On April 23, 2023 the sky erupted with a massive solar storm, bringing the aurora to millions of people around the word.
On April 23 warnings went out alerting aurora watchers that a solar storm was imminent. And as the sky darkened that night locations all across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres were treated to a great sky show.
When we see this on our phone apps, we know we’ll get a great show. This was the auroral oval, lit up red, as the display was underway at my location in Alberta, Canada.
The strength of the interplanetary field (Bt) was high and the direction of the field (Bz) was well south, all welcome indicators of a superb show.
Sure enough, as it got dark that night, and from my location after the clouds cleared, an aurora was underway covering much of the sky.
The aurora moved south to occupy just the southern half of the sky, but with incredible ribbons crossing from east to west, rippling and pulsating off and on. Seeing patches of aurora pulse off and on and flaming up to the zenith is not uncommon toward the end of a substorm outburst. But this was the first time I can recall seeing pulsating ribbons.
At times, there was a dark ribbon across the sky, as the aurora formed a gap in its curtains, looking like a “dark aurora.”
The view looking straight up is always the most jaw-dropping when an aurora fills the sky. Rays and curtains converge at the magnetic zenith to form a “corona.”
I shot with three cameras, taking stills, time-lapses, and real-time movies. I edited them together here in a music video. Enlarge to full screen to view it. I hope you enjoy it!
With the Sun ramping up in activity, we should get more great shows of Northern – and Southern! – Lights around the world in the next few years,
I test nine programs for processing raw files for the demands of nightscape astrophotography.
Warning! This is a long and technical blog, but for those interested in picking the best software, I think you’ll find it the most comprehensive test of programs for processing nightscapes. The review is illustrated with 50 high-resolution, downloadable images which will take a while to load. Patience!
As a background, in December 2017 I tested ten contenders vying to be alternatives to Adobe’s suite of software. You can find that earlier survey here on my blog. But 2017 was ages ago in the lifetime of software. How well do the latest versions of those programs compare now for astrophotography? And what new software choices do we have as we head into 2023?
To find out, I compared eight programs, pitting them against what I still consider the standard for image quality when developing raw files, Adobe Camera Raw (the Develop module in Adobe Lightroom is essentially identical). I tested them primarily on sample nightscape images described below.
I tested only programs that are offered for both MacOS and Windows, with identical or nearly identical features for both platforms. However, I tested the MacOS versions.
In addition to Adobe Camera Raw (represented by the Adobe Bridge icon), I tested, in alphabetical order, and from left to right in the icons above:
ACDSee Photo Studio
Affinity Photo 2 (from Serif)
Capture One 23
DxO PhotoLab 6
Luminar Neo (from SkyLum)
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
I tested all the programs strictly for the purpose of processing, or “developing” raw files, using nightscape images as the tests. I also looked at features for preparing and exporting a large batch of images to assemble into time-lapse movies, though the actual movie creation usually requires specialized software.
NOTE: I did not test the programs with telescope images of nebulas or galaxies. The reason — most deep-sky astrophotographers never use a raw developer anyway. Instead, the orthodox workflow is to stack and align undeveloped raw files with specialized “calibration” software such as DeepSkyStacker or PixInsight that outputs 16-bit or 32-bit TIFFs, bypassing any chance to work with the raw files.
Here’s a summary of my recommendations, with the evidence for my conclusions presented at length (!) in the sections that follow:
What’s Best for Still Image Nightscapes?
Adobe Camera Raw (or its equivalent in Adobe Lightroom) still produces superb results, lacking only the latest in AI noise reduction, sharpening and special effects. Though, as I’ve discovered, AI processing can ruin astrophotos if not applied carefully.
The Adobe alternatives that provided the best raw image quality in my test nightscapes were Capture One and DxO PhotoLab.
ACDSee Photo Studio, Exposure X7,and Luminar Neo produced good results, but all had flaws.
ON1 Photo RAW had its flaws as well, but can serve as a single-program replacement for both Lightroom and Photoshop.
Affinity Photo works well as a Photoshop replacement, and at a low one-time cost. But it is a poor choice for developing raw images.
If you are adamant about avoiding subscription software, then a combination of DxO PhotoLab and Affinity Photo can work well, providing great image quality, and serving to replace both Lightroom and Photoshop.
I cannot recommend Darktable, despite its zero price. I struggled to use its complex and overly technical interface, only to get poor results. It also kept crashing, despite me using the new ARM version on my M1 MacBook Pro. It was worth what I paid for it.
At the end of my blog, I explain the reasons why I did not include other programs in the test, to answer the inevitable “But what about …!?” questions.
What’s Best for Basic Time-Lapses?
For simple time-lapse processing, where the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, all the programs except Affinity Photo, can copy and paste settings from one key image to all the others in a set, then export them out as JPGs for movie assembly.
However, for the best image quality and speed, I feel the best choices are:
Adobe, either Lightroom or the combination of Camera Raw/Bridge
Capture One 23
DxO PhotoLab 6
While ON1 Photo RAW can assemble movies directly from developed raw files, I found Capture One or DxO PhotoLab can do a better job processing the raw files. And ON1’s time-lapse function is limited, so in my opinion it is not a major selling point of ON1 for any serious time-lapse work.
Luminar Neo was so slow at Copy & Paste and Batch Export it was essentially unusable.
What’s Best for Advanced Time-Lapses?
None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing.
While ON1 offers time-lapse movie assembly, it cannot do what LRTimelapse does — gradually shift processing settings over a sequence based on keyframes to accommodate changing lighting, and to micro-adjust exposure levels based on actual image brightness to smooth out the bane of time-lapse shooters — image flickering.
LRTimelapse works only with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge. If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will do the job. Period. Subscribe to Adobe software. And buy LRTimelapse.
My testing demonstrated to me that for nightscape photography, Adobe software remains a prime choice, for its image quality and ease of use. However, the reasons to go with any program other than Adobe are:
For equal or even better image quality, or for features not offered by Adobe.
But mostly to avoid Adobe’s subscription model of monthly or annual payments.
All the non-Adobe alternatives can be purchased as a “perpetual license” for a one-time fee, though often with significant annual upgrade costs for each year’s major new release. However, you needn’t purchase the upgrade; your old version will continue to run. Below, I provide purchase prices in U.S. funds, but most companies have frequent sales and discount offers.
While all of Adobe’s competitors will proclaim one-time pricing, several also offer their software via annual subscriptions, with additional perks and bonuses, such as file syncing to mobile apps, or better long-term or package pricing, to entice you to subscribe.
Keep in mind that whatever program you use, its catalog and/or sidecar files where your raw image settings are stored will always be proprietary to that program. ON1 and Affinity also each save files in their own proprietary format. Switch to any other software in the future and your edits will likely not be readable by that new software.
Raw Editing vs. Layer-Based Editing
As I mentioned, I tested all the programs strictly for their ability to process, or “develop,” raw image files for nightscapes. (Raw files are likened to being digital negatives that we “develop.”)
For some nightscape still images, raw developing might be all that’s needed, especially as software companies add more advanced “AI” (artificial intelligence) technology to their raw developers for precise selection, masking, and special effects.
In the case of time-lapse sequences made of hundreds of raw frames, raw developing is the only processing that is practical. What we need for time-lapses is to:
Develop a single key raw file to look great, then …
Copy all its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie, usually with a specialized assembly program.
However, for most still-image astrophotography, including nightscapes, we often stack and/or blend multiple images to create the final scene, for several reasons:
To stack multiple images with a Mean or Median stack mode to smooth noise.
To layer dozens of images with a Lighten blend mode to create star trails.
To layer and blend images via masking to combine the different exposures often needed to record the ground and sky each at their best.
Or often as not, a combination of all of the above!
All those methods require a layer-based program. Adobe Photoshop is the most popular choice.
Of the programs tested here, only two also offer the ability to layer multiple images for stacks, blends and composites. They are:
Affinity Photo 2
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
I did not test these two programs to compare their image layering and masking abilities vs. Photoshop, as important as those functions might be.
Fans of Skylum’s Luminar Neo will point out that it also supports image layers. In theory. In the version I tested (v1.6.2) bugs made it impossible to load files into layers properly — the layer stack became confused and failed to display the stack’s contents. I could not tell what it was stacking! Skylum is notorious for its buggy releases.
Those determined not to use Adobe software should be aware that, apart from Affinity Photo and ON1 Photo RAW, all the other programs tested here are not replacements for Adobe Photoshop, nor are they advertised as such. They are just raw developers, and so can serve only to replace Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw/Adobe Bridge.
This is the main image I threw at all nine programs, a single 2-minute exposure taken at Lake Louise, Alberta in October 2022. The lens was the Canon RF15-35mm at f/2.8 on a Canon R5 camera at ISO 800.
Above is the raw image as it came out of camera, with the default Adobe Color camera profile applied, but no other adjustments. The length of exposure on a static tripod meant the stars trailed. The image has:
A sky that needs color correcting and contrast enhancement.
Dark shadows in the foreground and distance that need recovery.
Bright foreground areas that need suppressing, where lights from the Chateau Lake Louise hotel illuminate the mountainsides and water.
Lens flares and lights from night hikers that need retouching out.
It is an iconic scene, but when shot at night, it’s a challenging one to process.
Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Optics, Detail, Curve, Color Mixer, and Calibration tabs, and applying the Adobe Landscape camera profile. Plus I added retouching, and local adjustments with ACR’s masks to affect just the sky and parts of the ground individually. This is the result I think looks best, and is the look I tried to get all other programs to match or beat. You might prefer a different look or style.
In addition, I tried all programs on another two-minute exposure of the scene (shown above) but taken on a star tracker to produce untrailed, pinpoint stars, but a blurred ground. It served to test how well each program’s noise reduction and sharpening dealt with stars.
I shot that tracked version to blend with the untracked version to produce the very final image above, created from the Camera Raw edits. That blending of sky and ground images (with each component a stack of several images) was done in Photoshop. However, Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW could have done the required layering and masking. I show a version done with Affinity at the end of the blog.
In a statement I read some time ago, DxO stated that Adobe products enjoy a 90% share of the image processing market, leaving all the competitors to battle over the remaining 10%. I’m not sure how accurate that is today, especially as many photographers will use more than one program.
However, I think it is fair to say Adobe’s offerings are the programs all competitors are out to beat.
NOTE: Click/tap on any of the images to bring them up full screen as high-res JPGs so you can inspect them more closely.
The Established Standard
Adobe Camera Raw (included with Photoshop, Adobe Bridge and Lightroom)
Cost: $10 a month, or $120 a year by subscription for 20 Gb of cloud storage (all prices in U.S. $)
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development utility that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and asset management software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results, but I tested ACR. I use it in conjunction with Adobe Bridge as an image browser. Bridge can then send multiple developed images into Photoshop as layers for stacking. All programs are included in Adobe’s Photo subscription plan.
The Contenders (in Alphabetical Order)
Here are the eight programs I tested, comparing them to Adobe Camera Raw. All but Skylum’s Luminar Neo offer free trial copies.
ACDSee Photo Studio
Cost: $100 to $150, depending on version. $50 on up for annual major upgrades. By subscription from $70 a year.
I tested Photo Studio for Mac v9. Windows users have a choice of Photo Studio Professional or Photo Studio Ultimate. All three versions offer a suite of raw development tools, in addition to cataloging functions. However, the Ultimate version (Windows only) also offers layer-based editing, making it similar to Photoshop. ACDSee assured me that Photo Studio for Mac resembles the Windows Professional version, at least for basic raw editing and image management. However, Photo Studio Professional for Windows also has HDR and Panorama merging, which the Mac version does not.
Affinity Photo 2
Cost: $70. Upgrades are free except for rare whole-number updates (in seven years there’s been only one of those!). No subscription plan is offered.
Apart from the free Darktable, this is the lowest-cost raw developer on offer here. But Affinity’s strength is as a layer-based editor to compete with Photoshop. As such, Affinity Photo has some impressive features, such as the unique ability to calibrate and align deep-sky images, its stack modes (great for star trails and noise smoothing) which only Photoshop also has, and its non-destructive adjustment layers, filters and masks. Affinity Photo is the most Photoshop-like of all the programs here. However, it alone of the group lacks any image browser or cataloging function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement.
Capture One 23 Pro
Cost: $299. 33% off (about $200) for annual major upgrades. By subscription for $180 a year.
Capture One started life as a program for tethered capture shooting in fashion studios. It has evolved into a very powerful raw developer and image management program. While Capture One advertises that it now offers “layers,” these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of a single underlying image. While they work well, you cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one. However, it is the most costly to buy, upgrade each year, or subscribe to, which appears to be the sales model Capture One is moving toward, following Adobe.
In contrast to Capture One, you cannot argue with Darktable’s price! For a free, open-source program, Darktable is surprisingly full-featured, while being fairly well supported and updated. As with most free cross-platform programs, Darktable uses an unconventional and complex user interface lacking any menus. It has two main modules: Lighttable for browsing images, and Darkroom for editing images. Map, Slideshow, Print and Tethering modules clearly signal this program is intended to be a free version of Lightroom. The price you pay, however, is in learning to use its complex interface.
DxO PhotoLab 6 ELITE
Cost: $219. $99 for annual major upgrades. No subscription plan is offered.
DxO PhotoLab is similar to Capture One in being a very complete and feature-rich raw developer with good image management functions and a well-designed interface. While it has an image browser for culling, keywording and rating images, PhotoLab does not create a catalog as such, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement. But it is a superb raw developer, with very good image quality and noise reduction. While PhotoLab is also available in a $140 ESSENTIAL edition, it lacks the DeepPrime noise reduction and ClearView Plus haze reduction, both useful features for astrophotos.
Cost: $129. $89 for annual major upgrades. No subscription plan is offered.
Formerly known as Alien Skin Exposure, from the makers of the once-popular utilities Blow Up and Eye Candy, Exposure X7 is a surprisingly powerful raw editor (considering you might not have heard of it!), with all the expected adjustment options, plus a few unique ones such as Bokeh for purposely blurring backgrounds. It enjoys annual major updates, so is kept up to date, though is a little behind the times in lacking any AI-based effects or masking, or even automatic edge detection. Like Capture One, Exposure offers adjustment layers for ease of applying local edits.
Cost: $149. $39 to $59 for individual Extensions. $179 for Extensions pack. By subscription for $149 a year which includes Neo and all Extensions. Frequent discounts and changing bundles make the pricing confusing and unpredictable.
By contrast to Exposure X7, Luminar Neo from Skylum is all about AI. Indeed, its predecessor was called Luminar AI. Introduced in 2022, Neo supplanted Luminar AI, whose image catalog could not be read by Neo, much to the consternation of users. Luminar AI is now gone. All of Skylum’s effort now goes into Neo. It offers the expected raw editing adjustments, along with many powerful one-click AI effects and tools, some offered as extra-cost extensions in a controversial à la carte sales philosophy. Neo’s cataloging ability is basic and unsuitable for image management.
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
Cost: $99. $60 for annual major upgrades. $70 for individual plug-ins, each with paid annual updates. By subscription for $90 a year which includes all plug-ins and updates.
