The Rising of the Harvest Moon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for looking! Clear skies!

— Alan / © 2020 www.amazingsky.com

Ten Tips for Taking Time-Lapses


Selfie at Grasslands National Park

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.


SELECTING EQUIPMENT

Camera on Tripod
Essential Gear
Time-lapse photography requires just the camera and lens you might already own, but on a solid tripod (a carbon-fibre Manfrotto with an Acratech ball-head is shown here), and with an intervalometer. 

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

Csmera on Ball Head
The All-Important Lens
A fast lens is especially critical for time-lapses to allow capturing good sky and ground detail in each exposure, as compositing later won’t be feasible. This is the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art 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

3A-Intervalometer-Canon
Canon intervalometer functions

3B-Intervalometer-Nikon
Nikon intervalometer functions

Intervalometer Trio
Automating the Camera
The intervalometer is also key. For cameras without an internal intervalometer (screens from a Canon and a Nikon are shown above), an outboard unit like one of these, is essential. Be sure to get the model that fits your camera’s remote control jack.

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

4-Histogram Example
Expose to the Right
When shooting, choose settings that will yield a histogram that is not slammed to the left, but is shifted to the right to minimize noise and lift details in the shadows.

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

Milky Way and ISS over Waterton Lakes
Stills from a Sequence
A stack of single frames from a time-lapse sequence can often make a good still image, such as this scene of the Space Station rising over Waterton Lakes National Park. The 30-second exposures were just within the “500 Rule” for the 15mm lens used here, but minor star trailing won’t be that noticeable in a final movie.

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.

5B-PhotoPills Calculator
PhotoPills Calculator
Apps such as PhotoPills offer handy calculators for juggling exposure time vs. the number of frames to yield the length of the time-lapse shoot.

Bonus Tip

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

6A-Intervals-No Gaps

6B-Intervals-Gaps
Mind the Gap!
At night use intervals as short as possible to avoid gaps in time, simulated here (at top) by stacking several time-lapse frames taken at a one-second interval into one image. Using too long an interval, as demonstrated just above, yields gaps in time and jumps in the star motion, simulated here by stacking only every other frame in a sequence. 

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

7-Camera Raw Comparison
The Power of Raw
Shooting raw, even for time-lapse frames that will eventually be turned into JPGs, allows for maximum control of shadows, highlights, colour balance, and noise reduction. “Before” is what came out of the camera; “After” is with the development settings shown applied in Camera 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 

8A-TPE Screen
Planning the Shoot
Apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (shown here set for the author’s Waterton Lakes site for moonrise) help in planning where the Sun, Moon and Milky Way will be from your site during the shoot.

8B-TPE 3D Demo
Simulating the Shoot
The companion app to The Photographer’s Ephemeris, TPE 3D, shown above in the inset, exactly matches the real scene for the mountain skyline, placement of the Milky Way, and lighting from the rising Moon. 

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. 

8C-Stellarium Start

8D-Stellarium End
Planetarium Planning
An alternative is to use a planetarium program such as the free Stellarium, shown above, which can display lens fields of view. These scenes show the simulated vs. real images (insets) for the start (top) and end (bottom) of the Waterton Lakes time-lapse with a 35mm lens frame, outlined in red. 

To save you from guessing wrong, try the free Stellarium (stellarium.org), or the paid Starry Night (starrynight.com) or SkySafari (skysafariastronomy.com). I use Starry Night. 

Bonus Tip

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.


PROCESSING

TIP 9 — DO:  Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all

9A-Bridge-Copy

9B-Bridge-Paste
Copy and Paste Settings
Most raw developers or photo library programs (Adobe Bridge is shown here) offer the essential ability to copy settings from one image and paste them onto hundreds of others in a folder, developing all the time-lapse frames in a snap.

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. 

9C-Image Processor Screen
Photoshop Batch Export
Raw developers usually have a batch export function. So does Photoshop, via its Image Processor utility, shown here (found under File>Scripts>Image Processor) that can export a folder of raws into JPGs or TIFFs, and re-size them, often needed for final 4K or HD movies. 

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. 

9D-TLDF Screen
Assembling JPGs
The author’s favourite assembly program is TimeLapse DeFlicker (TLDF). It can turn a folder of JPGs into movies as large as 8K and with ProRes codecs for the highest quality.

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

10A-LRT-Bridge Keyframes
Working on Keyframes
The advanced processing program LRTimelapse creates several keyframes through the sequence (seven are shown here in Adobe Bridge) which you develop so each looks its best. During this sequence, the Moon rose changing the lighting toward the end of the shoot (in the last three keyfames). 

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. 

