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!
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.
I’ve been an avowed Canon DSLR user for a decade. I may be ready to switch!
This is a decidedly non-pretty-picture blog!
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.
NOTE: In case you think this difference arises only because of the lens, not the camera or sensor, I invite you to check the version of this review at my website page, where there are images taken with each camera shooting through the same optics, the telescope. They show the same difference due to the “ISO invariant” sensor in the Nikon vs. the “ISO variant” sensor in the Canon.
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
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, depending on whether it is controlled internally or externally, and on the length of exposure, the interval usually has to be no less than 3 to 4 seconds, which can lead to unsightly gaps in star trails.
Small Advantage: Canon
Tiltable LCD Screen:
The Canon 6D has none. The Nikon D750 has a very useful tilt-out screen as shown above. This is hugely convenient for all forms of astrophotography. Only cropped-frame Canons have tilt-out screens. This feature might add weight, but it’s worth it!
Big Advantage: Nikon
Dark Frame Buffer:
The Nikon has none. With Long Exposure Noise Reduction ON, the Canon 6D allows up to four exposures to be shot in quick succession before the dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera. (Put the camera into Raw+JPG.)
This is very useful for deep-sky imaging, for acquiring a set of images for stacking that have each had a dark frame subtracted in-camera, with a minimum of “down-time” at the camera.
Big Advantage: Canon
Live View Screen Brightness:
As pointed out to me by colleague Christoph Malin, with the Nikon you cannot dim the screen when in Live View mode and with Exposure Simulation ON. So it can be too bright at night. With the Canon you can dim the Live View screen — the LCD Brightness control affects the screen both during Live View as well as during playback of images.
Small Advantage: Canon
Canon EOS cameras are well supported by advanced software, such as GBTimelapse (above) that controls only Canons, not Nikons, in complex time-lapse sequences, and Nebulosity, popular among deep-sky imagers for DSLR control.
Small Advantage: Canon
My take-away conclusions:
• Nikon DSLRs now are just as good for astrophotography as Canons, though that wasn’t always the case – early models did suffer from more noise and image artifacts than their Canon counterparts.
• Canon DSLRs, due to their sensor design, are more prone to exhibiting noise and image artifacts when images are greatly underexposed then boosted later in processing. Just don’t underexpose them – good advice for any camera.
You can read a slightly more complete version of this report at my website at
Sunlight and shadows at Fajada Butte served to mark the seasons a thousand years ago.
In the distance is Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. It is one of the most famous sites in archaeoastronomy. A thousand years ago, people of the Chaco Culture used it to observe the Sun.
At a site now off limits to preserve its integrity, a set of three rocks cast shadows and daggers of sunlight onto a carved spiral petroglyph.
People used the position of the projected beams of light as a calendar to mark time through the year. In truth, simply watching the changing position of the rising and setting Sun along the horizon, which was also done here at Chaco Canyon, would have worked just as well.
I visited the site today, as part of a trek north through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. Chaco Canyon is one of the preeminent sites for archaeoastronomy, demonstrating how well people a thousand years ago (the site was occupied from the mid 800s to the mid 1100s) observed the sky.
For example, a half-day hike takes you to a famous pictograph on a rock face showing a bright star near the crescent Moon, a drawing some have interpreted as being an observation of the supernova of 1054 AD.
In its height, thousands of people lived in the pueblos at Chaco Canyon and surrounding area. This is the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl pueblo. Wood columns used to hold a wood roof over this structure to make a space for ceremony and ritual.
I did a little solar observing myself while there. While walking through the maze of rooms at Pueblo Bonito I looked up to see iridescent clouds near the Sun, created by diffraction of sunlight from fine ice crystals.
In keeping with the site’s astronomical heritage, the Visitor Centre at the Chaco Culture Historical Park has a well-equipped observatory with several top-class telescopes (a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian among them) and an outdoor theatre for regular stargazing sessions each weekend. This is a world-class Dark Sky Preserve and a World Heritage Site.