Of all the contenders tested, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 Photo RAW has cataloging, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In recent years ON1 has introduced AI functions for selection, noise reduction, and sharpening. Some of these are also available as individual plug-ins for Lightroom and Photoshop at an additional cost. While the main program and plug-ins can be purchased as perpetual licences, the total cost makes an annual subscription the cheapest way to get and maintain the full ON1 suite. Like Capture One, they are moving customers to be subscribers.
I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files, not JPGs, for high-quality results. And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, an important step in the workflow, as it is the only time we have access to the full dynamic range of the 14-bit raw data that comes from the camera.
I judged each program based on several features I consider key to great nightscapes and time-lapses:
Browser/Cataloging Functions —Because we often deal with lots of images from an astrophoto shoot, the program should allow us to sort, rate, and cull images before proceeding with developing the best of the set for later stacking, and to easily compare the results.
Lens Corrections —Does the program apply automatic lens corrections for distortion and vignetting? How extensive is its lens database? Or are manual adjustments required?
Noise Reduction —We shoot at high ISOs, so good noise reduction is essential for removing digital noise without sacrificing details such as pixel-level stars, or adding AI artifacts.
Shadow Recovery —While good highlight recovery can be important (and a prime reason for shooting and processing raw images), in nightscapes good shadow recovery is even more crucial. The starlit ground is dark, but rich in detail. We want to recover that shadow detail, without affecting other tonal ranges or introducing noise.
Local Adjustments and Masking —Good masking tools allow us to do more at the raw stage while we have access to the full range of image data. But how precise can the masks be? How easy is it to apply different settings to the ground and sky, the most common need for local adjustments with nightscapes.
Overall Finished Image Quality —Tools such as Dehaze and Clarity can work wonders at boosting contrast in the sky. Good color adjustments from HSL sliders can help fine-tune the overall color balance. How good did the final image look? — an admittedly subjective judgement.
Copy & Paste Settings —A program should not only develop one image well, but also then be able to transfer all of that key image’s settings to several other images taken for noise stacking, or to what could be hundreds of images shot for a time-lapse movie or star trail scene.
Batch Export —For stacking images for star trails, or for creating panoramas in advanced stitching programs such as PTGui, or when assembling time-lapse movies, the program should allow a “batch export” of selected images to TIFFs or JPGs for use elsewhere.
Advanced Features —Does the program support panorama stitching and HDR (High Dynamic Range) merging of selected developed raw files? If so, what type of file does it create?
Summary Comparison Table
• = Feature is present; ticks the boxes!
— = Feature is missing
Partial = Feature only partially implemented (e.g. Only has distortion correction but not vignetting correction, or has limited cataloging functions)
I judged other features on an admittedly subjective scale of Poor, Fair, Good, or Excellent, based on my overall impressions of the reliability, options offered, quality, and/or speed of operation.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 1. Browsing and Cataloging
Here, feature by feature, are what I feel are the differences among the programs, comparing them using the key factors I listed above.
All programs, but one, offer a Browse or Library module presenting thumbnails of all the images in a folder or on a drive. (For Adobe Camera Raw that module is Adobe Bridge, included with the Creative Cloud Photo subscription.) From the Browse/Library module you can sort, rate and cull images.
Luminar Neo’s Catalog function (as of early 2023) allows only flagging images as favorites. It is very crude.
The other programs have more full-featured image management, allowing star rating, color label rating, pick/reject flags, keywording, grouping into collections or projects, and searching.
Capture One and ON1 Photo RAW provide the option of importing images into formal catalogs, just as Adobe Lightroom requires. However, unlike Lightroom, both programs can also work with images just by pointing them to a folder, without any formal import process. Capture One calls this a “session.” Adobe Bridge works that way — it doesn’t produce a catalog.
While not having to import images first is convenient, having a formal catalog allows managing a library even when the original images are off-line on a disconnected hard drive, or for syncing to a mobile app. If that’s important, then consider Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW, or Adobe Lightroom. They each have mobile apps.
Adobe Lightroom (but not Bridge) is also able to connect directly to what it calls “Publish Services” — Flickr, PhotoShelter, and SmugMug for example, using plug-ins offered by those services. I use that feature almost daily. ACDSee offers that feature only in its Windows versions of Photo Studio. As best I could tell, all other programs lacked anything equivalent.
SerifAffinity Photo is the lone exception lacking any form of image browser or asset management. It’s hard to fathom why in late 2022, with their major update to Version 2 of their software suite, Serif did not introduce a digital asset management program to link their otherwise excellent Photo, Designer and Publisher programs. This is a serious limitation of Serif’s Affinity creative suite, which is clearly aimed at competing one-on-one with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, yet Serif has no equivalent of Adobe Bridge for asset management.
WINNERS: Capture One and ON1 Photo RAW, for the most flexibility in informal browsing vs. formal cataloguing. Adobe Lightroom for its Publish Services.
LOSER: Affinity Photo for lacking any image management or catalog.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 2. Lens Corrections
The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Ideally, software should automatically detect the camera and lens used and apply accurate corrections based on its equipment database.
Of the nine programs tested, only four — Adobe Camera Raw, Darktable, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 Photo Raw — automatically applied both distortion and vignetting corrections for the Canon RF15-35mm lens I used for the test images. DxO is particularly good at applying corrections, drawing upon the company’s vast repository of camera and lens data. If your local copy of PhotoLab is missing a camera-lens combination, what it calls a “module,” DxO allows you to download it or request it.
Capture One and Exposure X7 both detected the lens used and applied distortion correction, but did nothing to adjust vignetting. I had to apply vignetting correction, a more important adjustment, manually by eye.
ACDSee and Luminar have no Auto Lens Corrections at all; distortion and vignetting both have to be dialed in manually.
Affinity Photo lacked any automatic correction data for the Canon RF15-35mm lens in question, despite the lens being introduced in 2019. I selected the similar Canon EF16-35mm lens instead, as I show above circled in blue. Affinity gets marks off for having an outdated and incomplete lens database.
WINNERS: Adobe, Darktable, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 Photo RAW, for full Auto Lens Corrections.
LOSERS: ACDSee and Luminar, for lacking Auto Lens Corrections.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 3. Noise Reduction and Sharpening
Absolutely essential to astrophotography is effective noise reduction, of both grainy “luminance” noise, as well as colorful speckles and splotches from “chrominance” noise. Programs should smooth noise without eliminating stars, removing star colors, or adding odd structures and artifacts.
Conversely, programs should offer a controllable level of sharpening, without introducing dark halos around stars, a sure sign of over-zealous sharpening.
I tested noise reduction using the tracked version of my test images, as the pinpoint stars from the 45-megapixel Canon R5 will reveal any star elimination or discoloration.
Adobe Camera Raw’s aging noise reduction routine stood up very well against the new AI competitors. It smoothed noise acceptably, while retaining star colors and Milky Way structures. But turn it up too high, as might be needed for very high ISO shots, and it begins to blur or wipe out stars. AI noise reduction promises to solve this.
AI-Based Noise Reduction:
DxO PhotoLab’s Prime and DeepPrime AI-based options can also do a good job. But … I find DeepPrime (shown above) and the newer DeepPrimeXD (shown below) can introduce wormy looking artifacts to starfields. The older Prime method might be a better choice. However, the annoyance with DxO PhotoLab is that it is not possible to preview any of its Prime noise reduction results full-screen, only in a tiny preview window, making the best settings a bit of a guess, requiring exporting the image to see the actual results.
ON1 Photo RAW’s NoNoise AI can also do a good job, but has to be backed off a lot from the automatic settings its AI technology applies. Even so, I found it still left large-scale color blotches, a pixel-level mosaic pattern, and worst of all, dark halos around stars, despite me applying no sharpening at all to the image. ON1 continues to over-sharpen under the hood. I criticized it for star halos in my 2017 survey — the 2023 version behaves better, but still leaves stars looking ugly.
The other AI program, Luminar Neo with its Noiseless AI extension (an extra-cost option) did a poor job, adding strange artifacts to the background sky and colored halos around stars.
So beware of AI. As I show above with DxO, because they are not trained on starfields, AI routines can introduce unwanted effects and false structures. What works wonders on high-ISO wildlife or wedding shots can ruin astrophotos.
Capture One smoothed noise very well, but tended to bloat stars and soften fine detail with its Single Pixel control turned up even to one pixel, as here.
Affinity Photo nicely smoothed noise, but also removed star colors, yet added colored rims to some stars, perhaps from poor de-Bayering. Serif Lab’s raw engine still has its flaws.
ACDSee Photo Studio also added loads of unacceptable halos to stars, and could not reduce noise well without smoothing details.
Darktable has very good noise reduction, including a panel specifically for Astrophoto Denoise. Great! Pity its routines seemed to wipe out star colors and fine structures in the Milky Way.
Exposure X7 smoothed noise well, but also wiped out details and structures, and its sharpening adds dark halos to stars.
That said, it might be possible to eke out better results from all these programs with more careful settings. Backing off sharpening or noise reduction can avoid some of the unwanted side effects I saw, but leave more noise.
Adobe Camera Raw does eliminate most random hot or dead pixels “under the hood.” However, I wish it had an adjustable filter for removing any that still remain (usually from thermal noise) and that can plague the shadows of nightscapes. Single-pixel filters are offered by Capture One, Darktable, DxO, and Exposure X7. Though turning them up too high can ruin image detail.
WINNERS: Adobe and DxO PhotoLab (if the latter is used cautiously)
LOSERS: ACDSee, Affinity, Darktable, Exposure X7, and Luminar Neo for unacceptable loss of detail and star colors, while adding in false structures (Neo)
Feature-by-Feature Details — 4. Shadow Recovery
While all programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows in the dark starlit ground, while preventing the sky or other areas of the image from becoming overly bright or washed out.
In the three examples above I have applied only white balance and exposure correction, then “lifted” the Shadows. I added some contrast adjustment to Darktable, to help improve it, and Smart Lighting to the DxO image, which was needed here.
Here are my findings, roughly in order of decreasing image quality, but with Adobe first as the one to match or beat.
Adobe Camera Raw has a very good Shadows slider that truly affects just the dark tonal areas and with a slight touch (turning it up to 100 doesn’t wipe out the image). Some other programs’ Shadows adjustments are too aggressive, affect too wide a range of tones, or just add a grey wash over the image, requiring further tweaks to restore contrast.
Capture One did an excellent job on Shadow recovery under its High Dynamic Range set of sliders. The dark landscape brightened without becoming flat or grey. This is a primary contributor to its excellent image quality.
DxO PhotoLab’s Shadows slider affects a wider tonal range than ACR or Capture One, also brightening mid-tones, though it has a Midtones slider to separately adjust those. On its own, the Shadows slider didn’t work as well as in ACR or Capture One. But DxO’s superb feature is its “Smart Lighting,” which can work wonders on a scene with one click. Another unique adjustment is “ClearView Plus,” a form of Dehaze which can snap up contrast, often too aggressively, but it can be backed off in intensity. Those two adjustments alone might be reason enough to use PhotoLab.
ON1 Photo RAW’s Shadows slider affected too wide a range of tonal values, brightening the entire scene and making it look flat. This can be overcome with some tweaks to the Contrast, Blacks and Midtones sliders. It takes more work to make a scene look good.
ACDSee’s Fill Light and Shadows sliders were also much too broad. But its unique LightEQ panel has options for “Standard” and “Advanced” settings which each provide an equalizer interface for making more selective tonal adjustments. It worked well, though the image looked too harsh and contrasty, despite me adding no contrast adjustments, the opposite flaw of other programs.
Luminar Neo’s Shadows slider under its DevelopRAW panel was also broad, washing out contrast, requiring a liberal application of its SuperContrast slider to return the image to a better look. But the final result looked fine.
Exposure X7’s Shadows slider also lowered overall contrast, requiring boosting Contrast and Blacks to return the image to a pleasing tonal balance.
Affinity Photo’s Shadows slider did a far better job in its new v2 (released in late 2022) than in the original Affinity Photo, which was frankly awful. Even so, I found Affinity Photo 2 still tended to produce flat results, hard to compensate for from within the Develop Persona, as its options are so limited.
Darktable’s Shadows slider (which has several sub-sliders) produced a flat result. Despite the numerous variations of other contrast and level adjustments scattered over various panels, I could not get a pleasing result. It will take a true Darktable fan and expert to exact a good image from its bewildering options, if it’s even possible.
WINNERS: Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, plus Adobe still works well
LOSERS: Affinity Photo and Darktable
Feature-by-Feature Details — 5. Local Adjustments and Masking
This is the area where programs have made major improvements in the five years since my last survey of raw developers. Thus I devote a major section to the feature.
With accurate and easy masking it is now easier to apply adjustments to just selected areas of a raw image. We can finish off a raw file to perhaps be publication ready, without having to use a layer-based program like Photoshop to perform those same types of local adjustments. Adobe Camera RAW, Luminar Neo, and ON1 Photo Raw are leaders in this type of advanced AI masking. But other programs have good non-AI methods of masking – and making – local adjustments.
Adobe Camera Raw (and Adobe Lightroom) now has far better masking than in older versions that used the awkward method of applying multiple “pins.” Masks now occupy separate layers, and AI masks can be created in one-click for the sky (and ground by inverting the Sky mask) and for key subjects in the image. Other non-AI masks can be created with brushes (with an Auto Mask option for edge detection) and gradient overlays, and with the option of luminance and color range masks. The AI-created Sky masks proved the most accurate compared to other programs’ AI selections, though they can intrude into the ground at times. But the sky masks do include the stars. In all, Camera Raw (or Lightroom) has the most powerful masking tools of the group, though they can be tricky to master.
ACDSee Photo Studio allows up to eight different brushed-on mask areas, each with its own adjustments, in addition to gradient masks. There is no edge detection as such, though the brushes can be limited to selecting areas of similar brightness and color. The “Magic” brush option didn’t help in selecting just the sky and stars. Local adjustments are possible to only Exposure, Saturation, Fill Light, Contrast, and Clarity. So no local color adjustments are possible. In all, local adjustments are limited.
Affinity Photo has, in its Develop Persona, what it calls Overlays, where for each Overlay, or layer, you can brush on separate sets of adjustments using all the sliders in the Develop Persona. Oddly, there is no option for decreasing the opacity of a brush, only its size and feathering. While there is an Edge Aware option, it did a poor job on the test image detecting the boundary between land and sky, despite the edge being sharply defined. So local adjustments require a lot of manual brushing and erasing to get an accurate mask. The red mask Overlay, useful at times, has to be turned on and off manually. Other programs (ACR and Capture One) have the option of the colored overlay appearing automatically just when you are brushing.
Capture One offers adjustment layers for each mask required. The only “smart” brush is the Magic Brush which affects areas across the entire image with similar luminosity. There isn’t any edge detection option as such, so creating masks for the sky and ground is still largely a manual process requiring careful brushing. Separate layers can be added for healing and retouching. While Capture One’s local adjustments can work well, they require a lot more manual work than do programs equipped with AI-driven selection tools.
DxO PhotoLab allows multiple local adjustments, with the option of an Auto Mask brush that nicely detects edges, though the mask overlay itself (as shown above on the sky) doesn’t accurately show the area being affected. Strange. Masks can also be added with what are called Control Points to affect just areas of similar luminance within a wide circle, often requiring multiple Control Points to create an adjustment across a large region. Masks can also be created with adjustable brushes. Each masked area is then adjusted using a set of equalizer-like mini-controls, rather than in the main panels. In all, it’s a quirky interface, but it can work quite well once you get used to it.