10B-LRT-Final Screen
LRTimelapse Ramping
LRTimelapse reads your developed keyframe data and applies smooth transitions of all settings to each of the raw files between the keyframes. The result is a seamless and smooth final movie. The pink curve shows how the scene brightened at moonrise. The blue diamonds on the yellow line mark the seven keyframes. 

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.


© 2019 Alan Dyer

Alan Dyer is author of the comprehensive ebook How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. His website is www.amazingsky.com 

For a channel of his time-lapse movies, music videos, and tutorials on Vimeo see https://vimeo.com/channels/amazingsky 

 

The Great Transit Expedition of 2019


Blog Title

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.

Transit of Mercury Selfie with Sun

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.

Low Sun with Mercury in Transit

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.

The Transit of Mercury Across the Sun (10 am MST)

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.”

The Transit of Mercury Across the Sun (11 am MST)

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.

Mercury at Mid-Transit (November 11, 2019)

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.

Transit of Mercury Composite Across the Sun v2

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!

Transit of Mercury Trophy Shot

This was my trophy shot! Bagged the transit!

P.S.: For my video of the previous transit of Mercury in May 2016, see my blog post which includes a similar compilation video.

P.P.S.: And for tech details on the images and videos in this blog, please click through to Vimeo and the video description I have there of cameras, scopes, and settings.

Clear skies!

Alan, November 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife


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

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

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

Somba K’e Park

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

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

Pilot’s Monument

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

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

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

Rotary Park

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

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

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

Prosperous Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeline Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ramparts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prelude Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

It’s in 4K on Vimeo. Enjoy!

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

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

 

Testing the MSM Tracker


MSM Test Title

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Tested

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounting Options

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

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

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

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

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

Polar Alignment

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

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

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

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


UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1

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


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

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

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

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

Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panning the Ground 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Too Slow or Too Fast

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

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

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

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

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


UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

MSM Rotator 2019


Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Math

Where does that number come from? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time-Lapse Movie Examples

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

Battery Life

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

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

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

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

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

Other Caveats

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

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

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

MSM Polar Aligned On Back


UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019

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

I’m sorry to report it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison with the Star Adventurer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Celebrating Apollo


Presenting Apollo Show

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.

It was a wonderful moment to be alive.

— Alan, July 24, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Auroras at Sea


Aurora from at Sea Near Lofotens #1

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.

Aurora over the Norwegian Sea #2 (Feb 27, 2019)
The Northern Lights over the Norwegian Sea south of the small fishing village of Oksfjord, from the Hurtigruten ferry ship the m/s Trollfjord on the northbound voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes. This was during a minor geomagnetic storm producing an all-sky aurora with a Kp Index however of no more Kp 3 – 4 this night. A break in the clouds allowed a glimpse of the Lights for about an hour at 11 pm. This is looking north. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400. Ship motion inevitably adds some star trailing.

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.

Auroral Swirls over Båtsfjord, Norway
Swirls of auroral curtains over Båtsfjord, Norway while we were in port on the southbound portion of the Hurtigruten coastal cruise on the ms Trollfjord. This was March 1, 2019. The stars of Taurus and the Pleiades are at left; Cassiopeia at upper right. This is a single 0.8-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

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.

Auroral Swirls Overhed from the ms Trollfjord
Auroral curtains in an overhead coronal burst swirling at the zenith during a fine display on March 1, 2019, as seen from the deck of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord, while in port in Båtsfjord, Norway. The Big Dipper is at upper right; Cassiopeia at lower left, and Polaris in the centre amid the aurora. This is a single 1-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. It was taken from port with the ship stationary and amid the port 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.

Aurora over Skjervøy, Norway
The Northern Lights over the village of Skjervøy on the northern coast of Norway north of Tromsø. Taken from the deck of the Hurtigruten ship the ms Trollfjord while in port, March 2, 2019. Looking west with Cassiopeia at right and the Pleiades at left. This is a blend of two exposures: a long 4-second exposure for the sky and aurora, and a short 0.8-second exposure for the ground and city lights. All at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 800.

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.

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.

Sunset from the Trollfjord
Sunset in Norway from the ms Trollfjord on the southbound voyage, on March 2, 2019.

Trollfjord at Twilight
The mouth of the Trollfjord in the Lofoten Islands, Norway, at twilight taken from the forward Deck 6 of the ms Trollfjord, the Hurtigruten ferry ship named for the narrow fjord. This is a 4-section handheld panorama with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/8 and Sony a7III camera at ISO 100. Stitched with ACR.

Alpenglow and Twilight on the Fjords
A panorama of the Raftsundet Strait at sunset with alpenglow on the peaks and evening twilight colours to the right at the sunset point. This was March 3, 2019 on the southbound voyage on the ms Trollfjord as we approached the Trollfjord itself. This is a 7-section panorama, handheld, with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III, stitched with ACR.

