio – or lower noise, critical for night shooting.
Cameras with pixels (the “pixel pitch”) 6 to 8 microns across are best. Many high-megapixel cameras have tiny 4-micron pixels.
Large-pixel cameras are often the full-frame models, such as the Canon 5D MkIII and 6D, the Nikon D610, D750, and Df, and the Sony a7s and a7S II.
Many “cropped-frame” cameras are now 18- to 24-megapixel models with smaller, noise-prone pixels. They can certainly be used, but will require more care in exposing well at lower ISOs, and in processing to smooth out noise without blurring detail.
2. Learn to fly on manual
While DSLRs and Compact System Cameras have amazing automatic functions we use none of them at night.
Instead, we use the camera on Manual or Bulb, dialling in shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed manually. We also have to focus manually, using Live View mode to focus on a bright star or distant light.
Learn the tradeoffs involved: Increasing ISO sensitivity of the sensor keeps exposure times down but increases noise. Opening up the lens aperture to f/2 or f/1.4 also keeps exposures short but introduces image-blurring aberrations, especially at the frame corners.
To prevent stars from trailing due to the sky’s motion adhere to the “500 Rule:” the maximum exposure time is roughly 500 divided by the focal length of your lens.
3. Expose to the right
At night, always give the sensor plenty of signal.
Use whatever combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO will provide a well-exposed image. The image “histogram,” the graph of number of pixels at each brightness level shown above, should never be slammed to the left.
It should be a well-distributed “mountain range” of pixels, extending well to the right. If the 500 Rule restricts your shutter speed, and your desire for sharp images across the frame demands you shoot at f/2.8 or even slower, then don’t be afraid to bump up the ISO speed to whatever it takes to produce a good histogram and a well-exposed image.
Noise will look far worse if you underexpose, then try to boost the image brightness later in processing. Expose to the right!
4. Shoot Raw!
Shoot Raw. Period.
When comparing Raw and compressed JPG versions of the same image, you can be fooled into thinking the JPGs look better (i.e. smoother) because of the noise reduction the camera has applied to the JPG that is beyond your control. However, that smoothing has also wiped out fine detail, like stars.
By shooting Raw you get to control whatever level of noise reduction and sharpening the image needs later in processing.
JPGs are also 8-bit images with a limited tonal range – or palette – in which to record the subtle gradations of brightness and colour present in our images.
Imported Raw files are 16-bit, with a much wider tonal scale and colour palette. That’s critical for all astrophotos when, even with a well-exposed image, many tonal values are down in the dark end of the range. Processing Raw images makes it possible to extract detail in the shadows and highlights.
Even when shooting a time-lapse sequence, shoot Raw.
5. Take dark frames (sometimes!)
LENR reduces noise.
It’s a topic of some debate, but in my experience it is always better to turn on the camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) function when shooting individual nightscape images. Doing so forces the camera to take a “dark frame,” an exposure of equal length but with the shutter closed.
It records just the noise, which the camera then subtracts from the image. Yes, it takes twice as long to acquire an image, but the image is cleaner, with fewer noisy pixels.
This is especially true when shooting on hot summer nights (the warmer the sensor the higher the noise). That said, you cannot use LENR when shooting frames for star trail composites or time-lapse movies.
For those, the interval between images should be no more than 1 to 5 seconds. Using LENR would introduce unsightly gaps in the trails or jumps in the star motion in time-lapses.
As an alternative, it is possible to take separate dark frames at the end of the night by simply covering the lens and taking exposures of the same duration and at the same ISO as your “light frames.”
Some stacking software, such as StarStax and the Advanced Stacker Actions have places to put these dark frames, to subtract them from the stack later in processing.
6. Use fast lenses
A fast lens is your best accessory.
While the “kit zoom” lenses that come with many DSLRs are great for shooting bright twilight or Full Moon scenes, they will prove too slow for dark starlit scenes with the Milky Way.
In addition to exposing to the right and shooting Raw, the secret to great nightscapes is to shoot with fast lenses, usually “prime” lenses with fixed focal lengths. They are usually faster and have better image quality than zooms.
Your most-used lens for nightscape and time-lapse shooting is likely to be a 14mm to 24mm f/2 to f/2.8 lens.
Fortunately, because we don’t need (and indeed can’t use) autofocus we can live happily with low-cost manual lenses, such as the models made in Korea and sold under brands such as Rokinon, Samyang and Bower. They work very well.
7. Get to know the Moon & Milky Way
For many nightscape and time-lapse shoots, the Moon is your light source for illuminating the landscape.