Exposure X7 offers adjustment layers with options to add a gradient, or to draw or brush on an area to make a selection. There is no edge detection, only a color range mask option, so creating a sky or ground mask can require lots of hand painting. I found the preview sluggish, making it a bit of a trial-and-error exercise to make fine adjustments. However, the full range of tone and color adjustments can be applied to any local mask, a plus compared to ACDSee for example.
Luminar was first out with AI masks to automatically select the sky, and various landscape elements it detects. In all it does a good job, making it easy to add local adjustments. There are also gradient tools and normal brushes, but oddly, considering the amount of AI Luminar relies on, there is no edge detection (at least, as of early 2023). So brushing to create a mask requires a lot of finicky painting and erasing to refine the mask edge. The strong point is that masks can be added to any of Luminar’s many filters and adjustment panels, allowing for lots of options for tweaking the appearance of selected areas, such as adding special effects like glows to the sky or landscape. However, most of those filters and effects are added to the image after it is developed, and not to the original raw file.
ON1 Photo RAW has always offered good local adjustments, with each occupying its own layer. Photo RAW 2023 added its new “Super Select” AI tools to compete with Adobe. But they are problematic. The select Sky AI masking fails to include stars, leaving a sky mask filled with black holes, requiring lots of hand painting to eliminate. You might as well have created the mask by hand to begin with. Plus in the test image, selecting “Mountain” to create a ground mask just locked up the program, requiring a Force Quit to exit it. However, ON1’s conventional masks and adjustments work well, with a wide choice of brush options. The Perfect Brush detects areas of similar color, not edges per se.
WINNERS: Adobe and Luminar for accurate AI masks
LOSER: Darktable— it has no Local Adjustments at all
I provide each of the finished images for the untracked star trail example below, under Program-by-Program Results. But here’s a summary, in what I admit is a subjective call. One program would excel in one area, but be deficient in another. But who produced the best looking end result?
Overall, I think Capture One came closest to matching or exceeding Adobe Camera Raw for image quality. Its main drawback is the difficulty in creating precise local adjustment masks.
DxO PhotoLab also produced a fine result, but still looking a little flat compared to ACR and Capture One. But it does have good AI noise reduction.
In the middle of the ranking are the group of ACDSee Photo Studio, Exposure X7, and ON1 Photo RAW. Their results look acceptable, but closer examination reveals the flaws such as haloed stars and loss of fine detail. So they rank from Fair to Good, depending on how much you pixel peep!
Luminar Neo did a good job, though achieving those results required going beyond what its DevelopRAW panel can do, to apply Neo’s other filters and effects. So in Neo’s case, I did more to the image than what was possible with just raw edits. But with Luminar, the distinction between raw developer and layer-based editor is fuzzy indeed. It operates quite differently than other programs tested here, perhaps refreshingly so.
For example, with the more conventionally structured workflow of Affinity Photo, I could have exacted better results from it had I taken the developed raw image into its Photo Persona to apply more adjustments farther down the workflow. The same might be said of ON1 Photo RAW.
But the point of this review was to test how well programs could do just at the raw-image stage. Due to the unique way it operates, I’ll admit Luminar Neo did get the advantage in this raw developer test. Though it failed on several key points.
WINNERS: Adobe and Capture One, with DxO a respectable second
Getting one image looking great is just the first step. Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later.
As such, we want to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then we need to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good, as some might need individual tweaking.
While it’s a useful feature for images destined for a still-image composite, Copy & Paste Settings is an absolutely essential feature for processing a set for a time-lapse movie or a star trail stack.
I tested the programs on the set of 360 time-lapse frames of the Perseid meteor shower used next for the Batch Export test.
Adobe Bridge makes it easy to copy and paste Camera Raw settings to identically process all the files in a folder. Lightroom has a similar function. Adobe also has adaptive masks, where a sky mask created for one image will adapt to all others, even if the framing or composition changes, as it would in a motion-control time-lapse sequence or panorama set. Applying settings to several hundred images is fairly quick, though Bridge can be slow at rendering the resulting thumbnails.
ON1 Photo RAW can also copy and paste AI masks adaptively, so a Sky mask created for one image will adapt to match another image, even if the framing is different. However, applying all the settings to a large number of images and rendering the new previews proved achingly slow. And it’s a pity it doesn’t create a better sky mask to begin with.
Capture One has a single Copy and Apply Adjustments command where you develop one image, select it plus all the other undeveloped images in the set to sync settings from the processed image to all the others. But the adjustment layers and their masks copy identically; there is no adaptive masking because there are no AI-generated masks. However, applying new settings to hundreds of images and rendering their thumbnails is very fast, better than other programs.
DxO PhotoLab’s Control Point masks and local adjustments also copy identically. Copying adjustments from one image to the rest in the set of 360 test images was also very fast.
ACDSee Photo Studio and Exposure X7 also allow copying and pasting all or selected settings, including local adjustment masks. ACDSee was slow, but Exposure X7 was quite quick to apply settings to a large batch of images, such as the 360 test images.
Darktable’s function is under the History Stack panel where you can copy and paste all or selected settings, but all are global — there are no local adjustments or masks.
Luminar Neo allows only copying and pasting of all settings, not a selected set. When testing it on the set of 360 time-lapse frames, Neo proved unworkably slow, taking as much as an hour to apply settings and render the resulting thumbnails in its Catalog view, during which time my M1 MacBook Pro warned the application was running out of memory, taking up 110 Gb! I had to Force Quit it.
Affinity Photo is capable of editing only one image at a time. There is no easy or obvious way to copy the Develop Persona settings from one raw image, open another, then paste in those settings. You can only save Presets for each Develop Persona panel, making transferring settings from one image to even just one other image a tedious process.
But … there is a non-obvious and unintuitive method in Affinity which works for stacking and processing a few raw files for a blend:
Process one raw image and then click Develop so it moves into the Photo Persona, as a “RAW Layer (Embedded),” a new feature in Affinity Photo 2.
Find the other raw image files (they won’t have any settings applied) and simply drag them onto the Photo Persona screen.
Use the Move tool to align the resulting new layers with the original image.
Select all the image layers (but only the first will have any settings applied) and hit the Develop Persona button.
Then hit the Develop button — this will apply the settings from the first image to all the others in the layer stack. It’s the best Affinity can do for a “copy and paste” function.
Change the blend mode or add masks to each layer to create a composite or star trail stack.
Each layer can be re-opened in the Develop Persona if needed to adjust its settings.
It’s all a bit of a kludge, but it does work.
WINNERS: Capture One for blazing speed; Adobe and ON1 for adaptive masks
LOSER: Affinity Photo, for lacking this feature entirely, except for a method that is not at all obvious and limited in its use.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 8. Batch Export
Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy & Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files.
This step creates an intermediate set of TIFFs or JPGs to either assemble into a movie with programs such as TimeLapse DeFlicker, or to stack into a star trail composite using software such as StarStaX.
To test the Batch Export function, I used each program to export the same set of 360 developed raw files taken with a 20-megapixel Canon R6, shot for a meteor shower time-lapse, exporting them into full-resolution, low-compression JPGs.
While all programs can do the task, some are much better than others.
Adobe Bridge has a configurable Export panel (though it can be buggy at times), as does Lightroom. Its speed is good, but is beaten by several of the competitors.
Even Affinity Photo can do a batch export, done through its “New Batch Job” function. As with its other image selection operations, Affinity depends on your operating system’s Open dialog box to pick images. Exporting worked well, though without being able to develop a batch of raw files, I’m not sure why you would have cause to use this batch function to export them. I had to test it with undeveloped raws. Oddly, Affinity’s exported JPGs (at 5496 x 3664 pixels) were slightly larger than the size of the original raws (which were 5472 x 3648 pixels). No other program did this.
Most programs allow saving combinations of Export settings as frequently used presets. An exception is Exposure X7 where separate presets have to be saved and loaded for each option in its Export panel, awkward. And Luminar Neo’s batch export is basic, with no option for saving Export presets at all.
In the export of the 360 test images, each program took:
Adobe Bridge 15 minutes (after 3 attempts to get it to actually work!)
ACDSee Photo Studio 33 minutes
Affinity Photo 2 32 minutes
Capture One 23 6 minutes
Darktable 4 16 minutes
DxO PhotoLab 6 8 minutes
Exposure X7 5 minutes 30 seconds
Luminar Neo 8.5 hours (!)
ON1 Photo RAW 2023 1.4 hours
This was on my M1 Max MacBook Pro. Your mileage will vary! The clear winners in the export race were Exposure X7, Capture One, and DxO. ON1 was way behind the pack. Luminar was impossibly slow. It is not a program for working with lots of images.
ON1’s Time-Lapse Function
Unique among these programs, ON1 Photo RAW provides a Time-Lapse function that allows directly exporting developed raw files to a final movie, without the need to export an intermediate JPG set. That sounds like a great time saver. Only Adobe After Effects can do the same.
However … ON1’s options are limited: up to a maximum DCI 4K size, in H264 or Apple ProRes codecs, and with a choice of just three frame rates: 24, 25, or 30 frames per second. A dedicated assembly program such as TimeLapse DeFlicker can do a much better job, and faster, with more options such as frame blending, and up to 8K movie sizes.
And oddly, ON1’s Time-Lapse panel provides no option for where to save the movie or what to name it — it defaults to saving the movie to the original folder with the images, and with the name of one of the images. I had to search for it to locate it.
WINNERS: Exposure X7 and Capture One for sheer speed
LOSER: Luminar Neo for being unusably slow
Feature-by-Feature Details — 9. Advanced Features
Here I’ve noted what programs offer what features, but I tested only the panorama stitching function. For a panorama test I used a set of seven images shot with the Canon R5 and RF15-35mm lens at Peyto Lake, Banff.
Adobe Camera Raw (and Lightroom) offers HDR Merge and Panorama stitching plus, uniquely, the ability to merge multi-exposure HDR panoramas. But it has no Focus Stack option (that’s in Photoshop). For panoramas, ACR offers a choice of projection geometries, and the very excellent Boundary Warp function for filling in blank areas, as well as content-aware Fill Edges. The result is a raw DNG file.
Capture One has HDR Merge and Panorama stitching, but no Focus Stack option. Like ACR, Capture One’s panorama mode offers a choice of projection geometries and results in a raw DNG file for further editing at the raw level. It worked well on the test set, though lacks anything equivalent to ACR’s content-aware Fill Edges and Boundary Warp options.
ON1 Photo RAW offers HDR Merge, Focus Stack, and Panorama stitching of raw files. Using the same seven images that ACR and Capture One succeeded with, ON1 failed to stitch two of the segments, leaving a partial pano. It does offer a limited choice of projection methods and, like ACR, has the option to warp the image to fill blank areas. It creates a raw DNG file.
Affinity Photo also offers HDR Merge, Focus Stack, and Panorama stitching, all from raw files. However, the panorama function is quite basic, with no options for projection geometry or content-aware fill. But it did a good job blending all segments of the test set seamlessly. The result is a raw file that can be further processed in the Develop Persona.
ACDSee Photo Studio for Mac lacks any HDR, Focus Stack, or Panorama stitching. Those functions are available in the Windows versions (Pro and Ultimate), but I did not test them.
Luminar Neo offers HDR Merge and Focus Stack through two extra-cost extensions. As of this writing it does not offer Panorama stitching, but more extensions (yet to be identified!) will be released in 2023.
Darktable offers just HDR Merge, but no Focus Stack or Panorama functions.
DxO PhotoLab 6 lacks any HDR, Focus Stack or Panorama functions. Ditto for Exposure X7. Those are serious deficiencies, as we have a need for all those functions when processing nightscapes. You would have to develop the raw files in DxO or Exposure, then export TIFFs to merge or stitch them using another program such as Affinity Photo.
WINNERS: Adobe and Capture One
LOSER: DxO for missing key functions expected in a premium “Adobe killer”
I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of the final images, as best I could process them with each of the programs. I rate their overall image quality and performance on a subjective scale of Poor / Fair / Good / Excellent, with additional remarks about the Pros and Cons of each program, as I see them.
Adobe Camera Raw (also applies to Adobe Lightroom)
IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent
PROS: ACR has excellent selective shadow recovery and good noise reduction which, while not up to the level of new AI methods, doesn’t introduce any weird AI artifacts. Its panels and sliders are fairly easy to use, with a clean user interface. Its new AI masking and local adjustments are superb, though take some practice to master.
CONS: It is available only by monthly or annual subscription, and lacks the more advanced AI noise reduction, sharpening, and one-click special effects of some competitors. Using the Adobe suite requires moving between different Adobe programs to perform all functions. Adobe Bridge, a central program in my workflow, tends to be neglected by Adobe, and suffers from bugs and deficiencies that go uncorrected.
ACDSee Photo Studio (for Mac)
IMAGE QUALITY: Fair
PROS: Photo Studio in its various versions offers good image management functions, making it suitable as a non-subscription Lightroom alternative. It offers an advanced array of tonal and color adjustments in an easy-to-use interface.
CONS: It produced badly haloed stars and had poor noise reduction. Its local adjustments are limited and lag behind the competition with no AI functions. It has no panorama stitching or HDR merging functions in the Mac version — the Windows versions get much more love and attention from ACDSee.
Affinity Photo 2
IMAGE QUALITY: Fair (for its Develop Persona) / Good to Excellent (as a Photoshop replacement)
PROS: Affinity Photo is certainly the best alternative to Photoshop for anyone looking to avoid Adobe. It is an excellent layer-based program (far better than GIMP) with unique features for astrophotographers such as stacking and gradient removal. With v2, it is now possible to transfer a raw file from the Develop Persona to the Photo Persona non-destructively, allowing re-opening the raw file for re-editing, similar to Adobe’s Camera Raw Smart Objects.
CONS: Affinity Photo’s Develop Persona for raw files is basic, with limited adjustments and producing average results at best. Transferring settings from one raw file to others is difficult, if not impossible. Affinity Photo is designed for editing single images only.
Capture One 23
IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent
PROS: Capture One has excellent shadow recovery and color adjustment controls. Local adjustments are easy to add and edit, though lack edge detection and AI selection. It has excellent cataloging functions, and overall superb image quality. It’s a good Lightroom alternative.
CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Adobe’s Creative Cloud to subscribe to. It can easily soften stars if not careful. It lacks AI masking, and overall the program tends to lag behind competitors by a few years for advanced features — Capture One added panorama stitching only a couple of versions back. I found the program also tended to litter my drive with Capture One folders.
IMAGE QUALITY: Poor
PROS: It’s free! And it offers many adjustments and intricate options not found elsewhere that the technically minded will enjoy experimenting with.
CONS: Darktable’s community of developers has added a bewildering array of panels in a confusing interface, making Darktable not for beginners nor the feint of heart. I struggled with it, all for poor results. Just finding the Export function was a challenge. Darktable is a program designed by programmers for use by other programmers who love to play with image data, and who care little for a user interface friendly to “the rest of us!”
DxO PhotoLab 6
IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent
PROS: Along with Capture One, I found DxO PhotoLab capable of producing a good-looking image, the equal of or perhaps better than Camera Raw, partly because of DxO’s ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has lots of downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, though its DeepPrime and DeepPrimeXD options can add AI artifacts.
