Chasing the Shadowed Moon (2022)


Once again, catching the eclipsed Moon required a chase to clear skies.

As with every previous eclipse of the Moon visible from my area in the last decade, I didn’t have the luxury of watching it from home, but had to chase to find clear skies.

(See my previous tales of the November 19, 2021 and May 26, 2021 eclipses.)

However, the reward was the sight of the reddened Moon from one of my favourite locations in Alberta, Reesor Lake, in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

The eclipse in question was the total lunar eclipse of May 15/16, 2022. As with any eclipse, planning starts with a look at the weather forecasts, or more specifically cloud forecasts.

A few days prior, conditions didn’t look good from my home, to the west of the red marker.

Cloud forecast two days prior.

But as the chart from the app Astrospheric shows, very clear skies were forecast for southeast Alberta, in the Cypress Hills area, where I have shot many times before.

Except as eclipse evening drew closer, the forecast got worse. Now, the clouds were going to extend to my chosen site, with a particularly annoying tongue of cloud right over my spot. Clouds were going to move in just as the total eclipse began. Of course!

Cloud forecast the morning of the eclipse.

I decided to go for it anyway, as the Moon would be to the east, in the direction of the clear skies. It didn’t need to be clear overhead. Nor did I want to drive any farther than I really needed, especially to another location with an unknown foreground.

The spot I chose was one I knew well, on the west shore of scenic Reesor Lake, near the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, but on the Alberta side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

I used the app The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to help plan the shoot, to ensure the Moon would be well situated over the lake.

A screen shot from TPE

Handily, TPE provides moonrise times and angles for the chosen location, as well as eclipse times for that time zone.

The companion app, TPE 3D, provides a preview of the scene in 3D relief, with the hills depicted, as a check on Moon altitude and azimuth with respect to the horizon below.

TPE 3D’s simulation

As you can see the simulation matched reality quite well, though the image below was from an earlier time than the simulation, which was for well after mid-totality.

The eclipse over Reesor Lake, in the last stages of the partial eclipse.

However, true to the predictions, clouds were moving in from the west all during the eclipse, to eventually obscure the Moon just as it entered totality and became very dim. Between the clouds and the dark, red Moon, I lost sight of it at totality. As expected!

Below is my last sighting, just before totality began.

The eclipsed Full Moon rising over Reesor Lake in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Alberta, on May 15, 2022.

However, I was content at having captured the eclipse from a photogenic site. More images of a complete eclipse would have been nice, but alas! I still consider the chase a success.

A panorama of the eclipsed Full Moon rising over Reesor Lake in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Alberta, on May 15, 2022.

Just for fun, I shot a quick panorama of three segments, and it turned out to be my favourite image from the eclipse, capturing the scene very well. Pelicans and geese were plying the calm waters of the lake. And owls were hooting in the woods. It was a fabulous evening!

Me at Reesor Lake after shooting the lunar eclipse of May 15, 2022, with the Moon now in clouds behind me.

Before departing, I took my customary “trophy” shot, of the eclipse hunter having bagged his game.


Interestingly, this eclipse was a close repeat of one 19 years earlier to the day, because of the so-called Metonic Cycle where eclipses of the Sun and Moon repeat at 19-year intervals on the same calendar day, at least for 2 or 3 cycles.

The trophy shot from May 15, 2003.

On May 15, 2003, we also had a total lunar eclipse in the early evening, with the eclipsed Moon rising into a spring twilight sky. I also chased clear skies for that one, but in the opposite direction from home, to the southwest, to the foothills. At that time it was all film, and medium format at that.

Total eclipse of the Moon seen May 15, 2003 from southern Alberta (from a site west of Nanton). The Moon rose as totality started so was deep into totality by the time it was high enough to see and sky dark enough to make it stand out. Pentax 67 camera with 165mm lens at f/2.8 with Fujichrome 100F slide film.

So it was another (partially!) successful eclipse chase.

The next opportunity is on the night of November 7/8, 2022, a time of year not known for clear skies!

Just once I would like to see one from home, to make it easier to shoot with various telescopes and trackers, as the reddened Moon will be west of the photogenic winter Milky Way, and very close to the planet Uranus. Plus for me in Alberta the November eclipse occurs in the middle of the night, making a home eclipse much more convenient. After that, the next chance is March 13/14, 2025.

But no matter the eclipse, I suspect another chase will be in order! It just wouldn’t be a lunar eclipse without one.

— Alan, May 19, 2022 (amazingsky.com)


The Best Sky Sights of 2022


The rising nearly Full Moon of December 19, 2021.

Two total eclipses of the Moon, an all-planet array across the sky, and a fine close approach of Mars highlight the astronomical year of 2022.

In this blog, I provide my selection of the best sky sights of 2022. I focus on events you can actually see, and from North America. I also emphasize photogenic events, such as gatherings of the Moon and planets at dawn or dusk, and the low Full Moons of summer. 

The sky charts are for my longitude in Alberta and my home latitude of 51° N, farther north than many readers will likely live. From more southerly latitudes in North America, the low planet gatherings at dawn or dusk will be more obvious, with the objects higher and in a darker sky than my charts depict. 

Feel free to share the link to my blog, or to print it out for reference through the year.

Highlights: Lunar Eclipses, Planet Array and Mars

As in 2021, this year we have two lunar eclipses, both total this year, six months apart in May and in November. On the night of May 15/16 eastern North America gets the best view of a deep total eclipse that lasts 85 minutes. Six lunar cycles later, western North America gets the best view of another 85-minute-long total lunar eclipse. 

The year begins with four planets in the evening sky, but not for long. They all soon move into the morning sky for the rest of the first half of 2022. In fact, in late June we have the rare chance to see all five naked eye planets lined up in order (!) across the morning sky. 

The “star” planet of 2022 is Mars, as it reaches one of its biennial close approaches to Earth, and a decent one at that, with its disk relatively large and the planet high in the winter sky, making for excellent telescope views. The night Mars is directly opposite the Earth and at its brightest coincides with a Full Moon, which just happens to also pass in front of Mars that night! That’s a remarkable and rare event to round out a year of stargazing. 

For Further Reference

For the authoritative annual guide to the sky and detailed reference work, see the Observer’s Handbook published each year in Canadian and U.S. editions by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. I used it to compile this list.

The RASC has also partnered with Firefly Books to publish a more popular-level guide to the coming year’s sky for North America, as the 2022 Night Sky Almanac, authored by Canadian science writer Nicole Mortillaro. It provides excellent monthly star charts to help you learn the sky.


January

The year begins with a chance to see four planets together at dusk. But catch them quick! 

January 4 — Mercury, Venus (just!), Jupiter and Saturn, plus the Moon

Venus is sinking out of sight fast, as it approaches its January 8 conjunction with the Sun, putting it out of sight. But Mercury is climbing higher, approaching its January 7 greatest angle away from the Sun. 

This night the waxing crescent Moon appears below Saturn. It was below Mercury on January 3, and will be below Jupiter on January 5. On January 13, Mercury shines 3.5 degrees (°) below Saturn, just before both disappear close to the Sun. 

This is a comparison pair of the Full Moon at apogee (farthest from Earth for the year) at left, and at perigee (closest to Earth) at right, with the perigean Moon being a so-called “Supermoon”.

January 17 — The 2022 Mini-Moon 

The Full Moon this night is the most distant, and therefore the smallest, of 2022. Shoot it and the Full Moon of July with identical gear to collect a contrasting pair of Mini and Super Moons, as above. 

January 29 — Waning Moon and Morning Planets

By the end of January, Mercury and Venus have both moved into the morning sky, where they join Mars. The waning crescent Moon appears below magnitude 1.5 Mars this morning, as the famed red planet begins its fine appearance for 2022. 


February

The main planet action migrates to the morning sky, while Zodiacal Light season begins in the evening.  

February 16 — Mercury As a Morning Star

Though not a favourable elongation for northern latitudes, on February 16 Mercury reaches its highest angle away from the Sun low in the eastern dawn, below Venus and Mars, with Venus having just reached its greatest brilliancy (at a blazing magnitude -4.9!) on February 12, shining above much dimmer Mars. (Magnitude 0 to 1 is a bright star; magnitude 6 is the faintest naked-eye star; any magnitude of -1 to -5 is very bright.) 

While at magnitude 0, elusive Mercury shines a magnitude and a half brighter than Mars, Mercury’s lower altitude will make it tougher to see. Use binoculars to pick it out. But Venus remains a brilliant and easy “morning star” for the next few months. 

A 360° panorama of the spring sky over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on March 29, 2019. At bottom is the tapering pyramid-shaped glow of the Zodiacal Light

February 18 — Zodiacal Light Season Begins in the Evening 

From sites away from light pollution look for a faint glow of light rising out of the southwest sky on any clear evening for the next two weeks with no Moon. This glow is caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. The next moonless window for the evening Zodiacal Light is March 20 to early April. Spring is the best season for seeing and shooting the Light in the evening sky.

February 27 — Moon Joins the Morning Planet Party

The waning crescent Moon appears very low below Mars and Venus, with Mercury still in view, and Saturn just beginning to emerge from behind the Sun.  


March 

Equinox brings a favourable season for great auroras, while the morning planets begin to cluster in the east

A panorama of the auroral arc seen from home in southern Alberta (latitude 51° N) on April 14/15, 2021.

March 1 on — Prime Aurora Season Begins

While great auroras can occur in any month, statistically the best displays often occur around the two equinoxes in spring and autumn. No one can predict more than 12 to 48 hours ahead (and still with a great deal of uncertainty) when a display will be visible from mid-latitudes. But watch sites such as SpaceWeather.com for heads-up notices. 

A capture of a line of geosats (geostationary communication satellites) as they flare in brightness during one of their semi-annual “flare” seasons near the equinoxes.

March 1 on — Flaring Geosat Season Begins

In the weeks prior to the spring equinox, and in the few weeks after the autumn equinox, the string of communication satellites in geostationary orbit catch the sunlight and flare to naked-eye brilliance. Long-exposure tracked photos of the area below Leo (in spring, as here) will catch them as streaks, as the camera follows the stars causing the stationary satellites to trail.  

March 12 — Venus and Mars in Conjunction

Venus and Mars reach their closest separation 4° apart low in the southeastern dawn sky. 

March 20 — Equinox at 11:33 a.m. EDT

Spring officially begins for the northern hemisphere, autumn for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading north. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west, great for urban photo ops. 

March 27 — Moon and a Planetary Triangle

The waning crescent Moon appears to the west of Venus and Mars, with Venus about 2° above Saturn. The view will be better the next morning, March 28, with the thin Moon directly below the close pairing of Venus and Saturn. But the Moon will be even lower in the sky, making it more difficult to sight.  


April

Mercury puts on its best evening show of 2022, near the Pleiades, and with a possible comet nearby. The month ends with a very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter at dawn. 

This is a 160°-wide panorama of the Milky Way arching over the Badlands formations at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, taken on a moonlit night in May.

April 1 — Milky Way Arch Season Opens

With the Moon out of view, the next two weeks bring good nights to shoot panoramas of the bright summer Milky Way as an arch across the sky, with the galactic core in view to the south. Catching the arch takes a very late-night shoot in early April. But the Milky Way moves into prime position two hours earlier each month. 

April 5 — Mars and Saturn 1/2° apart

The two planets appear almost the same brightness as a close “double star” in the dawn, not far from brighter Venus. Mars and Saturn will also be close the morning before, on April 4. 

April 27 — Moon Joins Venus and Jupiter

Jupiter is now emerging from behind the Sun to meet up with Venus, for a grouping of the sky’s two brightest planets. On this morning the waning Moon appears 4.5° below the pair. 

April 29 — Mercury Appears Beside the Pleiades

Just as Mercury reaches its greatest angle away from the Sun for its best evening appearance of 2022, it also appears just 1° away from the famous Pleiades star cluster low in the west. 

April 30 — Venus and Jupiter in Close Conjunction

This is an early morning sight well worth getting up for! Venus passes only 1/3° below Jupiter this morning, but low in the eastern dawn sky. They will be almost as close on May 1. 

April 30 — A Bonus Comet?

Comet PanSTARRS (C/2021 O3) might become bright enough to be a binocular object, and a photogenic target, right next to the Pleiades and Mercury pairing. Maybe! Some predictions suggest this comet could fizzle and break up earlier in April. Even if the comet survives and performs, you’ll need a very clear sky to the northwest to catch this rare sight. 


May

On May 15-16 a totally eclipsed Moon shines red in the south at midnight for eastern North America, and in the southeast after sunset from the west.

May 15-16 — Total Eclipse of the Moon

The first of two total lunar eclipses in 2022 can be seen in its entirety from eastern North America, with totality beginning at 11:30 p.m. EDT on May 15 and lasting 85 minutes until 12:55 a.m. EDT. At mid-eclipse just after midnight from eastern North America the Moon will appear nearly due south, with the summer Milky Way to the east, shining brightly as the sky darkens during totality. Travel to a dark site to see and shoot the Moon and Milky Way.

Those in western North America see the totally eclipsed Moon rising into the southeast with some portion of the eclipse in progress, as depicted above. Once the sky darkens, the reddened Moon should become visible. Over a suitable landscape this should be a photogenic scene, though with the core of the Milky Way not yet risen. But a Milky Way arch panorama with a red Moon at one end will be possible. Choose your scenic site well! 

Courtesy Fred Espenak/EclipseWise.com

See Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise.com page for details on timing and viewing regions. The dark region on this map does not see any of this eclipse. 

May 18 — Red Planet Meets Blue Planet

Mars passes just 1/2° south of Neptune this morning, though both planets are very low in the east. They will appear close enough to frame in a telescope (the red circle is 1° wide). 

May 24 — Moon with Mars and Jupiter

As it does every month in early 2022, the waning crescent Moon joins the morning planets, on this day grouping with Mars and Jupiter before dawn. 

May 27 — Moon with Venus, plus Mars and Jupiter Close 

Later that week the thinner waning Moon passes 4° below bright Venus, still shining at magnitude -4. But higher up Mars and Jupiter are reaching a close conjunction, passing about 1/2° apart on May 28 and May 29. Mars is still a dim magnitude +0.7; Jupiter is at -2.2. 


June

Noctilucent cloud season begins for northerners, as does prime Milky Way core season for southerners. But the unusual sight is the line of all five naked eye planets, and in order! 

The northern summer Milky Way over Middle Waterton Lake at Driftwood Beach in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta on a July night.

June 1 on — Milky Way Core Season at its Prime

In early June with no Moon to interfere, and monthly for the next four months, the Milky Way core is ideally placed to the south through the night for nightscapes. However, for those at more northern latitudes the sky in June doesn’t get dark enough to make deep Milky Way shots feasible.

The brightest section of the massive “grand display” of noctilucent clouds at dusk on June 16, 2021.

June 1 on — Noctilucent Cloud Season Begins

Instead, northerners are rewarded by the occasional sight of noctilucent clouds to the north through June and well into July (even into August for sub-arctic latitudes). The Sun illuminates these high-altitude electric-blue clouds during the weeks around the summer solstice. However, there is no predicting on what night a good display will appear. 

June 14 — First of the Summer Supermoons

The Moon is full on the night of June 14-15, when it also reaches one of its closest perigees (closest approach to Earth) of 2022. In modern parlance, that makes it a “supermoon.” It will look impressive shining low in the south all night, with the low-altitude “Moon illusion” making it appear even larger. It is a good night for nightscapes with the Moon, though exposures are a challenge — try blending short exposures for the lunar disk with long exposures for the sky and ground.  

June 21 — Solstice at 5:14 a.m. EDT

Summer officially begins for the northern hemisphere, winter for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most northerly position above the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the northeast and sets farthest to the northwest, and the length of daylight is at its maximum.

June 24 — All Planets in a Row

As fast-moving Mercury rises into view at dawn in mid-June, it completes the set to provide the rare chance to see all five naked eye planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — in a row along the ecliptic, the path of the planets. Even more fun, they are in the correct order out from the Sun! The scene shown here depicts the morning of June 24, when the Moon sits between Venus and Mars, just where it should be in order of distance from the Sun as well. 

A panorama of several stitched images will be best for capturing the scene which spans 120°. Uranus and Neptune are there, too, though not in order and faint enough (below naked eye brightness) they will be tough to capture in a wide-angle scene. Long exposures with a tracker might do the job! But by the time Mercury rises high enough, the sky might be getting too bright to nab the faintest planets.

June 26 — Inner World Gathering

The select club of just inner worlds gathers for a meeting this morning, with the waning crescent Moon 2.5° above Venus. The rising stars of Taurus serve as a fine backdrop in the dawn twilight. 


July 

Once the pesky full supermoon gets out of the way, the heart of Milky Way season will be in full swing.  

July 13 — Second of the Summer Supermoons 

It will be a battle of summer supermoons in 2022! But July’s Moon wins on a technicality, as it is ever so slightly closer (by about 200 km) than the June Moon. It also appears slightly farther south, so lower in the sky than a month before. This is a good night for lunar (looney?) photo ops, though don’t expect to see the Milky Way as shown here — moonlight will wash it out. 

July 26 — Dawn Moon and Morning Star

Another photo op comes on July 26 when the waning crescent Moon passes 3° above Venus, still bright at magnitude -3.8. The last week of July and the first week of August are prime weeks for shooting the Milky Way core to the south over scenic nightscapes, assuming we get clear skies free of forest fire smoke. 