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.

For details on this cruise (I’ll be on the October 10 trip this fall) see the Road Scholar page for this Arctic Skies trip. Autumn is a spectacular time in the fjords and along the coast, as the mountainsides are in fall colours.

Join me!

— Alan, March 15, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Aurora Reflections in Yellowknife


Auroral Arc over Tibbitt Lake

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.

Aurora Panorama at Tibbit Lake #2

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.

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.

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.

Aurora in the Clouds Panorama

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.

— Alan, October 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Banff by Night


Milky Way Reflections at Bow Lake

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.

Conjunction over the Continental Divide with Train

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.

The Milky Way and Mars over Storm Mountain

This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.

Bow Lake by Night Panorama

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.

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.

Mars and the Milky Way at Herbert Lake

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.

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.

Clear skies!

— Alan, August 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

On Solstice Pond


Selfie at Solstice Pond

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.

Solstice Twilight Panorama over Prairie Pond
A 120° panorama of the summer solstice twilight (at 12:30 am local time) looking north over the prairie pond near home in southern Alberta, taken June 19/20, 2018. Some very faint noctilucent clouds are at left but fading, while some very faint rays of auroral curtains are also visible in the photo but were invisible to the eye. The bright star Capella is at centre and reflected in the calm waters. Perseus is at right of centre. The red lights at right are from the wind turbines at the Wintering Hills Wind Farm. This is a stitch of 6 segments, with the 35mm lens at f/2.5 for 20 seconds each with the Canon 6DMkII at ISO 400.

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.

Planet Panorama at a Prairie Pond
A 160° panorama looking south near summer solstice time in June 2018, with the bright planets Mars (left) and Jupiter (right) and their glitter paths on the water flanking the Milky Way and Saturn in Sagittarius above the pinkish Lagoon Nebula. The waxing Moon is setting off frame at right brightening the sky and lighting the landscape. The sky is also blue from the solstice twilight. The stars of Scorpius shine between Jupiter and the Milky Way. Some faint bands of red and green airglow are visible at left, despite the bright sky. This is a stitch of 8 segments, all for 25 seconds with the 35mm lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 800.

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.

Noctilucent Clouds over Prairie Pond (June 24, 2018)
A fine display of noctilucent clouds (NLCs) or polar mesospheric clouds, reflected in a local prairie pond near home in southern Alberta. The display started with wisps much higher in the north but they faded as the Sun dropped lower, with the display at this extent by the time I reached my spot and took this panorama. Leo and Regulus are setting at far left in the west, as is Venus just above the horizon at left. Capella and Auriga are at centre, and circumpolar, while the stars of Perseus at right, rising. This is a panorama of 9 segments, at 15° spacings, with the 35mm lens at f/2.8 for 13 second exposures with the Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

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.

Panorama of Noctilucent Clouds (June 26, 2018)
A panorama of a fine display of noctilucent clouds across the northern horizon over an angle of about 60°. This was on June 26, 2018 at about 11:45 pm. Capella is just left of centre. The display faded as the solar illumination dropped and the clouds darkened from the top down. This was from the small pond near home in southern Alberta. This is a stitch of 7 segments, each 2 seconds at f/2.8 with the 85mm Rokinon lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400. Stitched with ACR.

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.

It was a magical night at Solstice Pond.

– Alan, June 27, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Lilac Passages of the ISS


ISS Title Page

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.

– Alan, May 26, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Rise and Set of the Easter Full Moon


Rising Easter Full Moon (Composite)

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.

The Easter Full Moonset #1 (March 31, 2018)
The setting Full Moon on the morning of Saturday, March 31, 2018, the day before Easter. At this time, at about 7:20 a.m. MDT, the Moon was a little less than an hour after the moment of exact Full Moon, so the Sun had already risen before the Moon set. This was with the Canon 6D MkII and 200mm lens with 1.4x convertor, shot from home.

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.

Rising Easter Full Moon (Trail)
This is a stack of 424 exposueres, taken at 3-second intervals for a time-lapse, but here stacked with Lighten blend mode to create a moon trail streak. I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions in Photoshop. The final Moon disk comes from the last image in the sequence, while the ground comes from the first image in the sequence. I shot this sequence from home, using a 200mm Canon lens and 1.4x convertor, on the Canon 6D MkII. Exposures ranged from 0.8 second to 1/15 second, all at ISO 100 and f/4.

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.

Rising Moon Movie Composite Screenshot
A screen shot of the Photoshop layers used to create the Moon disk composite time-lapse.

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.