CONS: There are no adjustment layers or masks as such. Local adjustments are done through DxO’s quirky Control Point interface which isn’t as visually intuitive nor as precise as masks and layers. As of PhotoLab 6, DxO has yet to offer panorama or HDR merging, lagging far behind the competition.
IMAGE QUALITY: Fair
PROS: Exposure has a full set of tonal and color adjustments, and essential image management functions. It has good local adjustment layers, though with no AI or smart brushes to automatically detect edges. It produced acceptable final results, though still looking a little flat.
CONS: Exposure lacks any panorama stitching or HDR merging functions. Its noise reduction can wipe out stars and image details, and its sharpening adds dark halos to stars. It often crashed during my testing, by simply quitting unexpectedly. Annoying.
IMAGE QUALITY: Good to Excellent
PROS: Luminar has a clean, fresh interface with many powerful AI-driven functions and effects unique to Luminar and that are easy to apply. The final result looks fine. Its AI masks work quite well. Neo also works as a plug-in for Photoshop or Lightroom.
CONS: Luminar is expensive to purchase outright with all the Extensions, with a subscription the most economical method of acquiring, and maintaining, the full package. Its Noiseless AI didn’t handle starfields well. Neo lacks a useable cataloging function, and the version tested had numerous serious bugs. It is best for editing just single images.
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
IMAGE QUALITY: Good
PROS: ON1 Photo RAW is the only program of the set that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It can serve as a one-program solution, and has excellent Effects and NoNoise AI, also available as plug-ins for Adobe software. It offers layer-based editing as well.
CONS: ON1 consistently produces dark halos around stars from over-sharpening in its raw engine. These cannot be eliminated. Its AI selection routines are flawed. Its AI noise reduction can leave artifacts if applied too aggressively, which is the default setting. Opening images from the Browse module as layers in the Edit module can be slow. It offers no stack modes (present in Photoshop and Affinity) for easy noise smoothing or star trail stacking, and the alternative — changing layer Blend modes — has to be done one at a time for each layer, a tedious process for a large image stack.
Why Didn’t I Test …?
… [Insert your favorite program here!] No doubt it’s one you consider badly neglected by all the world’s photographers!
But … as I stated at the outset, I tested only programs offered for both MacOS and Windows. I tested the MacOS versions — and for nightscapes, which are more demanding than normal daytime scenes.
I did not test:
Adobe Photoshop Elements —Effectively Photoshop “Lite,” Elements is available for $99 as a one-time purchase with a perpetual license, for both MacOS and Windows. Optional annual updates cost about $80. While it offers image and adjustment layers, and can open .PSD files, Elements cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has limited functions for developing raw files, in its version of Camera Raw “Lite.” And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not not have any Copy & Paste Settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for batch editing or time-lapse production.
Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. A Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more per year, yet gets you far, far more in Adobe’s professional-level software.
Corel PaintShop — As with ACDSee’s product suite, Corel’s PaintShop is available in Pro and Pro Ultimate versions, both updated for 2023, and each with extensive raw and layer-based editing features. But they are only for Windows. If you are a PC user, PaintShop is certainly worth testing out. Their neglected MacOS program (also available for Windows and Linux) is the raw developer AfterShot Pro 3 (currently at v126.96.36.1996). It is labeled as being from 2017, and last received a minor bug fix update in January 2021. I included it in my 2017 survey, but could not this year as it refused to recognize the CR3 raw files from my Canon R5 and R6 cameras.
Darkroom and Acorn are two Mac-only apps wth just basic features. There are no doubt numerous other similar Windows-only apps that I am not familiar with.
GIMP — Being free, it has its loyal fans. But it is not a raw developer, so it is not tested here. It is favorite of some astrophotographers as a no-cost substitute for Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo. It’s available for MacOS and Windows.
Iridient Developer — Its anachronistic, text-only website looks like it comes from 1995, giving the impression that this raw developer should be free, open-source software. It isn’t; it costs $99. It is a basic raw developer but only for MacOS. It is updated frequently, and a trial copy is available.
Pixelmator Pro — While it is a very capable and well-supported program with some excellent features, it too is available only for MacOS. Like Affinity Photo, it seems to be primarily for editing individual raw images, and lacks any image management functions, notably Copy & Paste Settings.
PixInsight — This specialized astrophoto program is designed for deep-sky image processing and bringing out the most subtle structures in faint nebulas and galaxies. For those it works wonders. But it is not suitable for nightscapes. Examples I’ve seen from PI fans who have used it for nightscapes, including images I’ve sent them for their expert processing, have not impressed me.
RawTherapee — As of early January 2023 when I completed my testing, the latest version of this free open-source program, v5.9, was available only for Windows and Linux. The MacOS version was still back at v5.8 from February 2020, a version that was unable to open the Canon CR3 raw files I was using in my tests. While the CR3 format has been out for several years, RawTherapee was still not supporting it, a hazard of open-source software dependent on the priorities of volunteer programmers who mostly use Windows. Like Darktable, RawTherapee is an incredibly complex program to use, with programmers adding every possible panel, slider and checkbox they could think of. [UPDATE MARCH 2023: RawTherapee 5.9 for MacOS is now available and opens Canon .CR3 files. Mac users might certainly want to try it. And Windows users, too!]
Topaz Studio — While Topaz Labs has been busy introducing some fine AI specialty programs, such as DeNoise AI, their main photo editor, Topaz Studio, has been neglected for years and, as of late 2022, was not even listed as a product for sale. It’s gone.
What About? — To prevent the number of programs tested from growing even larger, I did not include a few other little-known and seldom-used programs such as Cyberlink PhotoDirector and Picktorial, though I’m sure they have their fans.
I also did not test any camera manufacturer programs, such as Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, Nikon’s CaptureNX, or Sony’s ImagingEdge. They will open raw images only from their own cameras. Few photographers use them unless forced to, perhaps to open new raw files not yet supported by Adobe, DxO, et al, or to access files created by special camera functions such as Pixel Shift or Raw Burst Mode.
Having used Adobe software for decades, I’m used to its workings and the look it provides images. I’ve yet to see any of the competitors produce results so much better that they warrant me switching programs. At best, the competitors produce results as good as Adobe, at least for nightscape astrophotos, though with some offering unique and attractive features.
For example, the AI noise reduction routines in DxO PhotoLab and ON1 Photo RAW can outperform Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom. Adobe needs to update its raw editing software with more advanced noise reduction and sharpening. Even so, the AI routines in the competitors are prone to creating odd artifacts, so have to be applied carefully to astrophotos.
As I recommended in 2017, for those who refuse to use Adobe — or any software by subscription — a possible combination for the best astrophoto image quality might be DxO PhotoLab 6 for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, paired with Affinity Photo 2 for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO then opened and layered with Affinity.
The pairing of Capture One with Affinity could work just as well, though is more costly. And anyone who hates software by subscription in principle might want to avoid Capture One as they are pushing customers toward buying only by subscription, as is ON1.
For a single-program solution, I’d recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly, if only it produced better star image quality. Its raw engine continues to over-sharpen, and its AI masking functions are flawed, though will likely improve. I routinely use ON1’s Effects plug-in from Photoshop, as it has some excellent “finishing-touch” filters such as Dynamic Contrast. I find ON1’s NoNoise AI plug-in also very useful.
The same applies to Luminar Neo. While I can’t see using it as a principle processing program, it works very well as a Photoshop plug-in for adding special effects, some with its powerful and innovative AI routines.
Finally — Download Trials and Test!
But don’t take my word for all of this. Please test for yourself!
With the exception of Luminar Neo, all the programs I tested (and others I didn’t, but you might be interested in) are available as free trial copies. Try them out on your images and workflow. You might find you like one program much better than any of the others or what you are using now.
Often, having more than one program is useful, if only for use as a plug-in from within Lightroom or Photoshop. Some plug-ins made for Photoshop also work from within Affinity Photo, though it is hit-and-miss what plug-ins will actually work. (In my testing, plug-ins from DxO/Nik Collection, Exposure X7, ON1, RC-Astro, and Topaz all work; ones from Skylum/Luminar install but fail to run.)
While I was impressed with Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, for me the need to use the program LRTimelapse (shown above) for processing about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great and improves wth every update of LRTimelapse.
Even for still images, the ease of working within Adobe’s ecosystem to sort, develop, layer, stack, and catalog images makes me reluctant to migrate to a mix of programs from different companies, especially when the cost of upgrading many of those programs is not much less than, or even more costly, than an Adobe Photo plan subscription.
However … if it’s just a good raw developer you are after for astro work, without paying for a subscription, try Capture One 2023 or DxO PhotoLab 6. Try Affinity Photo if you want a good Photoshop replacement.
In mid-October 2022 I enjoyed a rare run of five clear and mild nights in the Rocky Mountains for shooting nightscapes of the stars. Here’s a portfolio … and a behind-the-scenes look at its making.
Getting two perfectly clear nights in a row is unusual in the mountains. Being treated to five is a rare treat. Indeed, had I started my shooting run earlier in the week I could have enjoyed even more of the string of cloudless nights in October, though under a full Moon. But five was wonderful, allowing me to capture some of the scenes that had been on my shot list for the last few years.
Here is a portfolio of the results, from five marvelous nights in Banff and Jasper National Parks, in Alberta, Canada.
For the photographers, I also provide some behind-the-scenes looks at the planning and shooting techniques, and of my processing steps.
Night One — Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
Peyto Lake, named for pioneer settler and trail guide Bill Peyto who had a cabin by the lakeshore, is one of several iconic mountain lakes in Banff. Every tour bus heading along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper stops here. By day is it packed. By night I had the newly constructed viewpoint all to myself.
I shot the classic view north in deep twilight, with the stars of Ursa Major and the Big Dipper low over the lake, as they are in autumn. A show of Northern Lights would have been ideal, but I was happy to settle for just the stars.
The night was perfect, not just for the clarity of the sky but also the timing. The Moon was just past full, so was rising in late evening, leaving a window of time between the end of twilight and moonrise when the sky would be dark enough to capture the Milky Way. Then shortly after, the Moon would come up, lighting the peaks with golden moonlight — alpenglow, but from the Moon not Sun.
The above is blend of two panoramas, each of seven segments, the first for the sky taken when the sky was dark, using a star tracker to keep the stars pinpoints. The second for the ground I shot a few minutes later at moonrise with no tracking, to keep the ground sharp. I show below how I blended the two elements.
To plan such shots I use the apps The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and its companion app TPE 3D. The screen shot above at left shows the scene in map view for the night in question, with the Big Dipper indicated north over the lake and the line of dots for the Milky Way showing it to the southwest over Peyto Glacier. Tap or click on the images for full-screen versions.
Switch to TPE 3D and its view at right above simulates the scene you’ll actually see, with the Milky Way over the mountain skyline just as it really appeared. The app even faithfully replicates the lighting on the peaks from the rising Moon. It is an amazing planning tool.
On the drive back from Peyto Lake to Saskatchewan River Crossing I stopped at another iconic spot, the roadside viewpoint for Mt. Cephren at Waterfowl Lakes. By this time, the Moon was well up and fully illuminating the peak and the sky, but still leaving the foreground dark. The sky is blue as it is by day because it is lit by moonlight, which is just sunlight reflecting off a perfectly neutral grey rock, the Moon!
This is from a set of untracked camera-on-tripod shots using short 30-second exposures.
Night Two — Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park
By the next night I was up in Jasper, a destination I had been trying to revisit for some time. But poor weather prospects and forest fire smoke had kept me away in recent years.
The days and nights I was there coincided with the first weekend of the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I attended one of the events, the very enjoyable Aurora Chaser’s Retreat, with talks and presentations by some well-known chasers of the Northern Lights. Attendees had come from around North America.
On my first night in Jasper I headed up to Pyramid Lake, a favorite local spot for stargazing and night sky photography, particularly from the little island connected to the “mainland” by a wooden boardwalk. Lots of people were there quietly enjoying the night. I shared one campfire spot with several other photographers also shooting the Milky Way over the calm lake before moonrise.
A little later I moved to the north end of Pyramid Island for the view of the Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain, now fully lit by the rising waning Moon, and with some aspens still in their autumn colours. A bright meteor added to the scene.
Night Three — Athabasca River Viewpoint, Jasper National Park
For my second night in Jasper, I ventured back down the Icefields Parkway to the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint overlooking the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide.
As I did at Peyto Lake, I shot a panorama (this one in three sections) for the sky before moonrise with a tracker. I then immediately shot another three-section panorama, now untracked, for the ground while it was still lit just by starlight under a dark sky. I then waited an hour for moonrise and shot a third panorama to add in the golden alpenglow on the peaks. So this is a time-blend, bending reality a bit. See my comments below!
Night Four — Edith Lake, Jasper National Park
With a long drive back to Banff ahead of me the next day, for my last night in Jasper I stayed close to town for shots from the popular Edith Lake, just up the road from the posh Jasper Park Lodge. Unlike at Pyramid Lake, I had the lakeshore to myself.
This would be a fabulous place to catch the Northern Lights, but none were out this night. Instead, I was content to shoot scenes of the northern stars over the calm lake and Pyramid Mountain.
The Moon was now coming up late, so the shots above are both in darkness with only starlight providing the illumination. Well, and also some annoying light pollution from town utility sites off the highway. Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve, but a lot of the town’s street and utility lighting remains unshielded.
Night Five — Lake Louise, Banff National Park
On my last night I was at Lake Louise, as the placement of the Milky Way would be perfect.
There’s no more famous view than this one, with Victoria Glacier at the end of the blue-green glacial lake. Again, by day the site is thronged with people and the parking lot full by early morning.
By night, there were just a handful of other photographers on the lakeshore, and the parking lot was nearly empty. I could park right by the walkway up to the lake.
Again, TPE and TPE 3D told me when the Milky Way would be well-positioned over the lake and glacier, so I could complete the untracked ground shots first, to be ready to shoot the tracked sky segments by the time the Milky Way had turned into place over the glacier.
This image is also a panorama but a vertical one, made primarily of three untracked segments for the ground and seven tracked segments for the sky, panning up from the horizon to past the zenith overhead, taking in most of the summer and autumn Milky Way from Serpens up to Cassiopeia.
As readers always want to know what gear I used, I shot all images on all nights with the 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera and Canon RF15-35mm lens, with exposures of typically 1 to 3 minutes each at ISOs of 800 to 1600. I had other cameras and lenses with me but never used them.
I use the Mini with a V-Plate designed by nightscape photographer Alyn Wallace and sold by Move-Shoot-Move. It is an essential aid to taking tracked panoramas, as it allows me to turn the camera horizontally manually from one pan segment to the next while the camera is tracking the stars. It’s easy to switch the tracker on (for the sky) and off (for the ground). The Mini tracks quite accurately and reliably. Turn it on and you can be sure it is tracking.
For those who are interested, here’s a look at how I processed and assembled the images, using the Peyto Lake panorama as an example. This is not a thorough tutorial, but shows the main steps involved. Tap or click on an image to download a full-size version.
I first develop all the raw files (seven here) in Adobe Camera Raw, applying identical settings to make them look best for what they are going to contribute to the final blend, in this case, for the tracked sky with pinpoint stars and the Milky Way.