August

The popular Perseid meteors are mooned out, but late in the month under dark skies, the Milky Way reigns supreme. 

August 1 — Red Planet Meets Green Planet

As it did in May, Mars meets up with an outer planet, passing close enough to Uranus this night for both to appear in a low-power telescope field (the red circle is 2° wide).  

August 12-13 — Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks

The annual and popular Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight, but with a nearly Full Moon in Aquarius (as shown above) lighting the sky all night. Under a transparent sky, you’ll still see some bright meteors radiating from Perseus in the northeast. But you’ll need to be patient, as bright meteors are infrequent. But why not enjoy a moonlit summer night under the stars anyway?

August 14-15 — Saturn at Opposition

Saturn is at its closest and brightest for 2022 tonight, rising at sunset and shining due south in eastern Capricornus in the middle of the night. Through a telescope the rings appear tipped at an angle of 13°, about half the maximum possible at Saturnian solstices. The northern face of the rings is tipped toward us. 

August 16 on — Prime Milky Way Season

After it spoils the Perseids, the waning gibbous Moon takes a long time to get out of the way. As it does so, mid-August brings some good nights to shoot the Milky Way to the south as the rising waning Moon to the east illuminates the landscape with warm “bronze hour” lighting. By the last week of August, nights are finally moonless enough for an all-night dark-sky shoot.

August 25 — Thin Moon Above Venus

Those enjoying an all-nighter under the stars on August 24 will be rewarded with the sight of the thin waning Moon and Venus rising together at dawn on August 25. They will be 5° apart in the morning twilight, against the backdrop of the winter stars rising. 


September 

It’s Harvest Moon time, with this annual special Full Moon coming early before the equinox this year. 

The G2 auroral storm of October 11/12, 2021 with the curtains exhibiting a horizontal “dunes” structure.

September 1 on — Prime Aurora Season Begins

As in spring, some of the best weeks for sighting auroras traditionally occur around the autumn equinox. Solar activity is on the rise in 2022, heading toward an expected solar maximum in late 2024 or 2025. So we can expect some good shows this year, including some that should extend south into the northern half of the lower 48 in the U.S. 

The full Harvest Moon rising over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park on September 20, 2021.

September 10 — Full “Harvest” Moon

Occurring 12 days before the equinox, this is the closest Full Moon to the equinox, making it the official Harvest Moon of 2022. With it occurring early this year, the Harvest Moon will rise well south of due east at sunset and set well south of due west at sunrise on September 11.

Planning apps such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help you plan where to be to place the rising or setting Moon over a scenic foreground. 

Sunset at the September equinox, in this case on September 22, 2021.

September 22 — Equinox at 9:04 p.m. EDT

Autumn officially begins for the northern hemisphere, spring for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south. As in March, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops on east-west aligned roads, as above.

The Zodiacal Light in the dawn sky, September 14, 2021, from home in Alberta.

September 23 — Zodiacal Light Season Begins in the Morning

With no Moon for the next two weeks, from sites away from light pollution look to the pre-dawn sky for a faint glow of light rising out of the east before twilight brightens the morning sky. The end of October brings another moonless morning window of opportunity for the Zodiacal Light. 

September 26-27 — Jupiter at opposition

Jupiter, now in southern Pisces, reaches its closest and brightest for 2022 tonight, also rising at sunset and shining due south in the middle of the night. Jupiter has now moved far enough along the ecliptic to place it high in the sky for northern observers, providing us with sharper telescope views than we’ve had for many years. 


October 

Mercury rises into the dawn, while the Moon occults the planet Uranus. 

October 8 — Mercury at Its Morning Best 

This is the best time to sight Mercury in the morning, as it reaches its greatest angle away from the Sun today, while the steep angle of the ecliptic on autumn mornings swings the inner planet up as high and clear from horizon haze it can get for the year. 

October 11 — Moon Hides Uranus 

While many observers might not have seen Uranus, here’s a chance to see it, then not see it! The waning gibbous Moon passes in front of magnitude 5.7 Uranus this night, occulting the planet for about an hour around midnight. Exact times will vary with location. Seeing the planet reappear from behind the dark limb of the Moon, as shown here, will be the easiest sighting, but a telescope will be essential.

October 21 — Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks

With both the Perseids and Geminids mooned out this year, the weaker but reliable Orionids remain as perhaps the best meteor shower of 2022. The meteors (expect only about 10 per hour) all appear to radiate from northern Orion, which doesn’t rise until just before midnight. Mars shines bright above the radiant point.

October 25 — Partial Solar Eclipse for Europe

While my list is aimed at North American stargazers, I should mention the partial eclipse of the Sun (there are no total solar eclipses this year) that observers across parts of Asia, Africa, Europe and the U.K. (as shown above) can see.

Courtesy Fred Espenak/EclipseWise.com

At maximum eclipse from Siberia about 86% of the Sun’s disk will be covered. No part of the eclipse is visible from North America. For details, see the page at EclipseWise.com

October 30 — Mars Begins Retrograde Motion

Mars stops its eastward motion this night and begins to retrograde westward for the next two months centred on the date of opposition, December 7. It then stops retrograding and resumes its prograde motion on January 12, 2023. Naked-eye Mars watchers can follow the changing position of Mars easily, using the stars of Taurus, including yellowish Aldebaran below, as a guide. 


November

The second total lunar eclipse of 2022 brings a red Moon to the skies over western North America. 

November 8 — Total Eclipse of the Moon 

In a mirror-image of the May eclipse, this eclipse also lasts 85 minutes, but can be seen best from western North America. From the east, the Moon sets at dawn with some portion of the eclipse in progress. 

But from the west the Moon is fully eclipsed during the wee hours of November 8, with the Moon sitting west of the winter Milky Way, making for good wide-angle photos. 

The Moon sits just a degree west of Uranus during totality. From Asia the eclipsed Moon actually passes in front of the planet for a rare eclipse and occultation combination. We have to be content with seeing the green planet east of the reddened Moon. A telescope with 600mm focal length should nicely frame the pairing.

The total phase of the eclipse begins at 5:16 a.m. EST (3:16 a.m. MST) and ends at 6:41 a.m. EST (4:41 a.m. MST).

Courtesy Fred Espenak/EclipseWise.com

For details see Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise site. As above, the dark region on this map does not see any of this lunar eclipse.

November 17 — Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks

As with the Orionids, this is normally a weak shower, but this year we have to be content with watching the weak showers. The waxing crescent Moon shining below Leo (as shown above) shouldn’t hinder observations of the Leonids too much. But with Leo not rising until late, this is another shower that requires a long, late night to observe. 


December

Mars reaches its closest point to Earth since October 2020, with the Moon occulting Mars on peak night. 

December 1 — Mars at Its Closest

Mars is closest to Earth this night, at 81 million kilometres away. This is not as close as it was in October 2020 when it was 62 million km away. Its disk then appeared large, at 22.5 arc seconds across. Maximum size on this night is 17.2 arc seconds, still good enough for fine telescope views. 

Take the opportunity on every clear night to view Mars, as this is as good as we will see the planet until the early 2030s. As it happens, the most interesting side of Mars, featuring the prominent dark Syrtis Major region and bright Hellas basin (shown above in a simulated telescope view), faces us in North America on closest approach night. 

Wide-angle views and photos will also be impressive, with reddish Mars shining brightly at magnitude -1.8 in Taurus with its photogenic star clusters, and near the winter Milky Way. 

December 7/8 — Mars at Opposition

This is the night Mars is officially at opposition, meaning it lies directly opposite the Sun and shines at its brightest. As it rises at sunset and into the early evening (as above), it is accompanied by the Full Moon, also at opposition this night, as all Full Moons are. 

By midnight (above), the Moon and Mars lie due south high in the sky. If you can keep warm and keep an eye on Mars over this long night of opposition, you’ll see surface features on Mars change as the planet rotates, bring new areas into view, with the fork-shaped Sinus Meridiani region rotating into view as triangular Syrtis Major rotates out of sight.

December 7 — Moon Occults Mars

This is very rare! On opposition night, not only does the Full Moon appear close to Mars, it actually passes in front of it during the early evening for North America. The occultation lasts about an hour, and exact times will vary with location. Binoculars will show the event, as will even the naked eye. But the best view will be through a telescope (as above), where you will be able to see the edge of the Moon cover Mars over about half a minute. Ditto on the reappearance. This is an event worth traveling to seek out clear skies if needed. 

December 13-14 — Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks

The most prolific meteor shower of the year peaks with a waning gibbous Moon rising about 10 p.m. local time (as above), lighting the sky for the rest of the night. But the early evening is dark, and with Gemini just rising we might see some long Earth-grazing fireballs from the Geminids. So certainly worth a watch on a cold December night.

December 21 — Solstice at 4:48 p.m. EST

Winter officially begins for the northern hemisphere, summer for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most southerly position below the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the southeast and sets farthest to the southwest, and the length of daylight is at its minimum.

December 24 — Inner Planets at Dusk 

On Christmas Eve the waxing crescent Moon joins Mercury and Venus low in the southwest evening twilight. Mercury is three days past its greatest elongation, so is easier to see than usual, though it will be three and a half magnitudes fainter than magnitude -3.9 Venus. 

December 28 — Mercury and Venus in Conjunction

This evening, descending Mercury passes 1.5° above Venus, now ascending into the evening twilight sky. Venus is just beginning what will be a spectacular evening appearance for early 2023, featuring close conjunctions with Saturn (on January 22, 2023) and Jupiter (on March 1, 2023). 

Good luck, good viewing, and clear skies in 2022! 

— Alan, January 3, 2022/ © 2022 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Lunar Eclipse


On the night of November 18/19 eclipse fans across North America can enjoy the sight of the Moon turning deep red. Here’s how to capture the scene.

Seeing and shooting this eclipse will demand staying up late or getting up very early. That’s the price to pay for an eclipse everyone on the continent can see.

Also, this is not a total eclipse of the Moon. But it’s the next best thing, a 97% partial eclipse – almost total! So the main attraction — a red Moon — will still be front and centre.

CLICK ON AN IMAGE to bring it up full screen for closer inspection.

NOT QUITE TOTAL

At mid-eclipse 97% of the disk of the Full Moon will be within Earth’s dark umbral shadow, and should appear a bright red colour to the eye and even more so to the camera. A sliver of the southern edge of the Moon will remain outside the umbra and will appear bright white, like a southern polar cap on the Moon. 

While some references will say the eclipse begins at 1:01 am EST, that’s when the Moon first enters the outer lighter penumbral shadow. Nothing unusual can be seen at that point, as the darkening of the Moon’s disk by the penumbra is so slight, you won’t notice any difference over the normally bright Full Moon. 

The extent of the umbra and penumbra at the October 2004 total lunar eclipse.

It isn’t until the Moon begins to enter the umbra that you can see a dark bite being taken out of the edge of the Moon. 

WHAT TO SEE

At mid-eclipse the Full Moon will look deep red or perhaps bright orange — the colours can vary from eclipse to eclipse, depending on the clarity of the Earth’s atmosphere through which the sunlight is passing to light the Moon. The red is the colour of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around the Earth during the eclipse.

The total lunar eclipse of August 2007. At the November 18 eclipse the bottom edge of the Moon, as it did here, will be bright, but brighter than it appears here.

The unique aspect of this eclipse is that for the 15 to 30 minutes around mid-eclipse we might see some unusual colour gradations at the edge of the umbral shadow, from sunlight passing through Earth’s upper atmosphere and ozone layer. This can tint the shadow edge blue or even green. 

Eclipse chart courtesy Fred Espenak / EclipseWise.com

WHERE CAN THE ECLIPSE BE SEEN?

The last lunar eclipse six months ago on the morning of May 26, 2021 (see my blog here) was visible during its total phase only from western North America, and then only just. However, this eclipse can be seen from coast to coast. 

Only from the very easternmost points in North America does the Moon set with the eclipse in progress, but during the inconsequential penumbral phase. All of the umbral phase is visible from the Eastern Seaboard, though the last stages will be in progress with the Moon low in the west in the pre-dawn hours. But that positioning can make for photogenic sight. 

The start, middle and end times of the umbral eclipse for Eastern and Pacific time zones. The background image is a simulation of the path of the November 18/19, 2021 eclipse when the Moon travels through the southern part of the umbra.

WHEN IS THE ECLIPSE?

The show really begins when the Moon begins to enter the umbra at 2:18 am EST (1:18 am CST, 12:18 am MST, 11:18 pm PST). 

But note, these times are for the night of November 18/19. If you go out on the evening of November 19 expecting to see the eclipse, you’ll be sadly disappointed as you will have missed it. It’s the night before! 

The eclipse effectively ends at 5:47 am EST (4:47 am CST, 3:47 am MST, 2:47 am PST) when the Moon leaves the umbra. That makes the eclipse 3 1/2 hours long, though the most photogenic part will be for the 15 to 30 minutes centred on mid-eclipse at 4:03 am EST (3:03 am CST, 2:03 am MST, 1:03 am PST). 

The sky at mid-eclipse from my home on Alberta, Canada (51° N)

WHERE WILL THE MOON BE?

The post-midnight timing places the Moon at mid-eclipse high in the south to southwest for most of North America, just west (right) of the winter Milky Way and below the distinctive Pleiades star cluster. 

The view from the West Coast.

The high altitude of the Moon (some 60º to 70º above the horizon) puts it well above haze and murk low in the sky, but makes it a challenge to capture in a frame that includes the landscape below for an eclipse nightscape. 

ASTRONOMY 101: The high altitude of the Moon is a function of both the eclipse timing in the middle of the night and its place on the ecliptic. The Full Moon is always 180° away from the Sun. So it sits where the Sun was six months earlier, in this case back in May, when the high Sun was bringing us warmer and longer days. Winter lunar eclipses are always high; summer lunar eclipses are always low, the opposite of what the Sun does. 

The view from the East Coast.

From eastern North America the Moon appears lower in the west at mid-eclipse, making it easier to frame above a landscape. For example from Boston the Moon is 30º up, lending itself to nightscape scenes. 

However, the sky will still be dark. To make use of the darkness to capture scenes which include the Milky Way, I suggest making the effort to travel away from urban light pollution to a dark sky site. That applies to all locations. Yes, that means a very long night!

PHOTO OPTIONS 1 — CAMERA ON A FIXED TRIPOD

With just a camera on a tripod, if you are on the East Coast (I show Boston here) it will be possible to frame the eclipsed Moon above a landscape with a 24mm lens (assuming a full frame camera; a cropped frame camera will require a 16mm lens). 

Framing the scene from the East Coast.

What exposure will be best will depend on the level of local light pollution at your site. But from a dark site, 30 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 should work well. But without tracking, you will see some star trailing at 30 seconds. Also try shorter exposures at a higher ISO. 

There’s lots of time, so take lots of shots. Include some short shots of just the Moon to blend in later, as the exposures best for picking up the Milky Way will still overexpose the Moon, even when it is darkest at mid-eclipse. 

Framing the scene from the West.

From western North America, including the landscape below will require wide lenses and a vertical format, with the Moon appearing quite small. But from a photogenic site, it might be worth the effort. 

Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with 15mm lens at f/3.2 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 for 1 minute single exposure, toward the end of totality.
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with Canon 5D MKII and 24mm lens at f2.8 for stack of 4 x 2 minutes at ISO 800. Taken during totality..

However, as my images above from the December 2010 eclipse show, if there’s any haze, the Moon could turn into a reddish blob. 

You might be tempted to shoot with a long telephoto lens, but unless the camera is on a tracker, as below, the result will likely be a blurry mess. The sky moves enough during the long (over 1 second) exposures needed to pick up the reddened portion of the Moon that the image will smear when shot with long focal lengths. The solution is to use a sky tracker.

PHOTO OPTIONS 2 — CAMERA ON A TRACKER

Placing the camera on a motorized tracker that has been polar aligned to follow the motion of the stars opens up many more possibilities. 

Camera on a Star Adventurer tracker showing the field of a 24mm lens.

From a dark site, make use of the Moon’s position near the Milky Way to frame it and Orion and his fellow winter constellations. A 24mm lens will do the job nicely, in exposures up to 2 to 4 minutes long. But take short ones for just the Moon to layer in later. 

Showing the field of a 50mm lens.

A 50mm lens (again assuming a full frame camera) frames the Moon with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus. 

Showing the field of an 85mm lens,

Switching to an 85mm lens frames the clusters more tightly and makes the Moon’s disk a little larger. For me, this is the best shot to go for at this eclipse, as it tells the story of the eclipse and its unique position near the two star clusters. 

Showing the field of 200mm and 250mm lenses.

But going with a longer lens allows framing the red eclipsed Moon below the blue Pleiades cluster, a fine colour contrast. A 200mm lens will do the job nicely (or a 135mm on a cropped frame camera). 

Or, as I show here, the popular William Optics RedCat with its 250mm focal length will also work well. But such a lens must be on a polar-aligned tracker to get sharp shots. Use the Sidereal rate drive speed to ensure the sharpest stars over the 1 to 4 minutes needed to record lots of stars. 

Typical settings for tracker images, with an image of the January 2019 eclipse.

Take lots of exposures over a range of settings — long to bring out the deep sky detail and shorter to preserve detail in the reddened lunar disk. These can be layered and blended later in Photoshop, or in the layer-based image editing program of your choice, such as Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 3 — THROUGH A TELESCOPE

While I think the tracked wide-field options are some of the best for this eclipse, many photographers will want frame-filling close-ups of the red Moon. While a telescope will do the job, unless it has motors to track the sky, your options are limited.