— Alan, April 3, 2018 / © 2918 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

The Northern Lights from Norway


All-Sky Aurora from Norway #1

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.

Purple Auroral Curtains in Twilight from Norway
Auroral curtains in twilight on March 14, 2018 from at sea north of Tromsø, Norway, on the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordnorge, with the curtains showing a purple tinge at the tops, likely from scattered blue sunlight mixing with the red oxygen colours. The Big Dipper is at centre in a view looking north. This is a single 2-second exposure with the Rokinon 12mm full-frame fish-eye at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 8000.

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.

Aurora Watchers on m/s Nordnorge #1
Aurora tourists taking in the sky show on March 14, 2018 from the aft deck of the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordnorge on the journey south, from a location north of Tromsø this night. This is a single 2-second exposure with the Rokinon 12mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 8000.

All observing and photography is done from the ship deck as we sailed among the fjords and sounds along the coast.

Purple Auroral Curtains from Norway
Auroral curtains in twilight on March 14, 2018 from at sea north of Tromsø, Norway, on the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordnorge, with the curtains showing a purple tinge to the background sky, likely from scattered blue sunlight mixing with the red oxygen colours. The Big Dipper is at upper left; Orion is at far right; Leo is left of centre, in a view looking south. This is a single 2-second exposure with the Rokinon 12mm full-frame fish-eye at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 8000.

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.

All-Sky Aurora from Norway #3
A sky-covering aurora on March 14, 2018, as seen from the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordnorge, as we sailed south toward Tromsø, Norway. The view is looking east. The curtains are converging to the zenith at top. This is a single 1.6-second exposure with the Rokinon 12mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 8000.

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.

Entering Trollfjorden with Aurora
A scene from the Norwegian coast and the Loftoten Islands of the aurora over the entrance to the Trollfjorden fjord, from the forward deck of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the m/s Nordnorge. Cassiopeia and Perseus are at left. Vega (brightest) and Deneb are at lower right, high above the northern horizon from this latitude of 68° North. Taken March 10, 2018. I used the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200, for a 2-second exposure.

As is the custom, the captain enters the fjord by searchlight, a scene depicted below.

Entering Trollfjorden with Searchlights
A scene from the Norwegian coast and the Loftoten Islands of the aurora over the entrance to the Trollfjorden fjord, from the forward deck of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the m/s Nordnorge. The ship is using its searchlights to mark the entrance to the narrow fjord. Cassiopeia and Perseus are at left. Vega (brightest) and Deneb are at lower right, high above the northern horizon from this latitude of 68° North. Taken March 10, 2018. I used the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200, for a 2-second exposure.

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.

Panorama of the Auroral Oval from Norway
A 180° panorama of the sweep of the auroral oval, from due west, at left, to due east, at right, with due north near the image centre. Orion is just setting into the sea at far left. Cassiopeia is at centre. Deneb and Vega are the bright stars low in the sky and circumpolar shining just right of centre. I shot this on the evening of March 16, 2018 from at sea on the coast of Norway south of Rorvik, with the ship sailing south away from the aurora. This was from the aft deck of the m/s Nordnorge, one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships. The latitude was about 63° N. This is a panorama from 8 segments, stitched with PTGui, and shot with the Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8, for a series of 1-second exposures at ISO 6400 with the Nikon D750.

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.

— Alan, March 22, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Beauty of the Milky Way


Beauty of Milky Way Title

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.

I used a SYRP Genie Mini and a Star Adventurer Mini for the panning sequences, and a TimeLapse+ View intervalometer for the day-to-night sequences.

I processed all sequences (some 7500 frames in total) through the software LRTimelapse to smooth transitions and flickering.

Music is by Audiomachine.

Enjoy!

— Alan, January 22, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

Winter Stars over the Badlands


Orion Rising Star Trails at Dinosaur Park

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

IMG_3517

Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.

Clear skies!

— Alan, November 29, 2017 / © 2017 AmazingSky.com

 

Sailing to the Northern Lights


Sailing to the Lights Title

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. 

Technical Info:
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.

— Alan, November 16, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Conjunctions, Satellites & Auroras, Oh My!


Friday the 13th Aurora Title

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.


Conjunctions

Venus & Mars in Close Conjunction #2 (Oct 5, 2017)
Venus and Mars in close conjunction in the dawn sky on October 5, 2017. Venus is the brightest object; Mars is below it; while the star above Venus is 4th magnitude Sigma Leonis. The foreground is illuminated by light from the setting Full Moon in the west. This is a single 1-second exposure with the 135mm lens at f/2 and Canon 60Da at ISO 800. 