When the Moon is absent, the Milky Way is often your main sky subject.
Knowing where the Moon will be in the sky at its various phases, and when it will rise (in its waning phases after Full Moon) or set (in its waxing phases before Full) helps you a plan a shoot, so you’ll know whether a landscape will be well lit.
Astronomy apps for desktop computers and mobile devices are essential planning aids. A good one specifically for photographers is The Photographer’s Ephemeris.
Knowing in what season and time of night the Milky Way will be visible is essential if you want to capture it. Don’t try for Milky Way shots in spring – it isn’t up!
8. Keep it simple to start
Don’t be seduced by the fancy gear.
Time-lapse imaging has blossomed into a field replete with incredible gear for moving a camera incrementally during a shoot, and for automating a shoot as day turns to night.
I explain how to use all the fancy gear in my ebook, linked to below, however … Great time-lapses, and certainly still-frame nightscapes, can be taken with no more than a DSLR camera with a good fast lens and mounted on a sturdy tripod. Invest in the lens and don’t scrimp on the tripod.
Another essential for shooting multi-frame star trails and time-lapses is a hardware intervalometer ($50 to $150).
9. Learn the intricacies of intervals
For time-lapses, an intervalometer is essential.
Mastering exposure and focus in still images is essential for great time-lapse movies because they are simply made of hundreds of well-exposed still frames.
But move to time-lapses and you have additional factors to consider: how many frames to shoot and how often to shoot them. A good rule of thumb is to shoot 200 to 300 frames per sequence, shot with an interval of no more than 1 to 5 seconds between exposures, at least for starry night sequences.
However, most intervalometers (the Canon TC-80N3 is an exception) define their “Interval” setting to mean the time from when the shutter opens to when it opens again. In that case, you set the Interval to be a value 1 to 5 seconds longer than the exposure time you are using. That’s also true of the intervalometer function Nikon builds into their internal camera firmware.
10. Go to beautiful places
While the gear can be simple, great shots demand an investment in time.
By all means practice at home and at nearby sites that are quick to get to. Try out gear and techniques at Full Moon when exposures are short (the Full Moon is bright!) and you can see what you are doing.
But beautiful images of landscapes lit by moonlight or starlight require you to travel to beautiful locations.
When you are on site, take the time to frame the scene well, just as you would during the day. Darkness is no excuse for poor composition!
While shooting nightscapes and time-lapses can be done with a minimal investment in hardware and software, it does require an investment in time – time to travel and spend nights shooting at wonderful places under the stars.
Enjoy the night!
I cover all these topics, and much more, in detail in my ebook How to Photograph & Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. Click the link below to learn more.
The Northern Lights dance over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage Site.
Aurora alerts called for a fine display on Friday, September 11. Forewarned, I headed to one of my favourite shooting spots at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and aimed three cameras at the sky. It didn’t take long before the lights appeared, right on cue.
The display started out with lots of promise, but did fade after 12:30 a.m., just when it was supposed to be peaking in intensity. I let the cameras run for a while but eventually stopped the shutters and packed it in…
…But not before I captured this odd bit of aurora in the east, shown below, that appeared as an isolated and stationary band pulsing up and down in brightness, but with little movement.
I’ve seen these before and have never heard a good explanation of what process creates such an effect, with a patch of sky appearing to “turn on” and off.
You can see the effect at the end of the time-lapse compilation, linked below from Vimeo.
As usual, please enlarge to full-screen and watch in HD for the best quality.
Unfortunately, a patrolling park official checking on things, spoiled some frames with her truck’s headlights. It’s one of the hazards of time-lapse imaging.
As a final image, here are all the fish-eye lens frames stacked into one image, to create a single star trail showing the sky rotating about the celestial pole.
It’s been a good week for auroras, with a promise of more to come perhaps, as we approach equinox, traditionally a good time for magnetic field lines to align, funnelling solar storm particles into our magnetosphere.
On the morning of September 10 the waning crescent Moon gathered near bright Venus and much dimmer but redder Mars (at left) in the dawn sky.
Venus and Mars have both moved into the morning sky, where they will begin a series of conjunctions with the Moon and with Jupiter, now just emerging from behind the Sun, over the next two months. This gathering is just the start of the dawn planet dance.
For the technically minded, this is a high-dynamic range stack of 5 exposures to accommodate the large range in brightness between the sky and Moon, and to preserve the earthshine on the “dark side of the Moon.”
I shot this with the Canon 6D and 135mm lens at f/2 and at ISO 800 in a set of 8, 4, 2, 1 and 0.5-second exposures, blended with HDR Pro in Photoshop using 32-bit mode of Adobe Camera Raw.
