On August 7, 2022 we were treated to a fine aurora and a superb showing of the anomalous STEVE arc across the sky.
Where I live in southern Alberta we are well positioned to see a variety of so-called “sub-auroral” phenomena — effects in the upper atmosphere associated with auroras but that appear south of the main auroral arc, thus the term “sub-auroral.”
The main auroral band typically lies over Northern Canada, at latitudes 58° to 66°, though it can move south when auroral activity increases. However, on August 7, the Kp Index was predicted to reach Kp5, on the Kp 0 to 9 scale, so moderately active, but not so active it would bring the aurora right over me at latitude 51° N, and certainly not down over the northern U.S., which normally requires Kp6 or higher levels.
So with Kp5, the aurora always appeared in my sky this night to the north, though certainly in a fine display, as I show above.
However, at Kp5, the amount of energy being pumped into the magnetosphere and atmosphere around Earth is high enough to trigger (through mechanisms only beginning to be understood) some of the unique phenomena that occur south of the main aurora. These often appear right over me. That was the case on August 7.
I captured the above panoramas of the aurora early in the night, when we also were treated to a late season display of noctilucent clouds low in the north. These are high altitude water-vapour clouds up almost as high as the aurora. They are common in June and July from here (we are also in an ideal latitude for seeing them). But early August was the latest I had ever sighted NLCs.
As the NLCs faded, the auroral arc brightened, promising a good show, in line with the predictions (which don’t always come true!). The main aurora reached a peak in activity about 11:30 pm MDT, when it was bright and moving along the northern and northeastern horizon. It then subsided in brightness and structure, giving the impression the show was over.
But that’s exactly when STEVE can — and this night did! — appear.
Sure enough, about 12:15 am, a faint arc appeared in the east, which slowly extended to cross the sky, passing straight overhead. This was STEVE, short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
STEVE is not an aurora per se, which is caused by electrons raining down from the magnetosphere. STEVE is a ribbon of hot (~3000°) gas flowing east to west. STEVE typically appears for no more than an hour, often less, before he fades from view.
At his peak, STEVE is often accompanied by green “picket-fence” fingers hanging down from the main pink band, which also have a westward rippling motion. These do seem to be caused by vertically moving electrons.
This night I shot with three cameras, with lenses from 21mm to 7.5mm, including two fish-eye lenses needed to capture the full extent of sky-spanning STEVE. I shot still, time-lapses, and real-time videos, compiled below.
Amateur photos like mine have been used to determine the height of STEVE, which seems to be 250 to 300 km, higher than the main components of a normal aurora. Indeed, previous images of mine have formed parts of the data sets for two research papers, with me credited as a citizen scientist co-author.
STEVE is a unique example of citizen scientists working with the professional researchers to solve a mystery that anyone who looks up at the right time and from the right place can see. August 7-8, 2022 and my backyard in Alberta was such a time and place.
As a bonus, a few frames recorded Perseid meteors, with the annual shower becoming active.
For a video compilation of some of my stills and videos from the night, see this Vimeo video.
This short video, below, captures time-lapses of the trails of geostationary satellites through southern Orion. It demonstrates the “crowded sky” we now have above us.
If you have tried photographing the Orion Nebula and Sword of Orion area with long tracked exposures you have no doubt seen these trails in your photos. Here I shot to purposely capture them in a time-lapse, for demonstration purposes.
Please note, these are not Starlink satellites. So do not blame Elon Musk for these!
These are the much more established geostationary or “geosynchronous” satellites that orbit 35,785 kilometres above Earth and so take 24 hours to orbit the planet. As such they remain apparently motionless over the same spot on Earth, allowing fixed dish antennas to aim at them.
The camera is on a mount that is tracking the sky as it turns from east to west, so the stars are staying still. What would normally be satellites fixed in one spot in the sky (after all, they are called “geostationary” for a reason) instead trail into short streaks traveling from west to east (right to left) in the frame. But in reality, it is the stars that are in motion behind the satellites.
The region of sky in Orion below the Orion Nebula (the object at top) lies south of the line that bisects the sky into northern and southern halves called the “celestial equator.” Most geostationary satellites also orbit in Earth’s equatorial plane and so appear along a belt near the celestial equator in the sky.
In this video, however, they appear about 5° to 7° south of the celestial equator (which runs through the famous Belt of Orion off frame at top). That’s because I live north of the equator of the Earth, at a latitude of 51° north. So parallax makes the geosat belt appears south of the celestial equator in my sky. From a site in the southern hemisphere the geosat belt would appear north of the celestial equator.
You’ll notice some satellites travelling diagonally — they are not geosats. You’ll also see some flashing or pulsing satellites — they are likely tumbling objects, perhaps spent rocket boosters.
The satellites are visible because they are high enough to reflect sunlight even in the middle of the night, as the sequences each end about 11:30 to midnight local time.
But in this video the satellites are not flaring — this is their normal brightness. During flare season around the two equinoxes geosats can become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. For a video of that phenomenon see my video shot in October 2020, below.
TECH DETAILS FOR “TRACKS OF THE GEOSATS” VIDEO:
The video at top contains time-lapses shot on two nights: January 18 and 20, 2021. Both are made from hundreds of frames taken through a William Optics RedCat astrograph at f/5 with a 250mm focal length. The field of view is 8° by 5.5°.
Each exposure is 30 seconds long, taken at a one second interval. The camera was a Canon 6D MkII at ISO 3200 on January 18 and ISO 1600 on January 20 in the brighter moonlight that night.
In the first sequence from January 18 the equatorial mount, an Astro-Physics Mach1, is left to track on its own and is unguided. So the stars wobble back and forth slightly due to periodic error in the mount. The field also drifts north due to slight misalignment on the pole. Clouds pass through the field during the shoot.
In the second clip from January 20, taken with a quarter Moon lighting the sky, the mount was autoguided, using an MGEN3 auto-guider. So the stars remained better fixed over the 5.5 hours of shooting. A slight glitch appears near the end where I swapped camera batteries, and the camera turned ever so slightly causing the stars to enlarge a bit for a moment.
The frames were processed in Adobe Camera Raw and LRTimelapse
I then assembled exported JPGs with TimeLapseDeFlicker, using a 3-frame Lighten blend mode to lengthen the trails. The final version was assembled with TLDF’s All Frames mode (shown above) where every frame gets stacked for an accumulated total, to show the busy sky traffic!
On two clear evenings the Harvest Moon rose red and and large over the Alberta prairie.
I present a short music video (linked to below) of time-lapse sequences of the Harvest Moon of 2020 rising. I shot the sequences through a small telescope to zoom in on the Moon’s disk as it rose over the flat horizon of the prairie near where I live. I love being able to see the horizon!
Note the effects of atmospheric refraction squishing the Moon’s disk close to the horizon. The Moon becomes more normal and spherical as it rose higher.
People sometimes think the refraction effect is responsible for making the Full Moon appear large on the horizon, but the atmosphere has nothing to do with it. The effect is strictly an optical illusion. The Moon is no bigger on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.
The photo below shows a composite of images taken September 30, 2020.
Note in the image below, from October 1, how much redder the Moon appears. That’s the effect of atmospheric absorption, in this case from dust and smoke in the air dimming and reddening the Moon (the same happens to the rising or setting Sun). At times this evening it looked like the Moon was in a total eclipse.
Below is the link to the time-lapse music video on Vimeo. It is in 4K. I used Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Bridge, and LRTimelapse to process the component images as raw files for the time-lapse sequences, as per tutorials in my Nightscape and Time-Lapse ebook, above.
I present my top 10 tips for capturing time-lapses of the moving sky.
If you can take one well-exposed image of a nightscape, you can take 300. There’s little extra work required, just your time. But if you have the patience, the result can be an impressive time-lapse movie of the night sky sweeping over a scenic landscape. It’s that simple.
Or is it?
Here are my tips for taking time-lapses, in a series of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that I’ve found effective for ensuring great results.
But before you attempt a time-lapse, be sure you can first capture well-exposed and sharply focused still shots. Shooting hundreds of frames for a time-lapse will be a disappointing waste of your time if all the images are dark and blurry.
For that reason many of my tips apply equally well to shooting still images. But taking time-lapses does require some specialized gear, techniques, planning, and software. First, the equipment.
NOTE: This article appeared originally in Issue #9 of Dark Sky Travels e-magazine.
TIP 1 — DO: Use a solid tripod
A lightweight travel tripod that might suffice for still images on the road will likely be insufficient for time-lapses. Not only does the camera have to remain rock steady for the length of the exposure, it has to do so for the length of the entire shoot, which could be several hours. Wind can’t move it, nor any camera handling you might need to do mid-shoot, such as swapping out a battery.
The tripod needn’t be massive. For hiking into scenic sites you’ll want a lightweight but sturdy tripod. While a carbon fibre unit is costly, you’ll appreciate its low weight and good strength every night in the field. Similarly, don’t scrimp on the tripod head.
TIP 2 — DO: Use a fast lens
As with nightscape stills, the single best purchase you can make to improve your images of dark sky scenes is not buying a new camera (at least not at first), but buying a fast, wide-angle lens.