Camera Raw (as does Adobe’s Lightroom) has an excellent Merge to Panorama function which usually works very well on such scenes. This shows the stitched sky panorama, created with one click.
I develop and stitch the untracked ground segments to look their best for revealing details in the landscape, overexposing the sky in the process. Stars are also trailed, from the long exposures needed for the dark ground. No matter – these will be masked out.
This shows the stack of images now in Adobe Photoshop, but here revealing just the layer for the sky panorama and its associated adjustment layers to further tweak color and contrast. I often add noise reduction as a non-destructive “smart filter” applied to the “smart object” image layer. See my review of noise reduction programs here.
This shows just the ground panorama layer, again with some adjustment and retouching layers dedicated to this portion of the image.
The sky has to be masked out of the ground panorama, to reveal the sky below. The Select Sky command in Photoshop usually works well, or I just use the Quick Selection tool and then Select and Mask to refine the edge. That method can be more accurate.
Aligning the two panoramas requires manually nudging the untracked ground, up in this case, to hide the blurred and dark horizon from the tracked sky panorama. Yes, we move the earth! The sky usually also requires some re-touching to clone out blurred horizon bits sticking up. Dealing with trees can be a bit messy!
The result is the scene above with both panorama layers and the masks turned on. While this now looks almost complete, we’re not done yet.
Local adjustments like Dodge and Burn (using a neutral grey layer with a Soft Light blend mode) and some luminosity masks tweak the brightness of portions of the scene for subtle improvements, to emphasize some areas while darkening others. It’s what film photographers did in the darkroom by waving physical dodging and burning tools under the enlarger.
I add finishing touches with some effect plug-ins: Radiant Photo added some pop to the ground, while Luminar Neo added a soft “Orton glow” effect to the sky and slightly to the ground.
All the adjustments, filters, and effects are non-destructive so they can be re-adjusted later, when upon further inspection with fresh eyes I realize something needs work.
Was It Photoshopped?
I hope my look behind the curtains was of interest. While these types of nightscapes taken with a tracker, and especially multi-segment panoramas, do produce dramatic images, they do require a lot of processing at the computer.
Was it “photoshopped?” Yes. Was it faked? No. The sky really was there over the scene you see in the image. However, the long exposures of the camera do reveal more details than the eye alone can see at night — that is the essence of astrophotography.
My one concession to warping reality is in the time-blending — the merging of panoramas taken 30 minutes to an hour apart. I’ll admit that does push my limits for preferring to record real scenes, and not fabricate them (i.e. “photoshop” them in common parlance).
But at this shoot on these marvelous nights, making use of the perfectly timed moonrises was hard to resist!
In a detailed technical blog I compare six AI-based noise reduction programs for the demands of astrophotography. Some can work wonders. Others can ruin your image.
Over the last two years we have seen a spate of specialized programs introduced for removing digital noise from photos. The new generation of programs use artificial intelligence (AI), aka machine learning, trained on thousands of images to better distinguish unwanted noise from desirable image content.
At least that’s the promise – and for noisy but normal daytime images they do work very well.
But in astrophotography our main subjects – stars – can look a lot like specks of pixel-level noise. How well can each program reduce noise without eliminating stars or wanted details, or introducing odd artifacts, making images worse.
To find out, I tested six of the new AI-based programs on real-world – or rather “real-sky” – astrophotos. Does one program stand out from the rest for astrophotography?
NOTE: All the images are full-resolution JPGs you can tap or click on to download for detailed inspection. But that does make the blog page slow to load initially. Patience!
The new AI-trained noise reduction programs can indeed eliminate noise better than older non-AI programs, while leaving fine details untouched or even sharpening them.
Of the group tested, the winner for use on just star-filled images is a specialized program for astrophotography, NoiseXTerminator from RC-Astro.
For nightscapes and other images, Topaz DeNoise AI performed well, better than it did in earlier versions that left lots of patchy artifacts, something AI programs can be prone to.
While ON1’s new NoNoise AI 2023 performed fine, it proved slightly worse in some cases than its earlier 2022 version. Its new sharpening routine needs work.
Other new programs, notably Topaz Photo AI and Luminar’s Noiseless AI, also need improvement before they are ready to be used for the rigours of astrophotography.
For reasons explained below, I would not recommend DxO’s PureRAW2. [See below for comments on the newer DxO PureRaw3, which suffers from the same issues.]
As described below, while some of the programs can be used as stand-alone applications, I tested them all as plug-ins for Photoshop, applying each as a smart filter applied to a developed raw file brought into Photoshop as a Camera Raw smart object.
Most of these programs state that better results might be obtainable by using the stand-alone app on original raw files. But for my personal workflow I prefer to develop the raw files with Adobe Camera Raw, then open those into Photoshop for stacking and layering, applying any further noise reduction or sharpening as non-destructive smart filters.
Many astrophotographers also choose to stack unedited original images with specialized stacking software, then apply further noise reduction and editing later in the workflow. So my workflow and test procedures reflect that.
However, the exception is DxO’s PureRAW2. It can work only on raw files as a stand-alone app, or as a plug-in from Adobe Lightroom. It does not work as a Photoshop plug-in. I tested PureRAW2 by dropping raw Canon .CR3 files onto the app, then exporting the results as raw DNG files, but with the same settings applied as with the other raw files. For the nightscape and wide-field images taken with lenses in DxO’s extensive database, I used PureRAW’s lens corrections, not Adobe’s.
As shown above, I chose three representative images:
A nightscape with star trails and a detailed foreground, at ISO 1600.
A wide-field deep-sky image at ISO 1600 with an 85mm lens, with very tiny stars.
A close-up deep-sky image taken with a telescope and at a high ISO of 3200, showing thermal noise hot pixels.
Each is a single image, not a stack of multiple images.
Before applying the noise reduction, the raw files received just basic color corrections and a contrast boost to emphasize noise all the more.
In the test results for the three images, I show the original raw image, plus a version with noise reduction and sharpening applied using Adobe Camera Raw’s own sliders, with luminance noise at 40, color noise at 25, and sharpening at 25.
I use this as a base comparison, as it has been the noise reduction I have long applied to images. However, ACR’s routine (also found in Adobe Lightroom) has not changed in years. It is good, but it is not AI.
[See below for an April 2023 update with a comparison of Adobe’s new AI Denoise with DxO DeepPrimeXD and Topaz PhotoAI.]
The new smart AI programs should improve upon this. But do they?
I have refrained from providing prices and explaining buying options, as frankly some can be complex!
For those details and for trial copies, go to the software’s website by clicking on the link in the header product names below.
All programs are available for Windows and MacOS. I tested the latter versions.
I have not provided tutorials on how to use the software; I have just reported on their results. For trouble-shooting their use, please consult the software company in question.
ON1’s main product is the Lightroom/Photoshop alternative program called ON1 Photo RAW, which is updated annually to major new versions. It has full cataloging options like Lightroom and image layering like Photoshop. Its Edit module contains the NoNoise AI routine. But NoNoise AI can be purchased as a stand-alone app that also installs as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s what I tested here. The latest 2023 version of NoNoise AI added ON1’s new Tack Sharp AI sharpening routine.
This program has proven very popular and has been adopted by many photographers – and astrophotographers – as an essential part of an editing workflow. It performs noise reduction only, offering a choice of five AI models. Auto modes can choose the models and settings for you based on the image content, but you can override those by adjusting the strength, sharpness, and recovery of original detail as desired.
A separate program, Topaz Sharpen AI, is specifically for image sharpening, but I did not test it here. Topaz Gigapixel AI is for image resizing.
In 2022 Topaz introduced this new program which incorporates the trio of noise reduction, sharpening and image resizing in one package. Like DeNoise, Sharpen and Gigapixel, Photo AI works as a stand-alone app or as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop. Photo AI’s Autopilot automatically detects and applies what it thinks the image needs. While it is possible to adjust settings, Photo AI offers much less control than DeNoise AI and Topaz’s other single-purpose programs.
As of this writing in November 2022 Photo AI is enjoying almost weekly updates, and seems to be where Topaz is focusing its development and marketing effort. [See below for a test of PhotoAI v1.3.1, current as of April 2023.]
Unlike the other noise reduction programs tested here, Luminar Neo from the software company Skylum is a full-featured image editing program, with an emphasis on one-click AI effects. One of those is the new Noiseless AI, available as an extra-cost extension to the main Neo program, either as a one-time purchase or by annual subscription. Noiseless AI cannot be purchased on its own. However, Neo with most of its extensions does work as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop.
Being new, Luminar Neo is also updated frequently, with more extensions coming in the next few months.
Like ON1, DxO makes a full-featured alternative to Adobe’s Lightroom for cataloging and raw developing called DxO PhotoLab, in version 6 as of late 2022. It contains DxO’s Prime and DeepPrime noise reduction routines. However, as with ON1, DxO has spun off just the noise reduction and lens correction parts of PhotoLab into a separate program, PureRAW2, which runs either as a stand-alone app or as a plug-in for Lightroom – but not Photoshop, as PureRAW works only on original raw files.
Unlike all the other programs, PureRAW2 offers essentially no options to adjust settings, just the option to apply, or not, lens corrections, and to choose the output format. For this testing I applied DeepPrime and exported out to DNG files. [See below for a test of DeepPrimeXD, now offered with PureRaw3.]
Unlike the other programs tested, NoiseXTerminator from astrophotographer Russell Croman is designed specifically for deep-sky astrophotography. It installs as a plug-in for Photoshop or Affinity Photo, but not Lightroom. It is also available under the same purchased licence as a “process” for PixInsight, an advanced program popular with astrophotographers, as it is designed just for editing deep-sky images.
I tested the Photoshop plug-in version of Noise XTerminator. It receives occasional updates to both the actual plug-in and separate updates to the AI module.
Version tested: 1.1.2, AI model 2
As with the other test images, the panels show a highly magnified section of the image, indicated in the inset. I shot the image of Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta with a Canon RF15-35mm lens on a 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera at ISO 1600.
Adobe Camera Raw’s basic noise reduction did a good job, but like all general routines it does soften the image as a by-product of smoothing out high-ISO noise.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 retained landscape detail better than ACR but softened the star trails, despite me adding sharpening. It also produced a somewhat patchy noise smoothing in the sky. This was with Luminosity backed off to 75 from the auto setting (which always cranks up the level to 100 regardless of the image), and with the Tack Sharp routine set to 40 with Micro Contrast at 0. It left a uniform pixel-level mosaic effect in the shadow areas. Despite the new Tack Sharp option, the image was softer than with last year’s NoNoise 2022 version (not shown here as it is no longer available) which produced better shadow results.
Topaz DeNoise AI did a better job than NoNoise retaining the sharp ground detail while smoothing noise, always more obvious in the sky in such images. Even so, it also produced some patchiness, with some areas showing more noise than others. This was with the Standard model set to 40 for Noise and Sharpness, and Recover Details at 75. I show the other model variations below.
Topaz Photo AI did a poor job, producing lots of noisy artifacts in the sky and an over-sharpened foreground riddled with colorful speckling. It added noise. This was with the Normal setting and the default Autopilot settings.
Noiseless AI in Luminar Neo did a decent job smoothing noise while retaining, indeed sharpening ground detail without introducing ringing or colorful edge artifacts. The sky was left with some patchiness and uneven noise smoothing. This was with the suggested Middle setting (vs Low and High) and default levels for Noise, Detail and Sharpness. However, I do like Neo (and Skylum’s earlier Luminar AI) for adding other finishing effects to images such as Orton glows.
DxO PureRAW2 did smooth noise very well while enhancing sharpness quite a lot, almost too much, though it did not introduce obvious edge artifacts. Keep in mind it offers no chance to adjust settings, other than the mode – I used DeepPrime vs the normal Prime. Its main drawback is that in making the conversion back to a raw DNG image it altered the appearance of the image, in this case darkening the image slightly. It also made some faint star trails look wiggly!
Noise XTerminator really smoothed out the sky, and did so very uniformly without doing much harm to the star trails. However, it smoothed out ground detail unacceptably, not surprising given its specialized training on stars, not terrestrial content.
Conclusion: For this image, I’d say Topaz DeNoise AI did the best, though not perfect, job.
This was surprising, as tests I did with earlier versions of DeNoise AI showed it leaving many patchy artifacts and colored edges in places. Frankly, I was put off using it. However, Topaz has improved DeNoise AI a lot.
Why it works so well, when Topaz’s newer program Photo AI works so poorly is hard to understand. Surely they use the same AI code? Apparently not. Photo AI’s noise reduction is not the same as DeNoise AI.
Similarly, ON1’s NoNoise 2023 did a worse job than their older 2022 version. One can assume its performance will improve with updates. The issue seems to be with the new Tack Sharp addition.
NoiseXTerminator might be a good choice for reducing noise in just the sky of nightscape images. It is not suitable for foregrounds, though as of April 2023 its performance on landscapes has improved but is not ideal.
WIDE-FIELD IMAGE TEST
I shot this image of Andromeda and Triangulum with an 85mm Rokinon RF lens on the 45-megapixel Canon R5 on a star tracker. Stars are now points, with small ones easily mistaken for noise. Let’s see how the programs handle such an image, zooming into a tiny section showing the galaxy Messier 33.
Adobe Camera Raw’s noise and sharpening routines do take care of the worst of the luminance and chrominance noise, but inevitably leave some graininess to the image. This is traditionally dealt with by stacking multiple sub-exposures.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 did a better job than ACR, smoothing the worst of the noise and uniformly, without leaving uneven patchiness. However, it did soften star images, almost like it was applying a 1- or 2-pixel gaussian blur, adding a slight hazy look to the image. And yet the faintest stars that appeared as just perceptible blurs in the original image were sharpened to one- or two-pixel points. This was with only NoNoise AI applied, and no Tack Sharp AI. And, as I show below, NoNoise’s default “High Detail” option introduced with the 2022 version and included in the 2023 edition absolutely destroys star fields. Avoid it.
Topaz DeNoise AI did a better job than Camera Raw, though it wasn’t miles ahead. This was with the Standard setting. Its Low Light and Severe models were not as good, surprising as you might think one of those choices would be the best for such an image. It pays to inspect Topaz’s various models’ results. Standard didn’t erase stars; it actually sharpened the fainter ones, almost a little too much, making them look like specks of noise. Playing with Enhance Sharpness and Recover Detail didn’t make much difference to this behavior.
Topaz Photo AI again performed poorly. Its Normal mode left lots of noise and grainy artifacts. While its Strong mode shown here did smooth background noise better, it softened stars, wiping out the faint ones and leaving colored edges on the brighter ones.
Noiseless AI in Luminar Neo did smooth fine noise somewhat, better than Camera Raw, but still left a grainy background, though with the stars mostly untouched in size and color.
DxO PureRAW2did eliminate noise quite well, while leaving even the faintest stars intact, unlike with the deep-sky image below, which is odd. However, it added some dark halos to bright stars from over-sharpening. And, as with the nightscape example, PureRAW’s output DNG was darker than the raw that went in. I don’t want noise reduction programs altering the basic appearance of an image, even if that can be corrected later in the workflow.