Phone on a simple Dobsonian reflector.

A phone clamped to the eyepiece of a telescope can capture the shrinking bright part of the eclipsed Moon as the Moon enters more deeply into the umbra. Exposures for the bright part of the Moon are short enough a motor drive on the telescope is not essential. 

But if you haven’t shot the Moon with this gear before, eclipse night is not the time to learn. Practice on the Moon before the eclipse. 

DSLR on a beginner refractor telescope showing the adapter.

For shooting with a DSLR camera through a telescope you’ll need a special camera adapter nosepiece and T-ring for your camera. Again, if you don’t have the gear and the experience doing this, I would suggest not making the attempt at two in the morning on eclipse night! 

DSLR on a beginner reflector with an often necessary Barlow lens.

For example, owners of typical beginner reflectors are often surprised to find their cameras won’t even reach focus on their telescope. Many are simply not designed for photography. Adding a Barlow lens is required for the camera to reach focus, though without a drive, exposures will be limited to short (under 1/15s) shots of the bright part of the Moon.

An exposure composite of short and long exposures.

The challenge with this and all lunar eclipses is that the Moon presents a huge range of brightness. Short snapshots can capture the bright part of the Moon not in the umbra, but the dark umbral-shaded portion requires much longer exposures, usually over one second. 

Your eye can see the whole scene (as depicted above) but the camera cannot, not in one exposure. This example is a “high dynamic range” blend of several exposures. 

A series of the September 27, 2015 total lunar eclipse to demonstrate an exposure sequence from partial to total phase.

Plus as the eclipse progresses, longer and longer exposures are needed to capture the sequence as the Moon is engulfed by more of the umbra. 

After mid-eclipse, the exposures must get progressively shorter again in reverse order. So attempting to capture an entire sequence requires a lot of exposure adjustments. 

TIP: Bracket a lot! Take lots of frames at each burst of images shot every minute, or however often you wish to capture the progress of the eclipse for a final set. Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses provide lots of time to take lots of images. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 4 — THROUGH A TRACKING TELESCOPE

If you want close-ups of the eclipsed red Moon, you will need to use a mount equipped with a tracking motor, such as an equatorial mount shown here. But for use with telephoto lenses and short telescopes, a polar-aligned sky tracker, as above, will work. 

A small apo refractor on an equatorial mount with typical settings for mid-eclipse.

Exposures can now be several seconds long, and at a lower ISO speed for less noise, allowing the Moon to be captured in sharp detail and with great colour. Long exposures will even pick up stars near the Moon. 

However, when shooting close-ups, use the Lunar drive rate (if your mount offers that choice) to follow the Moon itself, as it has a motion of its own against the background stars. It’s that orbital motion that takes it from west to east (right to left) through the Earth’s shadow. 

The fields of view and size of the Moon’s disk with typical telescope focal lengths.

Filling the camera frame with the Moon requires a surprising amount of focal length. The Moon appears big to our eyes, but is only 1/2º across. 

Even with 800mm of focal length, the Moon fills only a third of a full frame camera field. Using a cropped frame camera has the advantage of tightening the field of view, but it still takes 1200mm to 1500mm of focal length to fill the frame. 

But I wouldn’t worry about doing so, as longer focal lengths typically also come with slower f-ratios, requiring longer exposure times or higher ISOs, both of which can blur detail. 

A camera on an alt-azimuth GoTo Schmidt-Cassegrain.

For close-ups, a polar-aligned equatorial mount is best. But if your telescope is a GoTo telescope on an alt-azimuth mount (such as a Schmidt-Cassegrain shown here), you should be able to get good shots.

The field of view will slowly rotate during the eclipse, making it more difficult to later accurately assemble a series of shots documenting the entire sequence. 

But any one shot should be fine, though it might be best to keep exposures shorter by using a higher ISO speed. As always, take lots of shots at different settings. 

You won’t be able to tell which is sharpest until you inspect them later at the computer.

TIP: People worry about exposures, but the flaw that ruins many eclipse shots is poor focus. Use Live View to focus carefully on the sharp edge of the bright part of the Moon. Or better yet, focus on a bright star nearby. Zoom up to 10x to make it easier to see when the star is in sharpest focus. It can be a good idea to refocus through the night as the changing temperature can shift the focus point of long lenses and telescopes. That might take moving the scope over to a bright star, which won’t be possible if you need to preserve the framing for a composite. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 5 — HDR COMPOSITES

Using an equatorial mount tracking at the lunar rate keeps the Moon stationary. This opens up the possibility of taking a series of shots over the wide range of exposures needed to capture the Moon from bright to dark, to assemble later in processing. Take 5 to 7 shots in quick succession. 

An HDR composite from the December 2010 eclipse.

High dynamic range software can blend the images, or use luminosity masks created by extension panels for Photoshop such as Lumenzia, TK8 or Raya Pro. Either technique can create a final image that looks like what your eye saw. The key is making sure all the images are aligned. HDR software likely won’t align them for you very well.

The January 2019 eclipse layered and blended in Photoshop.

Blending multiple exposures will also be needed to properly capture the eclipsed Moon below the Pleiades, similar to what I show here (and below) from the January 2019 eclipse when the Moon appeared near the Beehive star cluster. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 6 — ECLIPSE TRACK COMPOSITES

Another popular form of eclipse image (though also one rife for laughably inaccurate fakes) is capturing the entire path of the Moon across the sky over the duration of the eclipse from start to end. 

The track of the September 2015 eclipse, accurately assembled to correct scale.

It can be done with a fixed camera on a tripod but requires a wide (14mm to 20mm) and properly framed lens, to capture the sequence as it actually appeared to proper scale, and not created by just pasting over-sized moons onto a sky to “simulate” the scene, usually badly. By the end of the day on November 19 the internet will be filled with such ugly fakes. 

You could set the camera at one exposure setting (one best for when the Moon and sky are darkest at mid-eclipse) and let the camera run, shooting frames every 5 seconds or so. The result might work well as a time-lapse sequence, showing the bright sky darkening, then brightening again. 

But chances are the frames taken at the start and end when the sky is lit by full moonlight will be blown out. It will still take some manual camera adjustments through the eclipse. 

For a still-image composite, you should instead expose properly for the Moon’s disk at all times, a setting that will change every few minutes, then take a long exposure at mid-eclipse to pick up the stars and Milky Way. The short Moon shots are then blended into the base-layer sky image later in processing. 

Framing the eclipse path for the start of the sequence.
Framing the path so the Moon ends up at a desired location on the frame.

If the camera has been well-framed and was not moved over the 3.5 hours of the eclipse, the result is an accurate and authentic record of the Moon’s path and passage into the shadow, and not a faked atrocity! 

But creating a real image requires a lot of work at the camera, and at the computer. 

TIP: Shooting for composites is not work I would recommend attempting while also running other cameras. Focus on one type of image and get it right, rather than trying to do too many and doing them all poorly. 

PHOTO OPTION 7 — ECLIPSE SHADOW COMPOSITE

One of the most striking types of lunar eclipse images is a close-up composite showing the Moon passing through the Earth’s umbral shadow, with the arc of the shadow edge on the Moon defining the extent of the shadow, which is about three times larger than the Moon.

Such a composite can be re-created later by placing individual exposures accurately on a wider canvas, using screen shots from planetarium software as a template guide. 

A composite of the Moon moving through the umbra.

But to create an image that is more accurate, it is possible to do it “in camera.” Unlike in the film days, we don’t have to do it with multiple exposures onto one piece of film. 

We take lots of separate frames with a telescope or lens wide enough to contain the entire path of the Moon through the umbra. A polar-aligned equatorial mount tracking at the sidereal rate is essential. That way the scope follows the stars, not the Moon, and so the Moon travels across the frame from right to left. 

Framing for a shadow composite.

Start such a sequence with the Moon at lower right if you are framing just the path through the shadow. Use planetarium software (I used Starry Night™ to create the star charts for this blog) to plan the framing for your camera, lens and site, so the Moon ends up in the middle of the frame at mid-eclipse. This is not a technique for the faint of heart!  

A shadow-defining composite from January 2019, with the Moon near the Beehive cluster.

An interesting variation would be using a 200mm to 250mm lens to frame the Moon’s shadow passage below the Pleiades, to create an image as above. That will be unique. Again, an accurately aligned tracker turning at the sidereal rate will be essential.

Acquiring the frames for any composite takes constantly adjusting the exposure during the length of eclipse, which can try your patience and gear during the wee hours of the morning. 

I’ll be happy just to get a good set of images at mid-eclipse to make a single composite of the red Moon below the Pleiades. 

TIP: It could be cold and lenses can frost over. A battery-powered heater coil on the optics might be essential. And spare warm batteries.

The 4-day-old waxing crescent Moon on April 8, 2019 in a blend of 7 exposures from 1/30 second to 2 seconds, blended with luminosity masks in Photoshop.

PRACTICE!

To test your equipment and your skills at focusing, you can use the waning crescent Moon in the dawn hours on the mornings of October 29 to November 2 or, after New Moon on November 4, the waxing crescent Moon on the evenings of November 6 to 10. While the crescent Moon isn’t as bright as the Full Moon, it will be a good stand in for the bright part of the eclipsed Moon when it is deep in the umbra. 

Even better, the dark part of the crescent Moon lit by Earthshine is a good stand-in for the part of the Moon in the umbra. Like the eclipsed Moon, the crescent Moon’s bright and dark parts can’t be captured in one exposure. So it’s a good test for the range of exposures you’ll need for the eclipse, for practising changing settings on your camera, and for checking your tracking system.  

The crescent Moon is also useful to test your manual focusing, though the sharp detail along the terminator (the line dividing the bright crescent from the earthlit dark part of the Moon) is much easier to focus on than the flat, low contrast Full Moon.

A selfie of me looking up at the total eclipse of the Moon on January 20, 2019, using binoculars to enjoy the view.

DON’T FORGET TO LOOK!

Amid all the effort needed to shoot this or any eclipse, lunar or solar, don’t forget to just look at it. No photo can ever quite capture the glowing nature of the eclipsed Moon set against the stars. 

A selfie of the successful eclipse chaser bagging his trophy, the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019.

I wish you clear skies and good luck with your lunar eclipse photography. If you miss it, we have two more visible from North America next year, both total eclipses, on May 15/16 and November 8, 2022. 

— Alan, www.amazingsky.com 

The Best Sky Sights of 2021


Two major eclipses of the Moon and a partial eclipse of the Sun over eastern North America highlight the astronomical year of 2021.

I provide my selection of three dozen of the best sky sights for 2021. I focus on events you can actually see, and from North America. I also emphasize events with the potential for good “photo ops.” 

What I Don’t Include

Thus, I’m excluding minor meteor showers and ones that peak at Full Moon, and events that happen with the objects too close to the Sun. 

I also don’t include events seen only from the eastern hemisphere, such as the April 17 occultation of Mars by the Moon — it isn’t even a close conjunction for us in North America. The August 15 rare triple transit of three Galilean moons at once on the disk of Jupiter occurs during daylight hours for western North America, rendering it very challenging to see. An outburst on August 31 of the normally quiet Aurigid meteor shower is predicted to happen over Asia, not North America.

I also don’t list the growing profusion of special or “supermoons” that get click-bait PR every year, choosing instead to limit my list to just the Harvest Moon of September as a notably photogenic Moon. 

Good Year for Lunar Eclipses

But two Full Moons — in May and in November — do undergo eclipses that will be wonderful sights for the eye and camera. As a bonus, the Full Moon of May is the closest Full Moon of 2021, making it, yes, a “supermoon.” 

The New Moon eclipses the Sun on June 10, bringing an annular eclipse to remote regions of northern Canada and the Arctic (including the North Pole!). Eastern North America and all of Europe can witness a partial solar eclipse this day. 

Recommended Guides

For an authoritative annual guide to the sky and detailed reference work, see the Observer’s Handbook published each year in Canadian and U.S. editions by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. I used it to compile this list.

The RASC has also partnered with Firefly Books to publish a more popular-level guide to the coming year’s sky for North America, in the 2021 Night Sky Almanac, authored by Canadian science writer Nicole Mortillaro. It provides excellent monthly star charts.

However, feel free to print out my blog or save it as a PDF for your personal reference. To share my listing with others, please send them the link to this blog page. Thanks!


January

The year begins with a chance to see three planets together at dusk.

January 10 — Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn within 2 degrees (°)

Even three weeks after their much publicized Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn are still close and visible low in the evening twilight. On January 10 Mercury joins them to form a neat triangle of worlds, but very low in the southwest. Clear skies and binoculars are a must!

NOTE: The red circle on this and most charts represents the 6.5° field of view of a typical 10×50 binocular. So you can see here how binoculars will frame the trio perfectly. All charts are courtesy the desktop app Starry Night™ by Simulation Curriculum

January 14 — Thin waxing crescent Moon above line of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn 

Saturn disappears behind the Sun on January 23, followed by Jupiter on January 28, so early January is our last chance to see the evening trio of planets, tonight with the crescent Moon. 

January 20 — Mars and Uranus 1.6° apart

Uranus will be easy to spot in binoculars as a magnitude 5.8 green star below red Mars, so this is your chance to find the seventh planet. The quarter Moon shines below the planet pair. 

January 23 — Mercury at a favourable evening elongation 

This and its appearance in May are the best opportunities for northern hemisphere observers to catch the innermost planet in the evening sky in 2021. Look for a bright magnitude -0.8 “star” in the dusk twilight. 


February

This is a quiet month with Mars the main evening planet, but now quite small in the telescope. 

February 18 — Waxing Moon 4° below Mars

The pairing appears near the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters high in the evening sky.


March 

Mars shines high in evening sky in Taurus, while the three planets that were in the evening sky in January begin to emerge into the dawn sky. 

A 200+ degree panorama of the arch of the winter Milky Way, from south (left) to northwest (ar right) with the Zodiacal Light to the west at centre. This was from Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta on February 28, 2017.

March 1 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the evening 

From sites away from light pollution look for a faint glow of light rising out of the southwest sky on any clear evening for the next two weeks with no Moon.

March 3 — Mars 2.5° below the Pleiades

This will be a nice sight in binoculars tonight and tomorrow high in the evening sky, and a good target for tracked telephoto lens shots.

March 4 — Mercury and Jupiter just 1/2° apart 

Close to be sure! But this pairing will be so low in the dawn sky it will be difficult to spot. They will appear equally close on March 5 should clouds intervene on March 4.

March 9 — Line of Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and waning crescent Moon 

Three planets and the waxing crescent Moon form a line across the dawn sky but again, very low in the southeast. The even thinner Moon will be below Jupiter on March 10. Observers at low latitudes (south of 35° N) will have the best view on these mornings. 

March 20 — Equinox at 5:37 a.m. EDT

Spring officially begins for the northern hemisphere, autumn for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading north. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops. 

March 30 — Zodiacal light season again!

With the Moon out of the way, the faint zodiacal light can again be seen and photographed in the west over the next two weeks, but only from a site without significant light pollution on the western horizon.


April

The inner planets appear in the evening sky, while Mars meets M35.

The arch of the Milky Way over the Red Deer River valley and badlands at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, Alberta, on May 19/20, 2018 just after moonset of the waxing crescent Moon.

April 6 — Milky Way arch season begins

With the waning Moon just getting out of view, this morning and for the next two weeks are good nights to shoot panoramas of the bright summer Milky Way as an arch across the sky, with the galactic core in view to the south. The moonless first two weeks of May, June and July will also work this year, but by August the Milky Way is reaching high overhead and so is difficult to capture in a horizontal landscape panorama. 

April 24 — Mercury and Venus 1° apart

The two inner planets will be very low in the western evening sky tonight and tomorrow, but with clear skies this is a chance to catch both at once. Use a telephoto lens for the best image. 

April 26 — Mars passes 1/2° north of M35 star cluster

This will be a fine scene for binoculars or a photo op for a tracked telephoto lens or telescope in a long enough exposure to reveal the rich star cluster Messier 35 in Gemini.


May

On May 26 a totally eclipsed Moon shines red in the west before sunrise for western North America. 

May 12 — Venus and Moon 1.5° apart

Look low in the western evening sky this night for the pairing of the thin crescent Moon and Venus, and the next night, May 13, for the crescent Moon higher and 4° away from Mercury. These are good nights to capture both inner planets using a short telephoto lens. 

May 16 — Mercury at a favourable evening elongation

With Mercury angled up high in the northwest this is the best week of the year to catch it in the evening sky from northern latitudes. 

The total lunar eclipse of April 4, 2015 taken from near Tear Drop Arch, in western Monument Valley, Utah. This is a single 5-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 400 with the Canon 24mm lens and Canon 6D, untracked. The sky is brightening with blue from dawn twilight.

May 26 — Total Eclipse of the Moon

The first total lunar eclipse since January 20, 2019, this “TLE” can be seen as a total eclipse only from western North America, Hawaii, and from Australia and New Zealand. Totality lasts a brief 15 minutes, with the Moon in Scorpius not far from red Antares. The red Moon in a twilight sky will be beautiful, as it was for the April 4, 2015 eclipse at dawn over Monument Valley, Utah shown above.

Those in western North America will see the totally eclipsed Moon setting into the southwest in the dawn hour before sunrise, as depicted here. Over a suitable landscape this will be a photogenic scene, as even at mid-eclipse the Moon will be bright red because it passes so far from the centre of Earth’s umbral shadow.