Ditch the slow kit zoom and go for at least an f/2.8, if not f/2, lens with 10mm to 24mm focal length. This becomes especially critical for time-lapses, as the fast aperture allows using short shutter speeds, which in turn allows capturing more frames in a given period of time. That makes for a smoother, slower time-lapse, and a shoot you can finish sooner if desired.
TIP 3 — DO: Use an intervalometer
Time-lapses demand the use of an intervalometer to automatically fire the shutter for at least 200 to 300 images for a typical time-lapse. Many cameras have an intervalometer function built into their firmware. The shutter speed is set by using the camera in Manual mode.
Just be aware that a camera’s 15-second exposure really lasts 16 seconds, while a 30-second shot set in Manual is really a 32-second exposure.
So in setting the interval to provide one second between shots, as I advise below, you have to set the camera’s internal intervalometer for an interval of 17 seconds (for a shutter speed of 15 seconds) or 33 seconds (for a shutter speed of 30 seconds). It’s an odd quirk I’ve found true of every brand of camera I use or have tested.
Alternatively, you can set the camera to Bulb and then use an outboard hardware intervalometer (they sell for $60 on up) to control the exposure and fire the shutter. Test your unit. Its interval might need to be set to only one second, or to the exposure time + one second.
How intervalometers define “Interval” varies annoyingly from brand to brand. Setting the interval incorrectly can result in every other frame being missed and a ruined sequence.
SETTING YOUR CAMERA
TIP 4 — DON’T: Underexpose
As with still images, the best way to beat noise is to give the camera signal. Use a wider aperture, a longer shutter speed, or a higher ISO (or all of the above) to ensure the image is well exposed with a histogram pushed to the right.
If you try to boost the image brightness later in processing you’ll introduce not only the very noise you were trying to avoid, but also odd artifacts in the shadows such as banding and purple discolouration.
With still images we have the option of taking shorter, untrailed images for the sky, and longer exposures for the dark ground to reveal details in the landscape, to composite later. With time-lapses we don’t have that luxury. Each and every frame has to capture the entire scene well.
At dark sky sites, expose for the dark ground as much as you can, even if that makes the sky overly bright. Unless you outright clip the highlights in the Milky Way or in light polluted horizon glows, you’ll be able to recover highlight details later in processing.
After poor focus, underexposure, resulting in overly noisy images, is the single biggest mistake I see beginners make.
TIP 5 — DON’T: Worry about 500 or “NPF” Exposure Rules
While still images might have to adhere to the “500 Rule” or the stricter “NPF Rule” to avoid star trailing, time-lapses are not so critical. Slight trailing of stars in each frame won’t be noticeable in the final movie when the stars are moving anyway.
So go for rule-breaking, longer exposures if needed, for example if the aperture needs to be stopped down for increased depth of field and foreground focus. Again, with time-lapses we can’t shoot separate exposures for focus stacking later.
Just be aware that the longer each exposure is, the longer it will take to shoot 300 of them.
Why 300? I find 300 frames is a good number to aim for. When assembled into a movie at 30 frames per second (a typical frame rate) your 300-frame clip will last 10 seconds, a decent length of time in a final movie.
You can use a slower frame rate (24 fps works fine), but below 24 the movie will look jerky unless you employ advanced frame blending techniques. I do that for auroras.
How long it will take to acquire the needed 300 frames will depend on how long each exposure is and the interval between them. An app such as PhotoPills (via its Time lapse function) is handy in the field for calculating exposure time vs. frame count vs. shoot length, and providing a timer to let you know when the shoot is done.
TIP 6 — DO: Use short intervals
At night, the interval between exposures should be no more than one or two seconds. By “interval,” I mean the time between when the shutter closes and when it opens again for the next frame.
Not all intervalometers define “Interval” that way. But it’s what you expect it means. If you use too long an interval then the stars will appear to jump across the sky, ruining the smooth motion you are after.
In practice, intervals of four to five seconds are sometimes needed to accommodate the movement of motorized “motion control” devices that turn or slide the camera between each shot. But I’m not covering the use of those advanced units here. I cover those options and much, much more in 400 pages of tips, techniques and tutorials in my Nightscapes ebook, linked to above.
However, during the day or in twilight, intervals can be, and indeed need to be, much longer than the exposures. It’s at night with stars in the sky that you want the shutter to be closed as little as possible.
TIP 7 — DO: Shoot Raw
This advice also applies to still images where shooting raw files is essential for professional results. But you likely knew that.
However, with time-lapses some cameras offer a mode that will shoot time-lapse frames and assemble them into a movie right in the camera. Don’t use it. It gives you a finished, pre-baked movie with no ability to process each frame later, an essential step for good night time-lapses. And raw files provide the most data to work with.
So even with time-lapses, shoot raw not JPGs.
If you are confident the frames will be used only for a time-lapse, you might choose to shoot in a smaller S-Raw or compressed C-Raw mode, for smaller files, in order to fit more frames onto a card.
But I prefer not to shrink or compress the original raw files in the camera, as some of them might make for an excellent stacked and layered still image where I want the best quality originals (such as for the ISS over Waterton Lakes example above).
To get you through a long field shoot away from your computer buy more and larger memory cards. You don’t need costly, superfast cards for most time-lapse work.
PLANNING AND COMPOSITION
TIP 8 — DO: Use planning apps to frame
All nightscape photography benefits from using one of the excellent apps we now have to assist us in planning a shoot. They are particularly useful for time-lapses.
Apps such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great. I like the latter as it links to its companion TPE 3D app to preview what the sky and lighting will look like over the actual topographic horizon from your site. You can scrub through time to see the motion of the Milky Way over the scenery. The Augmented Reality “AR” modes of these apps are also useful, but only once you are on site during the day.
For planning a time-lapse at home I always turn to a “planetarium” program to simulate the motion of the sky (albeit over a generic landscape), with the ability to add in “field of view” indicators to show the view your lens will capture.
You can step ahead in time to see how the sky will move across your camera frame during the length of the shoot. Indeed, such simulations help you plan how long the shoot needs to last until, for example, the galactic core or Orion sets.
Planetarium software helps ensure you frame the scene properly, not only for the beginning of the shoot (that’s easy — you can see that!), but also for the end of the shoot, which you can only predict.
If your shoot will last as long as three hours, do plan to check the battery level and swap batteries before three hours is up. Most cameras, even new mirrorless models, will now last for three hours on a full battery, but likely not any longer. If it’s a cold winter night, expect only one or two hours of life from a single battery.
TIP 9 — DO: Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all
Processing the raw files takes the same steps and settings as you would use to process still images.
With time-lapses, however, you have to do all the processing required within your favourite raw developer software. You can’t count on bringing multiple exposures into a layer-based processor such as Photoshop to stack and blend images. That works for a single image, but not for 300.
I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge to do all my time-lapse processing. But many photographers use Lightroom, which offers all the same settings and non-destructive functions as Adobe Camera Raw.
For those who wish to “avoid Adobe” there are other choices, but for time-lapse work an essential feature is the ability to develop one frame, then copy and paste its settings (or “sync” settings) to all the other frames in the set.
Not all programs allow that. Affinity Photo does not. Luminar doesn’t do it very well. DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and the free Raw Therapee, among others, all work fine.
HOW TO ASSEMBLE A TIME-LAPSE
Once you have a set of raws all developed, the usual workflow is to export all those frames out as high-quality JPGs which is what movie assembly programs need. Your raw developing software has to allow batch exporting to JPGs — most do.
However, none of the programs above (except Photoshop and Adobe’s After Effects) will create the final movie, whether it be from those JPGs or from the raws.
So for assembling the intermediate JPGs into a movie, I often use a low-cost program called TLDF (TimeLapse DeFlicker) available for MacOS and Windows (timelapsedeflicker.com). It offers advanced functions such as deflickering (i.e. smoothing slight frame-to-frame brightness fluctuations) and frame blending (useful to smooth aurora motions or to purposely add star trails).
While there are many choices for time-lapse assembly, I suggest using a program dedicated to the task and not, as many do, a movie editing program. For most sequences, the latter makes assembly unnecessarily difficult and harder to set key parameters such as frame rates.
TIP 10 — DO: Try LRTimelapse for more advanced processing
Get serious about time-lapse shooting and you will want — indeed, you will need — the program LRTimelapse (LRTimelapse.com). A free but limited trial version is available.
This powerful program is for sequences where one setting will not work for all the frames. One size does not fit all.
Instead, LRTimelapse allows you to process a few keyframes throughout a sequence, say at the start, middle, and end. It then interpolates all the settings between those keyframes to automatically process the entire set of images to smooth (or “ramp”) and deflicker the transitions from frame to frame.
This is essential for sequences where the lighting changes during the shoot (say, the Moon rises or sets), and for so-called “holy grails.” Those are advanced sequences that track from daylight or twilight to darkness, or vice versa, over a wide range of camera settings.
However, LRTimelapse works only with Adobe Lightroom or the Adobe Camera Raw/Bridge combination. So for advanced time-lapse work Adobe software is essential.