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

Overhead Pass of the Space Station in Moonlight
An overhead pass of the ISS on October 5, 2017, with the Full Moon rising in the east at left. The ISS is moving from west (at right) to east (at left), passing nearly overhead at the zenith at centre. North is at the top, south at bottom in this fish-eye lens image with an 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens on the Canon 6D MkII camera. This is a stack of 56 exposures, each 4 seconds long at an interval of 1 second. 

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.


Satellites: Iridiums

Twin Iridium Satellite Flares (October 9, 2017)
A pair of nearly simultaneous and parallel Iridium satellite flares, on October 9, 2017, as they descended into the north. The left or westerly flare was much brighter and with a sharp rise and fall in brightness. While it was predicted to be mag. -4.4 I think it got much brighter, perhaps mag -7, but very briefly. These are Iridium 90 (left) and Iridium 50 (right). This is a stack of 40+ exposures each, 2 seconds at 1-second intervals, with the Sigma 24mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

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.


Auroras

Aurora and Circumpolar Star Trails (Oct, 13, 2017)
A circumpolar star trail composite with Northern Lights, on October 13, 2017, shot from home in southern Alberta. The Big Dipper is at bottom centre; Polaris is at top centre at the axis of the rotation. The bottom edge of the curtains are rimmed with a pink fringe from nitrogen. This is a stack of 200 frames taken mostly when the aurora was a quiescent arc across the north before the substorm hit. An additional single exposure is layered in taken about 1 minute after the main star trail set to add the final end point stars after a gap in the trails. Stacking was with the Advanced Stacker Plus actions using the Ultrastreaks mode to add the direction of motion from the tapering trails. Each frame is 3 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400 wth the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon D750.

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.

Aurora from October 13, 2013
A decent aurora across the north from home in southern Alberta, on Friday the 13th, October, 2017, though these frames were taken after midnight MDT. 3 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400 wth the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon D750.

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!

— Alan, October 16, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Aurora Starring Steve


"Steve," the Strange Auroral Arc (Spherical Fish-Eye Projection)

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.

Expand to fill the screen for the best view.

Thanks for looking!

— Alan, October 7, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Totality over the Tetons — the Music Video


Totality over Tetons Title Image

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.

Eclipse Triumph Selfie (Wide)
Me at the 2017 total solar eclipse celebrating post-eclipse with four of the camera systems I used, for close-up stills through a telescope, for 4K video through a telephoto lens, and two wide-angle time-lapse DSLRs. A fifth camera used to take this image shot an HD video selfie.
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.

2017 Eclipse Time Sequence Composite
A composite of the 2017 eclipse with time running from left to right, depicting the onset of totality at left, then reappearance of the Sun at right. Taken with the 4-inch telescope shown above.
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!

— Alan, September 2, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Arc of the Low Summer Moon


Arc of the Summer MoonThe 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.

Arc of the Summer 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.

— Alan, July 12, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

Northern Lights Over a Prairie Lake


Auroral Arch over a Prairie LakeThe 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.

Aurora and Noctilucent Clouds over Crawling Lake v2

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.

Aurora and Noctilucent Clouds over Crawling Lake v1

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.

Arcs of the Aurora and Milky Way
A 360° panorama of the aurora and Milky Way in the twilight sky of a summer solstice evening.

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.

Thanks!

— Alan, June 26, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Rising of the “Strawberry” Moon


The Rising Strawberry Moon of June 9, 2017 (Composite)

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.

The Rising Strawberry Moon of June 9, 2017
The rising Full Moon of June, dubbed the “Strawberry Moon” in the media, as seen rising over a prairie pond in southern Alberta, on June 9, 2017. This is a single exposure stack, from a time-lapse sequence of 1100 frames, with images taken at two second intervals. Shot with the Canon 6D and 200mm lens.
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. 

Check the site at Western Washington University at http://www.wwu.edu/depts/skywise/indianmoons.html and you’ll see there were an enormous number of names in use, assuming even this listing is authentic. 

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. 

Yes, people around the world may have long had names for months and moons, but they were not necessarily the ones that make the rounds of news sites and blogs today. Most are a modern media concoction. A few years ago, pre-internet, no one knew about nor used these names. 
— Alan, June 10, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Night of the Great Aurora


Great Aurora of May 27, 2017 – Wide-Angle v5

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.

Aurora over the Rothney Observatory

As the night began I was at the Rothney Observatory helping out with the public stargazing night.

ISS and Aurora - Rising out of the West

We saw the Space Station rise out of the west over the Rockies and pass through the Northern Lights.

ISS and Aurora - In the East over Rothney Observatory

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.

ISS Through the Aurora (May 27, 2017)

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.

Great Aurora of May 27, 2017 – Wide-Angle v3

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.