Unfortunately, those in eastern North America will have to be content with a view of a partially eclipsed Moon setting in the morning twilight. 

A bonus is that this is also the closest and largest Full Moon of 2021, with a close perigee of 357,311 kilometres occurring just 9 hours earlier. So the Full Moon that rises on the evening of May 25 will be the year’s “supermoon.” 

See Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise.com page for details on timing and viewing regions. The dark region on this map does not see any of this eclipse.

May 26 — Comet 7/P Pons-Winnecke at perihelion

The brightest comet predicted to be visible in 2021 (as of this writing) is the short-period Comet Pons-Winnecke (aka Comet 7/P). It reaches its closest point to the Sun — perihelion — the night of the lunar eclipse and is well placed in Aquarius high in the southeastern dawn sky above Jupiter and Saturn. 

But … it is expected to be only 8th magnitude, making it a binocular object at best, looking like a fuzzball, not the spectacular object depicted here in this exaggerated view of its brightness and tail length. 

May 28 — Mercury and Venus less than 1/2° apart

Look low in the northwest evening sky for a very close conjunction of the two inner worlds. A telescope will frame them well, with Mercury a tiny crescent and Venus an almost fully illuminated disk. 


June

While eastern North America misses the total lunar eclipse, two weeks later observers in the east do get to see a partial solar eclipse.

May 10, 1994 Annular Eclipse taken from a site east of Douglas Arizona Showing “reverse” Bailey’s Beads — lunar mountains just touching Sun’s limb 4-inch f/6 apo refractor at f/15 with Barlow lens, and with Ektachrome 100 slide film !

June 10 — Annular eclipse of the Sun

Should you manage to get yourself to the path of the Moon’s anti-umbral shadow you will see the dark disk of the Moon contained within the bright disk of the Sun but not large enough to cover the Sun completely. You see a ring of light, as above from a 1994 annular eclipse.

The Moon is near apogee, so its disk is about as small as it gets, in contrast to the perigee Moon two weeks earlier. During the maximum of 3 minutes 51 seconds of annularity the sky will get unusually dark, but none of the dramatic effects of a total eclipse will appear. The annulus of sunlight that remains is still so bright special solar filters must be used at all times, covering the eyes and lenses.

The region with the best accessibility to the path is northwestern Ontario north and east of Thunder Bay. However, the annular phase of the eclipse there occurs at or just after sunrise, so clouds are likely to obscure the view, as are trees! 

The eastern seaboard of the U.S. and much of eastern Canada can see a partial eclipse of the Sun, as can most of Europe. For details of times and amount of eclipse see Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise website

For an interactive Google map of the path see this page.

June 20 — Solstice at 11:32 p.m. EDT

Summer officially begins for the northern hemisphere, winter for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most northerly position above the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the northeast and sets farthest to the northwest, and the length of daylight is at its maximum.

June 22 — Mars passes through the Beehive star cluster

Mars, now at a modest magnitude +1.8, appears amid the Beehive star cluster, aka M44, tonight and tomorrow evening, but low in the northwest in the twilight sky. Use binoculars or a telescope for the best view. 


July 

Venus and Mars put on a show low in the western twilight.  

July 2 — Venus passes through the Beehive star cluster 

Venus (at a brilliant magnitude -3.9) follows Mars through the Beehive cluster this evening, but with the pairing even lower in the sky, making it tough to pick out the star cluster. 

July 4 — Mercury at a good morning elongation

Though not at its best for a morning appearance from northern latitudes, Mercury should still be easy to spot and photograph in the pre-dawn sky in Taurus, outshining bright Aldebaran. 

July 11 — Grouping of Venus, Mars and waxing crescent Moon 

Look low in the evening sky for the line of the thin crescent Moon, bright Venus and dim Mars all in the same binocular field. Venus passes 1/2° above Mars on the next two nights, July 12 and 13. 

July 21 — Grouping of Venus, Mars and Regulus

The two planets appear with bright Regulus in Leo, all within a binocular field, but again, low in the northwest twilight. The colour contrast of red Mars with white Venus and blue-white Regulus should be apparent in binoculars. 


August

The popular Perseid meteors peak, and we can see (maybe!) the extremely close conjunction of Mercury and Mars. 

The core of the Milky Way in Sagittarius low in the south over the Frenchman River valley at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

August 1 — Milky Way core season opens

For southerly latitudes, the first two weeks of May and June are also good, but from the northern U.S. and much of Canada, the nights don’t get dark enough to see and shoot the bright galactic centre until August. The rich star clouds of Sagittarius now shine due south as it gets dark each night over the next two weeks. 

August 2 — Saturn at opposition

Saturn is at its closest and brightest for 2021 tonight, rising at sunset and shining due south in Capricornus in the middle of the night. 

A composite of the Perseid meteors over Dinosaur Provincial Park on the night of August 12/13, 2017.

August 12 — Perseid meteor shower peaks

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight with a waxing crescent Moon that sets early, to leave most of the night dark and ideal for watching meteors. Look for the crescent Moon 5° above Venus on August 10. 

August 18 — Mars and Mercury only 0.06° apart!

Now this is a very close conjunction, with Mercury passing only 4 arc minutes from Mars (compared to the 6 arc minute separation of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020). But the planets will be very low in the west at dusk and tough to sight. This will be a conjunction for skilled observers blessed with clear skies and a low horizon.

August 20 — Jupiter at opposition

Jupiter, now in Aquarius, reaches its closest and brightest for 2021 tonight, also rising at sunset and shining due south in the middle of the night. On the night of August 21/22, the Full Moon, also at opposition — as all Full Moons are — appears 4° below Jupiter, as shown above. 


September 

It’s Harvest Moon time, with this annual special Full Moon occurring close to the equinox this year for an ideal geometry, making the Moon rise due east. 

Zodiacal Light at dawn on September 24, 2009. Taken from home in Alberta, with a Canon 5D MkII and 15mm lens at f/4 and ISO 800 for 6 minutes, tracking the sky so the ground is blurred.

September 5 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the morning

With no Moon for the next two weeks, from sites away from light pollution look to the pre-dawn sky for a faint glow of light rising out of the east before twilight brightens the morning sky.

September 20 — Full “Harvest” Moon

Occurring two days before the equinox, this Full Moon will rise nearly due east (a little to the south of east) at sunset and set nearly due west at sunrise at dawn on September 21, for some fine photo ops. 

September 22 — Equinox at 3:21 p.m. EDT

Autumn officially begins for the northern hemisphere, spring for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops.


October 

Mercury adorns the dawn while Venus shines bright but low at dusk. 

October 4 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the morning

With the Moon out of the way for the next two weeks, the zodiacal light will again be visible in the east in the pre-dawn hours. 

October 9 — The Moon 2.5° from Venus

The crescent Moon passes close to Venus this evening, with the pair not far from the star Antares. The low altitude of the worlds lends itself to some fine photo ops. Look for a similar close conjunction on the evening of November 7. 

October 25 — Mercury at its most favourable morning elongation

The high angle of the ecliptic — the path of the planets — on autumn dawns swings Mercury up as high as it can get in the morning sky, making this week the best for sighting Mercury as a “morning star” in 2021 from northern latitudes. 

October 29 — Venus at its greatest angle away from the Sun

While now farthest from the Sun in our sky, its low altitude at this time of year makes this an unfavourable evening appearance of Venus. 


November

The second lunar eclipse brings a mostly red Moon to the skies over North America. 

November 3 — Moon and Mercury 2° apart, then a daylight occultation 

Before dawn, with Mercury still well-placed in the morning sky, the waning crescent Moon shines 2° above the planet, with Mars below and the star Spica nearby. Later in the day, about noon to early afternoon (the time varies with your location), the Moon will occult (pass in front of) Mercury. This will be a challenging observation even with a telescope, with the pale and thin Moon only 14° east of the Sun. A very clear sky will be essential! 

Total lunar eclipse November 8, 2003. Taken through Astro-Physics 5″ Apo refractor at f/6 with MaxView 40mm eyepiece projection into a Sony DSC-V1 5 megapixel digital camera, mounted afocally.

November 19 — 97% Partial Eclipse of the Moon 

Though not a total eclipse, this is the next best thing: a 97% partial! And unlike the May 26 eclipse, all of North America gets to see this one. 

Mid-eclipse, when the Moon is most deeply embedded in Earth’s umbral shadow, occurs at 4:04 a.m. EST (1:04 a.m. PST) on November 19. While not convenient timing, it ensures that all of the continent can see the entire 3.5-hour long eclipse. The partial umbral phase begins at 3:18 a.m EST (12:18 a.m. PST).

At mid-eclipse, the Moon will resemble Mars — a red world with a bright south “polar cap” caused by the small 3% of the southern edge of the Moon outside the umbra. Its position near the Pleiades and Hyades clusters will make for a great wide-field image. 

Remember — this occurs on the night of November 18/19! So don’t miss it thinking the eclipse starts on the evening of November 19. You’ll be a day late! 

For details see Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise site. As above, the dark region on this map does not see any of this eclipse.


December

The year ends with a chance to see four planets together at dusk. 

Nov. 23, 2003 total solar eclipse over Antarctica on Qantas/Croydon Travel charter flight out of Melbourne, Australia. Sony DSC-V1 camera. 1/3 sec, f/2.8, 7mm lens, max wide-angle.

December 4 — Total Eclipse of the Sun

I include this for completeness, but this total solar eclipse (TSE) could not be more remote, as the path of totality lies over Antarctica. Only the most intrepid will be there, in expedition ships and in aircraft. (I took this image over Antarctica at the November 23, 2003 total eclipse one 18-year Saros cycle before this year’s TSE.) Even the partial phases are visible only from southernmost Australia and Africa.

December 6 — Moon 2.5° below Venus

With Venus just past its official December 3 date of “greatest brilliancy” (at magnitude -4.7), the waxing crescent Moon appears close below it, with Saturn and Jupiter further along the line of the ecliptic in the southwest. The Moon appears below Saturn on December 7 and below Jupiter on December 8. 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major.

December 13 — Geminid meteor shower peaks

The most prolific meteor shower of the year peaks with a waxing 10-day-old gibbous Moon lighting the sky, so not great conditions. But with luck it will still be possible to see and capture bright fireballs. 

December 21 — Solstice at 10:59 a.m. EST

Winter officially begins for the northern hemisphere, summer for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most southerly position below the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the southeast and sets farthest to the southwest, and the length of daylight is at its minimum.

December 31 — Four planets in view 

As the year ends the same three planets that adorned the evening sky in early January are back, with the addition of Venus. So on New Year’s Eve we can see four of the naked eye planets (only Mars is missing) at once in the evening sky. 


Good luck, good viewing, and clear skies in 2021! 

For lots of tips and techniques for shooting the night sky, see my Nightscape and Timelapse ebook linked to above.

— Alan, December 26, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Great Conjunction


On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226. 

As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see. 

Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky. 

But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years! 

Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear. 


Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses

This shows the field of view of various lenses on full-frame cameras (red outlines) and a 200mm lens with 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera (blue outline). The date is December 17 when the waxing crescent Moon also appears near the planet pair for a bonus element in a nightscape image.

Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4. 

The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work. 

Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context. 

For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 3, 2020 from the Elbow Falls area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 30 seconds each, and one untracked image for the bright sky for 15 seconds to preserve colours and highlights, all with the 24mm Sigma lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 200.

NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites). 

My ebook linked to at right has pages of tips and techniques for shooting nightscapes and time-lapses. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 10, 2020 from Red Deer River valley, north of Drumheller, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 20 seconds each at f/5.6, and a single image for the sky for 5 seconds at f/2.8, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 400. All untracked.

Harder — Shooting With Longer Lenses

The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night. 

As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud. 

For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21. 

On December 21 wide-angle and even short telephoto lenses will likely show the two planets as an unresolved point of light, no brighter than Jupiter on its own.

On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects. 

However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use. 

A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds. 

To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800. 

This shows the motion of Jupiter relative to Saturn from December 17 to 25, with the outer frame representing the field of view of a 200mm lens and 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera. The smaller frame shows the field of a telescope with an effective focal length of 1,200mm.

TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos. 


Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses 

This one popular sky tracker, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, here with a telephoto lens. It and other trackers such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer seen in the opening image, can be used with lenses and telescopes up to about 300mm focal length, if they are balanced well. Even longer lenses might work for the short exposures needed for the planets, but vibration and wind can blur images.

However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site. 

Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use. 

Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds. 

You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise. 

TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing. 


The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope

An alt-azimuth mounted GoTo scope like this Celestron SE6 can work for short exposures of the planets, provided it is aligned and is tracking properly. Good focus will be critical.

Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year. 

But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars. 

While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.

You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.

A simulation of the view with a 1,200mm focal length telescope on December 21. Even with such a focal length the planet disks still appear small.

TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view! 

But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same. 

This is the setup I might use for a portable rig best for a last-minute chase to clear skies. It’s a Sky-Watcher EQM-35 mount with a 105mm apo refractor (the long-discontinued Astro-Physics Traveler), and here with a 2x Barlow to double the effective focal length to 1,200mm.

However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21! 

TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it. 

TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others. 

TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus! 

Jupiter and Saturn in the same telescope field on December 5, 2020. Some of the moons are visible in this exposure taken in twilight before the planets got too low in the southwest. This is a single exposure with a 130mm Astro-Physics apo refractor at f/6 (so 780mm focal length) for 4 seconds at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D MkII. The disks of the planets are overexposed to bring out the moons.

Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.

Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it. 

FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.

Jupiter and Saturn taken in the deep twilight on December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky (and untrailed stars) for 30 seconds each at ISO 400, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy! 

The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn! 

And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!

In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view! 

Jupiter and Saturn taken December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky for 30 seconds at ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry. 

Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene. 

Clear skies! 

— Alan, © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Geminid Meteor Shower


The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity. 

The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal! 

The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night. 

A Good Year for Geminids

While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:

• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.

• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years. 

The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower looking east to the radiant point. This is a stack of 40 images, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 40 frames with meteors out of 357 taken over 3.25 hours. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky. I rotated and moved each image in relation to the base image and around Polaris at upper left, in order to place each meteor at approximately the correct position in relation to the background stars, to preserve the effect of the meteors streaking from the radiant near Castor at centre.

What Settings to Use?

To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:

  • A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
  • A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
  • Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
  • An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins. 
  • Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Use an intervalometer to control the shutter speed, with the camera on Bulb. Set the interval to one second to minimize the time the shutter is closed.

Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:

  • A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
  • A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
  • A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible. 
  • Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
  • A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
This sky chart looking east for December 13, 2020 shows the position of the radiant and the constellation of Gemini at about 7 p.m. local time. Orion is just rising in the east.

When to Shoot?

The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.

For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14. 

For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.

So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold! 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major. Gemini itself and the radiant of the shower is at top centre. It is one frame from a 700-frame sequence for stacking and time-lapses. The ground is a mean stack of 8 frames to smooth noise. Exposures were 30 seconds at ISO 6400 with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII.

Where to Go?

To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north. 

While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town. 

From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up. 

The Geminid meteor shower of December 13, 2017 in a view framing the winter Milky Way from Auriga (at top) to Puppis (at bottom) with Gemini itself, the radiant of the shower at left, and Orion at right. The view is looking southeast. This is a composite stack of one base image with the brightest meteor, then 20 other images layered in each with a meteor. The camera was not tracking the sky, so I rotated and moved each of the layered-in frames so that their stars mroe or less aligned with the base layer. The images for this composite were taken over 107 minutes, with 22 images containing meteors picked from 196 images in total over that time. Each exposure was 30 seconds with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400.

Where to Aim?

You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west. 

But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are. 

The Star Adventurer star tracker, on its optional equatorial wedge to aid precise polar alignment of its motorized rotation axis.

Using a Tracker

Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite. 

A tracked composite showing the 2017 Geminid meteors streaking from the radiant point in Gemini at upper left. This is a stack of 43 exposures, each 1-minute with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.5 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 6400, set fast to pick up the fainter meteors. These were 43 exposures with meteors (some with 2 or 3 per frame) out of 455 taken over 5 hours. The background sky comes from just one of the exposures. All the other frames are masked to show just the meteor.

However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary. 

If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower, from the peak night of December 13, with the radiant in Gemini, at top, high overhead. So meteors appear to be raining down to the horizon. This was certainly the visual impression. This is a stack of 24 images, some with 2 or 3 meteors per frame, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 24 frames with meteors out of 171 taken over 94 minutes. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky.

Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera

The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses. 

The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant. 

To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.

Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog. 

But I cover the process in multi-step tutorials in my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook, linked to above. 

The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials. 

A trio of Geminid meteors over the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, with Orion and the winter stars setting. I shot this at the end of the night of December 13/14, 2017 with the rising waxing crescent Moon providing some ground illumination. This is a stack of one image for the ground and two fainter meteors, and another image with the bright meteor. The camera was on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker so the stars are not trailed, though the ground will be slightly blurred. All were 30-second exposures at f/2.8 with the 24mm Canon lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 5000.

Keeping Warm

Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.

Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon. 

Good luck and happy meteor hunting!

— Alan, December 2, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

 

The Rising of the Harvest Moon


On two clear evenings the Harvest Moon rose red and and large over the Alberta prairie.