A Final Bonus Tip
Keep it simple. You might aspire to emulate the advanced sequences you see on the web, where the camera pans and dollies during the movie. I suggest avoiding complex motion control gear at first to concentrate on getting well-exposed time-lapses with just a static camera. That alone is a rewarding achievement.
But before that, first learn to shoot still images successfully. All the settings and skills you need for a great looking still image are needed for a time-lapse. Then move onto capturing the moving sky.
I end with a link to an example music video, shot using the techniques I’ve outlined. Thanks for reading and watching. Clear skies!
The Beauty of the Milky Way from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
On November 11, I traveled to the near-flung corners of my backyard to observe the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.
History is replete with tales of astronomers traveling to the far corners of the Earth to watch dark objects pass in front of the Sun — the Moon in eclipses, and Mercury and Venus in transits.
On November 11, to take in the last transit of Mercury until 2032, I had planned a trip to a location more likely to have clear skies in November than at home. A 3-day drive to southern Arizona was the plan.
But to attend to work and priorities at home I cancelled my plans. Instead, I decided to stay home and take my chances with the Alberta weather, perhaps making a run for it a day’s drive away if needed to chase into clear skies.
As it turned out, none of that was necessary. The forecast for clear, if cold, skies held true and we could not have had a finer day for the transit. Even the -20° C temperatures were no problem, with no wind, and of course sunshine!
Plus being only steps from home and a warming coffee helped!
As it turned out, the site in Arizona I had booked to stay was clouded out for the entire event. So I was happy with my decision!
For my site in Alberta, as for all of western North America, the Sun rose with the transit in progress. But as soon as the Sun cleared the horizon there was Mercury, as a small, if fuzzy, black dot on the Sun.
As the Sun rose the view became sharper, and was remarkable indeed — of a jet black dot of a tiny planet silhouetted on the Sun.
I shot through two telescopes, my 4-inch and 5-inch refractors, both equipped with solar filters of course. I viewed through two other telescopes, for white-light and hydrogen-alpha filtered views.
I was able to follow the transit for three hours, for a little more than half the transit, until Mercury exited the Sun just after 11 a.m. MST. The view below is from moments before Mercury’s exit, or “egress.”
I shot still frames every 15 seconds with each of the two cameras and telescopes, for a time-lapse, plus I shot real-time videos.
At this transit Mercury passed closer to the centre of the Sun’s disk than it will for any other transit in the 21st century, making this event all the more remarkable. That point is recorded above, from a shot taken at 8:19 a.m. MST.
Stacking a selection of the time-lapse frames, ones taken 1-minute intervals, produced this composite of the transit, from just before mid-transit until Mercury’s egress.
I assembled all the best images and 4K videos together into a movie, which I narrated live at the telescope as the transit was happening. I hope this provides a sense of what it was like to view this rare event.
The Transit of Mercury from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
We won’t see another until 2032, but not from North America. The next transit of Mercury viewable from here at home is not until 2049! This was likely my last transit, certainly for a while!
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
However, again with patience it is possible to get clean images of the aurora and its reflections in the lake.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm and misty waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left. Capella is at right. This is a single 13-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left; Capella at far right. This is a single 8-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
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.
The view looking the other way north over the river was equally wonderful. What a place for viewing the Northern Lights!
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.
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.
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.
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!
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019, with photographers in the foreground shooting the Lights from the viewpoint above the lake. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 10 seconds at ISO 3200. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 20 seconds at ISO 1000. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 preferredmethod, in the first unit I tested I found it produced serious mis-tracking problems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019
From product photos on the MoveShootMove.com website now it appears that the tracker is now labeled MSM, as it should have been all along.
Most critically, perhaps in response to this review and my comments here, the time-lapse speeds have been changed to 0.05, 0.075, 0.1 and 0.125 degrees per move, adding the 0.1°/move speed I requested below and deleting the overly fast 0.5° and 1.0° speeds.
Plus it appears the new units have the panel labels printed the other way around so they are not upside down for most mounting situations.
I have not tested this new version, but these speeds sound much more usable for panning time-lapses. Bravo to MSM for listening!
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.
Do the Math
Where does that number come from?
At its rate of 0.05°/move, the MSM will turn 15° over 300 shots. The sky moves 15° in one hour, or 3600 seconds. So to fit 300 shots into 3600 seconds means each shot has to be no longer than (3600/300) = 12 seconds long.
The result works, as I show in the sampler movie.
But 12 seconds is a rather short shutter speed on a dark, moonless night with the Milky Way.
For properly exposed images you would need to shoot at very fast apertures (f/1.4 to f/2) and/or high and noisy ISO speeds. Neither are optimal. But they are forced upon you by the MSM’s restricted rates.
Using the faster 0.2° rate (of the original model) yields a turn of 60° over 300 shots. That’s four hours of sky motion. So each exposure now has to be 48 seconds long for the camera to follow the sky, four times longer because the drive rate is now four times faster.
A shutter speed of 48 seconds is a little too long in my opinion. Stars in each frame will trail. Plus a turn of 60° over 300 shots is quite a lot, producing a movie that turns too quickly.
By far the best speed for motion control time-lapses would be 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed. (DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: That speed seems to now be offered.)
Yes, having only a limited number of pre-wired speeds does make the MSM much easier to program than devices like the Star Adventurer Mini or SYRP Genie Mini that use wireless apps to set their functions. No question, the MSM is better suited to beginners who don’t want to fuss with lots of parameters.
As it is, getting a decent result requires some math and juggling of camera settings to make up for the MSM’s limited choices of speeds.
Time-Lapse Movie Examples
This compilation shows examples of daytime time-lapses taken at the fastest and dizzying 0.5° and 1.0° speeds, and night time-lapses taken at the slower speeds. The final clip is taken at 0.05°/move and with 12-second exposures, a combination that allowed the camera to nicely follow the Milky Way, albeit at a slow pace. Taking more than the 300 frames used here would have produced a clip that turned at the same rate, but lasted longer.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
With the more forgiving 35mm lens, while more images worked, the success rate was still only 50%.
What I did not see with the new Gauda unit was the 5-minute delay before the gears meshed and tracking began. That issue has been resolved by the new, more powerful motor. The new Gauda model does start tracking right away.
But it is still prone to significant enough drive errors that stars are often trailed even with a 35mm lens (this was on a full-frame Canon 6D MkII).
UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)
The MSM tracker is low-cost, well-built, and compact for easy packing and travel. It performs its advertised functions well enough to allow users to get results, either tracked images of the Milky Way and constellations, or simple motion-control time-lapses.
But it is best used — indeed I would suggest can only be used — with wide-angle lenses for tracked Milky Way nightscapes. Even then, take more shots than you think you need to be sure enough are well-tracked and usable.
It can also be used for simple motion-control time-lapses, provided you do to the math to get it to turn by the amount you want, working around the too-slow or too-fast speeds. The new 0.1° per move speed (added in models as of December 2019) seems a reasonable rate for most time-lapses.
However, I think aspiring time-lapse photographers will soon outgrow the MSM’s limitations for motion-control sequences. But it can get you started.
If you really value its compactness and your budget is tight, the MSM will serve you well enough for tracked nightscape shooting with wide-angle lenses.
But if you wish to take close-ups of starfields and deep-sky objects with longer lenses, consider a unit like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer for its lower tracking errors. Or the Star Adventurer Mini for its better motion-control time-lapse functions.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, my contribution was to produce a planetarium show about the missions.
I’ve been retired from active planetarium show production and science centre work for more than 5 years now. But it’s great to get back in the Dome now and then.
The opportunity came this summer with the hugely popular 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11. Everyone was hosting events and parties.
To contribute to the local science centre’s event, TELUS Spark in Calgary kindly gave me the keys to the Evans and Sutherland Digistar planetarium system to produce a special lecture/show for the Dome about the Apollo landings.
It was part of Spark’s well-attended Moon Landing Party night July 20. A collage of iPhone images shows some of the other activities that evening.
It was a capacity crowd, and both my shows were “sold out” with full houses. Indeed, I’m presenting extra shows by popular demand in the coming week so those who couldn’t get tickets on July 20 can see the program.
For you to see the show, and to document it for my posterity, I shot time-lapses of me presenting the show, first in rehearsal with some staff present shot from the audience point of view, then in the first presentation from the stage (my) point of view.
The time-lapses compressed the hour-long show into two 1-minute clips. It really wasn’t that frantic in real life! Here’s the video, from my YouTube channel.
I was impressed and surprised at how popular the Apollo anniversary has been. For most today the Moon landings are old history, before their time. Yet, the Apollo missions continue to inspire and amaze.
As I do a couple of times a year, earlier this month I was cruising the coast of Norway chasing the Northern Lights – successfully!
One of my “retirement gigs” is to serve as a lecturer for the educational travel company Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) on some of their aurora cruises along the Norwegian coast on one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships.
This time, as I was last autumn, I was on Hurtigruten’s flagship coastal ferry, the m/s Trollfjord.