The lights came out and danced in my sky in the early morning hours.
The early warning signs weren’t calling for anything too impressive for a display last night, September 8/9, but the sky surprised us with a fantastic display of Northern lights.
I shot with one camera – it was very late, or very early! – but shot enough frames to create this short 1.5-minute music video.
I photographed the sequence with a single fixed-camera aimed east toward a bright auroral curtain, showing fast pulsing forms common to the later stages of a substorm. But then a new bright curtain sweeps in from the north and the display brightens even more in a new substorm. The display then fades.
The exposures were taken over an hour from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. MDT. Each was a 2-second exposure with an interval of 2 seconds, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm lens at f/2, for a total of just over 850 frames.
Look east at dawn on September 10 to see the first in a series of planet dances in the dawn sky.
Earlier this year in spring we had Venus and Jupiter blazing in the evening western sky. Now, after a time of retreat behind the Sun, they are emerging to repeat their show together but in the dawn sky.
However, Venus and Jupiter won’t be close together until the end of October. Until then, Venus and Jupiter slowly converge in the dawn sky, but now accompanied by dimmer but redder Mars.
On the morning of September 10, look east before sunrise to see the waning crescent Moon shining between Venus and Mars. Binoculars will frame the Moon and Venus, or the Moon and Mars, but not all three at once.
If your horizon and sky are very clear you might spy Jupiter as well shining down below the trio in the bright morning twilight.
The real dawn dance begins in mid to late October, when first Mars, then Venus passes Jupiter, and all three worlds cluster in a tight triangle in the morning twilight.
I’ve been an avowed Canon DSLR user for a decade. I may be ready to switch!
[NOTE:This review dates from 2015. Tests done today with current models would certainly differ. Canon’s EOS R mirrorless series, for example, offer much better ISO Invariancy performance but lack the “dark frame buffer” advantage of Canon DSLRs. And indeed, I have used the Nikon D750 a lot since 2015. But I did not give up my Canons!]
Here, in a technical blog, I present my tests of two leading contenders for the best DSLR camera for nightscape and astronomical photography: the Canon 6D vs. the Nikon D750. Which is better?
To answer, I subjected both to side-by-side outdoor tests, using exposures you’ll actually use in the field for typical nightscapes and for deep-sky images.
Both cameras are stock, off-the-shelf models. They have not had their filters modified for astronomy use. Both are 20- to 24-megapixel, full-frame cameras, roughly competitive in price ($1,900 to $2,300).
For images shot through lenses, I used the Canon L-Series 24mm on the Canon 6D, and the Sigma 24mm Art lens on the Nikon D750.
The bottom line:Both are great cameras, with the Nikon D750 having the edge for nightscape work, and the Canon 6D the edge for deep-sky exposures.
The 24.3-megapixel Nikon D750 has 5.9-micron pixels, while the 20.2-megapixel Canon 6D has slightly larger 6.5-micron pixels which, in theory, should lead to lower noise for the Canon. How do they compare in practice?
I shot a moonlit nightscape scene (above) at five ISO settings, from 800 to 12800, at increasingly shorter exposures to yield identically exposed frames. I processed each frame as shown above, with boosts to shadows, clarity, and contrast typical for nightscapes. However, I applied no noise reduction (either luminance or color) in processing. Nor did I take and apply dark frames.
The blowups of a small section of the frame (outlined in the box in the upper right of the Photoshop screen) show very similar levels of luminance noise. The Canon shows slightly more color noise, in particular more magenta pixels in the shadows at high ISOs. Its larger pixels didn’t provide the expected noise benefit.
TEST #2 — Resolution
Much has been written about the merits of Canon vs. Nikon re: the most rigorous of tests, resolving stars down at the pixel level.
I shot the images below of the Andromeda Galaxy the same night through a 92mm aperture apo refractor. They have had minimal but equal levels of processing applied. At this level of inspection the cameras look identical.
But what if we zoom in?
For many years Nikon DSLRs had a reputation for not being a suitable for stellar photography because of a built-in noise smoothing that affected even Raw files, eliminating tiny stars along with noise. Raw files weren’t raw. Owners worked around this by turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction, then when LENR kicked in after an exposure, they would manually turn off the camera power.
This so-called “Mode 3” operation yielded a raw frame without the noise smoothing applied. Clearly, this clumsy workaround made it impossible to automate the acquisition of raw image sequences with Nikons.