— Alan, May 31, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Meet Steve, the Odd Auroral Arc


Red Auroral Arc #1 (May 10, 2015)

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.

Red Auroral Arc #3 (May 10, 2015)

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!

Aurora Panorama with Isolated Arc

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.

Isolated Auroral Arc Overhead

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.

Isolated Auroral Arc #3 (Sept 2, 2016)

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.

Isolated Auroral Arc #5 (Sept 2, 2016)

Another view of the September 2, 2016 Steve shows his classic thin curtain and gradation of colours, here looking southeast.

Isolated Auroral Arc #4 (Sept 2, 2016)

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.

Auroral Arc East

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.

Auroral Arc Overhead

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!

— Alan Dyer / May 12, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

The Sky Was Dancing


Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #2 (January 29, 201

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.

Auroral Arcs over Boreal Forest #2

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.

Winter Star and Milky Way from Churchill Manitoba

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.

Orion over Snow Inukshuk

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.

Photographers Under the Northern Lights

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!

All-Sky Aurora from Churchill #2 (January 29, 2017)

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.

Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #3 (January 29, 201

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.

— Alan, February 3, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

 

Jasper by Starlight


Taurus Rising over Mount Kerkeslin

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.

Pleiades and Taurus over Athabasca Falls
The Pleiades star cluster and the other stars of Taurus rising above Mount Kerkeslin at Athabasca Falls, in Jasper National Park, Alberta, October 22, 2016. The sky is brightening with the rising waning Moon off frame at left. Some cloud adds star glows and hazy patches to the sky. This is a stack of 15 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground and one exposure for the sky. All are 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

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.

Perseus and Cassiopeia over Mt Kerkeslin
The autumn constellations of Perseus, Cassiopeia and Andromeda over Mount Kerkeslin at the Athabasca River Viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Andromeda Galaxy is at upper right. The Pleiades are just clearing the mountain top at lower right. Thin clouds add the natural glows around the stars. Illumination is from starlight. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

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.

Stars over Athabasca River
The autumn stars of the watery constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Piscis Austrinus, and Cetus over the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide, from the Athabasca River Viewpoint (the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint) on the Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park, Alberta. Thin cloud provides the natural glows around the stars. This is a stack of 8 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

From that viewpoint I shot a scene looking south over the river and with the stars of Capricornus and Aquarius above the Divide.

Milky Way over Athabasca Pass
The Milky Way over the region of Athabasca Pass, as seen from the highway viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway, in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Oct 22, 2016. The Milky Way here is the section through Aquila, with Altair at top and Mars bright above the peaks of the Continental Divide. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and Nkion D750 at ISO 6400.

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!

Aurora over Athabasca River
The Northern Lights over the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, on October 22/23 at about 1:30 am. I shot this from an access point to the Athabasca River by the bridge on Highway 93 on the Icefields Parkway. Pyramid Mountain is at left near the town of Jasper. Vega is the bright star at left; the Big Dipper is at right. The image is a stack of 10 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise and to smooth the water, and one exposure for the sky and aurora. All 15 seconds at ISO 1600 at f2 with the Sigma 20mm lens and Nikon D750.

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.

Enjoy!

As usual, enlarge to full screen and go to HD for the best view.

Thanks!

— Alan, October 24, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Our Video Tutorials are Now Available!


video-tutorial-programs

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


Or go directly to Vimeo’s sales page.

The programs can be purchased as downloads.

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:

video-tutorial-5

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

video-tutorial-10

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

video-tutorial-12

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.

Thanks for looking!

— Alan, October 18, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

 

A Night at Police Outpost


Milky Way in Twilight at Police Outpost Park

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.

Twilight Aurora at Police Outpost
A fairly mild dispay of aurora in the darkening deep blue twilight over the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with the stars of Perseus rising, and with Capella low in the northeast at centre. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the dark ground and water to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 2000. 

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.

Aurora over Police Outpost Lake
A fairly mild dispay of aurora over the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with the stars of Auriga and Taurus rising, including the Pleiades at upper right. The Hyades in Taurus are the most prominent stellar reflections at lower right, in the still water this evening. Capella is the bright star above centre; Aldebaran is at right. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the dark ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky and water, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. 

The waters were calm on this windless night (rare for southern Alberta), and so reflected the stars and Northern Lights beautifully.

Big Dipper Reflection
The Big Dipper reflected in the still waters of the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with an aurora to the north at right. Only in autumn can one shoot the Dipper reflected in the water in the evening sky, as it is then riding low along the northern horizon. This is from a latitude of 49° N where the Dipper is circumpolar. This is a stack of 4 x 25 second exposures for the dark ground to smooth noise and one 25-second exposure for the sky and water, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. 

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.