Our tour group was treated to five fine nights with auroras, an unusually good take out of the 12-day round trip cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen. Our first look, above, was on February 27, but through cloud.
But after we reached the top end at Kirkenes and turned around for the southbound voyage, skies cleared remarkably. We had a wonderful four clear days and nights in a row, all with Northern Lights.
The best show was March 1, and when we were in port in the northern coastal village of Båtsfjord. The Lights danced overhead in the best show I had seen from Norway.
The next night we got a good show while we were in the port of Skjervøy.
As we continued south we emerged out from under the auroral oval zone, placing the Lights to the north, back in the direction we had come from.
A self-portrait on the back deck of the ms Trollfjord, southbound out of Berlevag this night and under the Northern Lights.
Aurora photographers and observers on the rear deck 9 area of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on the southbound voyage along the Norwegian coast, on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400.
Curtains of Northern Lights over the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on March 1, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
A low arc of aurora late in the voyage south on March 4, 2019, our last sighting for the cruise, after we crossed the Arctic Circle. A single exposure at ISO 10000 due to the large motion of the ship. The smoke from the ship is at top, illuminated by the funnel lights that were not turned off this night.
An example of multiple concentric auroral curtains, here over the Norwegian coast on the southbound Hurtigruten ship ms Trollfjord on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
Equally spectacular in my mind were some of the sunsets and twilight skies we enjoyed as we sailed through the Lofoten Islands, including on our visit to the narrow Trollfjord fjord for which the ship is named.
On our aurora nights I mostly shot “real-time” video of the Lights, using the low-light capability and 4K functions of the Sony a7III camera. The result is a music video linked to below.
The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I hope you enjoy it. Do view it full-screen and at 4K resolution.
The Northern Lights are amazing from Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
A handful of locations in the world are meccas for aurora chasers. Yellowknife is one of them and, for me, surprisingly accessible with daily flights north.
In a two-hour flight from Calgary you can be at latitude 62° North and standing under the auroral oval with the lights dancing overhead every clear night.
The attraction of going in early September, as I did, is that the more persistent clouds of late autumn have not set in, and the many lakes and rivers are not yet frozen, making for superb photo opportunities.
A faint green and red auroral curtain to the northwest over Tibbitt Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. The Big Dipper is right of centre; Arcturus setting on the horizon. This was September 8, 2018. This is a mean-combined stack of 8 exposures for the ground and water to smooth noise, and a single exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony A7III at ISO 1600.
A single image from a time-lapse sequence, of the auroral curtains converging toward the zenith during the display on September 8/9, 2018, from near Yellowknife, NWT. This is 2.5 seconds at f/2.8 with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
A display of Northern Lights starting up in the twilight, over the river leading out of Tibbitt Lake, at the end of the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife NWT, on September 8, 2018. This was the start of a fabulous display this night. Capella and Auriga are at left; the Pleiades is rising left of centre; the Andromeda Galaxy is at top. This is a mean-combined stack of 7 exposures for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky and partially for the reflection, all 25 seconds at f/2.5 with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.
A single image from a time-lapse sequence, of the auroral curtains converging toward the zenith during the display on September 8/9, 2018, from near Yellowknife, NWT. The curtains show some fringes of pink from nitrogen. This is 2.5 seconds at f/2.8 with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Lakes down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail, such as Prosperous, Prelude, and Pontoon are popular spots for the busloads of tourists who fly in every year from around the world.
On one magical night I and my local host and guide, Stephen Bedingfield, went to the end of the Trail, to where the Ice Road begins, to Tibbitt Lake, and had the site to ourselves. The aurora was jaw-dropping that night.
On other nights with less certain prospects I stayed in town, and still got a fine show on several nights, the Lights so bright they show up well even from within urban Yellowknife.
An all-sky display of Northern Lights in the city of Yellowknife, from the end of the boardwalk at Rotary Park looking over the bay. This was on the night of Sept. 10/11, 2018 during a major solar storm, but in the subsiding hours after the sky cleared at about 2 am. The winter stars of Taurus and Gemini are rising. The Big Dipper is at far left. Cassiopeia is at the zenith. The view is looking east at centre. This is a mean stack of 8 exposures smoothed to reduce noise for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 6 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. The focus is soft.
The Northern Lights over the “United in Celebration” sculpture at the Somba K’e Civic Plaza on Frame Lake in downtown Yellowknife, NWT, on September 14, 2018. The Prince of Wales Museum is at far right. This is a stack of 5 images for the ground to smooth noise and one image for the sky, all 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 400.
A curtain of aurora sweeps over the houseboats moored on Yellowknife Bay in Yellowknife, NWT, on September 11, 2018. The Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus are rising at left. This is a mean-combined stack of 8 images to smooth noise for the ground and water, and a single exposure for the sky and houseboats themselves (as they were moving slightly from exposure to exposure). Each was 13 seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.
A selfie portrait under an all-sky display of Northern Lights in the city of Yellowknife, from the boardwalk at Rotary Park. This was on the night of Sept. 10/11, 2018 during a major solar storm, but in the subsiding hours after the sky cleared at about 2 am. The Big Dipper is at right. The Summer Triangle is at left. Cassiopeia is at the zenith. The view is looking northwest at centre. This is a mean stack of 6 exposures smoothed to reduce noise for the ground and one exposure for the sky and me, all 6 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. The focus is soft.
On another night we chased into clear skies down Highway 3 to the west, to a rocky plateau on the Canadian Precambrian Shield. Even amid the clouds, the aurora was impressive.
But it was the night at Tibbitt that was the highlight.
Here is the finale music video from movies shot that night, September 8, 2018, with two cameras: the Sony a7III used to take “real-time” 4K videos of the aurora motion, and the Nikon D750 used to take time-lapses.
The movie is in 4K. The music, Eternal Hope, is by Steven Gutheinz and is used by permission of West One Music.
Aurora Reflections from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Click through to Vimeo for more technical info about the video.
Enjoy! And do share!
And make Yellowknife one of your bucket-list locations.
Three perfect nights in July provided opportunities to capture the night sky at popular sites in Banff National Park.
When the weather forecast in mid-July looked so promising I made an impromptu trip to Banff to shoot nightscapes and time-lapses under unusually clear skies. Clouds are often the norm in the mountains or, increasingly these days, forest fire smoke in late summer.
But from July 15 to 17 the skies could not have been clearer, except for the clouds that rolled in late on my last night, when I was happy to pack up and get some sleep.
My first priority was to shoot the marvellous close conjunction of the Moon and Venus on July 15. I did so from the Storm Mountain viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, with a cooperative train also coming through the scene at the right time.
This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.
The next night, July 16, was one of the most perfect I had ever seen in the Rockies. Crystal clear skies, calm winds, and great lake reflections made for a picture-perfect night at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. Above is a 360° panorama shot toward the end of the night when the galactic centre of the Milky Way was over Bow Glacier.
Streaks of green airglow arc across the south, while to the north the sky is purple from a faint display of aurora.
This is a rare appearance of the unusual STEVE auroral arc on the night of July 16-17, 2018, with a relatively low Kp Index of only 2 to 3. While the auroral arc was visible the ISS made a bright pass heading east. This is a blend of a single 15-second exposure for the sky and ground, with seven 15-second exposures for the ISS, but masked to reveal just the ISS trail and its reflection in the water. The ISS shots were taken at 3-second intervals, thus the gaps. All with the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Taken from Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta.
The unusual STEVE auroral arc across the northern sky at Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta on the night of July 16-17, 2018. The more normal green auroral arc is lower across the northern horizon. But STEVE here appears more pink. The STEVE aurora was colourless to the eye but did show faint fast-moving rays, here blurred by the long exposure. They were moving east to west. The Big Dipper is at left. The lights are from Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This is a single exposure for the sky and a mean-stacked blend of 3 exposures for the ground to smooth noise. All 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Earlier that night the usual auroral arc known as Steve put in an unexpected appearance. It was just a grey band to the eye, but the camera picked up Steve’s usual pink colours. Another photographer from the U.S. who showed up had no idea there was an aurora happening until I pointed it out.
My last night was at Herbert Lake, a small pond great for capturing reflections of the mountains around Lake Louise, and the Milky Way. Here, brilliant Mars, so photogenic this summer, also reflects in the still waters.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the peaks of the Continental Divide at Herbert Lake near Lake Louise, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at left is Mount Temple. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of the small Lake Herbert this night on July 17, 2018. This is a stack of 100 images for the star trails, stacked with the Long Streak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Clouds moving in added the odd dark patches in the Milky Way that look like out of place dark nebulas. The reflected star trails are really there in the water and have not be copied, pasted and inverted from the sky image. They look irregular because of rippling in the water.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the Rocky Mountains at Bow Lake, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at centre is Bow Peak. Crowfoot Glacier is at far left; Bow Glacier is at right below the Milky Way. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of Bow Lake this night on July 16, 2018, though they appear large and out of focus. This is a stack of 300 images for the star trails, stacked with the Ultrastreak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laowa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Bands of airglow add the green streaks to the sky.