Are Nikons still handicapped? In examining deep-sky images at the pixel-peeping level (below), I saw absolutely no difference in resolution or the ability to record tiny and faint stars. With its 4-megapixel advantage the Nikon should resolve finer details and smaller stars, but in practice I saw little difference.
On the other hand I saw no evidence for Nikon’s “star eater” reputation. I think it is time to lay this bugbear of Nikons to rest. The Nikon D750 proved to be just as sharp as the Canon 6D.
Note that in the closeups above, the red area marks a highlight (the galaxy core) that is overexposed and clipped. Nikon DSLRs also have a reputation for having sensors with a larger dynamic range than Canon, allowing better recording of highlights before clipping sets in.
However, in practice I saw very little difference in dynamic range between the two cameras. Both clipped at the same points and to the same degree.
TEST #3 — Mirror Box Shadowing
An issue little known outside of astrophotography is that a DSLR’s deeply-inset sensor can be shadowed by the upraised mirror and sides of the mirror box. Less light falls on the edges of the sensor.
The vignetting effect is noticeable only when we boost the contrast to the high degree demanded by deep-sky images, and when shooting through fast telescope systems.
Here I show the vignetting of the Canon and Nikon when shooting through my 92mm refractor at f/4.5.
The circular corner vignetting visible in the images below is from the field flattener/reducer I employed on the telescope. It can be compensated for by using Lens Correction in Adobe Camera Raw, or eliminated by taking flat fields.
The dark edge at the bottom of the frame is from shadowing by the upraised mirror. It can be eliminated only by taking flat fields, or reduced by using masked brightness adjustments in processing.
Both cameras showed similar levels of vignetting, with the Canon perhaps having the slight edge.
TEST #4 — ISO Invariancy
So far the Nikon D750 and Canon 6D are coming up fairly equal in performance. But not here. This is where the Nikon outperforms the Canon by quite a wide margin.
Sony sensors (used in Sony cameras and also used by Nikon) have a reputation for being “ISO Invariant.”
What does that mean?
In the examples above, the correct exposure for the starlit scene was 15 seconds at f/1.4 at ISO 6400. See how the two cameras rendered the scene? Very similar, albeit with the Canon showing more noise and discoloration in the dark frame corners.
What if we shoot at the same 15 seconds at f/1.4 … but at ISO 3200, 1600, 800, and 400? These are now 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-stops underexposed, respectively.
Then we boost the Exposure setting of the underexposed Raw files later in processing, by 1, 2, 3 or 4 f-stops. What do we see?
With the Nikon (above) we see images that look nearly identical for noise to what we got with the properly exposed ISO 6400 original. It really didn’t matter what ISO speed the image was shot at – we can turn it into any ISO we want later with little penalty.
With the Canon (above) we get images with grossly worse noise in the shadows and with ugly magenta discoloration. Canons cannot be underexposed. You must use as high an ISO as needed for the correct exposure.
This “ISO Invariant” advantage of Nikon over Canon is especially noticeable in nightscapes scenes lit only by starlight, as above. The Canon turns ugly purple at -3EV underexposure, and loses all detail and contrast at -4EV underexposure.
For nightscape imaging this is an important consideration. We are limited in exposure time and aperture, and so are often working at the ragged edge of exposure. Dark areas of a scene are often underexposed and prone to noise. With the Nikon D750 these areas may still look noisy, but not much more so than they would be at that ISO speed.
With the Canon 6D, underexpose the shadows and you pay the price of increased noise and discoloration when you try to recover details in the shadows.
Apparently, the difference comes from where the manufacturer places the analog-to-digital circuitry: on the sensor (ISO invariant) or outboard on a separate circuit (ISO variant), and thus where in the signal path the amplification occurs when we boost ISO speed.
TEST #6 — Features
One could go on endlessly about features, but here I compare the two cameras on just a few key operating features very important to astrophotographers.
The Canon 6D has none, though newer Canons do. The Nikon D750, as do many Nikons, has a built-in intervalometer (shown above), even with a deflickering “Exposure Smoothing” option. However, exposure time is limited to the camera’s maximum of 30 seconds. Any longer requires an outboard intervalometer, as with the Canon.
If you use your camera with any motion control time-lapse unit, then it becomes the intervalometer, negating any capability built into the camera. But it’s nice to have.
Small Advantage: Nikon
REVISED JUNE 2020:
When taking time-lapse or star trail images with the Canon I can set an interval as short as 1 second between frames, for a minimum of gaps or jumps in the stars. With the Nikon, controlled internally by its built-in intervalometer, a 1-second interval is possible but only if you set the interval to 33 seconds for