Noise XTerminator performed superbly, as expected – after all, this is the subject matter it is trained to work on. It smoothed out random noise better than any of the other programs, while leaving even the faintest stars untouched, in fact sharpening them slightly. Details in the little galaxy were also unharmed.
Conclusion: The clear winner was NoiseXTerminator.
Topaz DeNoise was a respectable second place, performing better than it had done on such images in earlier versions. Even so, it did alter the appearance of faint stars which might not be desirable.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 also performed quite well, with its softening of brighter stars yet sharpening of fainter ones perhaps acceptable, even desirable for an effect.
TELESCOPIC DEEP-SKY TEST
I shot this image of the NGC 7822 complex of nebulosity with a SharpStar 61mm refractor, using the red-sensitive 30-megapixel Canon Ra and with a narrowband filter to isolate the red and green light of the nebulas.
Again, the test image is a single raw image developed only to re-balance the color and boost the contrast. No dark frames were applied, so the 8-minute exposure at ISO 3200 taken on a warm night shows thermal noise as single “hot pixel” white specks.
Adobe Camera Raw did a good job smoothing the worst of the noise, suppressing the hot pixels but only by virtue of it softening all of the image slightly at the pixel level. However, it leaves most stars intact.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 also did a good job smoothing noise while also seeming to boost contrast and structure slightly. But as in the wide-field image, it did smooth out star images a little, though somewhat photogenically, while still emphasizing the faintest stars. This was with no sharpening applied and Luminosity at 60, down from the default 100 NoNoise applies without fail. One wonders if it really is analyzing images to produce optimum settings. With no Tack Sharp sharpening applied, the results on this image with NoNoise 2023 looked identical to NoNoise 2022.
Topaz DeNoise AI did another good job smoothing noise, while leaving most stars unaffected. However, the faintest stars and hot pixels were sharpened to be more visible tiny specks, perhaps too much, even with Sharpening at its lowest level of 1 in Standard mode. Low Light and Severe modes produced worse results, with lots of mottling and unevenness in the background. Unlike NoNoise, at least its Auto settings do vary from image to image, giving you some assurance it really is responding to the image content.
Topaz Photo AI again produced unusable results. Its Normal modes produced lots of mottled texture and haloed stars. Its Strong mode shown here did smooth noise better, but still left lots of uneven artifacts, like DeNoise AI did in its early days. It certainly seems like Photo AI is using old hand-me-down code from DeNoise AI.
Noiseless AI in Luminar Neo did smooth noise but unevenly, leaving lots of textured patches. Stars had grainy halos and the program increased contrast and saturation, adjustments usually best left for specific adjustment layers dedicated to the task.
DxO PureRAW2 did smooth noise very well, including wiping out the faintest specks from hot pixels, but it also wiped out the faintest stars, I think unacceptably and more than other programs like DeNoise AI. For this image it did leave basic brightness alone, likely because it could not apply lens corrections to an image taken with unknown optics. However, it added an odd pixel-level mosaic-like effect on the sky background, again unacceptable.
Noise XTerminator did a great job smoothing random noise without affecting any stars or the nebulosity. The Detail level of 20 I used actually emphasized the faintest stars, but also the hot pixel specks. NoiseXTerminator can’t be counted on to eliminate thermal noise; that demands the application of dark frames and/or using dithering routines to shift each sub-frame image by a few pixels when autoguiding the telescope mount. Even so, Noise XTerminator is so good users might not need to take and stack as many images.
Conclusion: Again, the winner was NoiseXTerminator.
Deep-sky photographers have praised “NoiseX” for its effectiveness, either when applied early on in a PixInsight workflow or, as I do in Photoshop, as a smart filter to the base stacked image underlying other adjustment layers.
Topaz DeNoise is also a good choice as it can work well on many other types of images. But again, play with its various models and settings. Pixel peep!
ON1 NoNoise 2023 did put in a respectable performance here, and it will no doubt improve – it had been out less than a month when I ran these tests.
Based on its odd behavior and results in all three test images I would not recommend DxO’s PureRAW2. Yes, it reduces noise quite well, but it can alter tone and color in the process, and add strange pixel-level mosaic artifacts.
COMPARING DxO and TOPAZ OPTIONS
DxO and Topaz DeNoise AI offer the most choices of AI models and strength of noise reduction. Here I compare:
Topaz DeNoise AI on the nightscape image using three of its models: Standard (which I used in the comparisons above), plus Low Light and Severe. These show how the other models didn’t do as good a job.
The set below also compares DeNoise AI to Topaz’s other program, Photo AI, to show how poor a job it is doing in its early form. Its Strong mode does smooth noise but over-sharpens and leaves edge artifacts. Yes, Photo AI is one-click easy to use, but produces bad results – at least on astrophotos.
As of this writing DxO’s PureRAW2 offers the Prime and newer DeepPrime AI models – I used DeepPrime for my tests.
However, DxO’s more expensive and complete image processing program, PhotoLab 6, also offers the even newer DeepPrimeXD model, which promises to preserve or recover even more “Xtra Detail” over the DeepPrime model. As of this writing, the XD mode is not offered in PureRAW2. Perhaps that will wait for PureRAW3, no doubt a paid upgrade.
[UPDATE MARCH 2023: DxO has indeed brought out PureRaw3 as a paid upgrade that, as expected, offers the DeepPrimeXD. In testing the new version I found that, while it did not seem to alter an image’s exposure as PureRaw2 did, DeepPrime and DeepPrimeXD still unacceptably ruin starry skies, by either adding a fine-scale mosaic effect (DeepPrime) or weird wormy artifacts (DeepPrimeXD). Try it for yourself to see if you find the same.]
The set above compares the three noise reduction models of DxO’s PhotoLab 6. DeepPrime does do a better job than Prime. DeepPrimeXD does indeed sharpen detail more, but in this example it is too sharp, showing artifacts, especially in the sky where it is adding structures and textures that are not real.
However, when used from within PhotoLab 6, the DeepPrime noise reduction becomes more usable. PhotoLab is then being used to perform all the raw image processing, so PureRAW’s alteration of color and tone is not a concern. Conversely, it can also output raw DNGs with only noise reduction and lens corrections applied, essentially performing the same tasks as PureRAW. If you have PhotoLab, you don’t need PureRAW.
APRIL 2023 UPDATE — TESTING ADOBE’S NEW AI Denoise
In April 2023 Adobe updated Lightroom Classic to v12.3 and the Camera Raw plug-in for Bridge and Photoshop to 15.3. The major new feature was a long-awaited AI noise reduction from Adobe called Denoise. It works only on raw files and generates a new raw DNG file to which all the raw develop settings, including AI masks, can be applied. But the DNG file is some four times larger than the original raw file from the camera.
Here’s a comparison of Camera Raw using the old noise reduction and the new AI option, with DxO’s DeepPrimeXD and Topaz’s PhotoAI, on an aurora image from April 23, 2023:
I used Topaz Photo AI as that’s the program Topaz is now putting all their development effort into, neglecting their other plug-ins such as DeNoise AI. I used DxO PhotoLab 6 with its DeepPrimeXD option to export a DNG with only noise reduction applied, for results identical to what is now offered with DxO’s separate PureRaw3 plug-in.
At 100% above, there’s very little obvious difference. They show up when pixel peeping.
Above are 400% blow-ups of a section of the sky.
Compared to using Adobe’s old noise reduction sliders, their new AI Denoise did a far superior job at smoothing noise, and providing sharpening – almost too much, making even the smallest stars pop out more, perhaps a good thing. But there’s no control of that sharpening.
DxO’s DeepPrimeXD provides a similar, or perhaps more excessive level of AI sharpening. While it smooths noise, it introduces all manner of wormy AI artifacts. It is unacceptable.
Topaz PhotoAI’s noise reduction and sharpening, here both applied with their AutoPilot settings, smoothed noise, but created a patchy appearance. It also softened the stars, despite having sharpening turned on. It was the worst of the set.
In a similar set of blow-ups of the ground, the old Adobe noise reduction did just that — it smoothed only some noise. The new AI Denoise not only smooths noise, it also applies AI-based sharpening, to the point of almost inventing detail. Here it looks believable, but in other tests I have seen it add content, such as structures in the aurora, that looked fake and out of place. Or just plain wrong!
DxO’s DeepPrimeXD’s main feature over the older DeepPrime is the “eXtra Detail” it finds. Here it produces a result similar to Adobe Denoise, though in some areas of this and other images, I find it is over-sharpening. As with Adobe, there is no option for backing off the sharpening. Other than using DeepPrime or Prime noise reduction.
Topaz PhotoAI didn’t do much to add sharpening. If anything, it made the image softer. While PhotoAI has improved with its weekly updates, it still falls far short of the competition, at least for astrophotos and nightscapes.
The bottom line — Adobe’s new AI Denoise can do a superb job on astrophotos, and will be particularly useful for high-ISO nightscapes, perhaps better than any of the competition. But watch what it does! It can invent details or create results that look artificial. Being able to adjust the sharpening would be helpful. Perhaps that will come in an update.
COMPARING AI TO OLDER NON-AI PROGRAMS
The new generation of AI-based programs have garnered all the attention, leaving older stalwart noise reduction programs looking a little forlorn and forgotten.
Here I compare Camera Raw and two of the best of the AI programs, Topaz DeNoise AI and NoiseXTerminator, with two of the most respected of the “old-school” non-AI programs:
Dfine2, included with the Nik Collection of plug-ins sold by DxO (shown above), and
Reduce Noise v9 sold by Neat Image (shown below).
I tested both by using them in their automatic modes, where they analyze a section or sections of the image and adjust the noise reduction accordingly, but then apply that setting uniformly across the entire image. However, both allow manual adjustments, with Neat Image’s Reduce Noise offering a bewildering array of technical adjustments.
How do these older programs stack up to the new AI generation? Here are comparisons using the same three test images.
In the nightscape image, Nik Dfine2 and Neat Image’s Reduce Noise did well, producing uniform noise reduction with no patchiness. But the results weren’t significantly better than with Adobe Camera Raw’s built-in routine. Like ACR, both non-AI programs did smooth detail in the ground, compared to DeNoise AI which sharpened the mountain details.
In the tracked wide-field image, the differences were harder to distinguish. None performed up to the standard of Noise XTerminator, with both Nik Dfine2 and Neat Image softening stars a little compared to DeNoise AI.
In the telescopic deep-sky image, all programs did well, though none matched NoiseXTerminator. None eliminated the hot pixels. But Nik Dfine2 and Neat Image did leave wanted details alone, and did not alter or eliminate desired content. However, they also did not eliminate noise as well as did Topaz DeNoise AI or NoiseXTerminator.
The AI technology does work!
YOUR RESULTS MAY VARY
I should add that the nature of AI means that the results will certainly vary from image to image.
In addition, with many of these programs offering multiple models and settings for strength and sharpening, results even from the same program can be quite different. In this testing I used either the program’s auto defaults or backed off those defaults where I thought the effect was too strong and detrimental to the image.
Software is also a constantly moving target. Updates will alter how these programs perform, we hope for the better. For example, two days after I published this test, ON1 updated NoNoise AI to v17.0.2 with minor fixes and improvements.
And do remember I’m testing on astrophotos, and pixel peeping to the extreme. Rave reviews claiming how well even the poor performers here work on “normal” images might well be valid.
This is all by way of saying, your mileage may vary!
So don’t take my word for it. Most programs (Luminar Neo is an exception) are available as free trial copies to test out on your astro-images and in your preferred workflow. Test for yourself. But do pixel peep. That’s where you’ll see the flaws.
WHAT ABOUT ADOBE?
As noted above, with v15.3 of Camera Raw and v12.3 of Lightroom Classic, Adobe finally introduced their contender into the AI noise reduction contest. And it is a very good entry at that.
But it works only on raw files early in the workflow, and it generates a new raw DNG file, one four times the size of the original. The suggestion is that this technology will expand so that the AI noise reduction can be applied later in the workflow to other file formats.
Indeed, in the last couple of years Adobe has introduced several amazing and powerful “Neural Filters” into Photoshop, which work wonders with one click.
A neural filter for Noise Reduction is on Adobe’s Wait List for development, so perhaps we will see something in the next few months from Adobe, as a version of the AI noise reduction now offered in Lightroom and Camera Raw.
Until then we have lots of choices for third party programs that all improve with every update. I hope this review has helped you make a choice.
For once I was able to watch a total eclipse of the Moon under clear skies from home. Good thing, as a snowstorm would have made travel a challenge.
On November 8, 2022 the Full Moon once again passed through the umbral shadow of the Earth, as it has done at six-month intervals for the last two years. The Moon turned deep red for almost an hour and a half.
This was to be the last total eclipse of the Moon visible from anywhere in the world until March 14, 2025.
However, in the days leading up to the eclipse weather prospects looked poor. The worse snowstorm — indeed the first major snowstorm for my area — was forecast for the day before the eclipse, November 7. Of course!
For all the lunar eclipses in the last decade visible from my area, I have had to chase to find clear skies, perhaps a couple of hours away or a half day’s drive away. I documented those expeditions in previous posts, the latest of which is here for the May 15, 2022 total eclipse. In all cases I was successful.
However, just once it would be nice to be able to stay home. The last “TLE” I was able to watch from home was on December 21, 2010. It had been a long decade of lunar eclipse chasing!
But, it looked like another chase might be needed. Weather maps showed possible clear skies to the west and south of me on eclipse night. But cloud over me.
The problem was with six inches of new snow having fallen and temperatures forecast to be in the minus 20s Celsius, any drive to a remote site was going to be unwise, especially at 3 am for the start of the eclipse in my time zone in Alberta.
I decided to — indeed was more or less forced to — stay put at home and hope for the best. So this was the “snowbound eclipse!”
Luckily, as the snowstorm receded east, clear skies followed, providing better conditions than I had expected. What a pleasure it was watching this eclipse from the comfort of home. While operating camera gear at -25° C was still a challenge, at least I could retreat inside to warm up.
The view with the naked eye of the red Moon set in the winter sky was unforgettable. And the views though binoculars were, as always, the best for showing off the subtle colour gradations across the lunar disk.
As has been the tradition at the last few eclipses, I shot a souvenir selfie to show I was really there enjoying the eclipse.
A bonus was the appearance of some Northern Lights during totality. As the bright Moon dimmed during its passage into Earth’s umbral shadow, darkening the sky, the aurora began to appear to the north, opposite the eclipsed Moon.
Not a great display, but it was the first time I can recall seeing aurora during a lunar eclipse.
My parting view and photo was of the now partially eclipsed (and here overexposed) Moon emerging from the shadow and shining right down my rural snowbound driveway.
It was a perfect last look from home of a sight we won’t see again for two and half years.
In a format similar to my other popular camera tests, I put the 45-megapixel Canon R5 mirrorless camera through its paces for the demands of astrophotography.
In a sequel to my popular post from September 2021 where I reviewed the Canon R6 mirrorless camera, here is a similar test of its higher-megapixel companion, the Canon R5. Where the R6 has a modest 20-megapixel sensor with relatively large 6.6-micron pixels, the R5 is (at present) Canon’s highest megapixel camera, with 45 megapixels. Each pixel is only 4.4 microns across, providing higher resolution but risking more noise.
Is the higher noise noticeable? If so, does that make the R5 less than ideal for astrophotography? To find out, I tested an R5 purchased locally in Calgary from The Camera Store in May 2022.