The stars trailing as they move east to west (left to right), ending with the Milky Way and Galactic Centre (right) over Storm Mountain and the Vermilion Pass area of the Continental Divide in Banff National Park, Alberta. Mars is the bright trail at left. Saturn is amid the Milky Way at right. This was July 15, 2018. The lights at left are from the Castle Mountain interchange at Highways 1 and 93. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, plus 200 exposures for the star trails, and one exposure, untracked, for the fixed sky taken about a minute after the last star trail image. All 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Dynamic Contrast filter from ON1 applied to the ground, and Soft and Airy filter from Luminar applied to the sky for a soft Orton effect.
At each site I shot time-lapses, and used those frames to have some fun with star trail stacking, showing the stars turning from east to west and reflected in the lake waters, and with a single still image taken at the end of the sequence layered in to show the untrailed sky and Milky Way.
But I also turned those frames into time-lapse movies, and incorporated them into a new music video, along with some favourite older clips reprocessed for this new video.
Banff by Night (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Enjoy! And do enlarge to full screen. The video is also in 4K resolution.
Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.
Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.
Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.
Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.
From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.
The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.
A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.
These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.
Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.
An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.
The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.
You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).
Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.
The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.
The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.
I present a short video, in 4K, of two video clips of the International Space Station in two successive passages across the sky on May 24/25, 2018.
The location was my backyard in southern Alberta.
The clips were shot in 4K in real-time video at 24 frames per second but with a 1/4-second shutter speed with a Sony a7III camera, and with 15mm full-frame fish-eye (first clip) and 8mm circular fish-eye lenses. ISO speeds were 6400 and 16,000.
The clips are sped up by 2x and 4X in post-production to make a shorter video for the web. The background sounds of the night are real-time and were recorded live with the videos.
What I cannot capture is the smell!
The lilacs were in bloom and lent a wonderful fragrant scent to the night air, which added to the sights and sounds of a spring night.
Thus the title of the video.
Much of North America is now enjoying great passes of the ISS. To find out when you can see it from your backyard see NASA’s Spot the Station website and enter your location.
A clear day on Easter Eve allowed me to photograph the setting Full Moon in the morning and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
This was another of the year’s special Full Moons, and this time for a valid historical reason.
This was the “paschal” Full Moon, the one used to determine the date of Easter. It was the first Full Moon after the vernal equinox. The first Sunday after that Full Moon is Easter. This year, the Moon was full about an hour before sunrise on the morning of Saturday, March 31. Easter was the next day, Sunday, April 1.
Below is the view of the Full Moon not long after it was officially Full, as it was setting into the west as the first rays of sunlight lit the foreground at dawn on March 31.
To be precise, the actual paschal Full Moon is a fictional or calculated Moon that occurs 14 days into the lunar cycle, and isn’t an observed Moon. But this year, we really did have a Full Moon just before Easter Sunday, and on the first day of Passover, from which we get the term “paschal.”
Later on March 31, after sunset, the Moon was now half a day past Full, causing it to rise a good half hour after sunset. However, the lighting and sky colour was still good enough to place a reddened Moon rising into a deep blue sky for a wonderful colour contrast.
This was also touted as a “blue Moon,” as it was the second Full Moon in March, and it was also the second blue Moon of 2018. (January had one, too.) But as you can see the Moon was hardly “blue!” It was a fine pink Moon.
The above image is a little fun with Photoshop, and stacks hundreds of images of the rising Moon to create a “Moon trail,” showing the change in colour of the Moon as it rose.
This short HD movie includes two versions of the full time-lapse sequence:
• One showing the Moon rising normally, though the sky and ground come from the first image in the sequence.
• The second is another bit of Photoshop fun, with the Moon leaving disks behind it as it rose.
For the technically minded, I created both movies using Photoshop’s video editing capabilities to layer in various still images on top of the base video file. The stills are layered with a Lighten blend mode to superimpose them onto the background sky and video.
While Easter is a spring holiday, it hardly seems spring here in Alberta. The coldest Easter weekend in decades and lots of snow on the ground made this a winter scene.
With luck, spring will arrive here well before the next Full Moon.
The skies of Norway provided superb nights of Northern Lights as I sailed the coast.
As I did last autumn, I was able to join a cruise along the Norwegian coast, instructing an aurora tour group from Road Scholar. We were on one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships that ply the coast each day, the m/s Nordnorge, on a 12-day trip from Bergen to Kirkenes at the top end of Norway, then back again to Bergen.
In all, we had three very clear nights, with good auroras on two of those nights. Several other nights had bright auroras but seen through broken cloud.
All observing and photography is done from the ship deck as we sailed among the fjords and sounds along the coast.
The best night was an all-sky display on March 14 seen from north of Tromsø as we sailed back south from our farthest north of 71° latitude.
Earlier, on the trip north, we had a great night as the aurora danced over the Lofoten Islands and we entered the Trollfjord. There is no finer scenery on Earth for framing the Lights.
As is the custom, the captain enters the fjord by searchlight, a scene depicted below.
I shot very few time-lapses on this trip (unlike my trip in October 2017, which you can see in a music video at a previous blog post).
However, here’s a short music video of two clips I did shoot, including a time-lapse of us approaching the Trollfjord entrance.
As we sailed south, we left the aurora behind. Our last look was of the arc of the auroral oval across the north, seen from south of Rorvik.
However, for several nights prior we had been under the auroral oval and the Lights had danced for us over the sky.
Norway is one of the world’s best sites for seeing the Northern Lights – the “nordlys” – and taking a Hurtigruten cruise along the coast is a great way to see the Lights and incredible scenery that changes by the minute.
I present a new 4-minute music video (in 4K resolution) featuring time-lapses of the Milky Way.
One of the most amazing sights is the Milky Way slowly moving across the sky. From Canada we see the brightest part of the Milky Way, its core region in Sagittarius and Scorpius moving across the souther horizon in summer.
But from the southern hemisphere, the galactic core rises dramatically and climbs directly overhead, providing a jaw-dropping view of our edge-on Galaxy stretching across the sky. It is a sight all stargazers should see.
I shot the time-lapses from Alberta, Canada and from Australia, mostly in 2016 and 2017.
I include a still-image mosaic of the Milky Way from Aquila to Crux shot in Chile in 2011.
Do watch in 4K if you can! And in Full-Screen mode.
Locations include Writing-on-Stone and Police Outpost Provincial Parks, and Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.
In Australia I shot from the Victoria coast and from inland in New South Wales near Coonabarabran, with some scenes from the annual OzSky Star Safari held each April.
The clouds cleared to present a magical night under the Moon in the Badlands of southern Alberta.
At last, a break in the incessant clouds of November, to provide me with a fine night of photography at one of my favourite places, Dinosaur Provincial Park, declared a U.N. World Heritage Site for its deposits of late Cretaceous fossils.
I go there to shoot the night sky over the iconic hoodoos and bentonite clay hills.
November is a great time to capture the equally iconic constellation of Orion rising in the east in the early evening. The scene is even better if there’s a Moon to light the landscape.
November 27 presented the ideal combination of circumstances: clear skies (at least later at night), and a first quarter Moon to provide enough light without washing out the sky too much and positioned to the south and west away from the target of interest – Orion and the winter sky rising in the east.
Below is a slide show of some of the still images I shot, all with the Canon 6D MkII camera and fine Rokinon 14mm f/2.5 lens, used wide open. Most are 15-second exposures, untracked.
I kept another camera, the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens, busy all night shooting 1200 frames for a time-lapse of Orion rising, with clouds drifting through, then clearing.
Below is the resulting video, presented in two versions: first with the original but processed frames assembled into a movie, followed by a version where the movie frames show accumulating star trails to provide a better sense of sky motion.
To create the frames for this version I used the Photoshop actions Advanced Stacker Plus, from StarCircleAcademy. They can stack images then export a new set of frames each with the tapering trails, which you then assemble into a movie. I also used it to produce the lead image at top.
The techniques and steps are all outlined in my eBook, highlighted at top right.
The HD movie is just embedded here, and is not published on Vimeo or YouTube. Expand to fill your screen.
To help plan the shoot I used the astronomy software Starry Night, and the photo planning software The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. With it, you can place yourself at the exact spot to see how the Sun, Moon and stars will appear in sightlines to the horizon.
Here’s the example screen shot. The spheres across the sky represent the Milky Way.
Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.
I present a music video of time-lapses of the Northern Lights from Norway, shot from the ship the aptly named m/s Nordlys.
The Nordlys is one of many ferry ships in the Hurtigruten cruise line (the name means “fast route”) that ply the Norwegian coast, with daily departures from Bergen (at latitude 60° N) to Kirkenes at the top of Norway (at 71° N). At the top end of Norway you are under the auroral oval and almost always see some level of auroral activity, if skies cooperate.
This 11-day cruise was blessed with five clear nights with active auroras. I was serving as an instructor for a tour group of 30 from the U.S.-based Road Scholar tour company.
Sailing to the Northern Lights from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
The final sequence is of the ship entering the Trollfjorden – a narrow fjord often entered in darkness under searchlight. This was a dramatic sight with the aurora dancing overhead.
