The Northern Lights of Yellowknife


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

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

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

Somba K’e Park

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

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

Pilot’s Monument

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

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

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

Rotary Park

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

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

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

Prosperous Lake

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

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

Aurora Tourists at Prosperous Lake (Sept 5-6, 2019)
A group of aurora tourists take their aurora selfies at Prosperous Lake, near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot on the Ingraham Trail for aurora watching. This was about 1:15 a.m. MDT. This is a single 5-second exposure with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO800.
Aurora over Prosperous Lake, Yellowknife (Sept 5-6, 2019)
The Northern Lights over the end of Prosperous Lake, on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot for aurora watching in the area. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Sigma 20mm lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

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

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

Madeline Lake

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

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

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

Selfie Shadow at Madeline Lake with Aurora
A novelty shot of the shadow of me and my tripod projected across a misty Madeline Lake by car headlights from arriving aurora tourists at this popular spot on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife. This was September 7, 2019. A single exposure.
Aurora Tourists at Madeline Lake
A group of aurora tourists take in the show at Madeline Lake, on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot for the busloads of visitors being shuttled around each night. The Big Dipper is at centre. This is a single exposure, 6 seconds at ISO 3200 with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III.

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

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

The Ramparts

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

Photographer at Cameron River Ramparts
Photographer Stephen Bedingfield is shooting the Northern Lights at the Ramparts waterfalls on the Cameron River, September 8, 2019. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.
Aurora over Cameron River Ramparts
The Northern Lights over the waterfalls known as the Ramparts on the Cameron River east of Yellowknife, NWT, on September 8, 2019. This is a single exposure of 20 seconds with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600, blended with two light painted exposures of the same duration but with the water illuminated to make it more white.

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

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

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

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

Prelude Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

It’s in 4K on Vimeo. Enjoy!

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

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

 

Testing the MSM Tracker


MSM Test Title

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Tested

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounting Options

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

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

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

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

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

Polar Alignment

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

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

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

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


UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1

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


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

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

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

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

Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panning the Ground 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Too Slow or Too Fast

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

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

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

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

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

Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Math

Where does that number come from? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By far the best speed for motion control time-lapses would have been 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed. 

MSM — please ditch the 1° rate. 

Though MSM claims the unit was designed by astrophotographers, it’s hard to imagine any time-lapse experts thinking the speeds they settled on were the best. 

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

But … If only the MSM had a better 0.1° speed, it would be ideal for beginners wanting to dabble in motion-control time-lapse.

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

Time-Lapse Movie Examples

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

Battery Life

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

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

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

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

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

Other Caveats

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

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

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

MSM Polar Aligned On Back


UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019

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

I’m sorry to report it didn’t.

MSM Gauda-135mm Back-NE
This shows 300% blow-ups of a star field rising in the northeast sky taken with the new Gauda unit and with a 135mm lens, each for 2 minutes in quick succession. Less than 50% of the frames were useable and untrailed. (The first frames were shot through high clouds.)
MSM Gauda-135mm Back-Zenith
Taken the same night as the previous set, this shows 24 shots taken in quick succession with the same 135mm lens for 2 minutes each but with the camera aimed overhead to the zenith. None of the images were usable. All were trailed, most very badly.

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

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

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

Comparison with the Star Adventurer

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

Star Adventurer-135mm-NE
The same field looking northeast, with 300% blow-ups of 2-minute exposures with the 135mm lens and Star Adventurer tracker. As is usual with this unit, about 20% of the frames show mis-tracking, but none as badly as the MSM.
Star Adventurer-135mm-Zenith
Aiming the camera to the zenith the Star Adventurer again showed a good success rate with a slightly greater percentage trailed, but again, none as badly as the MSM.

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

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

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

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

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

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


UPDATED CONCLUSIONS

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

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

It can also be used for simple motion-control time-lapses, provided you do to the math to get it to turn by the amount you want, working around the too-slow or too-fast speeds. A 0.1° per move rate would have been much better. 