— Alan, October 6, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

A Night at Moraine Lake


Aurora over Desolation Valley PanoramaWhat 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.

Moraine Lake TPE

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.

Milky Way over Moraine Lake
This is looking southwest with the images taken about 11:15 pm on August 31, 2016.The ground is illuminated by a mix of starlight, lights from the Moraine Lake Lodge, and from a display of aurora brightening behind the camera to the north. The starclouds of Scutum and Sagittarius are just above the peaks of the Valley of Ten Peaks. This is a stack of 16 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, untracked, all 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames are part of a 450-frame time-lapse.

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.

Aurora over Desolation Valley #2
The Northern Lights in a fine Level 4 to 5 display over Desolation Valley at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, on the night of August 31/Sept 1. This is one frame from a 450-frame time-lapse with the aurora at its best. This is a 2-second exposure at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000.

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.

Aurora and Winter Stars Rising over Tower of Babel
The early winter stars rising behind the Tower of Babel formation at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, with a bright aurora to the north at left. Visible are the Pleiades at centre, and Capella and the stars of Auriga at left. Just above the mountain are the Hyades and Taurus rising. At top are the stars of Perseus. Aries is just above the peak of Babel. The aurora in part lights the landscape green. This is a stack of 16 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and 1 image for the sky, untracked, all for 15 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All with LENR turned on.

In a summer of clouds and storms, this was a night to make up for it.

— Alan, September 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Member of The World at Night photo group

TWAN-black

 

The Cadence of the Moving Sky


Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way over the Bow River

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.

OR …

  • 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 #1 shows fast sky motion. Clip #2 shows slow motion.

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. 

— Alan, August 26, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Moving Stars of the Northern Hemisphere


Arizona Star Trails - Circumpolar Looking North

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 movies in 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!

— Alan, August 25, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Moving Stars of the Southern Hemisphere


Southern Sky Star Trails - OzSky Looking South

Nothing amazes even the most inveterate skywatcher more than traveling to another hemisphere and seeing sky move. It moves the wrong way!

Whether you are from the southern hemisphere traveling north, or as I do, travel south from the Northern Hemisphere, watching how the sky moves can be disorienting.

Here I present a video montage of time-lapses shot last April in Australia, at the annual OzSky Star Party near Coonabarabran in New South Wales.

Select HD and Enlarge button to view at full screen at best quality.

You’ll see the sky set in the west but traveling in arcs from right to left, then in the next clip, rise in the east, again moving from right to left. That’s the wrong angle for us northerners.

Looking north you see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set over a night and that change with the seasons. In this case, the night starts with Orion (upside-down!) to the north but setting over in the west, followed by Leo and bright Jupiter. The sky is moving from east to west, but that’s from right to left here. The austral Sun does the same thing by day.

Looking south, we see the circumpolar constellations, the ones that circle the South Celestial Pole. Only there’s no bright “South Star” to mark the pole.

The sky, including the two Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies to the Milky Way) and the spectacular Milky Way itself, turns around the blank pole, moving clockwise – the opposite direction to what we see up north.

I shot the sequences over four nights in early April, as several dozen stargazers from around the world revelled under the southern stars, using an array of impressive telescopes supplied by the Three Rivers Foundation, Australia, for us to explore the southern sky.

I’ll be back next year!

– Alan, August 19, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Alberta Skies – A Music Video


Alberta Skies TitleI am pleased to present my latest music video featuring Alberta Skies in motion, set to the music of Ian Tyson.

My 5-minute video features time-lapse imagery shot over the last three years in the plains, badlands, and mountains of Alberta.

Do click through to Vimeo and view in HD for the best quality.

The footage is set to the music of Alberta singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, and his superb rendition of Home on the Range. It is used by kind permission of Ian Tyson and Stony Plain Records. Thanks!

It was hearing Ian’s version of this song on CBC one day in 1992 when his album And Stood There Amazed came out that inspired me to move back to Alberta and the great landscapes of the west that I knew I wanted to capture.

Little did I know at the time how it was going to be possible in the 2000s to do it in time-lapse.

Enjoy!

— Alan, July 7, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

We’re Live on Kickstarter


Star Trails Behind Double Arch

Our video tutorial project is now live on Kickstarter!

For the last two years I’ve been involved in a project to produce a set of comprehensive video tutorials on how to shoot and process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses, to complement my ebook by the same name.

If you’ve not been able to attend my workshops – or even if you have! – these videos will provide you with all the information, and more, in a format you can review over and over.

We’ve shot all the field and studio footage, but to complete the production, we need your help. Back us on Kickstarter and we’ll be able to make the programs available this September, as downloads and on a shipped USB drive.