I present a short music video (linked to below) of time-lapse sequences of the Harvest Moon of 2020 rising. I shot the sequences through a small telescope to zoom in on the Moon’s disk as it rose over the flat horizon of the prairie near where I live. I love being able to see the horizon!

Note the effects of atmospheric refraction squishing the Moon’s disk close to the horizon. The Moon becomes more normal and spherical as it rose higher.

People sometimes think the refraction effect is responsible for making the Full Moon appear large on the horizon, but the atmosphere has nothing to do with it. The effect is strictly an optical illusion. The Moon is no bigger on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.

The photo below shows a composite of images taken September 30, 2020.

The rising of the nearly Full Moon, the Harvest Moon of 2020, on September 30, from a site near home in Alberta, looking just south of due east this night. Refraction distorts the disk and atmospheric absorption reddens the disk toward the horizon. This is a multiple exposure composite of 6 images with the Canon 6D MkII through the 80mm A&M apo refractor at f/6 without field flattener. Taken as part of a time-lapse sequence with images every 2 seconds. The frames for this blend were taken 2 minutes apart, so selected from every 60 frames out of the sequence. All were at 1/8 second at ISO 100. Images stacked in Photoshop and blended with Lighten mode. The ground comes from the first image.

Note in the image below, from October 1, how much redder the Moon appears. That’s the effect of atmospheric absorption, in this case from dust and smoke in the air dimming and reddening the Moon (the same happens to the rising or setting Sun). At times this evening it looked like the Moon was in a total eclipse.

The Harvest Moon (the Full Moon of October 1, 2020) rising almost due east at the end of a country road in southern Alberta, near home. The horizon was smoky or dusty, so the Moon was very red as it rose, and looking almost like a totally eclipsed Moon. This is a blend of 6 exposures, all 1/2-second with the A&M 80mm f/6 apo refractor (for 480mm focal length) and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400, taken as part of a 460-frame time-lapse sequence, with shots every 2 seconds. For this composite I choose 6 images at 2-minute intervals, so the Moon rose its own diameter between frames. The ground comes from the first image in the sequence when the lighting was brightest. The Moon rose at 7:35 pm this night, about 30 minutes after sunset. A mild Orton glow effect added to the ground with Luminar 4.

Below is the link to the time-lapse music video on Vimeo. It is in 4K. I used Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Bridge, and LRTimelapse to process the component images as raw files for the time-lapse sequences, as per tutorials in my Nightscape and Time-Lapse ebook, above.

Thanks for looking! Clear skies!

— Alan / © 2020 www.amazingsky.com

How to Photograph Comet NEOWISE


Comet over Hoodoos at Dinosaur Park in Twilight (July 14, 2020)A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot. 

My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark. 

So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.

Comet over Hoodoos at Dinosaur Park (July 14, 2020)
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the eroded hoodoo formations at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, July 14-15, 2020. A faint aurora is at right. The foreground is lit by starlight only; there was no light painting employed here. This is a stack of 12 exposures for the ground to smooth noise, blended with a single untracked exposure of the sky, all at 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.


How Long Will the Comet be Visible?

The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.

But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night. 

As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown. 

But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July. 

Comet Path
This chart shows the position of Comet NEOWISE at nightly intervals through the rest of the summer. However, the rest of July are the prime nights left for catching the comet at its best. Click or tap on the image to download a full-res copy.


When is the Best Time to Shoot?

The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night. 

Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn. 

But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks. 

Comet NEOWISE over Red Deer River
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the Red Deer River from Orkney Viewpoint north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the morning of July 11, 2020. The sky is brightening with dawn twilight and a small display of noctilucent clouds is on the horizon at right. This is a two-segment vertical panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 200 for 13 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.


Where Do I Look? 

In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun. 

Selfie Observing Comet NEOWISE (July 15, 2020)
A selfie observing Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) with binoculars on the dark moonless night of July 14/15, 2020 from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. A faint aurora colours the sky green and magenta. The faint blue ion tail of the comet is visible in addition to its brighter dust tail. The ground is illuminated by starlight and aurora light only. This is a blend of 6 exposures stacked for the ground (except me) to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky and me, all 13 seconds at f/2.5 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. Topaz DeNoise AI applied.


What Exposures Do I Use?

There is no single best setting. It depends on …

— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).

— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.

— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.

However, here are guidelines:

— ISO 400 to 1600

— Aperture f/2 to f/4

— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds

Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.

As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.

Panorama of Comet NEOWISE Over Prince of Wales Hotel (July 14, 2
A once-in-a-lifetime scene — A panorama of the dawn sky at 4 am on July 14, 2020 from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada with Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel. Noctilucent clouds glow below the comet in the dawn twilight. Venus is rising right of centre paired with Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, while the Pleiades cluster shine above. The waning quarter Moon shines above the Vimy Peak at far right. The Big Dipper is partly visible above the mountain at far left. Capella and the stars of Auriga are at centre. This is an 8-segment panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.5 for 15 seconds each at ISO 100 with the Canon 6D MkII and stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

Exposure Considerations 

As a rule you want to …

— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.

— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image. 

— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens. 

So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot. 

Histogram
The histogram as shown in Adobe Camera Raw. Cameras also display the image’s histogram in the Live View preview and in playback of recorded images. Keep the histogram from slamming to the left.

— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left. 

Comet NEOWISE Over Dinosaur Park (July 15, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the badlands and formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on the night of July 14-15, 202. This is a blend of 6 exposures for the ground stacked to smooth noise, with a single exposure for the sky, with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII. The ground exposures are 1- and 2-minutes at ISO 1600 and f/2.8, while the single untracked sky exposure was 20 seconds at ISO 3200 and f/2.5.

My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides extensive instruction on the best camera settings for exposure and noise reduction.

Location Considerations

When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination. 

If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site. 

And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.

Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late! 


What Lens Do I Use?

Comet over Canola Field (July 15, 2020)
With a 35mm lens. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over a ripening canola field near home in southern Alberta, on the night of July 15-16, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of six 2-minute exposures at ISO 3200 and f/5.6 to smooth noise, provide depth of field, and bring out the colours of the canola, blended with a single short 15-second exposure of the sky at f/2.8 and ISO 1600, all with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

Comet over Canola Field Close-Up (July 15, 2020)
With a 50mm lens. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over a ripening canola field near home in southern Alberta, on the night of July 15-16, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of three 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and f/5 to smooth noise, provide depth of field, and bring out the colours of the canola, blended with a single short 15-second exposure of the sky at f/2.8 and ISO 3200, all with the 50mm Sigma lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well. 

Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.

A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots. 

Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.

Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show. 

StarryNightFOV
StarryNight™ and other programs offer “Field of View” indicator frames that can show how the scene will frame with (in this example) lenses from 24mm to 135mm.


Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?

Yes. Whatever you have, try it. 

However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually. 

In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes. 

It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars. 

But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot. 

Comet NEOWISE with NLCs Above Prairie Lake (July 10-11, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over Deadhorse Lake near Hussar in southern Alberta, taken just after midnight on July 10-11, 2020 during its evening appearance. The comet shines just above low noctilucent clouds. This is a blend of nine exposures for the ground stacked to smooth noise and the water, with a single exposure for the sky, all 4 seconds with the 135mm Canon lens at f/2 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 1600.


What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?

Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure. 

What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).

On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.

On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it). 

Canon 6D Live View Wide
The Live View screen of a Canon DSLR. Look in your manual for tips on how to boost the Live screen image brightness with the Exposure Simulation option.

Canon 6D Live View Zoom5x
Magnify the image 5x, 10x or more with the Zoom box centred on a star to focus the star to a pinpoint.

Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards. 

Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.

All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod. 


What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot? 

Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot. 

To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:

— First, where the comet will be in the sky, 

— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location. 

— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!

Stellarium Web
The free web version of Stellarium shows the comet, as do the paid mobile apps.

  1. Planning Where the Comet Will Be 

Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.

For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions. 

The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.org  Be sure to allow it to access your location. 

Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest). 

Comet NEOWISE and NLCs over Prince of Wales Hotel (July 14, 2020
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) with a small display of noctilucent clouds over Emerald Bay and the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, at dawn on July 14, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of four exposures for the ground and water to smooth noise, blended with a single short exposure for the sky, all 20 seconds at f/2.5 and ISO 400. All with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

  1. Planning Where You Need To Be

I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris mobile app (https://www.photoephemeris.com) — there is a free web version available. Many like PhotoPills (https://www.photopills.com).

With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction. 

TPE
The screen from The Photographer’s Ephemeris app showing the planning map for the image above, with the faint yellow line indicating the line toward the comet’s azimuth.

Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.

TPE 3D
The simulation of the real scene above, of the comet over the Prince of Wales Hotel, using TPE 3D app. The simulation matches the real scene very well!

I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.

Astrospheric
The Astrospheric app prediction of skies for me for the night I prepared this blog. Not great! But clear skies could be found to to east with a fresh hours drive.

  1. Planning for the Weather 

All is for nought if the sky is cloudy. 

For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies. 

For sites outside North America, try ClearOutside (https://clearoutside.com) 


Advanced Techniques 

Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot. 

But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.

Comet NEOWISE and Aurora Panorama (July 13, 2020)
A panorama of the sky just before midnight on July 13, 2020 from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada with Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the front range of the Rocky Mountains and an arc of aurora across the north. This is a 6-segment panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.2 for 25 seconds each at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D MkII and stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

1. Panoramas

On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.

Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in. 

My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas. 

Comet NEOWISE over Red Deer River Panorama (July 11, 2020)
What a magical scene this was! This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the sweep of the Red Deer River and Badlands from Orkney Viewpoint north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the morning of July 11, 2020. Light from the waning gibbous Moon provides the illumination, plus twilight. This nicely shows the arch of the twilight colours. This is a 6-segment panorama with the 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400 for 13 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI applied.

2. Exposure Blending 

If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually. 

For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus. 

For a video tutorial on how to do the layering and masking in programs such as Photoshop, see my How to Shoot Moonlit Nightscapes video at https://vimeo.com/theamazingsky/moonlighttutorial. 

Comet NEOWISE over Horseshoe Canyon (July 11, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the Horseshoe Canyon formation near Drumheller, Alberta on the night of July 10-11, 2020, taken about 2 a.m. MDT with the comet just past lower culmination with it circumpolar at this time. Warm light from the rising waning gibbous Moon provides the illumination. This is a blend of six 1- and 2-minute exposures for the ground at ISO 800 and 400 stacked to smooth noise, with a single 30-second exposure at ISO 1600 for the sky, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII.

3. Exposure Stacking 

To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images. 

Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows). 

But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them. 

Comet NEOWISE Close-Up (July 15, 2020)
A close-up of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) on the night of July 14/15, 2020 with a 135mm telephoto lens. This is a stack of nine 1-minute exposures with the 135mm Canon lens wide-open at f/2 and Canon EOS Ra camera at ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro tracker tracking the stars not the comet. Stacked and aligned in Photoshop.

4. Tracking the Sky 

If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller). 

But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing. 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro
The iOptron SkyGuider Pro and 135mm lens used to take the close-up shot of the comet above.

The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well. 

Star Adventurer Polar Axis Angle
This is the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. All trackers have a polar axis that needs to be aligned to the Celestial Pole, near Polaris.

Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.

But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.

Clear skies and happy comet hunting!

— Alan, July 18, 2020 /Revised July 23 / AmazingSky.com 

 

Following the Evening Star


Selfie with Binoculars Looking at Moon (Feb 27, 2020)It’s been a marvelous few months following Venus rise and fall across the evening sky, in its best show in eight years.

Venus is now gone from our western sky, but since late 2019 until late May 2020 it had dominated the sky as a brilliant evening star.

Here’s a gallery of Venus portraits I shot during its wonderful show these last few months.


The show began in November 2019 when rising Venus met declining Jupiter on November 23 for a fine conjunction of the two brightest planets in the evening twilight.

Venus and Jupiter over the Rockies
The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter of November 23, 2019, as seen over the foothills and front ranges of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Alberta. I shot this from the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, prior to their monthly Open House event that night with about 400 in attendance. But at this time it was just me and one other ardent photographer present to shoot this scene. This is an HDR blend (stacked using Adobe Camera Raw) of 5 exposures at 2/3-stop intervals, with the Rokinon 85mm lens at f/4 on the red-sensitive Canon EOS Ra camera at ISO 100.


A week later I captured the line of the then three evening planets and the Moon across the southwest, defining the path of the ecliptic across the evening sky.

Moon and Three Planets Line-Up
The waxing crescent Moon and three planets in a line across the southwestern evening sky on Nov. 30, 2019, a chilly and frosty night. Saturn is below and to the right of the Moon, Venus is brightest at centre, while Jupiter is to the lower right of Venus just above the horizon. Those two planets were in conjunction a week earlier. The line of Moon and planets visibly defines the ecliptic low across the late autumn evening sky. This is from latitide 51° N. I shot this from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing overlooking the Bow River in Alberta.


A week after that I took the opportunity to shoot some selfies of me with binoculars looking at Venus, as it met Saturn in a wide conjunction, with Venus then still low in the southwest. It was just beginning its climb up into the western sky.

Observing Venus and Saturn (Dec 8, 2019)
A selfie of me observing the grouping of Venus and Saturn in the evening twilight on Dec 8, 2019, using binoculars. They were closest to each other two nights later.


A month later in mid-winter, Venus was still rather low but brilliant even in a hazy moonlit sky, as I posed for another selfie, this time with a small telescope. These images are always useful for illustrations in books and magazines. And blogs!

Observing Venus in Clouds
A selfie of me observing Venus in clouds and in the moonlight. I am using the Explore Scientific 80mm refractor on the Twilight Nano alt-az mount. This was January 9, 2020.


By the end of February Venus had climbed high into the west, and was appearing monthly near the waxing crescent Moon. This is another binocular selfie from February 27.

Selfie with Binoculars Looking at Moon (Feb 27, 2020)
A selfie looking at the waxing crescent Moon near Venus on Feb 27, 2020, using the Celestron SkyMaster 15×70 Pro binoculars on the Sky-Watcher AZ5 mount for a steady view. This is a single shot with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm lens, using the flash on the camera.


In March I visited Churchill, Manitoba just as the lockdown and travel restrictions were coming into effect. But our lone and last tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre saw some fine auroras, as here on this evening with the Northern Lights appearing even in the twilight. And what’s that bright star? Venus, of course!

Aurora in Twilight at Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The Northern Lights in the evening twilight on March 18, 2020, as the aurora appeared in the early evening sky. Orion is at far left in this panorama, with Cassiopeia at top centre. Part of the Big Dipper is at far right. The bright object over the Centre is Venus, with the Pleiades above. This is a panorama of 8 segments with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800 for 1.6 seconds each. Stitched with Photoshop.


Upon my return home to Alberta, I was able to shoot more panoramas on the prairies of the wonderful early spring sky with Orion setting into the twilight and Venus in Taurus shining below the iconic Pleiades star cluster.

Panorama of  Venus and the Winter Stars (March 25, 2020)
This is a panorama of the evening sky on March 25, 2020, with brilliant Venus high in the west at centre just after the date (March 24) of its greatest elongation in the evening sky for 2020. It appears here about as high as it can get with the ecliptic tipped up to a high angle in spring. To the left is Orion and the winter stars in the twilight, including Sirius at far left. Just above the horizon right of centre in the bright twilight is the day-old thin crescent Moon about to set. Above Venus are the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. This is a panorama of 5 segments with the Nikon D750 and 24mm Sigma lens, stitched with PTGui. Each segment was 8 seconds at ISO 400 and f/2.8.


March 26 was a superb night for catching Venus now at its highest and almost at its brightest at this appearance, as the waxing Moon appeared below it.


The highlight of the spring Venus season was its close approach to the Pleiades, which it passes only every 8 years. Here I am viewing the conjunction two days before the closest approach, with Orion over my shoulder.

Viewing Venus & Pleiades with Big Binoculars
A selfie of me viewing the close approach of Venus to the Pleiades star cluster on April 1, 2020, using big 15×70 Celestron SkyMaster Pro binoculars mounted on a Canadian-built Starlight Innovations binocular mount, a parallelogram-style mount. Orion is over my left shoulder; the Hyades is at centre above the mount. The waxing gibbous Moon provided the illumination. This is a stack of 4 images for the ground to smooth noise and 1 image for the sky to minimize trailing, all 13 seconds at f/5.6 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600. Topaz Sharpen AI and DeNoise AI applied.


The night of closest approach, April 3, was cloudy, but here is a consolation closeup taken the next night with brilliant Venus departing the Seven Sisters.

Venus and the Pleiades - Close-Up (April 4, 2020)
Venus above the Pleiades star cluster, M45, on April 4, 2020, in the twilight and moonlight. Light from the gibbous Moon illuminated the sky, so no long exposure would reveal much detail in and around the Pleiades. Venus passes close to the Pleiades only every 8 years. Some light cloud this night added the glow. This is a stack of multiple exposures of varying lengths: 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 10 seconds and 2 seconds, blended with masks to prevent Venus from being too blown out while still recording the stars. All were with the SharpStar 140mm PH apo refractor with the 0.73x flattener/reducer for f/4.8 and at ISO 400 with the Canon EOS Ra.


Later in April Venus reached its greatest brilliancy, at magnitude -4.7, the date when the size of is disk, phase, and proximity to Earth converge to make Venus as bright as possible. On this night I shot the Moon, then 30° away from Venus and the planet with the same gear to show their relative sizes and similar crescent phase this night. The caption provides more details.