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

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

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

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

 

How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas


The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone

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

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

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


PART 1 — SHOOTING 

What Equipment Do You Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting Horizon Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shooting 360° Panoramas

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

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

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


Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas

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

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

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

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


Automating the Pan Shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When to Shoot the Milky Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PART 2 — STITCHING

Developing Panorama Segments

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

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

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

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

I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions. 

There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.

DxO Photo Lab Example
Developing with DxO
Among a host of programs competing with Adobe, DxO PhotoLab does a good job developing raw files, with the ability to copy and paste settings from one image to many. It has excellent noise reduction and shadow detail recovery. However, it cannot layer images.

The key is developing each raw file identically, usually by working on one segment, then copying and pasting its settings to all the others in a set. Not all raw developers have this “Copy Settings” function. For example, Affinity Photo does not. It works very well as a layer-based editor to replace Photoshop, but is crude in its raw developing “Persona” functions. 

While panorama stitching software will apply corrections to smooth out image-to-image variations, I find it is best to ensure all the segments look as similar as possible at the raw stage for brightness, contrast, and colour correction. 

Do be aware that among social media groups and chat rooms devoted to nightscape imaging a lot of myth and misinformation abounds about how to process and stitch panoramas, and why some don’t work. Someone having a problem with a particular pano will ask why, and get ten different answers from well-meaning helpers, most of them wrong!


Stitching Simple Panoramas

For example, if your segments don’t join well it likely isn’t because you needed to use a panorama head (one oft-heard bit of advice). I never do. The issue is usually a lack of sufficient overlap. Or perhaps the image content moved too much from frame to frame as the photographer took too long to shoot the set. 

Or, even when quickly-shot segments do have lots of overlap, stitching software can still get confused if adjoining segments contain featureless content or content that changes, such as segments over rippling water with no identifiable “landmarks” for the software to latch onto. 

The primary problems, however, arise from using software that just isn’t up to the task. Programs that work great on simple panoramas (as the next three examples show) will fail when trying to stitch a more demanding set of segments.

11B-Adobe Camera Raw Panorama
Stitching with Adobe Camera Raw
The panorama function in all recent versions of Adobe Camera Raw (Lightroom Classic has the same feature) can do a superb job on simple panoramas, such as the moonlit Morant’s Curve pano, with the magical Boundary Warp option allowing you to fill the frame without cropping and losing content.

For example, for partial horizon panos shot with 20mm to 50mm lenses, I’ll use the panorama function now built into Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom Classic, and also in the mobile-friendly Lightroom app. As I show above, ACR can do a wonderful job, yielding a raw DNG file that can continue to be edited non-destructively. It’s by far the easiest and fastest option, and is my first choice.

Another choice, not shown here, is the Photomerge function from within Photoshop, which yields a layered and masked master file, and provides the option for “content-aware” filling of missing areas. It can sometimes work on panos that ACR balks at. 

12-ON1 PhotoRAW
Stitching with ON1 PhotoRAW
The Adobe competitor ON1 PhotoRAW also provides a good panorama stitching feature that can work with both simple and many multi-tier panos. It provides a flattened result, even when exporting as a .PSD Photoshop file.

Two programs popular as Adobe alternatives, ON1 PhotoRAW (above) and the aforementioned Affinity Photo (below), also have very capable panorama stitching functions.

However, in testing both programs with the demanding Bow Lake multi-tier panorama I used below with other programs, ON1 2019.5 did an acceptable job, while Affinity 1.7 failed. It works best on simpler panoramas, like this partial scene with a 24mm lens.

13-Affinity Photo
Stitching with Affinity Photo
Another program vying to unseat Adobe products is Affinity Photo. It, too, does a fine job on simple panos, but tends to fail on multi-tier panoramas. There is no choice of panorama projections or option to export a layered master.