Barbados is soon to have a new state-of-the-art public observatory for promoting astronomy.
On Saturday night, November 16, I was fortunate and privileged to be the guest speaker at the first event at the newly refurbished Harry Bayley Observatory in Bridgetown, Barbados. A grant from an educational foundation in the UK has allowed the Barbados Astronomical Society to renew the aging 50-year-old facility with a fresh new interior, and all the high-tech fittings of a modern public observatory.
A new dome was lifted into place on top of the 3-storey structure earlier in the week, and the painting and interior finishing was completed just a day or two before my talk, in time for a public RSVP event Saturday night.
I gave a talk on The Amazing Sky, showing images and movies from the November 3 total eclipse, among many other photos of the sights anyone can see in the day and night sky. I gave the same talk twice, to two packed houses of 40 people per session in the main floor meeting room/lecture hall. A wonderful spread of local food and drink was served upstairs.
Lots of work remains to complete the refurbishment but the facility was in good enough shape to host a public event. The official opening is in January.
A new Meade 16-inch telescope on a Software Bisque MX2 mount is on its way for installation later this year, equipped with the latest robotic control and digital cameras for public viewing. A hydrogen-alpha solar telescope will also be part of the arsenal of equipment.
This night, members set up a portable Celestron 8-inch telescope outside for viewing the Moon and Jupiter. In contrast to viewing at home at this time of year, observing from 13° North latitude was in shorts and shirt-sleeves.
It was a terrific evening and I’m pleased to have been part of the relaunching of the Observatory and astronomy activities on the island. Many thanks go to my host on the island, Greg Merrick, for making the evening – and my stay this week – possible.
Columbus set out from the Canary Islands, following the stars, in his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean.
Today we visited the Casa de Colon, the Columbus Museum, in the capital city of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. It was here, in what was then the Governor’s house, that Columbus is believed to have stayed before embarking on many of his voyages across the Atlantic.
Above is the painted ceiling in one of the galleries, depicting the northern constellations and stars he would have followed to guide him across the Atlantic. You can recognize all the modern constellations and the Milky Way.
Tonight, we set sail ourselves across the Atlantic, in a two week voyage away from land. Our ship, the Star Flyer, chartered by Betchart Expeditions, has a mix of square and staysails that we’ll use, as Columbus did, to catch the trade winds that will blow us south and west toward the eclipse intercept point and eventually to Barbados.
This is an authentic astrolabe from 1500, one of the tools Columbus would have used to navigate the high seas. Today we have GPS.
This is the church Columbus prayed at before embarking on his voyages. It was closed the day we visited. We hope we won’t be needing its services!
Three days ago we were accorded the rare privilege of touring the Royal Observatory of Spain in Cadiz.
Founded in the late 18th century Spain’s Royal Observatory served (and continues to serve) the same purpose as the Greenwich Observatory in England – providing an accurate source of time for the navy and country.
Unlike Greenwich, the Royal Observatory of Spain is on a restricted access military base and is not open to the public. So it was through special arrangement that our eclipse group was able to visit and receive a guided tour as part of our day in Cadiz.
Above is the main observatory building, which today houses a telescope and laser range finding system for geodesy work. On display were a host of brass telescopes and surveying instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Above, in another observatory building, we saw a classic 12-inch astrographic refractor, used to take early photos of the night sky on glass plates, as part of the international Cartes du Ciel program in the 19th century.
This is the readout of the precise time, being maintained by cesium clocks in a climate controlled room next door.
The real treat was a tour through the Observatory’s library, a national treasure. Some 40,000 volumes date from as far back as the invention of the printing press in Gutenberg. The collection includes books on every science and engineering subject, and reports from all the historic science expeditions of the time.
One volume, shown here, is a 1514 book of eclipse tables.
Another case held early editions, often annotated by their owners, of the seminal works by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. We were very impressed.
Tomorrow our cruise ship docks at the Canary Islands, then we sail southwest with the trade winds to meet the shadow of the Moon on November 3 at latitude 18°06′ N and 39°19′ W.