Moon and Venus Crescents Compared
A collage of two images of the Moon and Venus taken minutes apart on April 28, 2020, to show the similarity in their phases this night, April 28, 2020. Both images were shot with the same focal length and camera and so are identical in image scale, to compare their apparent sizes. I have not enlarged Venus, but I have put a frame around it to emphasize that its image has been layered in as a composite. The Moon was a 5.6-day-old waxing crescent this night, 32% illuminated. Venus was at its greatest brilliancy, or Greatest Illuminated Extent, with a disk 38 arc seconds across and 27% illuminated, so slightly less. Taken with the 130mm Astro-Physics refractor with a 2X Barlow lens for an effective focal length of 1600mm and with the Canon 60Da APS-sensor camera. The Moon image is the full frame of the sensor, uncropped. Both images are single short exposures at ISO 100.


A week later, with Venus just past its point of greatest brilliancy, I shot the planet by daylight in the early evening sky, using a telescope to zoom into the planet to show its waning crescent phase. By this time the phase was obvious in binoculars.

Venus in the Day Sky
Venus in the daytime sky and through some thin clouds, on May 5, 2020, with Venus at a very high apparition. This was at about 7 pm with the Sun still well up in the early evening, to show how well Venus can be seen in the daytime sky when it is at a wider angle from the Sun; and indeed is often the best time to view it as the planet’s brilliance is muted. This is a single 1/400-second exposure at ISO 100 with the Canon 60Da through the Astro-Physics 130mm refractor and 2X Barlow for f/12 and 1600mm focal length.


But Venus was now dropping rapidly from sight. By May 23, it was low in the twilight and below Mercury, then at its best for 2020 for an evening appearance from my latitude. Note the thin Moon below the planets. This was a superb sight for binoculars.

Thin Moon below Venus and Mercury
On May 23, 2020, the very thin crescent Moon (then 34 hours old) shines below bright Venus (10 days before its inferior conjunction with the Sun) and above it dimmer Mercury , then 10 days before its greatest elongation from the Sun in the evening sky. All were beautifully visible to the naked eye and a great sight in binoculars, looking very much like this scene captured with a 135mm telephoto lens. Venus was magnitude -4.4, Mercury was -0.7. This is a single shot at f/2.8 and 1/ 5 second at ISO 100 with the Canon EOS Ra which does bring out the sunset reds well.


By May 29, Venus was now tough to pick out of the evening sky, and a challenge to shoot even by day, as it then stood only 8° away from the Sun. What was once obvious to the naked eye now took a computerized telescope to pick out of the noon-day blue sky. A telescope showed the now razor-thin crescent as Venus approached its June 3 “inferior conjunction” — its passage between Earth and the Sun.

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction (May 29, 2020)
Venus as a razor-thin crescent and only 8° east of the Sun on May 29, 2020, five days before its June 3 inferior conjunction. The crescent is extending a little beyond 180° here due to scattering in the Venusian clouds. The disk was 57 arc seconds across and 0.9% illuminated. The magnitude was -3.9. This was at midday, shot with the 130mm Astro-Physics f/6 refractor with a 2X Barlow and the Canon 60Da camera, but the frame cropped further in processing. This is a single 1/1250th second exposure at ISO 100, the sharpest of 70 still frames taken.


I shot and narrated video footage of the thin crescent Venus, my parting shots of Venus for its evening appearance in 2020.

But in June, post inferior conjunction, it will rise very quickly into our morning sky, providing a mirror-image repeat performance as a morning star for the rest of 2020.

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.


I wish you all the best and a safe and healthy time in 2020. Take some solace in what the sky can show us and in the beauty of the night.

Clear skies!

— Alan, May 31, 2020 / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife


Aurora over Prince of Wales Museum, YellowknifeIt was a fabulous week of clear skies and dancing auroras in and around Yellowknife in Canada’s North.

For the second year in a row I traveled due north from home in Alberta to visit Yellowknife, capitol of Canada’s Northwest Territories. At a latitude of 62° North, Yellowknife lies directly under the auroral oval and so enjoys views of the Northern Lights on almost every clear night.

During my 8-night stay from September 3 to 10 almost every night was clear and filled with auroras.

Somba K’e Park

The Lights can be seen even from within the downtown core, as the opening image shows, taken from the urban Sombe K’e Park looking over Frame Lake and the Prince of Wales Museum.

The Museum is lit with rippling bands of coloured light that emulate the aurora borealis.

Pilot’s Monument

A favourite urban site for viewing the Lights is the Pilot’s Monument lookout in the middle of Yellowknife’s Oldtown district. This panorama sweeps from northeast at left to west at far right, looking mostly south over the downtown core.

This night even the urban lights were not enough to wash out the Lights as they brightened during a brief substorm.

Panorama of the Aurora Dancing over Yellowknife
This is a 300° panorama of the Northern Lights over Yellowknife, NWT on the night of Sept 6-7, 2019, during a sub-storm outbreak at 12:45 a.m. when the sky went wild with aurora. This is a 9-segment panorama with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800, for 10 seconds each.

Rotary Park

Another good urban site that gets you away from immediate lights is the open spaces of Rotary Park overlooking the houseboats anchored in Yellowknife Bay. This panorama again sweeps from east to west, looking toward to the waxing Moon low in the south.

Again, despite the urban lights and moonlight, the Lights were spectacular.

Aurora Panorama from Rotary Park, Yellowknife
A 240° panorama of the Northern Lights from the Boardwalk in the urban Rotary Park in Yellowknife, NWT, on Sept 10, 2019. A waxing gibbous Moon is bright to the south and lights the sky and landscape. This is a 7-segment panorama, each segment 8 seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

Prosperous Lake

The main viewing sites for the Northern Lights are down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail east of the city away from urban lights.. One of the closest stops is a parking lot on the shore of a backwater bay of Prosperous Lake. It’s where many tourist buses stop and unload their passengers, mostly to get their selfies under the Lights.

But with patience you can get your own photos unencumbered by other lights and people, as I show below.

Aurora Tourists at Prosperous Lake (Sept 5-6, 2019)
A group of aurora tourists take their aurora selfies at Prosperous Lake, near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot on the Ingraham Trail for aurora watching. This was about 1:15 a.m. MDT. This is a single 5-second exposure with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO800.

Aurora over Prosperous Lake, Yellowknife (Sept 5-6, 2019)
The Northern Lights over the end of Prosperous Lake, on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot for aurora watching in the area. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Sigma 20mm lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

On one of my nights I stopped at Prosperous on the way to sites farther down Ingraham Trail to catch the twilight colours in the stunningly clear sky.

Sunset Twilight at Prosperous Lake
Twilight at Prosperous Lake on the Ingraham Trail, near Yellowknife, NWT, Sept. 7, 2019. The colours are accentuated by volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

Madeline Lake

This small lake and picnic site farther along the Trail serves as a great place to shoot the Lights reflected in the calm waters and looking north. I spent one of my nights at Madeline Lake, a popular spot for local residents to have a campfire under the Lights.

Campfire Under the Aurora #2
Enjoying a campfire on a fine September Saturday night under the brightening Northern Lights, at Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife. This is a single 10-second exposure with the 20mm Sigma lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

And it’s popular for tour buses, whose headlights shine out across the lake as they arrive through the night, in this case casting my long shadow across the misty lake.

Selfie Shadow at Madeline Lake with Aurora
A novelty shot of the shadow of me and my tripod projected across a misty Madeline Lake by car headlights from arriving aurora tourists at this popular spot on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife. This was September 7, 2019. A single exposure.

Aurora Tourists at Madeline Lake
A group of aurora tourists take in the show at Madeline Lake, on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot for the busloads of visitors being shuttled around each night. The Big Dipper is at centre. This is a single exposure, 6 seconds at ISO 3200 with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III.

However, again with patience it is possible to get clean images of the aurora and its reflections in the lake.

Aurora over Madeline Lake Panorama (Sept 7, 2019)
The Northern Lights in a subtle but colourful display over the still waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. This was the night of September 7-8, 2019. This is a 4-segment panorama, each 13 seconds at ISO 1600 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III camera.

The Ramparts

Farther down the Trail is a spot the tour buses will not go to as a visit to the Ramparts waterfall on the Cameron River requires a hike down a wooded trail, in the dark with bears about. Luckily, my astrophoto colleague, amateur astronomer, and local resident Stephen Bedingfield joined me for a superb shoot with us the only ones present at this stunning location.

Photographer at Cameron River Ramparts
Photographer Stephen Bedingfield is shooting the Northern Lights at the Ramparts waterfalls on the Cameron River, September 8, 2019. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.

Aurora over Cameron River Ramparts
The Northern Lights over the waterfalls known as the Ramparts on the Cameron River east of Yellowknife, NWT, on September 8, 2019. This is a single exposure of 20 seconds with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600, blended with two light painted exposures of the same duration but with the water illuminated to make it more white.

The view looking the other way north over the river was equally wonderful. What a place for viewing the Northern Lights!

Aurora over Cameron River with Autumn Colours
The Northern Lights in an arc across the northern sky over the Cameron River, downriver from the Ramparts Falls. This was September 8, 2019 with the trees turning in their fall colours. The Big Dipper at top centre. This is a two-segment panorama, each 25 seconds at f/2 with the Laowa 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 800. Stitched with ACR.

The view from a viewpoint early on the trail down to the Ramparts and overlooking the Cameron River yielded a superb scene with the low Moon and twilight providing the illumination as the Lights kicked up early in the evening.

Aurora over Cameron River in Moonlight
The curtains of an early evening aurora starting to dance in the twilight and with the western sky lit by moonlight from the waxing gibbous Moon low in the sky and off-frame to the right. This is from the Cameron River viewpoint off the Ramparts falls trail on the Ingraham trail near Yellowknife. This is a single 15-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

Prelude Lake

A favourite spot is the major camping and boat launch area of Prelude Lake Territorial Park. But to avoid the crowds down by the shoreline, Stephen and I hiked up to the overlook above the lake looking north. A few other ardent photographers joined us. This was another spectacular and perfect night.

Aurora in Twilight over Prelude Lake
An arc of Northern Lights appears in the evening twilight over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, on September 9, 2019. This is a single 25-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 800.

September is a superb time to visit as the lakes are still open and the autumn colours make for a good contrast with the sky colours.

The panorama below takes in the Big Dipper at left, Capella at centre, and with the Pleiades and Hyades rising at right of centre.

Auroral Arc in the Twilight at Prelude Lake
The arc of Northern Lights starting a show in the deep twilight over Prelude Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. This was September 9, 2019. Light from the waxing gibbous Moon behind the camera also illuminates the scene. This is a 5-segment panorama with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800 and all at 25 seconds. Stitched with PTGui, as ACR and Photoshop refused to joint the left segments.

I used the 8mm fish-eye lens to capture the entire sky, the only way you can really take in the whole scene on camera. When the Lights fill the sky you don’t know which way to look or aim your camera!

There are many other scenic spots along the Trail, such as Pontoon Lake, Reid Lake, and Tibbitt Lake at the very end of Ingraham Trail. For images and movies I shot last year at Tibbitt Lake, see my blog post at Aurora Reflections in Yellowknife.

But in my 8 nights in Yellowknife this year I managed to hit many of the key aurora spots for photography and viewing. I recommend a visit, especially in September before autumn clouds roll in later in the season, and while the lakes are not frozen and nighttime temperatures are mild.

Here’s a 3-minute music video of clips I shot from all these sites showing the motion of the Lights as it appeared to the eye in “real-time,” not sped up or in time-lapse.

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

It’s in 4K on Vimeo. Enjoy!

I’ve made my bookings for next year in September!

— Alan / October 6, 2019 / © 2019 AmazingSky.com

 

Testing the MSM Tracker


MSM Test Title

A new low-cost sky tracker promises to simplify not only tracking the sky but also taking time-lapses panning along the horizon. It works but …

If you are an active nightscape photographer chances are your social media feeds have been punctuated with ads for this new low-cost tracker from MoveShootMove.com. 

For $200, much less than popular trackers from Sky-Watcher and iOptron, the SiFo unit (as it is labelled) offers the ability track the sky, avoiding any star trails. That alone would make it a bargain, and useful for nightscape and deep-sky photographers. 

But it also has a function for panning horizontally, moving incrementally between exposures, thus the Move-Shoot-Move designation. The result is a time-lapse movie that pans along the horizon, but with each frame with the ground sharp, as the camera moves only between exposures, not during them. 

 

MSM Polar Aligned Side V1
The Move-Shoot-Move Tracker
The $200 MSM can be polar aligned using the optional laser, shown here, or an optical polar scope to allow to follow the sky. The ball head is user supplied. 

Again, for $200 this is an excellent feature lacking in trackers like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyTracker. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini does, however, offer both tracking and “move-shoot-move” time-lapse functions, but at a cost of $300 to $400 U.S., depending on accessories. 

All these functions are provided in a unit that is light (weighing 700 grams with a tripod plate and the laser) and compact (taking up less space in your camera bag than most lenses). By comparison, the Star Adventurer Mini weighs 900 grams with the polar scope, while the original larger Star Adventurer is 1.4 kg, double the MSM’s weight. 

Note, that the MSM’s advertised weight of 445 grams does not include the laser or a tripod plate, two items you need to use it. So 700 grams is a more realistic figure, still light, but not lighter than the competition by as much as you might be led to believe. 

Nevertheless, the MSM’s small size and weight make it attractive for travel, especially for flights to remote sites. Construction is solid and all-metal. This is not a cheap plastic toy.

But does it work? Yes, but with several important caveats that might be a concern for some buyers. 

What I Tested

I purchased the Basic Kit B package for $220 U.S., which includes a small case, a laser pointer and bracket for polar alignment (and with a small charger for the laser’s single 3.7-volt battery), and with the camera sync cable needed for time-lapse shooting. 

I also purchased the new “button” model, not the older version that used a knob to set various tracking rates. 

 

MSM with Canon 6D MkII
MSM Fitted Out
Keep in mind that to use any tracker like the MSM you will need a solid tripod with a head good enough to hold the tracker and camera steady when tipped over when polar aligned, and another ball head on the tracker itself.

The ball head needed to go on top of the tracker is something you supply. The kit does come with two 3/8-inch stud bolts and a 3/8-to1/4-inch bushing adapter, for placing the tracker on tripods in the various mounting configurations I show below. 

The first units were labelled as ‘SiFo,” but current units now carry the Gauda brand name. I’ll just call it the MSM. 

I purchased the gear from the MSM website, and had my order fulfilled and shipped to me in Canada from China with no problems. 

Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes

The attraction is its tracking function, allowing a camera to follow the sky and take exposures longer than any dictated by “500” or “NPF” Rules to avoid any star trailing. 

Exposures can be a minute or more to record much more depth and detail in the Milky Way, though the ground will blur. But blending tracked sky exposures with untracked ground exposures gets around that, and with the MSM it’s easy to turn on and off the tracking motor, something not possible with the low-cost wind-up Mini Track from Omegon. 

MSM Polar Aligned Side V2
Mounting on the Side
The MSM is shown in illustrations and instructions mounted by its side panel bolt hole. This works, but produced problems with the gears not meshing well and the MSM not tracking at all for initial exposures. 

The illustrations and instructions (in a PDF well-hidden off the MSM Buy page) show the MSM mounted using the 1/4-20 bolt hole on the side of the unit opposite the LED-illuminated control panel. While this seems to be the preferred  method, in the first unit I tested I found it produced serious mis-tracking problems. 

MSM Test (On Side) 1 minute 50mm
50mm Lens Set, Mounted on the Side
A set of five consecutive 1-minute exposures taken with the original SiFo-branded MSM mounted by its side bolt hole showed the MSM’s habit of taking several minutes for the gears to mesh and to begin tracking. Tap or click to download full-res version.

With a Canon 6D MkII and 50mm f/1.4 lens (not a particularly heavy combination), the MSM’s gears would not engage and start tracking until after about 5 minutes. The first exposures were useless. This was also the case whenever I moved the camera to a new position to re-frame the scene or sky. Again, the first few minutes produced no or poor tracking until the gears finally engaged. 

This would be a problem when taking tracked/untracked sets for nightscapes, as images need to be taken in quick succession. It’s also just plain annoying.

However, see the UPDATE at the end for the performance of a new Gauda-branded unit that was sent to me. 

Sagittarius - Red Enhancer Filter
50mm Nightscape
With patience and persistence you can get well-tracked nightscapes with the MSM. This is a single 1-minute exposure with a 50mm lens. Tap or click to download full-res version.

Mounting Options

The solution was to mount the MSM using the 3/8-inch bolt hole on the back plate of the tracker, using the 1/4-20 adapter ring to allow it to attach to my tripod head. This still allowed me to tip the unit up to polar align it. 

MSM Polar Aligned Back V1
Mounting on the Back
Mounting the MSM using its back plate produced more reliable tracking results, though requires swapping mounting bolts and 3/8-1/4-inch adapter rings from the preferred method of mounting the MSM for time-lapse work. 

Tracking was now much more consistent, with only the first exposure usually badly trailed. But subsequent exposures all tracked, but with varying degrees of accuracy as I show below. 

When used as a tracker, you need to control the camera’s exposure time with an external intervalometer you supply, to allow setting exposures over 30 seconds long. 