Even if they succeed when stitching 360° panoramas, such general-purpose editing programs, Adobe’s included, provide no option for choosing how the final scene gets framed. You have no control over where the program puts the ends of the scene.

Or the program just fails, producing a result like this.

14A-Camera Raw Multi-Tier Fail
When Stitching Goes Awry
Throw a multi-tier pano at Adobe Camera Raw and you might end up with this type of unsalvageable result. Here’s where you have to turn to specialized panorama software
14B-Adobe Camera Raw 14mm Fail
Warp Factor
Even single-tier panos but shot with 14mm rectilinear (in this case) or fish-eye lenses will create warped results with ACR, only partly correctable with Boundary Warp.

Far worse is that multi-tier panoramas or, as I show above, even single-tier panos shot with very wide lenses, will often completely befuddle your favourite editing software, with it either refusing to perform the stitch or producing bizarre results.

Some photographers attempt to correct such wild distortions with lots of ad hoc adjustments with image-warping filters. But that’s completely unnecessary if you use the right software to begin with. 


Stitching Complex Panoramas

When conventional software fails, I turn to the dedicated stitching program PTGui, $150 for MacOS or Windows. The name comes from “Panorama Tools – Graphical User Interface.” 

15-PTGui-Rectangular
Stitching with PTGui
PTGui handles whatever complexity of panorama you can throw at it, either single or multi-tier (in this example), offering an accurate preview, a choice of projection modes (this is “equirectangular”), and the ability to quickly move the pano around to frame it as you like before exporting either a flattened or a layered master.

While PTGui can read raw files from most cameras, it will not read any of the development adjustments you made to those files using Lightroom, Camera Raw, or any other raw developers. 

So, my workflow is to develop all the raw segments, export them out as 16-bit TIFFs, then import those into PTGui. It can detect what lens was used to take the images, information PTGui needs to stitch accurately. If you used a manual lens you can enter the lens focal length and type (rectilinear or fish-eye) yourself. 

18A-PTGui-Spherical
Spherical Scene with PTGui
PTGui makes it easy to re-project the same set of images into other map projections, in this case as a circular fish-eye scene which can be rotated as desired.

I include a full tutorial on using PTGui in my eBook linked to above, but suffice to say that the program usually does a superb job first time and very quickly. You can drag the panorama around to frame the scene as you like, and change the projection at will to create rectangular or spherical format images, as above, and even so-called “little planet” projections that appear as if you were looking down at the scene from space. 

Occasionally PTGui complains about some frames, requiring you to manually intervene to pick the same stars or horizon features in adjacent frames to provide enough matching alignment points until it is happy. Its interface also leaves something to be desired, with essential floating windows disappearing behind other mostly blank panels. 

15B-Layered Photoshop
Adjusting Layers
The layered output from PTGui produces a massive image but one that allows fine adjustments to the masks (by using a white paint brush) to correct mismatches like we see see here along the mountain peak.

When exporting the finished panorama I usually choose to export it as a layered 16-bit Photoshop .PSD or, with big panos, as a Photoshop .PSB “big” document. 

The reason is that in aligning the moving stars PTGui (indeed, all programs) can produce a few “fault lines” along the horizon, requiring a manual touch up to the masks to clean up mismatched horizon content, as I show above. Having a layered and masked master makes this easy to do non-destructively, though that’s best done in Photoshop. 

Affinity Photo Layers
Opening with Affinity
Affinity Photo is one of the few non-Adobe programs that can open large Photoshop .PSB files, and honour the layers, keeping them and the masks that PTGui exports intact.

However, Affinity Photo (above) can also read layered .PSD and .PSB Photoshop files, preserving the layers. By comparison, ON1 PhotoRAW flattens layered Photoshop files when it imports them, one deficiency that prevents this program from being a true Photoshop alternative. 

The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone
Compressing the Milky Way
A common final step is to compress the long dimension of the image to change its aspect ratio to one better suited to publication. But doing so highly distorts the grand sweep of the Milky Way.