NOTE: CLICK orTAP on any image to bring it up full screen for closer inspection. The blog contains a lot of high-res images, so they may take a while to all load. Patience! Thanks!
The Canon R5 proved to be surprisingly low in noise, and has worked very well for nightscape, lunar and deep-sky photography (as shown below), where its high resolution does produce a noticeable improvement to image detail, with minimal penalty from higher noise. Its 8K video capability has a place in shooting the Moon, Sun and solar eclipses. It was not so well suited to shooting videos of auroras.
The Canon R5 is superb for its:
High resolution with relatively low noise
ISO invariant sensor performance for good shadow recovery
Good live view display with ISO boost in Movie mode
8K video has its attraction for eclipse photography
Good top LCD information screen missing in the R6
No magenta edge “amp glow” that the R6 shows
Higher 6x and 15x magnifications for precise manual focusing
Good battery life
Pro-grade Type N3 remote port
The Canon R5 is not so superb for its:
Noise in stills and movies is higher than in the R6
Propensity for thermal-noise hot pixels in shadows
Not so suitable for low-light video as the R6
Overheating in 8K video
Live View image is not as bright as in the R6’s Movie mode
CHOOSING THE R5
Since late 2019 my main camera for all astrophotography has been the Canon Ra, a limited-edition version of the original R, Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera that started the R series. The Ra had a special infra-red cutoff filter in front of the sensor that passed a higher level of visible deep-red light, making it more suitable for deep-sky astrophotography than a standard DSLR or DSLM (mirrorless) camera. The Ra was discontinued after two years on the market, a lifetime similar to Canon’s previous astronomical “a” models, the 20Da and 60Da.
I purchased the Canon R6 in late 2021, primarily to use it as a low-light video camera for aurora photography, replacing the Sony a7III I had used for several years and reviewed here. Over the last year, I sold all my non-Canon cameras, as well as the Canon 6D MkII DSLR (reviewed here), to consolidate my camera gear to just Canon mirrorless cameras and lenses.
The R6 has proven to be an able successor to the Sony for me, with the R6’s modest megapixel count and larger pixels making it excellent for low-light video. But the higher resolution of the R5 was still attractive. So I have now added it to my Canon stable. Since doing so, I have put it through several of my standard tests to see how suitable it is for the demands of astrophotography, both stills and video.
Here are my extensive results, broken down by various performance criteria. I hope you will find my review useful in helping you make a purchase decision.
LIVE VIEW FRAMING
First, why go mirrorless at all? For astrophotography, the big difference compared to even a high-end DSLR, is how much brighter the “Live View” image is when shooting at night. DSLM cameras are always in Live View – even the eye-level viewfinder presents a digital image supplied by the sensor.
And that image is brighter, often revealing more than what a DSLR’s optical viewfinder can show, a great advantage for framing nightscape scenes, and deep-sky fields at the telescope.
The R5 certainly presents a good live view image. However, it is not as bright nor as detailed as what the R6 can provide when placed in its Movie mode and with the ISO bumped up to the R6’s highest level of ISO 204,800, where the Milky Way shows up, live!
The R5 only goes as high as ISO 51,200, and so as I expected it does not provide as bright or detailed a preview at night as the R6 can. However, the R5 is better than the original R for live-view framing, and better than any Canon DSLR I’ve used.
LIVE VIEW FOCUSING
Like the R6, the R5 can autofocus accurately on bright stars and planets. By comparison, while the Ra can autofocus on distant bright lights, it fails on bright stars or planets.
Turning on Focus Peaking makes stars turn red, yellow or blue (your choice of colours) when they are in focus, as a reassuring confirmation.
In manual focus, an additional Focus Aid overlay, also found in the R6, provides arrows that close up and turn green when in focus on a bright star or planet.
Or, as shown above, you can zoom in by 6x or 15x to focus by eye the old way by examining the star image. These are magnification levels higher than the 5x and 10x of the R6 and most other Canon cameras, and are a great aid to precise focusing, necessary to make full use of the R5’s high resolution, and the sharpness of Canon’s RF lenses. The 15x still falls short of the Ra’s 30x for ultra-precise focusing on stars, but it’s a welcome improvement nonetheless.
In all, while the R5 is not as good as the R6 for framing in low light, it is better for precise manual focusing using its higher 15x magnification.
NOISE PERFORMANCE — NIGHTSCAPES
The key camera characteristic for astrophoto use is noise. There is no point in having lots of resolution if, at the high ISOs we use for most astrophotography, the detail is lost in noise. But I was pleasantly surprised that proved not to be the case with the R5.
As I show below, noise is well controlled, making the R5 usable for nightscapes at ISOs up to 3200, if not 6400 when needed in a pinch.
With 45 megapixels, at the upper end of what cameras offer today, the R5 has individual pixels, or more correctly “photosites,” that are each 4.4 microns in size, the “pixel pitch.”
This is still larger than the 3.7-micron pixels in a typical 24-megapixel cropped-frame camera like the Canon R10, or the 3.2-micron pixels found in a 32-megapixel cropped-frame camera like the Canon R7. Both are likely to be noisier than the R5, though will provide even higher resolution, as well as greater magnification with any given lens or telescope.
By comparison, the 30-megapixel full-frame R (and Ra) has a pixel pitch of 5.4 microns, while the 20-megapixel R6’s pixel pitch is a generous 6.6 microns. Only the 12-megapixel Sony a7SIII has larger 8.5-micron pixels, making it the low-light video champ.
The bigger the photosites (i.e. the larger the pixel pitch), the more photons each photosite can collect in a given amount of time – and the more photons they can collect, period, before they overfill and clip highlights. More photons equals more signal, and therefore a better signal-to-noise ratio, while the greater “full-well depth” yields higher dynamic range.
However, each generation of camera improves the signal-to-noise ratio by suppressing noise via its sensor design and improved signal processing hardware and firmware. The R5 and R6 each use Canon’s latest DIGIC X processor.
In nightscapes the R5 did show more noise at high ISOs, especially at ISO 6400, than the R6 and Ra, but the difference was not large, perhaps one stop at most, if that. What was noticeable was the presence in the R5 of more hot pixels from thermal noise, as described later.
At slower ISOs the R5 showed a similar level of noise as the R6 and Ra, but a finer-grained noise than the R6, in keeping with the R5’s smaller pixels. In this test set, the R5 did not exhibit noticeably more noise than the other two cameras. This was surprising.
NOTE: In these comparisons I have not resampled the R5 images down to the megapixel count of the R6 to equalize them, as that’s not what you would do if you bought an R5. Instead, I have magnified the R6 and Ra’s smaller images so we examine the same area of each camera’s images.
As with the R6, I also saw no “magic ISO” setting where the R5 performed better than at other settings. Noise increased in proportion to the ISO speed. The R5 proved perfectly usable up to ISO 3200, with ISO 6400 acceptable for stills when necessary. But I would not recommend the R5 for those who like to shoot Milky Way scenes at ISO 12,800.
For nightscapes, a good practice that would allow using lower ISO speeds would be to shoot the sky images with a star tracker, then take separate long untracked exposures for the ground.
NOTE: In my testing I look first and foremost at actual real-world results. For those interested in more technical tests and charts, I refer you to DxOMark’s report on the Canon R5.
NOISE PERFORMANCE — DEEP-SKY
Deep-sky imaging with a tracking mount is more demanding, due to its longer exposures of up to several minutes for each “sub-frame.”
On a series of deep-sky exposures through a telescope, above, the R5 again showed quite usable images up to ISO 1600 and 3200, with ISO 6400 a little too noisy in my opinion unless a lot of noise reduction was applied or many images were shot to stack later.
As with the nightscape set, at high ISOs, such as at ISO 6400, the R5 did show more noise than the R6 and Ra, as well as more colour splotchiness in the dark sky, and lower contrast. The lower dynamic range of the R5’s smaller pixels is evident here.
Just as with nightscapes, the lesson with the R5 is to keep the ISO low if at all possible. That means longer exposures with good auto-guiding, but that’s a best practice with any camera.
At lower ISOs that provide better dynamic range, shown above, the difference in noise levels between the three cameras was not that obvious. Each camera presented very similar images, with the R6 having a coarser noise than the Ra and R5.
In all, I was surprised the R5 performed as well as it did for deep-sky imaging. See my comments below about its resolution advantage.
The flaw in many Canon DSLRs, one documented in my 2017 review of the 6D Mark II, was their poor dynamic range due to the lack of an ISO invariant sensor design.
Canon R-series mirrorless cameras have largely addressed this weakness. As with the R and R6, the sensor in the R5 appears to be nicely ISO invariant.
Where ISO invariancy shows itself to advantage is on nightscapes where the starlit foreground is often dark and underexposed. Bringing out detail in the shadows in raw files requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure slider. Images from an ISO invariant sensor can withstand the brightening “in post” far better, with minimal noise increase or degradations such as a loss of contrast, added banding, or horrible discolourations.
As I do for such tests, I shot sets of images at the same shutter speed, one well-exposed at a high ISO, then several at successively lower ISOs to underexpose by 1 to 4 stops. I then brightened the underexposed images by increasing the Exposure in Camera Raw by the same 1 to 4 stops. In an ideal ISO invariant sensor, all the images should look the same.
The R5 performed well in images underexposed by up to 3 stops. Images underexposed by 4 stops started to fall apart with low contrast and a magenta cast. This was worse performance than the R6, which better withstood underexposure by as much as 4 stops, and fell apart at 5 stops of underexposure.
While it can withstand underexposure, the lesson with the R5 is to still expose nightscapes as well as possible, likely requiring a separate longer exposure for the dark ground. Expose to the right! Don’t depend on being able to save the image by brightening “in post.” But again, that’s a best practice with any camera.
Here I repeat some of the background information from my R6 review. But it bears repeating, as even skilled professional photographers often misunderstand the various forms of noise and how to mitigate them.
All cameras will exhibit thermal noise in long exposures, especially on warm nights. This form of heat-induced noise peppers the shadows with bright or “hot” pixels, often brightly coloured.
This is not the same as the shot and read noise that adds graininess to high-ISO images and that noise reduction software can smooth out later in post.
I found the R5 was prone to many hot pixels in long nightscape exposures where they show up in dark, underexposed shadows. I did not find a prevalence of hot pixels in well-exposed deep-sky images.
LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION
With all cameras a setting called Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) eliminates this thermal noise by taking a “dark frame” and subtracting it in-camera to yield a raw file largely free of hot pixels, and other artifacts such as edge glows.
The LENR option on the R5 did eliminate most hot pixels, though sometimes still left, or added, a few (or they might be cosmic ray hits). LENR is needed more on warm nights, and with longer exposures at higher ISOs. So the extent of thermal noise in any camera can vary a lot from shoot to shoot, and season to season.
The comparison above shows just thermal noise in long exposures with and without LENR, to show its effectiveness. However, bear in mind in this demo the raw files have been boosted a lot in exposure and contrast (using DxO PhotoLab with the settings shown) to exaggerate the visibility of the noise.
Like the R6, when LENR is actively taking a dark frame, the R5’s rear screen indicates “Busy,” which is annoyingly bright at night, exactly when you would be employing LENR. To hide this display, the only option is to close the screen. Instead, the unobtrusive top LCD screen alone should be used to indicate a dark frame is in progress. It does with the Ra, though Busy also displays on its rear screen as well, which is unnecessary.
As with all mirrorless cameras, the R5 lacks the “dark frame buffer” present in Canon full frame DSLRs that allows several exposures to be taken in quick succession even with LENR on.
With all Canon R cameras, turning on LENR forces the camera to take a dark frame after every light frame, doubling the time it takes to finish every exposure. That’s a price many photographers aren’t willing to pay, but on warm nights I find it can be essential, and a best practice, for the reward of cleaner images out of camera. I found it is certainly a good practice with the R5.
TIP: If you find hot pixels are becoming more obvious over time, try this trick: turn on the Clean Manually routine for 30 seconds to a minute. In some cameras this can remap the hot pixels so the camera can better eliminate them.
Using LENR with the R5 did not introduce any oddities such as oddly-coloured, green or wiped-out stars. Even without LENR I saw no evidence of green stars, a flaw that plagues some Sony cameras at all times, or Nikons when using LENR.
Canons have always been known for their good star colours, and the R5 maintains the tradition. According to DPReview the R5 has a mild low-pass anti-alias filter in front of its sensor. Cameras which lack such a sensor filter do produce sharper images, but stars that occupy only one or two pixels might not de-Bayer properly into the correct colours. I did not find that an issue with the R5.
As in the R6, I also saw no evidence of “star-eating,” a flaw Nikons and Sonys have been accused of over the years, due to aggressive in-camera noise reduction even on raw files. Canons have largely escaped charges of star-eating.
The R5 I bought was a stock “off-the-shelf” model. It is Canon’s now-discontinued EOS Ra that was “filter-modified” to record a greater level of the deep-red wavelength from red nebulas in the Milky Way. As I show below, compared to the Ra, the R5 did well, but could not record the depth of nebulosity the Ra can, to be expected for a stock camera.
However, bright nebulas will still be good targets for the R5. But if it’s faint nebulosity you are after, both in wide-field Milky Way images and telescopic close-ups, consider getting an R5 “spectrum modified” by a third-party supplier. Or modifying an EOS R.
EDGE ARTIFACTS and EDGE GLOWS
DSLRs are prone to vignetting along the top and bottom of the frame from shadowing by the upraised mirror and mirror box. Not having a mirror, and a sensor not deeply recessed in the body, largely eliminates this edge vignetting in mirrorless cameras.
While the Ra shows a very slight vignetting along the bottom of the frame (visible in the example above), the R5 was clean and fully illuminated to the edges, as it should be.
I was also pleased to see the R5 did not exhibit any annoying “amp glows” — dim, often magenta glows at the edge of the frame in long exposures, created by heat emitted from sensor electronics adding infrared (IR) glows to the image.
I saw noticeable amp glows in the Canon R6 which could only be eliminated by taking LENR dark frames. It’s a flaw that has yet to be eliminated with firmware updates. Taking LENR darks is not required with the R5, except to reduce thermal hot pixels as noted above.
With a lack of IR amp glows, the R5 should work well when filter-modified to record either more visible Hydrogen-alpha red light, or deeper into the infrared spectrum.
Resolution — Nightscapes
Now we come to the very reason to get an R5, its high resolution. Is the difference visible in typical astrophotos? In a word, yes. If you look closely.
If people only see your photos on Facebook or Instagram, no one will ever see any improvement in your images! But if your photos are seen as large prints, or you are simply a stickler for detail, then you will be happy with the R5’s 45 megapixels. (Indeed, you might wish to wait for the rumoured even higher megapixel Canon 5S!)
Nightscapes, and indeed all landscape photos by day or by night, is where you will see the benefit of more megapixels. Finer details in the foreground show up better. Images are less pixelated. In test images with all three cameras, the R5 did provide sharper images to be sure. But you do have to zoom in a lot to appreciate the improvement.
Resolution — lunar imaging
The Moon through a telescope is another good test of resolution. The above comparison shows how the R5’s smaller 4.4-micron pixels do provide much sharper details and less pixelation than the R6.