The MSM offers a N and S setting, the latter for use in the Southern Hemisphere. A 1/2-speed setting turns the tracker at half the normal sidereal rate, useful for nightscapes as a compromise speed to provide some tracking while minimizing ground blurring. 

Polar Alignment

For any tracker to track, its rotation axis has to be aimed at the Celestial Pole, near Polaris in the Northern Hemisphere, and near Sigma Octantis in the Southern Hemisphere. 

MSM Tracker with Laser Pointer (Red Light Version)
Polar Aligning on Polaris
The MSM’s bright laser pointer is useful for aiming the tracker at the North Celestial Pole, located about a degree away from Polaris in the direction of Alkaid, the end star in the Handle of the Big Dipper or Plough. 

I chose the laser pointer option for this, rather than the polar alignment scope. The laser attaches to the side of the MSM using a small screw-on metal bracket so that it points up along the axis of rotation, the polar axis. 

The laser is labeled as a 1mw unit, but it is far brighter than any 1mw I’ve used. This does make it bright, allowing the beam to show up even when the sky is not dark. The battery is rechargeable and a small charger comes with the laser. Considering the laser is just a $15 option, it’s a bargain. But ….


UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1

Since I published the review, I have had the laser professionally tested, and it measured as having an output of 45 milliwatts. Yet it is labeled as being under 1 milliwatt. This is serious misrepresentation of the specs, done I can only assume to circumvent import restrictions. In Canada it is now illegal to import, own, or use any green laser over 5 milliwatts, a power level that would be sufficient for the intended use of polar aligning. 45mw is outright illegal. 


So be warned, use of this laser will be illegal in some areas. And use of any green laser will be illegal close to airports, and outlawed entirely in some jurisdictions such as Australia, a fact the MSM website mentions. 

The legal alternative is the optical polar alignment scope. I already have several of those, but my expectation that I could use one I had with the same bracket supplied with the laser were dashed by the fact that the bracket’s hole is too narrow to accept any of the other polar alignment scopes I have, which are all standard items. I you want a polar scope, buy theirs for $70. 

However, if you can use it where you live, the laser works well enough, allowing you to aim the tracker at the Pole just by eye. For the wide lenses the tracker is intended to be used with, eyeball alignment proved good enough.

Just be very, very careful not to accidentally look down the beam. Seriously. It is far too easy to do by mistake, but doing so could damage your eye in moments. 

Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images

How well does the MSM actually track? In tests of the original SiFo unit I bought, and in sets of exposures with 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses, and with the tracker mounted on the back, I found that 25% to 50% of the images showed mis-tracking. Gear errors still produced slightly trailed stars. This gear error shows itself more as you shoot with longer focal lengths. 

MSM Test (On Back) 2 min 35mm
35mm Lens Set, Mounted on the Back
A set of 2-minute exposures with the MSM mounted by its back plate showed better tracking with quicker gear meshing, though still with some frames showing trailing. Tap or click to download full-res version.

The MSM is best for what it is advertised as — as a tracker for nightscapes with forgiving wide-angle lenses in the 14mm to 24mm range. With longer lenses, expect to throw away a good number of exposures as unusable. Take twice as many as you think you might need.

MSM Test (On Back) 1 min 135mm
135mm Telephoto Lens Set
A set of 20 one-minute exposures with a 135mm lens showed more than half with unusable amounts of mis-tracking. But enough worked to be usable! Tap or click to download full-res version.

With a 135mm lens taking Milky Way closeups, more than half the shots were badly trailed. Really badly trailed. This is not from poor polar alignment, which produces a gradual drift of the frame, but from errors in the drive gears, and random errors at that, not periodic errors. 

To be fair, this is often the case with other trackers as well. People always want to weight them down with heavy and demanding telephotos for deep-sky portraits, but that’s rarely a good idea with any tracker. They are best with wide lenses.

That said, I found the MSM’s error rate and amount to be much worse than with other trackers. With the Star Adventurer models and a 135mm lens for example, I can expect only 20% to 25% of the images to be trailed, and even then rarely as badly as what the MSM exhibited.

See the UPDATE at the end for the performance of the replacement Gauda-branded unit sent to me with the promise of much improved tracking accuracy. 

The Arrow, Dumbbell, and Coathanger
Sagitta and Area with the 135mm
The result of the above set was a stack of 8 of the best for a fine portrait of the Milky Way area in Sagitta, showing the Dumbbell Nebula and Coathanger asterism. Each sub-frame was 1 minute at f/2 and ISO 1600. Tap or click to download full-res version.

Yes, enough shots worked to be usable, but it took using a fast f/2 lens to keep exposure times down to a minute to provide that yield. Users of slow f/5.6 kit-zoom lenses will struggle trying to take deep-sky images with the MSM. 

In short, this is a low-cost tracker and it shows. It does work, but not as well as the higher-cost competitors. But restrict it to wide-angle lenses and you’ll be fine. 

Panning the Ground 

The other mode the MSM can be used in is as a time-lapse motion controller. Here you mount the MSM horizontally so the camera turns parallel to the horizon (or it can be mounted vertically for vertical panning, a mode I rarely use and did not test). 

MSM Tracker Taking Time-Lapse in Moonlight
The MSM at Work
I performed all the time-lapse testing from my rural backyard on nights in mid-August 2019 with a waning Moon lighting the sky. 

This is where the Move-Shoot-Move function comes in. 

The supplied Sync cable goes from the camera’s flash hot shoe to the MSM’s camera jack. What happens is that when the camera finishes an exposure it sends a pulse to the MSM, which then quickly moves while the shutter is closed by the increment you set.

There is a choice of 4 speeds, marked in degrees-per-move: 0.05°, 0.2°, 0.5°, and 1.0°. For example, as the movie below shows, taking 360 frames at the 1° speed results in a complete 360° turn.

 

MSM Control Panel CU
Time-Lapse Speeds
The control panel offers a choice of N and S rotation directions, a 1/2-speed rate for partially tracked nightscapes, and Move-Shoot-Move rates per move of 0.05°, 0.2°, 0.5° and a very fast 1° setting. The Sync cable plugs into the jack on the MSM. The other jack is for connecting to a motion control slider, a function I didn’t test.

The MSM does the moving, but all the shutter speed control and intervals must be set using a separate intervalometer, either one built into the camera, or an outboard hardware unit. The MSM does not control the camera shutter. In fact, the camera controls the MSM.

Intervals should be set to be about 2 seconds longer than the shutter speed, to allow the MSM to perform its move and settle. 

This connection between the MSM and camera worked very well. It is unconventional, but simple and effective.

MSM Time-Lapse Correct
Mounting for Time-Lapse
The preferred method of mounting the MSM for time-lapses is to do so “upside-down” with its rotating top plate at bottom attached to the tripod. Thus the whole MSM and camera turns, preventing the Sync cable from winding up during a turn. 

Too Slow or Too Fast

The issue is the limited choice of move speeds. I found the 0.5° and 1° speeds much too fast for night use, except perhaps for special effects in urban cityscapes. Even in daytime use, when exposure times are very short, the results are dizzying, as I show below. 

Even the 0.2°-per-move speed I feel is too fast for most nightscape work. Over the 300 exposures one typically takes for a time-lapse movie, that speed will turn the MSM (300 x 0.2°) = 60 degrees. That’s a lot of motion for 300 shots, which will usually be rendered out at 24 or 30 frames per second for a clip that lasts 10 to 12 seconds. The scene will turn a lot in that time.

On the other hand, the 0.05°-per-move setting is rather slow, producing a turn of (300 x 0.05°) = 15° during the 300 shots. 

That works, but with all the motion controllers I’ve used — units that can run at whatever speed they need to get from the start point to the end point you set — I find a rate of about 0.1° per move is what works best for a movie that provides the right amount of motion. Not too slow. Not too fast. Just right. 

MSM Time-Lapse Correct CU
Inverted Control Panel
When mounted as recommended for time-lapses, the control panel does end up upside-down. 


UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019

From product photos on the MoveShootMove.com website now it appears that the tracker is now labeled MSM, as it should have been all along.

Most critically, perhaps in response to this review and my comments here, the time-lapse speeds have been changed to 0.05, 0.075, 0.1 and 0.125 degrees per move, adding the 0.1°/move speed I requested below and deleting the overly fast 0.5° and 1.0° speeds.

Plus it appears the new units have the panel labels printed the other way around so they are not upside down for most mounting situations.

I have not tested this new version, but these speeds sound much more usable for panning time-lapses. Bravo to MSM for listening! 

MSM Rotator 2019


Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse

The additional complication is trying to get the MSM to also turn at the right rate to follow the sky — for example, to keep the galaxy core in frame during the time-lapse clip. I think doing so produces one of the most effective time-lapse sequences. 

But to do that with any device requires turning at a rate of 15° per hour, the rate the sky moves from east to west.

Because the MSM provides only set fixed speeds, the only way you have of controlling how much it moves over a given amount of time, such as an hour, is to vary the shutter speed. 

I found that to get the MSM to follow the Milky Way in a time-lapse using the 0.05° rate and shooting 300 frames required shooting at a shutter speed of 12 seconds. No more, no less. 

MSM Time-Lapse Top Plate
Top Plate Display
When mounted “upside-down” for a time-lapse the top surface provides the N-S direction arrows (N moves clockwise) and a small, handy bubble level.

Do the Math

Where does that number come from? 

At its rate of 0.05°/move, the MSM will turn 15° over 300 shots. The sky moves 15° in one hour, or 3600 seconds. So to fit 300 shots into 3600 seconds means each shot has to be no longer than (3600/300) = 12 seconds long. 

The result works, as I show in the sampler movie. 

But 12 seconds is a rather short shutter speed on a dark, moonless night with the Milky Way. 

For properly exposed images you would need to shoot at very fast apertures (f/1.4 to f/2) and/or high and noisy ISO speeds. Neither are optimal. But they are forced upon you by the MSM’s restricted rates. 

Using the faster 0.2° rate (of the original model) yields a turn of 60° over 300 shots. That’s four hours of sky motion. So each exposure now has to be 48 seconds long for the camera to follow the sky, four times longer because the drive rate is now four times faster. 

A shutter speed of 48 seconds is a little too long in my opinion. Stars in each frame will trail. Plus a turn of 60° over 300 shots is quite a lot, producing a movie that turns too quickly. 

MSM Time-Lapse Inverted
Alternative Time-Lapse Configuration
The other option is to mount the MSM so the control panel is right-side-up and the top turn-table (the part that turns and that the camera is attached to) is on top. Now only the camera turns; the MSM does not. This works but the Sync cable can wrap around and bind in long turns. For short turns of 30° to 60° it is fine. 

By far the best speed for motion control time-lapses would be 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed.  (DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: That speed seems to now be offered.)

Yes, having only a limited number of pre-wired speeds does make the MSM much easier to program than devices like the Star Adventurer Mini or SYRP Genie Mini that use wireless apps to set their functions. No question, the MSM is better suited to beginners who don’t want to fuss with lots of parameters. 

As it is, getting a decent result requires some math and juggling of camera settings to make up for the MSM’s limited choices of speeds. 

Time-Lapse Movie Examples

This compilation shows examples of daytime time-lapses taken at the fastest and dizzying 0.5° and 1.0° speeds, and night time-lapses taken at the slower speeds. The final clip is taken at 0.05°/move and with 12-second exposures, a combination that allowed the camera to nicely follow the Milky Way, albeit at a slow pace. Taking more than the 300 frames used here would have produced a clip that turned at the same rate, but lasted longer. 

Battery Life

The MSM is powered off an internal rechargeable battery, which can be charged from any 5-volt charger you have from a mobile phone. 

The MSM uses a USB-C jack for the power cable, but a USB-A to USB-C cord is supplied, handy as you might not have one if you don’t have other USB-C devices. 

The battery lasted for half a dozen or more 300-shot time-lapses, enough to get you through at least 2 or 3 nights of shooting. However, my testing was done on warm summer nights. In winter battery life will be less. 

While the built-in battery is handy, in the field should you find battery level low (the N and S switches blink as a warning) you can’t just swap in fresh batteries. Just remember to charge up before heading out. Alternatively, it can be charged from an external 5V battery pack such as used to prolong cell phone life. 

Hercules and Corona Borealis (50mm 6D)
The constellations of Hercules and Corona Borealis in the northern spring and summer sky. This is a stack of 3 x 2-minute exposures with the 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800, plus an additional 2 min exposure through the Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows. All tracked on the original MSM SiFo Tracker from China. Tap or click to download full-res version.

Other Caveats

The MSM does not offer, nor does it promise, any form of automated panorama shooting. This is where the device turns by, say, 15° to 45° between shots, to shoot the segments for a still-image panorama. More sophisticated motion controllers from SYRP and Edelkrone offer that function, including the ability to mate two devices for automated multi-tier panoramas. 

Nor does the MSM offer the more advanced option of ramping speeds up and down at the start and end of a time-lapse. It moves at a constant rate throughout. 

While some of the shortcomings could perhaps be fixed with a firmware update, there is no indication anywhere that its internal firmware can be updated through the USB-C port. 

MSM Polar Aligned On Back


UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019

Since I published the review, MSM saw the initial test results and admitted that the earlier units like mine (ordered in June) exhibited large amounts of tracking error. They sent me a replacement unit, now branded with the Gauda label. According to MSM it contains a more powerful motor promised to improve tracking accuracy and making it possible to take images with lenses as long as 135mm.

I’m sorry to report it didn’t.

MSM Gauda-135mm Back-NE
This shows 300% blow-ups of a star field rising in the northeast sky taken with the new Gauda unit and with a 135mm lens, each for 2 minutes in quick succession. Less than 50% of the frames were useable and untrailed. (The first frames were shot through high clouds.)

MSM Gauda-135mm Back-Zenith
Taken the same night as the previous set, this shows 24 shots taken in quick succession with the same 135mm lens for 2 minutes each but with the camera aimed overhead to the zenith. None of the images were usable. All were trailed, most very badly.

In tests with the 135mm lens the new, improved MSM still showed lots of tracking error, to the point that images taken with a lens as long as this were mostly unusable.

Tap or click on the images to download full-res versions.

The short movie above takes the full-frame images from the zenith set of 24 frames taken over 48 minutes and turns them into a little time-lapse. It shows how the mechanism of the MSM seems to be wobbling the camera around in a circle, creating the mis-tracking.

Comparison with the Star Adventurer

As a comparison, the next night I used a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (the full-size model not the Mini) to shoot the same fields in the northeast and overhead with the same 135mm lens and with the same ball-head, to ensure the ball-head was not at fault. Here are the results:

Star Adventurer-135mm-NE
The same field looking northeast, with 300% blow-ups of 2-minute exposures with the 135mm lens and Star Adventurer tracker. As is usual with this unit, about 20% of the frames show mis-tracking, but none as badly as the MSM.

Star Adventurer-135mm-Zenith
Aiming the camera to the zenith the Star Adventurer again showed a good success rate with a slightly greater percentage trailed, but again, none as badly as the MSM.

The Star Adventurer performed much better. Most images were well-tracked. Even on those frames that showed trailing, it was slight. The Star Adventurer is a unit you can use to take close-ups of deep-sky fields with telephoto lenses, if that’s your desire.

By contrast, the MSM is best used — indeed, I feel can only be used practically — with wide-angle lenses and with exposures under 2 minutes. Here’s a set taken with a 35mm lens, each for 2 minutes.

MSM Gauda-35mm Side-NE
This is a set of consecutive 2-minute exposures with a 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII on the MSM tracker, with the tracker mounted using the side 1/4-20 bolt hole. It was aimed to the northeast. About half the images showed significant trailing.

With the more forgiving 35mm lens, while more images worked, the success rate was still only 50%.

What I did not see with the new Gauda unit was the 5-minute delay before the gears meshed and tracking began. That issue has been resolved by the new, more powerful motor. The new Gauda model does start tracking right away.

But it is still prone to significant enough drive errors that stars are often trailed even with a 35mm lens (this was on a full-frame Canon 6D MkII).


UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)

The MSM tracker is low-cost, well-built, and compact for easy packing and travel. It performs its advertised functions well enough to allow users to get results, either tracked images of the Milky Way and constellations, or simple motion-control time-lapses. 

But it is best used — indeed I would suggest can only be used — with wide-angle lenses for tracked Milky Way nightscapes. Even then, take more shots than you think you need to be sure enough are well-tracked and usable. 

It can also be used for simple motion-control time-lapses, provided you do to the math to get it to turn by the amount you want, working around the too-slow or too-fast speeds. The new 0.1° per move speed (added in models as of December 2019) seems a reasonable rate for most time-lapses. 

However, I think aspiring time-lapse photographers will soon outgrow the MSM’s limitations for motion-control sequences. But it can get you started. 

If you really value its compactness and your budget is tight, the MSM will serve you well enough for tracked nightscape shooting with wide-angle lenses.

But if you wish to take close-ups of starfields and deep-sky objects with longer lenses, consider a unit like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer for its lower tracking errors. Or the Star Adventurer Mini for its better motion-control time-lapse functions. 

— Alan Dyer / August 22, 2019 / UPDATED October 7, 2019 / © 2019 AmazingSky.com

 

How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas


The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone

Panoramas featuring the arch of the Milky Way have become the icons of dark sky locations. “Panos” can be easy to shoot, but stitching them together can present challenges. Here are my tips and techniques.

My tutorial complements the much more extensive information I provide in my eBook, at right. Here, I’ll step through techniques for simple to more complex panoramas, dealing first with essential shooting methods, then reviewing the workflows I use for processing and stitching panoramas. 