Once a 360° panorama is in a program like Photoshop, some photographers like to “squish” the panorama horizontally to make it more square, for ease of printing and publication. I prefer not to do that, as it makes the Milky Way look overly tall, distorted, and in my opinion, ugly. But each to their own style.

You can test out a limited trial version of PTGui for free, but I think it is worth the cost as an essential tool for panorama devotees. 


Other Stitching Options

16-Microsoft ICE
Stitching with Microsoft ICE
Image Composite Editor, for Windows only but free from Microsoft Research, also does a superb job on all panoramas (as it did with this test case), with accurate stitching and preview, a choice of projections, cropping, and the option for a layered output.

However, Windows users can also try Image Composite Editor (ICE), free from Microsoft Research. As shown above in my test 3-tier pano, ICE works very well on complex panoramas, has a clean, user-friendly interface, offers a choice of geometric projections, and can export a master file with each segment on its own layer, if desired, for later editing. 

17A-HugIn Software
Stitching with HugIn
The open-source program HugIn is free, but suffers from an inaccurate preview, complex interface and workflow, and technical displays and functions only a programmer will love.

The free, open source program HugIn is based on the same Panorama Tools root software that PTGui uses. However, I find HugIn’s operation clunky and overly technical. Its export process is arcane yet renders out only a flattened image.

17B-Bow Lake from Hugin
HugIn Fail
The export of the same multi-tier pano that worked fine with PTGui and ICE failed with HugIn, with missing content and numerous mis-aligned areas of the landscape, tough to fix in the flattened output. 

In testing it with the same three-tier 21-segment pano that PTGui and ICE handled perfectly, HugIn failed to properly include one segment. However, it is free for MacOS and Windows, and so the price is right and is well worth a try. 

Bow Lake by Night Panorama (Spherical)
Fish-Eye Milky Way
In summer with the Milky Way overhead, a spherical projection is often best for presenting the Milky Way as your eye saw it, as a majestic band of light from horizon to horizon across the sky passing through the zenith.

With the superb tools now at our disposal, it is possible to create detailed panoramas of the night sky that convey the majesty of the Milky Way – and the night sky – as no single image can. Have fun!

— Alan, June 25, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com  

Shooting Moonstrikes at Dinosaur Park


Moonlight at Dino Park Title

It was a magical night as the rising Moon lit the Badlands with a golden glow.

When doing nightscape photography it’s often best not to fight the Moon, but to embrace it and use it as your light source.

I did this on a fine night, Easter Sunday, at one of my favourite nightscape spots, Dinosaur Provincial Park.

I set up two cameras to frame different views of the hoodoos as they lit up with the light of the rising waning Moon.

The night started out as a dark moonless evening as twilight ended. Then about 90 minutes after the arrival of darkness, the sky began to brighten again as the Moon rose to illuminate the eroded formations of the Park.

Moonrise Light at Dinosaur Park - West
The formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, lit by the rising gibbous Moon, off camera at left, on April 21/22, 2019. This is looking west, with the stars of the winter sky setting. Procyon is at right. Aphard in Hydra is above the hill. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and a single exposure for the sky, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens at f/5.6 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, each for 25 seconds. The images were from the end of a sequence shot for a time-lapse using the TimeLapse+ View intervaolometer. 

This was a fine example of “bronze hour” illumination, as some have aptly called it.

Photographers know about the “golden hour,” the time just before sunset or just after sunrise when the low Sun lights the landscape with a golden glow.

The Moon does the same thing, with a similar tone, though greatly reduced in intensity.

The low Moon, especially just after Full, casts a yellow or golden tint over the scene. This is caused by our atmosphere absorbing the “cold” blue wavelengths of moonlight, and letting through the “warm” red and yellow tones.

Making use of the rising (or setting) Moon to light a scene is one way to capture a nightscape lit naturally, and not with artificial lights, which are increasingly being frowned upon, if not banned at popular nightscape destinations.