Of course, one could shoot at an even longer focal length to increase the “plate scale” with the R6. But at that same longer focal length the R5 will still provide better resolution, up to the point where its pixels are sampling more than what the atmospheric seeing conditions permit to be resolved. For lunar and planetary imaging, smaller pixels are always preferred, as they allow you to reach the seeing limit with shorter and often faster optical systems.
Resolution — deep sky
On starfields, the difference is not so marked. As I showed in my review of the R6, with “only” 20 megapixels the R6 can still provide detailed deep-sky images.
However, in comparing the three cameras above, with images taken at a focal length of 420mm, the R5 does provide sharper stars, with faint stars better recorded, and with less blockiness (i.e. “square stars”) on all the star images. At that focal length the plate scale with the R5 is 2.1 arc seconds per pixel. With the R6 it is 3.2 arc seconds per pixel.
The R5 is a good choice for shooting open and globular star clusters, or any small targets such as planetary nebulas, especially with shorter focal length telescopes. Bright targets will allow using lower ISOs, mitigating any of the R5’s extra noise.
With an 800mm focal length telescope, the plate scale with the R5 will be 1.1 arc seconds per pixel, about the limit most seeing conditions will permit resolving. With even longer focal length telescopes, the R5’s small pixels would be oversampling the image, with little gain in resolution, at least for deep-sky subjects. Lunar and planetary imaging can benefit from plate scales of 0.5 arc seconds per pixel or smaller.
CAN YOU CreatE resolution?
Now, one can argue that today’s AI-driven scaling programs such as ON1 Resize AI and Topaz Gigapixel AI can do a remarkable job up-sizing images while enhancing and sharpening details. Why buy a higher-megapixel camera when you can just sharpen images from a lower-resolution model?
While these AI programs can work wonders on regular images, I’ve found their machine-learning seems to know little about stars, and can often create unwanted artifacts.
In scaling up an R6 image by 200%, ON1 Resize AI 2022 made a mess of the stars and sky background. Topaz Gigapixel AI did a much better job, leaving few artifacts. But using it to double the R6 image in pixel count still produced an image that does not look as sharp as an original R5 image, despite the latter having fewer pixels than the upsized R6 image.
Yes, we are definitely pixel-peeping! But I think this shows that it is better to have the pixels to begin with in the camera, and to not depend on software to generate sharpness and detail.
The R5’s 45-megapixel sensor also makes possible its headline selling point when it was released in 2020: 8K movie recording, with movies sized 8192 x 4320 (DCI standard) or 7680 x 4320 (UHD standard) at 29.97 frames per second, almost IMAX quality.
Where the R6’s major selling point for me was its low-light video capability, the R5’s 8K video prowess was less important. Or so I thought. With testing, I can see it will have its place in astrophotography, especially solar eclipses.
Unlike the original Canon R and Rp, the R5 and R6 can shoot 4K movies sampled from the full width of their sensors, so there is no crop factor in the field of view recorded with any lens.
However, like the R6, the R5 also offers the option of a Movie Crop mode which samples a 4K movie from the central 4096 (4K-D) or 3840 (4K-U) pixels of the sensor. As I show above, this provides a “zoomed-in” image with no loss of resolution, useful when wide field of view is not so important as is zooming into small targets, such as for lunar and solar movies.
So what format produces the best resolution when shooting movies? As I show above, magnified frame grabs of the Moon demonstrate that shooting at 8K provides a much less pixelated and sharper result than either the 4K-Fine HQ (which creates a “High-Quality” 4K movie downsampled from 8K) or a standard 4K movie.
Shooting a 4K movie with the R6 also produced a similar result to the 4K movies from the R5. The slightly softer image in the R5’s 4K frame can, I think, be attributed more to atmospheric seeing.
Solar eclipse use
Shooting the highest resolution movies of the Moon will be of prime interest to astrophotographers when the Moon happens to be passing in front of the Sun!
That will happen along a narrow path that crosses North America on April 8, 2024. Capturing the rare total eclipse of the Sun in 8K video will be a goal of many. At the last total solar eclipse in North America, on August 21, 2017, I was able to shoot it in 4K by using a then state-of-the-art top-end Canon DSLR loaned to me by an IMAX movie production company!
And who knows, by 2024 we might have 100-megapixel cameras capable of shooting and recording the firehose of data from 12K video! But for now, even 8K can be a challenge.
However, do you need to shoot 8K to get sharp Moon, Sun or eclipse movies? The above shows the 8K frame-grab compared to the R5’s best quality full-frame 4K Fine, and the R5’s and R6’s 4K Movie Crop mode that doesn’t resample or bin pixels from the larger sensor to create a 4K movie. The Cropped movies look only slightly softer than the R5 at 8K, with less pixelation than the 4K Fine HQ movie.
When shooting the Sun or Moon through a telescope or long telephoto lens, the wide field of a full-frame movie might not be required, even to take in the two- or three-degree-wide solar corona around the eclipsed Sun.
However, if a wide field for the maximum extent of the outer corona, combined with sharp resolution is the goal, then a camera like the Canon R5 capable of shooting 8K movies will be the ticket.
And 8K will be ideal for wide-angle movies of the passage of the Moon’s shadow during any eclipse, or for moderate fields showing the eclipsed Sun flanked by Jupiter and Venus on April 8, 2024.
Like the R6, the R5 offers the option of shooting movies in Canon’s C-Log3 profile, which records internally in 10-bit, preserving more dynamic range in movies, up to 12 stops. The resulting movie looks flat, but when “colour graded” later in post, the movie records much more dynamic range, as I show above. Without C-Log3, the bright sunlit lunar crescent is blown out, as will be the Sun’s inner corona.
The bright crescent Moon with dim Earthshine is a good practice-run stand-in for the eclipsed Sun with its wide range of brightness from the inner to the outer corona.
Sample Moon Movies
For the full comparison of the R5 and R6 in my test shoot of the crescent Moon, see this narrated demo movie on Vimeo for the 4K movies, shot in various modes, both full-frame and cropped, with C-Log3 on and off.
Keep in mind that video compression in the on-line version may make it hard to see the resolution difference between shooting modes.
A “private link” 10-minute video on Vimeo demonstrating 4K video clips with the R5 and R6.
For a movie of the 8K footage, though downsized to 4K for the Vimeo version (the full sized 8K file was 29 Gigs!), see this sample movie below on Vimeo.
A “private link” video on Vimeo demonstrating 8K video clips with the R5.
Like the R6, the R5 can shoot at a dragged shutter speed as slow as 1/8-second. That slow shutter, combined with a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens, and ISOs as high as 51,200 are the keys to shooting movies of the night sky.
Especially auroras. Only when auroras get shadow-casting bright can we shoot at the normal 1/30-second shutter speed of movies and at lower ISOs.
I was able to shoot a decent aurora one night from home with both the R5 and R6, and with the same fast TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5 RF lens. The sky and aurora changed in brightness from the time I shot with the R6 first to the R5 later. But even so, the movies serve as a look at how the two cameras perform for real-time aurora movies.
Auroras are where we need to shoot full-frame, for the maximum field of view, and at high ISOs. The R5’s maximum ISO is 51,200, while the R6 goes up to 204,800, though it is largely unusable at that speed for actual shooting, just for previewing scenes.
As expected, the R6 was much less noisy than the R5, by about two stops. The R5 is barely usable at ISO 51,200, while the R6 works respectably well at that speed. If auroras get very bright, then slower ISOs can be used, making the R5 a possible camera for low-light use, but it would not be a first choice, unless 8K auroras are a must-have.
Sample aurora Movies
For a narrated movie comparing the R5 and R6 at 4K on the aurora, stepping both through a range of ISO speeds, see this movie at Vimeo.
A “private link” video on Vimeo demonstrating 4K aurora clips with the R5 and R6.
For a movie showing the same aurora shot with the R5 at 8K, see this movie. However, it has been down-sized to 4K for on-line viewing, so you’ll see little difference between it and the 4K footage. Shooting at 8K did not improve or smooth noise performance.
A “private link” video on Vimeo demonstrating 8K aurora clips with the R5.
BATTERY LIFE — Stills and video
Canon’s new LP-E6NH battery supports charging through the USB-C port and has a higher 2130mAh capacity than the 1800mAh LP-E6 batteries. However, the R5 is compatible with the older batteries.
On mild nights, I found the R5 ran fine on one battery for the 3 to 4 hours needed to shoot a time-lapse sequence, or set of deep-sky images, with power to spare. Now, that was with the camera in “Airplane Mode,” which I always use regardless, to turn off the power-consuming WiFi and Bluetooth, which I never use on cameras.
As I noted with the R6, for demanding applications, especially in winter, the R5 can be powered by an outboard USB power bank that has Power Delivery or “PD” capability.
The exception for battery use is when shooting videos, especially 8K. That can drain a battery after an hour of recording, though it takes only 10 to 12 minutes of 8K footage to fill a 128 gigabyte card. While less than half that length will be needed to capture any upcoming total eclipse from diamond ring to diamond ring, the result is still a massive file.
More critically, the R5 is also infamous for overheating and shutting down when shooting 8K movies, after a time that depends on how hot the environment is. I found the R5 shot 8K or 4K Fine HQ for about 22 minutes at room temperature before the overheat warning first came on, then shut off recording two or three minutes later. Movie recording cannot continue until the R5 cools off sufficiently, which takes at least 10 to 15 minutes.
That deficiency might befoul unwary eclipse photographers in 2024. The answer for “no-worry” 8K video recording is the Canon R5C, the video-centric version of the R5, with a built-in cooling fan.
Features and usability
While certainly not designed with astrophotography in mind, the R5 has several hardware and firmware features that are astrophoto friendly.
Like all Canon cameras made in the last few years, the R5 has Canon’s standard articulated screen, which can be angled up for convenient viewing when on a telescope. It is also a full touch screen, with all important camera settings and menus adjustable on screen, good for use at night.
With 2.1 million dots, the R5’s rear screen has a higher resolution than the 1.62-million-dot screen of the R6, and much higher than the 1 million pixels of the Rp’s screen, but is the same resolution as in the R and Ra.
The R5, like the original R, has a top backlit LCD screen for display of current camera settings, battery level and Bulb timer. The lack of a top screen was one of my criticisms of the R6.
Yes, the hardware Mode dial of the R6 and Rp does make it easier to switch shooting modes, such as quickly changing from Stills to Movie. However, for astrophotography the top screen provides useful information during long exposures, and is handy to check when the camera is on a telescope or tripod aimed up to the sky, without spoiling dark adaptation. I prefer to have one.
The R5’s remote shutter port, used for connecting external intervalometers or time-lapse motion controllers, is Canon’s professional-grade three-pronged N3 connector. It’s sturdier than the 2.5mm mini-phono plug used by the Rp, R and R6. It’s a plus for the R5.
As with all new cameras, the R5’s USB port is a USB-C type. A USB-C cable is included.
Like the R6, the R5 has a dedicated magnification button on the back panel for zooming in when manually focusing or inspecting images. In the R and Ra, that button is only on the touch panel rear screen, where it has to be called up by paging to that screen, an inconvenience. While virtual buttons on a screen are easier to see and operate at night than physical buttons, I find a real Zoom button handy as it’s always there.
To handle the high data rates of 8K video and also 4K video when set to the high frame rate option of 120 fps, one of the R5’s memory card slots requires a CFexpress Type B card, a very fast but more costly format.
As I had no card reader for this format, I had to download movies via a USB cable directly from the camera to my computer, using Canon’s EOS Utility software, as Adobe Downloader out of Adobe Bridge refused to do the job. Plan to buy a card reader.
In the menus, you can choose to record video only to the CFexpress, and stills only to the SD card, or both stills and movies to each card for a backup, with the limitation that 8K and 4K 120fps won’t record to the SD card, even very fast ones.
Unlike the Canon R and Ra (which both annoyingly lack a built-in intervalometer), but like the R6, the R5 has an Interval Timer in its firmware. This can be used to set up a time-lapse sequence, but with exposures only up to the maximum of 30 seconds allowed by the camera’s shutter speed settings, true of most in-camera intervalometers. Even so, this is a useful function for simple time-lapses.
As with most recent Canon DSLRs and DSLMs, the R5 also includes a built-in Bulb Timer. This allows setting an exposure of any length (many minutes or hours) when the camera is in Bulb mode. However, it cannot be combined with the Interval Timer for multiple exposures; it is good only for single shots. Nevertheless, I find it useful for shooting long exposures for the ground component of nightscape scenes.
While Canon cameras don’t have Custom Function buttons per se (unlike Sonys), the R5’s various buttons and dials can be custom programmed to functions other than their default assignments. I assign the * button to turning on and off the Focus Peaking display and, as shown, the AF Point button to a feature only available as a custom function, one that temporarily brightens the rear screen to full, good for quickly checking framing at night.
A handy feature of the R5 is the ability to add an audio notation to images. You shoot the image, play it back, then use the Rate button (if so assigned) to record a voice memo of up to 30 seconds, handy for making notes in the field about an image or a shoot. The audio notes are saved as WAV files with the same file number as the image.
Like other EOS R cameras, the R5 has this notorious “feature” that trips up every new user who attaches their Canon camera to a telescope or manual lens, only to find the shutter suddenly doesn’t work. The answer is to turn ON “Release Shutter w/o Lens” found buried under Custom Functions Menu 4. Problem solved!
I provide more details of other features and settings of the R5, many of which are common to the R6, in my review of the R6 here.
No question, the Canon R5 is costly. Most buyers would need to have very good daytime uses to justify its purchase, with astrophotography a secondary purpose.
That said, other than low-light night sky videos, the R5 does work very well for all forms of astrophotography, providing a level of resolution that lesser cameras simply cannot.
Nevertheless, if it is just deep-sky imaging that is of interest, then you might be better served with a dedicated cooled-sensor CMOS camera, such as one of the popular ZWO models, and the various accessories that need to accompany such a camera.
But for me, when it came time to buy another premium camera, I still preferred to have a model that could be used easily, without computers, for many types of astro-images, particularly nightscapes, tracked wide-angle starfields, as well as telescopic images.
Since buying the R5, after first suspecting it would prove too noisy to be practical, it has in fact become my most used camera, at least for all images where the enhanced red sensitivity of the EOS Ra is not required. But for low-light night videos, the R6 is the winner.
However, to make use of the R5’s resolution, you do have to match it with sharp, high-quality lenses and telescope optics, and have the computing power to handle its large files, especially when stitching or stacking lots of them. The R5 can be just the start of a costly spending spree!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Equinox brings a favourable season for great auroras, while the morning planets begin to cluster in the east.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Once the pesky full supermoon gets out of the way, the heart of Milky Way season will be infull 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.
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.
It’s Harvest Moon time, with this annual special Full Moon coming early before the equinox this year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 50mm lens (again assuming a full frame camera) frames the Moon with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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™ bySimulation 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.
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.
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.
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.
The inner planets appear in the evening sky, while Mars meets M35.
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.
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.
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.
While eastern North America misses the total lunar eclipse, two weeks later observers in the east do get to see a partial solar eclipse.
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.
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.
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.
The popular Perseid meteors peak, and we can see (maybe!) the extremely close conjunction of Mercury and Mars.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
The year ends with a chance to see four planets together at dusk.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!
Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet dis