For a selection of still images from this trip and from the second cruise I did immediately following, see my previous blog post, The Nordlys of Norway.
All exposures were about 1 to 1.3 seconds only, to minimize blurring during each exposure, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, and with mostly the Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8.
One sequence is with the Rokinon 12mm full-frame fish-eye at f/2.8. Intervals were 1 to 2 seconds, providing a rapid cadence.
In assembly I applied a 4-frame blur to smooth the frame-to-frame motion. All processing with Adobe Camera Raw and assembly with the Mac app Time-Lapse from MicroProjects.ca (an app no longer available – a pity).
Music is by the Hollywood soundtrack artists AudioMachine, and is used with permission under “social media” licence. It is the track “Above and Beyond” from their album Tree of Life.
October has brought clear skies and some fine celestial sights. Here’s a potpourri of what was up from home.
We’ve enjoyed some lovely early autumn weather here in southern Alberta, providing great opportunities to see and shoot a series of astronomical events.
On October 5, Venus and Mars appeared a fraction of a degree apart in the dawn twilight. Venus is the brightest object, just above dimmer but red Mars. This was one of the closest planet conjunctions of 2017. Mars will appear much brighter in July and August 2018 when it makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003.
Satellites: The Space Station
The Space Station made a series of ideal evening passes in early October, flying right overhead from my site at latitude 51° N. I captured it in a series of stacked still images, so it appears as a dashed line across the sky. In reality it looks like a very bright star, outshining any other natural star. Here, it appears to fly toward the rising Moon.
Often appearing brighter than even the ISS, Iridium satellite flares can blaze brighter than even Venus at its best. One did so here, above, in another time-lapse of a pair of Iridium satellites that traveled in parallel and flared at almost the same time. But the orientation of the reflective antennas that create these flares must have been better on the left Iridium as it really shot up in brilliance for a few seconds.
Little in the sky beats a fine aurora display and we’ve had several of late, despite the Sun being spotless and nearing a low ebb in its activity. The above shot is a composite stack of 200 images, showing the stars circling the celestial pole above the main auroral arc, and taken on Friday the 13th.
This frame, from some 1300 I shot this night, October 13, captures the main auroral arc and a diffuse patch of green above that pulsed on and off.
You can see the time-lapse here in my short music video on Vimeo.
Friday the 13th Aurora from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
It’s in 4K if your monitor and computer are capable. It nicely shows the development of the aurora this night, from a quiescent arc, through a brief sub-storm outburst, then into pulsing and flickering patches. Enjoy!
What all these scenes have in common is that they were all shot from home, in my backyard. It is wonderful to live in a rural area and to be able to step outside and see these sites easily by just looking up!
I’ve assembled a music video of time-lapse clips and still images of the fine aurora of September 27, with Steve making a cameo appearance.
The indicators this night didn’t point to a particularly great display, but the sky really performed.
The Northern Lights started low across the north, in a very active classic arc. The display then quietened.
But as it did so, and as is his wont, the isolated arc that has become known as Steve appeared across the south in a sweeping arc. The Steve arc always defines the most southerly extent of the aurora.
Steve faded, but then the main display kicked up again and began to fill the sky with a post-sub-storm display of pulsing rays and curtains shooting up to the zenith. Only real-time video can really capture the scene as the eye sees it, but the fast time-lapses I shot do a decent job of recording the effect of whole patches of sky turning on and off.
The display ended with odd pulsing arcs in the south.
Here’s the video, available in 4K resolution.
Alberta Aurora (Sept. 27, 2017) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I present the final cut of my eclipse music video, from the Teton Valley, Idaho.
I’ve edited my images and videos into a music video that I hope captures some of the awe and excitement of standing in the shadow of the Moon and gazing skyward at a total eclipse.
Totality over the Tetons from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
The video can be viewed in up to 4K resolution. Music is by the Hollywood session group and movie soundtrack masters, Audiomachine. It is used under license.
Never before have I been able to shoot a total eclipse with so many cameras to capture the scene from wide-angles to close-ups, in stills, time-lapses, and videos, including 4K. Details on the setup are in the caption for the video on Vimeo. Click through to Vimeo.
I scouted this site north of Driggs, Idaho two years earlier, in April 2015. It was perfect for me. I could easily set up lots of gear, it had a great sightline to the Grand Tetons, and a clear horizon for the twilight effects. And I had the site almost to myself. Observing with a crowd adds lots of energy and excitement, but also distraction and stress. I had five cameras to operate. It was an eclipse experience I’ll likely never duplicate.
If you missed this eclipse, you missed the event of a lifetime. Sorry. Plain and simple.
If you saw the eclipse, and want to see more, then over the next few years you will have to travel far and wide, mostly to the southern hemisphere between now and 2024.
But on April 8, 2024 the umbral shadow of the Moon once again sweeps across North America, bringing a generous four minutes of totality to a narrow path from Mexico, across the U.S., and up into eastern Canada.
It will be the Great North American Eclipse. Seven years to go!
The summer Full Moon arcs low across the southern sky, mimicking the path of the winter Sun.
This is a project I had in mind for the last month, and hoped to capture at the July Full Moon. A clear, dry, and cooperative night provide the chance.
The still images are composites of 40 images of the Moon traveling across the sky from dusk to dawn, taken at 10-minute intervals. They are layered onto a blend of background images of the 10 p.m. dusk sky (left), 2 a.m. middle-of-the-night sky (middle), and 5 a.m dawn sky (right).
As a bonus, the 10 p.m. sky shows some dark crepuscular rays in the twilight, while at 2 a.m. the Moon was in light cloud and surrounded by iridescent colours. By 5 a.m. denser clouds were moving in to obscure the Moon.
I shot the still image composite (above) and time-lapse movie (below) to illustrate the low arc of a summer Full Moon. In summer (June or July) the Full Moon sits at a similar place near the ecliptic as does the Sun in winter near the December solstice.
From the northern hemisphere the low position of the winter Sun gives us the short, cold days of winter. In summer, the similar low position of the Full Moon simply gives us a low Full Moon! But it is one that can be impressive and photogenic.
The time-lapse movie uses all 400 frames of the moving Moon superimposed onto the same background sky images, but now dissolving from one to the other.
The movie is 4K in resolution, though can be viewed at a smaller resolution to speed up playback if needed.
For the technically minded:
The Moon disks in the time-lapse and still composite come from a series of short 1/15-second exposures, short enough to record just the disks of the bright Moon set against a dark, underexposed sky.
I took these shots every minute, for 400 in total. They are blended into the bright background sky images using a Lighten blend mode, both in Photoshop for the still image, and in Final Cut for the movie.
The background sky images are longer exposures to record the sky colours, and stars (in the case of the 2 a.m. image). They are blended with gradient masks for the still image, but dissolved from one to the other in the time-lapse movie.
I shot the frames with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D, with the camera not moved during the 7-hour shoot.
The Northern Lights dance in the solstice sky over a prairie lake.
This was a surprise display. Forecasts called for a chance of Lights on Saturday, June 24, but I wasn’t expecting much.
Nevertheless, I headed to a nearby lake (Crawling Lake) to shoot north over the water, not of the Lights, but of noctilucent clouds, a phenomenon unique to the summer solstice sky and our latitudes here on the Canadian prairies.
But as the night darkened (quite late at solstice time) the aurora began to appear in the deepening twilight.
I started shooting and kept shooting over the next four hours. I took a break from the time-lapses to shoot some panoramas, such as the headline image at top, capturing the sweep of the auroral oval over the lake waters.
Just on the horizon you can see some noctilucent clouds (NLCs) as well – clouds so high they are lit by the Sun all night long. NLCs sit at the same height as the bottom of the auroral curtains. But they appear here lower and much farther away, which they likely were, sitting farther north than the auroral band.
I also shot this 360° panorama (above) capturing the arc of the aurora and of the Milky Way. This is a stitch of 8 segments with a 14mm lens mounted in portrait mode.
I’ve assembled the several time-lapse sequences I shot into a short music video. Check it out on Vimeo here. Click through to the Vimeo page for more technical information on the video sequences.
As always click HD, and relax and enjoy the dancing lights over the calm waters of a prairie lake on a summer evening.
The Full Moon of June rose into a twilight sky over a prairie pond.
On June 9, the clouds cleared to present an ideal sky for capturing the rising of the so-called “Strawberry Moon,” the popular name for the Full Moon of June.
The lead image is a composite of 15 frames, taken at roughly 2.5-minute intervals and stacked in Photoshop with the Lighten blend mode.
The image below is a single frame.
I set up beside a small local prairie pond, to shoot the moonrise over the water. Ducks enjoyed the view and a muskrat swam by at one point.
I shot over 1100 frames, at two-second intervals to create a time-lapse of the rising Moon, as it brightened and turned from yellow-orange (not quite strawberry pink) to a bright white.
Here’s the time-lapse vignette.
Click on HD for the best view.
While the Harvest Moon gets lots of PR, as this sequence shows any Full Moon can provide a fine sight, and look yellow, due to absorption of the blue wavelengths by the atmosphere as the Moon rises, or as it sets.