StarryNightImage
A screen shot from the desktop app Starry Night (by Simulation Curriculum) showing the waning gibbous Moon rising in the SE on April 21. Such “planetarium” apps are useful for simulating the sky of a planned shoot.

“Bronze hour” lighting is great in still-image nightscapes. But in time-lapses the effect is more striking — indeed, in time-lapse lingo it is called a “moonstrike” scene.

The dark landscape suddenly lights up as if it were dawn, yet stars remain in the sky.

IMG_4579
A screen shot of a planning app that is a favourite of mine, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, set up to show the scene for moonrise on April 21 from the Park.

The best nights for such a moonstrike are ones with a waning gibbous or last quarter Moon. At these phases the Moon rises after sunset, to re-light a scene after evening twilight has faded.

On April 21 I made use of such a circumstance to shoot moonstrike stills and movies, not only for their own sake, but for use as illustrations in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-lapse eBook (at top here).

TimeLapse+View-Day Interval

One camera, the Nikon D750, I coupled with a device called a bramping intervalometer, in this case the TimeLapse+ View, shown above. It works great to automatically shift the shutter and ISO speeds as the sky darkens then brightens again.

Yes, in bright situations the camera’s own Auto Exposure and Auto ISO modes might accomplish this.

But … once the sky gets dark the Auto circuits fail and you’re left with hugely underexposed images.

The TimeLapse+ View, with its more sensitive built-in light meter, can track right through into full darkness, making it possible to shoot so-called “holy grail” time-lapses that go from daylight to darkness, from sunset to the Milky Way, all shot unattended.

Moonrise Light at Dinosaur Park - North
The eroding formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, lit by the rising gibbous Moon, off camera at right, on April 21/22, 2019. This is looking north, with Polaris at upper centre, Capella setting at left, Vega rising at right, and the W of Cassiopeia at lower centre. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one exposure from that set for the sky. All with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2.8 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200, each for 30 seconds.  

For the other camera, the Sony a7III (with the Laowa 15mm lens I just reviewed) I set the camera manually, then shifted the ISO and shutter speed a couple of times to accommodate the darkening, then brightening of the scene.

Processing the resulting RAW files in the highly-recommended program LRTimelapse smoothed out all the jumps in brightness to make a seamless transition.

I also used the new intervalometer function that Sony has just added to the a7III with its latest firmware update. Hurray! I complained about the lack of an intervalometer in my original review of the Sony a7III. But that’s been fixed.

Moonrise Star Trails at Dinosaur Park
This is looking north, with the stars of the northern sky pivoting around Polaris. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and 250 exposures for the sky, blended with Lighten mode to create the stails. However, I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions in Photoshop to do the stacking, creating the tapering effect in the process. All exposures with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2.8 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200, each for 30 seconds. 

I shot 425 frames with the Sony, which I not only turned into a movie but, as one can with time-lapse frames, I also stacked into a star trail still image, in this case looking north to the circumpolar stars.

To do the stacking I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop, developed and sold by StarCircleAcademy.

I prefer this action set over dedicated programs such as StarStaX, because it works directly with the developed Raw files. There’s no need to create a set of JPGs to stack, compromising image quality, and departing from the non-destructive workflow I prefer to maintain.

While the still images are very nice, the intended final result was this movie above, a short time-lapse vignette using clips from both cameras. Do watch in HD.

I rendered out the frames from the Sony both as a “normal” time-lapse, and as one with accumulating star trails, again using the Advanced Stacker Plus actions to create the intermediate frames for assembling into the movie.

All these techniques, gear, and apps are explained in tutorials in my eBook, above. However, it’s always great to get a night perfect for putting the methods to work on a real scene.

— Alan, April 27, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Dinosaur Park in the Dark


Winter Sky Setting in Twilight at Dinosaur Park

There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. 

Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!

I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.