What software works best depends on the number of segments in your panorama, or even on the focal length of the lens you used. 


PART 1 — SHOOTING 

What Equipment Do You Need?

Nightscape panoramas don’t require any more equipment than what you likely already own for shooting the night sky. For Milky Way scenes you need a fast lens and a solid tripod, but any good DSLR or mirrorless camera will suffice. 

1-Camera with Leveling Head and L-Bracket
Pano Gear
A tripod head with a scale marked in degrees is essential. Here it sits on a levelling head with its own bubble level that makes it easy to level the camera. An L-bracket allows the camera to rotate directly above the vertical axis, handy when shooting in portrait mode, as here with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens, one option for horizon-to-zenith panoramas. The tripod accessories here are by Acratech. 

The tripod head can be either a ball head or a three-axis head, but it should have a horizontal axis marked with a degree scale. This allows you to move the camera at a correct and consistent angle from segment to segment. I think that’s essential. 

What you don’t need is a special, and often costly, panorama head. These rotate the camera around the so-called “nodal point” inside the lens, avoiding parallax shifts that can make it difficult to align and stitch adjacent frames. Parallax shift is certainly a concern when shooting interiors or any scenes with prominent content close to the camera. However, in most nightscapes our scene content is far enough away that parallax simply isn’t an issue. 

Though not a necessity, I find a levelling base a huge convenience. As I show above, this specialized ball head goes under the usual tripod head and makes it easy to level the main head. It eliminates all the fussing with trial-and-error adjustments of the length of each tripod leg. 

Canon 6D Mk II Level
On the Level
Most cameras now have an electronic level built in that is handy for ensuring the panorama does not end up tilted. This is from a Canon 6D MkII.

Then to level the camera itself, I use the electronic level now in most cameras. Or, if your camera lacks that feature, an accessory bubble level clipped into the camera’s hot shoe will work.

Having the camera level is critical. It can be tipped up, of course, but not tilted left-right. If it isn’t level the whole panorama will be off kilter, requiring excessive straightening and cropping in processing, or the horizon will wave up and down in the final stitch, perhaps causing parts of the scene to go missing.

NOTE: Click or tap on the panorama images to open a high-res version for closer inspection.  

Panorama of the Northern Lights and Winter Stars
Aurora in the Winter Sky
To capture this panorama I used a Sigma 14mm lens on a Nikon D750, mounted in portrait orientation with the gear shown above, to shoot eight segments 45° apart, each 13 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200. Stitching was with Adobe Camera Raw. The aurora lies to the north at left, while Orion and the winter Milky Way are to the south at right. 

Shooting Horizon Panoramas

While panoramas spanning the entire sky might be what you are after, I suggest starting simpler, with panos that take in just a portion of the 360° horizon and only a part of the 180° of the sky. These “partial panos” are great for auroras (above) or noctilucent clouds, (below), or for capturing just the core of the Milky Way over a landscape. 

The key to all panorama success is overlap. Segments should overlap by 30 to 50 percent, enabling the stitching software to align the segments using the content common to adjacent frames. Contrary to some users, I’ve never found an issue with having too much overlap, where the same content is present on several frames. 

Noctilucent Cloud Panorama over OId Barns on June 19, 2019
Noctilucent Clouds in Summer
NLCs are good panorama subjects. I captured this display on June 19, 2019 using a Sony a7III camera at ISO 400, and a Sigma 50mm lens at f/2 for a set of six segments stitched with Adobe Camera Raw

For a practical example, let’s say you shoot with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 16mm lens on a cropped-frame camera. Both combinations yield a field of view across the long dimension of the frame of roughly 80°, and across the short dimension of the frame of about 55°. 

That means if you shoot with the camera in “landscape” orientation, panning the camera by 40° between segments would provide a generous 50 percent overlap. The left half of each segment will contain the same content as the right half of the previous segment, if you take your panos by turning from left to right. 

TIP: My habit is to always shoot from left to right, as that puts the segments in the correct order adjacent to each other when I view them in browser programs such as Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, with images sorted in chronological order (from first to last images in a set) as I typically prefer. But the stitching will work no matter which direction you rotate the camera. 

In the example of a 24mm lens and a camera in landscape orientation you could turn at a 45° or 50° spacing and yield enough overlap. However, turning the camera at multiples of 15° is usually the most convenient, as tripod heads are often graduated with markings at 5° increments, and labeled every 15° or 30°. 

Some will have coarser and perhaps unlabeled markings. If so, determine what each increment represents, then take care to move the camera consistently by the amount that will provide adequate overlap. 

Harvest Moon Rising over the Red Deer River
Moonrise over the Red Deer River
Not all panoramas have to be of the Milky Way. This captures the sweeping arc of Earth’s blue shadow rising in the eastern sky as the Harvest Moon comes up amid the shadow. This is a 7-section single-tier panorama with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 100. It stitched fine with Adobe Camera Raw.

To maximize the coverage of the sky while still framing a good amount of foreground, a common practice is to shoot panoramas with the camera in portrait orientation. That provides more vertical but less horizontal coverage for each frame. In that case, for adequate overlap with a 24mm lens and full-frame camera shoot at 30° spacings.

TIP: When shooting a partial panorama, for example just to the south for the Milky Way, or to the north for the aurora borealis, my practice is to always shoot a segment farther to the left and another to the right of the main scene. Shoot more than you need. Those end segments can get distorted when stitching, but if they don’t contain essential content, they can be cropped out with no loss, leaving your main scene clean and undistorted.

Shooting with a longer lens, such as a 50mm (or 35mm on a cropped frame camera), will yield higher resolution in the final panorama, but you will have much less sky coverage, unless you shoot multiple tiers, as I describe below. You would also have to shoot more segments, at 15° to 20° spacings, taking longer to complete the shoot.

Night Train in the Moonlight at Morant's Curve
Morant’s Curve in the Moonlight
Not all panoramas have to be shot under dark skies, or encompass 360°. Moonlight illuminates the famous viewpoint called Morant’s Curve in Banff National Park, with Orion setting over the peaks of the Continental Divide, as a train speeds east through the March night. This is a panorama of 12 segments, each with a 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, stitched with PTGui. 

As the number of segments goes up shooting fast becomes more important, to minimize how much the sky moves from segment to segment, and during each exposure itself, to aid in stitching. Remember, the sky appears to be turning from east to west, but the ground isn’t. So a prolonged shoot can cause problems later as the stitching software tries to align on either the fixed ground or the moving stars. 

Panoramas on moonlit nights, as I show above, are relatively easy because exposures are short.

Milky Way over Dry Island Buffalo Jump
Milky Way over the Buffalo Jump
A moonless night in early May was perfect for a panorama of the Milky Way arching over the Badlands of Dry Island Buffalo Jump in Alberta. This is a multi-tier panorama of 3 tiers of 7 segments each, with exposures of 30 seconds at f/2 with a 20mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

Milky Way panoramas taken on dark, moonless nights are tougher. They require fast apertures (f/2 to f/2.8) and high ISOs (ISO 3200 to 6400), to keep individual exposures no more than 30 to 40 seconds long.

Histogram Example
Expose to the Right
Minimize noise in the shadows by exposing so the histogram is shifted to the right, and not slammed to the left. Underexposure is the most common cardinal sin of newbie nightscape photographers. 

Noise lives in the dark foregrounds, so I find it best to err on the side of overexposure, to ensure adequate exposure for the ground, even if it means the sky is bright and the stars slightly trailed. It’s the “Expose to the Right” philosophy I espouse at length in my eBook. 

Advanced users can try shooting in two passes: one at a low ISO and with a long exposure for the fixed ground, and another pass at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure for the moving sky. But assembling such a set will take some deft work in Photoshop to align and mask the two stitched panos. None of the examples here are “double exposures.”


Shooting 360° Panoramas

The Milky Way over Maskinonge Lake
Milky Way at Waterton Lakes
While covering 360° in azimuth, this panorama from July 2018 goes only partway up the sky, to capture the Milky Way core to the south and the solstice twilight glow to the north. This is a 10-segment panorama, with each segment 30 seconds at f/2 with a Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Adobe Camera Raw stitched this nicely.

More demanding than partial panoramas are full 360° panoramas, as above. Here I find it is best to start the sequence with the camera aimed toward the celestial pole (to the north in the northern hemisphere, or to the south in the southern hemisphere). That places the area of sky that moves the least over time at the two ends of the panorama, again making it easier for software to align segments, with the two ends taken farthest apart in time meeting up in space.

In our 24mm lens example, to cover the entire 360° scene shooting with a 45° spacing would require at least eight images (8 x 45 = 360). I used 10 above. Using that same lens with the camera in portrait orientation will require at least 12 segments to cover the entire 360° landscape. 


Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas

"Steve," the Strange Auroral Arc
Capturing STEVE This 360° panorama captures the infamous STEVE auroral arc across the south, with a normal auroral display to the north at right. This was from six segments, each 10 seconds at ISO 2500, with a Sigma 14mm lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation.

More demanding still are 360° panoramas that encompass the entire sky, from the ground below the horizon to the zenith overhead. Above is an example.

To do that with a single row of images requires shooting in portrait orientation with a very wide 14mm rectilinear lens on a full-frame camera. That combination has a field of view of about 100° across the long dimension of the sensor. 

That sounds generous, but reaching up to the zenith at an altitude of 90° means only a small portion of the landscape will be included along the bottom of the frame.

To provide an even wider field of view to take in more ground, I use full-frame fish-eye lenses on my full-frame cameras, such as Canon’s old 15mm lens (as shown at top) or Rokinon’s 12mm. Even a circular-format fish-eye will work, such as an 8mm on a full-frame camera or 4.5mm on a cropped-frame camera. 

All such fish-eye lenses produce curved horizons, but they take in a wide swath of sky, making it possible to include lots of foreground while reaching well past the zenith. Conventional panorama assembly programs won’t work with such wide and distorted segments, but the specialized programs described below will. 


Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas

Bow Lake by Night Panorama
Bow Lake by Night
The summer Milky Way arches over iconic Bow Lake in Banff on a perfect night in July 2018. This is a stitch, using PTGui, of three tiers of 7 segments each, with a 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750, with a Genie Mini automating the horizontal panning and shutter release, as shown above. Each frame was 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400. I used this same set to test the programs described below.

The alternative technique for “all-sky” panos is to shoot multiple tiers of images: first, a lower row covering the ground and partway up the sky, followed by an upper row completing the coverage of just the sky at top. 

The trick is to ensure adequate overlap both horizontally and vertically. With the camera in landscape orientation that will require a 20mm lens for full-frame cameras, or a 14mm lens for cropped-frame cameras. Either combination can cover the entire sky plus lots of foreground in two tiers, though I usually shoot three, just to be sure!.

Shooting with longer lenses provides incredible resolution for billboard-sized “gigapan” blow-ups, but will require shooting three, if not more, tiers, each with many segments. That starts to become a chore to do manually. Some motorized assistance really helps when shooting multi-tier panoramas. 


Automating the Pan Shooting

The dedicated pano shooter might want to look at a device such as the GigaPan Epic models or the iOptron iPano, (shown below), all about $800 to $1000. 

5A-iPano Aimed High
iPano Panorama Machine
The iOptron iPano automates all shooting and movement, making even the most complex panoramas easy to shoot. It can also be used for two-axis motion-control time-lapses. 

I’ve tested the latter and it works great. You program in the lens, overlap, and angular sweep desired. The iPano works out how many segments and tiers will be required, and automates the shooting, firing the shutter for the duration you program, then moving to the new position, firing again, and so on. I’ve shot four-tier panos effortlessly and with great success. 

5B-iPano Screen-Shooting Info
iPano Control
The iPano’s on-board screen provides all the menus and options for setting up a shoot. This screen shows that this multi-tier pano will take 6m37s to complete. 

However, these devices are generally bigger and heavier than I care to heft around in the field.

Instead, I use the original Genie Mini from SYRP, (below), a $250 device primarily for shooting motion control time-lapses. But the wireless app that programs the Genie also has a panorama function that automatically slews the camera horizontally between exposures, again based on the lens, overlap, and angular sweep you enter. The just-introduced Genie Mini II is similar, but with even more capabilities for camera control. 

6A--SYRP Genie Mini
The SYRP Genie Mini
A lower-cost option for automated shooting, the Genie Mini also provides time-lapse motion control. Here, I show it with a conventional 3-axis head on top, for shifting the camera up in altitude manually for multi-tier panos, while the Mini handles the horizontal motion and exposures. 

While combining two Genie Minis allows programming in a vertical motion as well, I’ve been using just a regular tripod head atop the Mini to manually move the camera vertically between each of the horizontal tiers. I don’t feel the one or two moves needed to go from tier to tier too arduous to do manually, and I like to keep my field gear compact and easy to use.

6B-Genie App
Wireless Control
The original Genie App (Apple iOS or Android) connects to the Genie via Bluetooth. This screen shows a 360° panorama programmed for a 20mm lens with 37% percent overlap, requiring eight segments. The shutter will fire after each move for 40 seconds.

The Genie Mini (now replaced by the Mini II) works great and I highly recommend it, even if panoramas are your only interest. But it is also one of the best, yet most affordable, single-axis motion control devices on the market for time-lapse work. 


When to Shoot the Milky Way

While the right gear and techniques are important, go out on the wrong night and you won’t be able to capture the Milky Way as the great sweeping arch you might have hoped for.

In the northern hemisphere the Milky Way arches directly overhead from late July to October for most of the night. That’s fine for spherical fish-eye panoramas, but in rectangular images when the Milky Way is overhead it gets stretched and distorted across the top of the final panorama. For example, in the Bow Lake by Night panorama above, I cropped out most of this distorted content.

The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone
Capturing the Arch
I captured this 360° pano of the summer Milky Way arching over the sandstone formations of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in early June 2018. At that time of year the Milky Way is still confined to the eastern sky. This is a 21-panel panorama, shot in three tiers of seven panels each, with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Genie Mini, with each segment 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400.

The prime season for Milky Way arches is therefore before the Milky Way climbs overhead, while it is still across the eastern sky, as above. That’s on moonless nights from March to early July, with May and June best for catching it in the evening, and not having to wait up until dawn, as is the case in early spring. 

8B-Starry Night Simulation
Simulating the Scene
I often use Starry Night™ (shown here) to simulate the sky for the place and date I want, to preview where and when the Milky Way will appear and how it will move. The red box shows the field of view of a rectilinear 14mm lens in portrait orientation, showing it covering from the zenith (at top) to just below the horizon.

TIP: The best way to figure out when and where the Milky Way will appear is to use a desktop planetarium program such as Starry Night or Sky Safari  or the free Stellarium. All can realistically depict the Milky Way for your location and date. You can then step through time to see how the Milky Way will move through the night, and how it will frame with your camera and lens combination using the “field of view” indicators the programs provide. 

Southern Sky Panorama at OzSky Star Party
The Great Southern Sky
A 360° panorama from April 2017 captures the arc of the southern Milky Way over the OzSky star party near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. This is 8 segments, each 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2.5 with a Rokinon 14mm lens on a Canon 6D in portrait orientation, and stitched with PTGui.

When shooting in the southern hemisphere I like the April to June period for catching the sweep of the southern Milky Way and the galactic core rising in late evening. By contrast, during mid austral winter in July and August the galactic centre shines directly overhead in the evening, a spectacular sight to be sure, but tough to capture in a panorama except in a spherical or fish-eye scene. 

Spring Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park
The Other Milky Way
This 360° panorama, shot in a single tier with a 14mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, captures the winter Milky Way arching across the western sky on an early spring night at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. Also in the pano is the sweep of the faint Zodiacal Light. This is a stitch, using PTGui, of 12 segments, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000.

That said, I always like to put in a good word for the often sadly neglected winter Milky Way (the summer Milky Way for those “down under”). While lacking the spectacle of the galactic core in Sagittarius, the “other” Milky Way has its attractions such as Orion and Taurus. The best months for a panorama with that Milky Way in an arch across a rectangular frame are January to March. The Zodiacal Light can be a bonus at that season, as it was above.

TIP: Always shoot raw files for the widest dynamic range and flexibility in recovering details in the highlights and shadows. Even so, each segment has to be well exposed and focused out in the field.

And unless you are doing a “two-pass” double exposure, always shoot each segment with identical exposure settings. This is especially critical for bright sky scenes such twilights or moonlit scenes. Vary the exposure and you might get unsightly banding at the seams.

There’s nothing worse than getting home only to find one or more segments was missed, or was out of focus or badly exposed, spoiling the set.


PART 2 — STITCHING

Developing Panorama Segments

Once you have your panorama segments, the next step is to develop and assemble them. For my workflow, the process of assembling a panorama from its constituent segments begins with developing each of those segments identically.

NOTE: Click or tap on the software screen shots to open a high-res version for closer inspection. 

11A-Adobe Camera Raw Before-After
Developing with Adobe Camera Raw
This shows one segment of the multi-tier example before (on the left) and after applying development settings in the Basic panel of Adobe Camera Raw. By selecting all the images, the Sync Settings command (at top left) will apply the settings of one image to the rest of the set.

I like to develop each segment’s raw file as fully as possible at this first stage in the workflow, applying noise reduction, colour correction, contrast adjustments, shadow and highlight recovery, and any special settings such as dehaze and clarity that can make the Milky Way pop. 

I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions. 

There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.