However, the timing can vary from Full Moon to Full Moon. This one was ideal, with it rising right at sunset. If the Moon comes up too late, the sky might have already darkened, producing too great a difference in brightness between the Moon and background sky to be photogenic.
But what of these Moon names? How authentic are they?
Who called this the Strawberry Moon? Native Americans? No. Or at best only one or two nations.
The names like “Strawberry Moon” that are popularized in the media today come from the American Farmers Almanac, and everyone – science writers and bloggers – ends up copying and pasting the same wrong, or at best misleading, information from the Almanac.
Search for “Strawberry Moon” or “Moon names” and you’ll find the same explanation repeated verbatim and unquestioned by many writers. Alas, the Almanac is not an authoritative source – after all, they were the source of a misleading definition of Blue Moon decades ago.
No one predicted this spectacle. But on May 27 the last-minute warnings went out to look for a fabulous show as night fell.
And what a show it was! As darkness fell the sky was lit with green curtains. After midnight the curtains converged at the zenith for that most spectacular of sky sights, a coronal burst.
As the night began I was at the Rothney Observatory helping out with the public stargazing night.
We saw the Space Station rise out of the west over the Rockies and pass through the Northern Lights.
It then headed off east, appearing here as the streak amid the Lights and light pollution of Calgary.
To continue to shoot the display I, too, decided to head east, to home. I should have gone west, to the mountains.
I drove through rain to get home, and missed the peak of the display, judging by images from others in the Rockies, and those to the north.
But as I got home clouds began to clear enough for a glimpse of the Space Station, on its next pass, flying overhead, again through the aurora. I wonder what the astronauts might have been seeing looking down.
From home, I caught another bright sub-storm outburst to the north, as the curtains suddenly exploded in brightness and rapid motion, with characteristic pink fringes at the bottoms, from nitrogen molecules.
What impressed me about this display was the smell! Yes, you see auroras and some claim to hear them. But this display is one I’ll remember for the springtime scent of lilacs in the night air as the Lights danced.
The Great Aurora of May 27 from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Here is a short music video of several time-lapse sequences I shot, of the sub-storm then post-storm subsidence into the patchy flaming and flickering effect that we often see at the end of a great display. And this was certainly one of them.
We southerners were treated to the class of display you usually have to travel north the Arctic and auroral oval to see.
Stargazers in western Canada will have seen him – Steve, the odd auroral arc.
There’s been a lot of publicity lately about an unusual form of aurora that appears as a stationary arc across the sky, isolated from the main aurora to the north. It usually just sits there – motionless, featureless, and colourless to the eye, though the camera can pick up magenta and green tints.
We often see these strange auroral arcs from western Canada.
In lieu of a better name, and lacking a good explanation as to their cause, these isolated arcs have become labelled simply as “Steve” by the aurora chasing community (the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group) here in Alberta.
In a gathering of aurora chasers at Calgary’s Kilkenny Pub, aurora photographer extraordinaire and AAC Facebook group administrator Chris Ratzlaff suggested the name. It comes from the children’s movie Over the Hedge, where a character calls anything he doesn’t understand “Steve.” The name has stuck!
The 270° panorama from March 2, 2017 shows Steve to the west (right) and east (left) here, and well isolated from the main aurora to the north.
This is the view of that same March 2, 2017 arc looking straight up, showing Steve’s characteristic gradient from pink at top though white, then to subtle “picket-fence” fingers of green that are usually very short-lived.
The view above is Steve from exactly 6 months earlier, on September 2, 2016. Same features. I get the impression we’re looking up along a very tall but thin curtain.
Another view of the September 2, 2016 Steve shows his classic thin curtain and gradation of colours, here looking southeast.
Looking southwest on September 2, 2016, Steve takes on more rippled forms. But these are very transient. Indeed, Steve rarely lasts more than 30 minutes to an hour, and might get bright for only a few minutes. But even at his brightest, he usually looks white or grey to the eye, and moves very slowly.
Here’s a classic Steve, from October 1, 2006 – a white featureless arc even to the camera in this case.
So what is Steve?
He is often erroneously called a “proton arc,” but he isn’t. True auroral proton arcs are invisible to the eye and camera, emitting in wavelengths the eye cannot see. Proton auroras are also diffuse, not tightly confined like Steve.
Above is Steve from August 5, 2005, when he crashed the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, appearing as a ghostly white band across the sky. But, again, the camera revealed his true colours.
Steve Auroras in 2015 from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Here are a couple of time-lapses from 2015 of the phenomenon, appearing as an isolated arc overhead in the sky far from the main auroral activity to the north. I shot these from my backyard in southern Alberta. In both clips the camera faces north, but takes in most of the sky with a fish-eye lens.
In the first video clip, note the east-to-west flow of structure, as in classic auroras. In the second clip, Steve is not so well-defined. Indeed, his usual magenta band appears only briefly for a minute or so. So I’m not sure this second clip does show the classic Steve arc.
The origin and nature of Steve are subjects of investigation, aided by “citizen science” contributors of photos and videos.
Local aurora researcher Dr. Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary has satellite data from the ESA Swarm mission to suggest Steve is made of intensely hot thermal currents, and not classic electrons raining down as in normal auroras. He has back-acronymed Steve to mean Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
Learning more about Steve will require a unique combination of professional and amateur astronomers working together.
Now that he has a name, Steve won’t be escaping our attention any longer. We’ll be looking for him!
The Northern Lights once again performed beautifully from Churchill, Manitoba, making the sky dance with colours.
As I do each winter, I spent time in Churchill, Manitoba at the wonderful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, attending to groups of “aurora tourists” there to check an item off their bucket list – seeing the Northern Lights.
In the 30 years the courses have been presented only one group has ever come away not seeing the Lights. Well, make that two now. A bout of unseasonably warm weather in my first week brought clouds every night. Mild temperatures to be sure. But we want it to be -25° C! That’s when it is clear.
Our first clear night was very clear, affording us a wonderful view of the winter Milky Way before the Lights came out. Such a view is unusual from the North, as the Lights usually wash out the sky, which they did later this night. Even here, you can see some wisps of green aurora.
Normal temperatures didn’t return until week 2 of my stay. The second group fared much better, getting good displays on 4 of their 5 nights there, more typical of Churchill.
A few determined die-hards from Group 1 (here shooting the Lights) stayed on a couple of more nights, and were rewarded with the views they had come for. They were happy!
In the images here, at no time did the auroral activity exceed a level of Kp 3 (on a scale of 0 to 9) and was often just Kp 1 or 2. Farther south no one would see anything. But at latitude 58° N Churchill lies under the auroral oval where even on quiet nights the aurora is active and often spectacular.
In speaking to a Dene elder who presents a cultural talk to each of the CNSC groups, Caroline said that to the Dene of northern Canada their word for the Lights translates to “the sky is dancing.” Wonderful! It did for us.
The Auroras of Churchill from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
This music video presents a montage of time-lapse movies I shot over four nights, from January 25 to 29, 2017. They provide an idea of what we saw under the dancing sky.
As usual, choose HD and enlarge to full screen to view the movie. Or go to Vimeo with the V button.
The annual Dark Sky Festival in Jasper National Park ended with the best finale – dark skies, on a beautiful star-filled night.
On Saturday night, October 22, I left the final set of science talks in the Big Tent at the heart of the Festival and headed out down the Icefields Parkway for a night of shooting Jasper by starlight.
The lead image is of the winter stars, including the Pleiades, rising above Mt. Kerkeslin at Athabasca Falls.
I shot the image above moments later, from the usual viewpoint overlooking the Falls, reduced to a trickle in late autumn. Illumination is solely by starlight – no artificial and glaring light painting here.
Earlier in the night, I stopped at the Athabasca River Viewpoint and shot the autumn stars of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Perseus above Mt. Kerkeslin. The Pleiades are just appearing above the mountain ridge.
From that viewpoint I shot a scene looking south over the river and with the stars of Capricornus and Aquarius above the Divide.
At the start of the night I stopped at the viewpoint for Athabasca Pass far in the distance. The summer Milky Way was setting over the pass. This historic pass was used by David Thompson in the late 1700s and early 1800s as his route into B.C. to extend the fur trade across the Divide. Thompson writes in his Journal about one particularly clear night on the pass:
“My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the Stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”
The night ended with a display of Northern Lights over the Athabasca River. What a superb night under the stars in Jasper!
As a finale, here’s a music video collecting together still images and time-lapse movies shot this night, and on two other nights during the Dark Sky Festival, including at the big Lake Annette “Beyond the Stars” star party I spoke at.
As usual, enlarge to full screen and go to HD for the best view.
I’m pleased to announce that after a year in production, our video tutorial series, Nightscapes and Time-Lapses: From Field to Photoshop, is now available.
It’s been quite a project! Over the last few years I’ve presented annual astrophoto workshops in conjunction with our local telescope dealer All-Star Telescope to great success.
However, we always had requests for the workshops on video. Attempts to video the actual workshops never produced satisfactory results. So we spent a year shooting in the field and in the studio to produce a “purpose-built” series of programs.