I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.

Winter Sky Setting at Dinosaur Park Panorama
This is a 240° panorama stitched from 17 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, each segment 20 seconds at f/1.4 and ISO 3200. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.

The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.

Spring Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park
A 360° panorama of the spring sky over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. This is a panorama of 12 segments taken with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, all for 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Taken at 30° spacings. Stitched with PTGui.

Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.

Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.

The Winter Stars and Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
This is a panorama stitched from 3 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750, for 20 seconds at f/2.2 and ISO 4000. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.

It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!

Spring Sky RIsing at Dinosaur Park Panorama
A 180° panorama of the spring sky and constellations rising in the east over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta on March 29, 2019. This is a stitch of 6 segments, each with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait mode, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Stitched with PTGui.

A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”

Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.

Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.

The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.

I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!

Clear skies!

— Alan, April 1, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Banff by Moonlight, a 25-Year Challenge


Selfie at Lake Louise in Moonlight

For two magical nights I was able to capture the Rockies by moonlight, with the brilliant stars of winter setting behind the mountains.

I’ve been waiting for nights like these for many years! I consider this my “25-Year Challenge!”

Back during my early years of shooting nightscapes I was able to capture the scene of Orion setting over Lake Louise and the peaks of the Continental Divide, with the landscape lit by the Moon.

Such a scene is possible only in late winter, before Orion sets out of sight and, in March, with a waxing gibbous Moon to the east to light the scene but not appear in the scene. There are only a few nights each year the photograph is possible. Most are clouded out!

Orion Over Lake Louise, 1995
Orion over Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta March 1995 at Full Moon 28mm lens at f/2.8 Ektachrome 400 slide film

Above is the scene in March 1995, in one of my favourite captures on film. What a night that was!

But it has taken 24 years for my schedule, the weather, and the Moon phase to all align to allow me to repeat the shoot in the digital age. Thus the Challenge.

Here’s the result.

Orion Setting over Victoria Glacier
Orion setting over the iconic Victoria Glacier at Lake Louise, with the scene lit by the light of the waxing Moon, on March 19, 2019. This is a panorama of 3 segments stitched with Adobe Camera Raw, each segment 8 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

Unlike with film, digital images make it so much easier to stitch multiple photos into a panorama.

In the film days I often shot long single exposures to produce star trails, though the correct exposure was an educated guess factoring in variables like film reciprocity failure and strength of the moonlight.

Below is an example from that same shoot in March 1995. Again, one of my favourite film images.

Orion Setting Over Mt Temple
Orion setting over Mount Temple, near Lake Louise, Banff National park, Alberta. March 1995. On Ektachrome 100 slide film, with a 28mm lens at f/8 for a roughly 20 minute exposure. Full moonlight provides the illumination

This year, time didn’t allow me to shoot enough images for a star trail. In the digital age, we generally shoot lots of short exposures to stack them for a trail.

Instead, I shot this single image of Orion setting over Mt. Temple.

Orion and Canis Major over Mt. Temple
The winter stars of Orion (centre), Canis Major (left) and Taurus (upper right) over Mt. Temple in Banff National Park. This is from the Morant’s Curve viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, on March 19, 2019. Illumination is from moonlight from the waxing gibbous Moon off frame to the left. This is a single 8-second exposure at f/3.2 with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

Plus I shot the panorama below, both taken at Morant’s Curve, a viewpoint named for the famed CPR photographer Nicholas Morant who often shot from here with large format film cameras. Kevin Keefe of Trains magazine wrote a nice blog about Morant.

Night Train in the Moonlight at Morant's Curve
A panorama of Morant’s Curve, on the Bow River in Banff National Park, with an eastbound train on the CPR tracks under the stars of the winter sky. Illumination is from the 13-day gibbous Moon off frame at left. Each segment is 8 seconds at f/3.2 and ISO 800 with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation.