They are available now as a set of three programs, totalling 4 hours of instruction, for purchase and download at Vimeo at
For those wanting “hard copies” we will also be selling the programs on mailed USB sticks. See All-Star Telescope for info and prices. The downloaded version can also be ordered from there.
This series deals with the basics of capturing, then processing nightscape still images and time-lapse movies of the night sky and landscapes lit by moonlight and starlight.
Here’s the content outline:
Program 1 – Choosing Equipment (1 Hour)
• Tips for Getting Started • Essential Gear • Choosing A Camera • Photo 101 – Exposure Triangle • Setting Exposure • Expose to the Right • Setting a Camera – File Types • Photo 101 – Noise Sources • Setting a Camera – Noise Reduction • Setting a Camera – Focusing • Setting a Camera – Other Menus • Choosing Lenses • Choosing an IntervalometerSummary and Tips
Program 2 – Shooting in the Field (1 hour)
• Climbing the Learning Curve • Twilights • Astronomy 101 – Conjunctions • Shooting Conjunctions • Moonrises • Shooting Auroras • Astronomy 101 – Auroras • Photo 101 – Composing • Moonlit Nightscapes • Astronomy 101 – Where is the Moon? • Choosing a Location • Shooting the Milky Way • Astronomy 101 – Where is the Milky Way? • Astronomy 101 – Daily Sky Motion • Tracking the Sky • Shooting Star Trails • Shooting Time-Lapses • Calculating Time-Lapses • A Pre-Flight Checklist • Summary and Tips
Program 3 – Processing Nightscapes and Time-Lapses (2 hours)
• Workflows • Using Adobe Bridge – Importing and Selecting • Photo 101 – File Formats • Using Adobe Lightroom – Importing and Selecting • Adobe Camera Raw – Essential Settings • Adobe Camera Raw – Developing Raw Images • Adobe Lightroom – Develop Module • Adobe Photoshop – Introduction • Photoshop – Setup • Photoshop – Smart Filters • Photoshop – Adjustment Layers • Photoshop – Masking • Photoshop – Processing Star Trails & Time-Lapses • Stacking Star Trails • Assembling Time-Lapse Movies • Archiving • Summary & Finale
If this first introductory series is successful we may produce follow-up programs on more advanced techniques.
It was a perfect night at a dark site in southern Alberta. The Milky Way shone to the south and aurora danced to the north.
I had scouted out this location in June and marked it on my calendar to return in the fall when the centre of the Milky Way would be well-placed to the southwest.
The site is Police Outpost Provincial Park, named for the North West Mounted Police fort that once occupied the site, guarding Canada’s sovereignty in the late 1800s.
One result from the night of shooting is the opening image, the first frame from a time-lapse taken while deep blue twilight still coloured the sky. The main peak is Chief Mountain in Montana.
To the north an aurora display kicked up over the lake. While it never got very bright, it still provided a photogenic show over the still waters.
The waters were calm on this windless night (rare for southern Alberta), and so reflected the stars and Northern Lights beautifully.
Here, the Big Dipper reflects in the lake as we look north to the Lights. The movie below compiles still images and two time-lapse sequences, of the Lights and Milky Way. The sounds are the natural sounds I recorded on site, as flocks of geese were getting ready to migrate and the owls hooted.
Enjoy! — As always, for the best view, enlarge to full screen or click through to Vimeo with the V button.
What a night this was – perfect skies over an iconic location in the Rockies. And an aurora to top it off!
On August 31 I took advantage of a rare clear night in the forecast and headed to Banff and Moraine Lake for a night of shooting. The goal was to shoot a time-lapse and stills of the Milky Way over the lake.
The handy planning app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, showed me (as below) that the Milky Way and galactic centre (the large circles) would be ideally placed over the end of the lake as astronomical twilight ended at 10:30 p.m. I began the shoot at 10 p.m. as the sky still had some twilight blue in it.
I planned to shoot 600 frames for a time-lapse. From those I would extract select frames to create a still image. The result is below.
As the caption explains, the still is a composite of one exposure for the sky and 16 in succession for the ground, averaged together in a technique to smooth noise. The camera wasn’t tracking the sky, so stacking sky images isn’t feasible, as much as I might like to have the lower noise there, too. (There are programs that attempt to align and stack the moving sky but I’ve never found they work well.)
About midnight, the Valley of Ten Peaks around the lake began to light up. An aurora was getting active in the opposite direction, to the north. With 450 frames shot, I stopped the Milky Way time-lapse and turned the camera the other way. (I was lazy and hadn’t hefted a second camera and tripod up the steep hill to the viewpoint.)
The lead-image panorama is the first result, showing the sweeping arc of Northern Lights over Desolation Valley.
Still images shot, I began a time-lapse of the Lights, grabbing another 450 frames, this time using just 2-second exposures at f/1.6 for a rapid cadence time-lapse to help freeze the motion of the curtains.
The final movies and stills are in a music video here:
I ended the night with a parting shot of the Pleiades and the winter stars rising behind the Tower of Babel formation. I last photographed that scene with those same stars in the 1980s using 6×7 film.
In a summer of clouds and storms, this was a night to make up for it.
Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way appeared in the twilight over the Bow River.
I shot this scene on August 24 from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, overlooking the Bow River. Mars appears between Saturn above and Antares below, in a line of objects west of the Milky Way.
The valley below is the traditional meeting place of the Blackfoot Nation, and the site of the signing of Treaty Seven between Chief Crowfoot and Colonel MacLeod of the North West Mounted Police in 1877.
The image is a panorama of two images, each 20-second exposures at f/2 and ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens. I shot them just prior to shooting time-lapses of the moving sky, using two cameras to create a comparison pair of videos, to illustrate the choices in setting the cadence when shooting time-lapses.
The movies, embedded here, will be in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse ebook, with the current version linked to below. The text explains what the videos are showing.
Choose Your Style
When shooting frames destined for a time-lapse movie we have a choice:
Shoot fewer but longer exposures at slower ISOs and/or smaller apertures.
Shoot lots of short exposures at high ISOs and/or wide apertures.
The former yields greater depth of field; the latter produces more noise. But with time-lapses, the variations also affect the mood of a movie in playback.
This comparison shows a pair of movies, both rendered at 30 frames per second:
Clip #1 was taken over 2 hours using 20-second exposures, all at ISO 2000 and f/2 with 1-second intervals. The result was 300 frames.
Clip #2 was taken over 1 hour using 5-second exposures also at f/2 and 1-second intervals, but at ISO 8000. The result was 600 frames: twice as many frames in half the time.
Clip #2 exhibits enough noise that I couldn’t bring out the dark foreground as well as in Clip #1. Clip 2 exhibits a slower, more graceful motion. And it better “time-resolves” fast-moving content such as cars and aircraft.
Which is better? It depends …
Long = Fast
The movie taken at a longer, slower cadence (using longer exposures) and requiring 2 hours to capture 300 frames resulted in fast, dramatic sky motion when played back. Two hours of sky motion are being compressed into 10 seconds of playback at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a dramatic, high-energy feel.
Short = Slow
By comparison, the movie that packed 600 frames into just an hour of shooting (by using short exposures taken at fast apertures or fast ISOs) produced a movie where the sky moves very slowly during its 10 seconds of playback, also at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a slow, peaceful mood to your movies.
So, if you want your movie to have a slow, quiet feel, shoot lots of short exposures. But, if you want your movie to have a fast, high-energy feel, shoot long exposures.
As an aside – all purchasers of the current edition of my ebook will get the updated version free of charge via the iBooks Store once it is published later this year.
I present a montage of time-lapses illustrating the motion of the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.
Any stargazer should be familiar with how the sky moves, with stars rising in the east and setting in the west.
From the northern hemisphere, when we look north we see the sky rotating counter-clockwise around the North Celestial Pole, near Polaris. As you’ll see in the video, even Polaris moves, though not much over the night. The stars that never set, but just move across the northern horizon, are the circumpolar stars.
When we look south we see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set, and change over the seasons.
I shot the images for these sequences from southern Arizona, in early December 2015.
So the night starts with the summer stars setting in the west and the autumn stars dominating the sky. But then Orion and the winter stars rise and march across the sky over the night, setting before dawn, as the spring stars rise.
The south-looking movie is a dusk-to-dawn sequence. Note the Zodiacal Light in the west at right in the early evening, then reappearing in the east at left before dawn brightens the sky, and as Venus and the Moon rises.
Also note the moving bands of red and green airglow, a natural phenomenon of the upper atmosphere.
I posted a matching set of moviesin my previous blog post, shot from the Southern Hemisphere. But here’s the link to the movie.
Both sets of movies were shot from nearly identical latitudes – about 31°, but 31° N for Portal, Arizona and 31° S for Coonabarabran, Australia.
As such the Celestial Poles appear at equal altitudes above the horizon. And the angles that the stars rise and set at in relation to the horizon are the same.
But the direction they move is opposite. When looking 180° away from the Pole, the seasonal stars move from left to right in the Northern Hemisphere, but from right to left in the Southern Hemisphere.
Visitors from one hemisphere to the other are bound to get turned around!