I was shooting multi-segment panoramas when a whistle in the distance to the west alerted me to the oncoming train. I started the panorama segment shooting at the left, and just by good luck the train was in front of me at centre when I hit the central segment. I continued to the right to catch the blurred rest of the train snaking around Morant’s Curve. I was very pleased with the result.

The night before I was at another favourite spot, Two Jack Lake near Banff, to again shoot panoramas of the moonlit scene below the bright stars of the winter sky.

Parks Canada Red Chairs under the Winter Sky at Two Jack Lake
These are the iconic red chairs of Parks Canada, here at frozen Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park, and under the moonlit winter sky. This was March 18, 2019, with the scene illuminated by the gibbous Moon just at the frame edge here. This is a panorama of 11-segments, each 10 seconds at f/4 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

A run up to the end of the Vermilion Lakes road at the end of that night allowed me to capture Orion and Siris reflected in the open water of the upper lake.

Orion Setting in the Moonlight at Vermilion Lakes
The winter stars setting at Vermilion Lakes in Banff National Park, on March 18, 2019. This is a panorama cropped from a set of 11 images, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens at f/3.2 for 10 seconds each and the Nikon D750 at ISO 800, in portrait orientation.

Unlike in the film days, today we also have some wonderful digital planning tools to help us pick the right sites and times to capture the scene as we envision it.

This is a screen shot of the PhotoPills app in its “augmented reality” mode, taken by day during a scouting session at Two Jack, but showing where the Milky Way will be later that night in relation to the real “live” scene shot with the phone’s camera.

PhotoPills
PhotoPills

The app I like for planning before the trip is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This is a shot of the plan for the Lake Louise shoot. The yellow lines are the sunrise and sunset points. The thin blue line at lower right is the angle toward the gibbous Moon at about 10 p.m. on March 19.

TPE
The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Even better than TPE is its companion program TPE 3D, which allows you to preview the scene with the mountain peaks, sky, and illumination all accurately simulated for your chosen location. I am impressed!

TPE 3D
TPE 3D

Compare the simulation above to the real thing below, in a wide 180° panorama.

Lake Louise Panorama by Winter Moonlight
A panorama of Lake Louise in winter, in Banff National Park, Alberta, taken under the light of the waxing gibbous Moon, off frame here to the left. This was March 19, 2019. This is a crop from the original 16-segment panorama, each segment with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750, oriented “portrait.” Each segment was 8 seconds at f/3.2 and ISO 800.

These sort of moonlit nightscapes are what I started with 25 years ago, as they were what film could do well.

These days, everyone chases after dark sky scenes with the Milky Way, and they do look wonderful, beyond anything film could do. I shoot many myself. And I include an entire chapter in my ebook above about shooting the Milky Way.

But … there’s still a beauty in a contrasty moonlit scene with a deep blue sky from moonlight, especially with the winter sky and its population of bright stars and constellations.

Parks Canada Red Chairs under the Winter Stars at Mount Rundle
These are the iconic red chairs of Parks Canada, here on the Tunnel Mountain Drive viewpoint overlooking the Bow River and Mount Rundle, in Banff National Park, and under the moonlit winter sky. This is a panorama cropped from the original 12-segments, each 15 seconds at f/4 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

I’m glad the weather and Moon finally cooperated at the right time to allow me to capture these magical moonlit panoramas.

— Alan, March 26, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Non-Stop Northern Lights


Aurora over the Boreal Forest (Feb 8, 2019)

For 11 non-stop nights in February we had clear skies and Northern Lights in Churchill.

Every year in winter I visit Churchill, Manitoba to attend to groups of aurora tourists at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Few groups (indeed only two over the 35 years the program has been offered) go away having not seen the Lights during the 5-night program.

Aurora Group at Churchill Northern Studies Centre (Jan 31, 2019)
Guests in the Learning Vacations program at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre view the aurora on their first night of the program for 2019 on January 31. This is looking east, with the Big Dipper at left and Orion at right.

But this year was the opposite exception. Even locals were impressed by the run of clear nights and displays in early February. It was non-stop Northern Lights!

Photographer Shooting the Northern Lights #2 (Feb 8, 2019)
A photographer and volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (Brian) shoots the aurora from up the Rocket Range Road at the Centre. This was Feb 8, 2019 on a brutal night with brisk winds and high wind chills. This is a single exposure with the 15mm lens and Sony a7III.

Having auroras in Churchill isn’t unusual. It is located right under the auroral oval, so if it’s clear it would be unusual not to have some level of auroral activity.

Auroral Arcs, Loops and Swirls (Feb 5, 2019) #5 of 5
One of a short series of images showing the development of an aurora display from a classic arc into a more complex pattern of concentric arcs and with loops and swirls. This was Feb 5, 2019 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. The outburst lasted only 5 minutes or so and might have been due to the Bz interplanetary field turning south briefly. After this series, the display faded and fractured into faint arcs and a diffuse glow across the sky. This is a single exposure with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye and Nikon D750.

But particles from a coronal hole at the Sun fired up the lights and gave us good shows every night, often starting early in evening, rather than at midnight as is typically the case. The shows pre-empted my evening lectures!

Auroral Arc over Northern Studies Centre (Feb 8, 2019)
A classic arc of aurora over the Northern Studies Centre near Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 8, 2019. This was a night when both our Road Scholar group and a visiting Natural Habitat group was here. This is a single exposure with the 15mm lens and Sony a7III.

With shows every night, people soon got pretty fussy about what they’d get excited about. Some nights people viewed displays just from their bedroom windows!

Aurora Thru the Dorm Room Window
A view of the weak (by Churchill standards) aurora display on Feb 3, 2019 as seen through my dormitory window at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, to demonstrate how you can see the Lights from your room looking north.

Displays that on night one they would be thrilled with, by night four they were going back to bed awaiting a call later when “it gets really good!”

Aurora over Snowy Trees (Feb 9, 2019)
A band of subtly coloured aurora over the snowy trees of the northern boreal forest, Churchill, Manitoba. This was Feb 9/10, 2019. Cassiopeia is at left. This is looking north. This is a single 6-second exposure with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony A7III at ISO 3200.

While auroras were active every night, the Lights showed little in the way of varied colours. Notably absent was any of the deep red from high altitude oxygen. The aurora particles were just not energetic enough I presume, a characteristic of solar minimum displays.

Auroral Arc over CNSC - Feb 2, 2019
An all-sky aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, captured with a fish-eye lens, Feb 2, 2019. This is looking northwest. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Sigma 8mm lens at f/3.5 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.

Increasingly, as we enter into the depths of solar minimum, with a prolonged lull expected for the next few years, aurora chasers will have to travel north to the Arctic and to the auroral oval to see displays on demand. The Lights won’t come to us!

Coloured Curtains over CNSC (Feb 9, 2019)
A display of subtly coloured curtains over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, on February 9, 2019. The curtains exhibited rapid rippling this night. This is 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optic lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.

We did see fringes of pink at times along the bottom of the auroral curtains from glowing nitrogen molecules, but even this was subtle to the eye, though obvious to the camera.

The nitrogen pinks are usually accompanied by rapid dancing motions that are amazing to watch.

The music video linked to below provides the best view of what we saw. It is made entirely of real-time video, not time-lapses, of the Lights as seen over several nights from the Studies Centre.

The video is in 4K, so do click through for the best viewing. And the Vimeo page provides more details about the video and the techniques.

Enjoy!

The Sky is Dancing from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

If you are interested in attending one of the CNSC’s sessions — where you eat, sleep, learn, and view the Lights from a well-appointed and comfortable research centre at a dark site, check out the Study Centre’s “Learning Vacations” offerings.

The next sessions for the aurora are a year from now in February and March 2020.  I’ll be there!

— Alan, February 21, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com