Our Kickstarter page has all the details. Early backers can purchase the tutorial programs now for as little as $55 – and that’s Canadian! – vs. $80 for the final retail price. The final programs will provide several hours of instruction, both in the field and at the computer.

kickstarter-logo-light copy

If you have not participated in a Kickstarter campaign before, it is no risk. Nothing is charged to your credit card until and when the project is successfully funded after the 30-day campaign. If it isn’t successful, you are charged nothing.

Here’s our promo video describing the programs.

We have 30 days to make our goal. We invite you to join us in making our project a reality.

Thanks!

— Alan, June 15, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com

The Beauty of Solar Eclipses


Beauty of Solar Eclipses Title

This is a video 37 years in the making, compiling images and videos I’ve shot of total solar eclipses since my first in 1979.

Though I’ve “sat out” on the last couple of total eclipses of the Sun in 2015 and 2016, I’m looking forward to once again standing in the shadow of the Moon in 2017 – on August 21.

If you have not yet seen a total eclipse of the Sun, and you live in North America, next year is your chance to. It is the most spectacular and awe-inspiring event you can witness in nature.

I hope my video montage relays some of the excitement of being there, as the Moon eclipses the Sun.

As always, click HD and enlarge to full screen.

My montage features images and movies shot in:

• Manitoba (1979)

• Chile (1994)

• Curaçao (1998)

• Turkey (1999)

• Zimbabwe (2001)

• Australia (2002)

• Over Antarctica (2003)

• South Pacific near Pitcairn Island (2005)

• Libya (2006)

• Over Arctic Canada (2008)

• South Pacific near the Cook Islands (2009)

• Australia (2012)

• Mid-Atlantic Ocean (2013)

Out of the 15 total solar eclipses I have been to, only the 1991 and 2010 eclipses that I did go to are not represented in the video, due to cloud. Though we did see much of the 1991 eclipse from Baja, clouds intervened part way through, thwarting my photo efforts.

And I only just missed the 2010 eclipse from Hikueru Atoll in the South Pacific as clouds came in moments before totality. Of course, it was clear following totality.

Cameras varied a lot over those years, from Kodachrome film with my old Nikon F, to digital SLRs; from 640×480 video with a Sony point-and-shoot camera, to HD with a DSLR.

I shot images through telescopes to capture the corona and prominences, and with wide-angle lenses to capture the landscape and lunar shadow. I rarely shot two eclipses the same way or with the same gear.

I hope you enjoy the video and will be inspired to see the August 21, 2017 eclipse. For more information about that eclipse, visit:

GreatAmericanEclipse.com

EclipseWise.com

eclipse2017.org

In addition, meteorologist and eclipse chaser Jay Anderson has the first and last words on eclipse weather prospects at:

eclipseophile.com

Clear skies in 2017!

— Alan, May 25, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

 

Mars in the Moonlight


Mars in the Badlands

Mars is approaching! It now shines brightly in the midnight sky as a red star in Scorpius.

You can’t miss Mars now. It is shining brighter than it has since 2005, and is about to come as close to Earth as it has in 11 years as well.

Mars is now approaching opposition, when the Earth comes closest to Mars, and the Sun, Earth and Mars lie along the same line. Opposition date is May 22. That’s when Mars shines at its brightest, at magnitude -2.1, about as bright as Jupiter. Only Venus can be a brighter planet and it’s not in our sky right now.

A week later, on May 30, Mars comes closest to Earth, at a distance of 75 million kilometres. That’s when the disk of Mars looks largest in a telescope. And you will need a telescope at high power (150x to 250x) to make out the dark markings, north polar cap, and bright white clouds on Mars. 

Mars in the Moonlight (May 13, 2016)
Mars above Antares, with Saturn to the left, low in the south on May 13, 2016, in the moonlight of a waxing quarter Moon, from home in Alberta. This was one week before opposition and two weeks before closest approach, so Mars is particularly bright and red. However, from my latitude of 50° N Mars appears low in the south. This is a single 15-second exposure, untracked, at f/2.5 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 2000.

In these views, I show Mars shining as a bright reddish star low in my western Canadian sky. I shot the lead image from Dinosaur Provincial Park on May 16. The image just above was from my backyard the night before.

This week, Mars is passing between Beta and Delta Scorpii, two bright stars in the head of Scorpius, as the red planet retrogrades westward against the background stars.

Saturn shines to the east (left) of Mars now, with both planets shining above the red giant star Antares in Scorpius. In these photos they form a neat triangle.

Even without a telescope to magnify the view, it’ll be rewarding to watch Mars with the unaided eye or binoculars as it treks west out of Scorpius into Libra this spring and summer. It stops retrograding on June 30, then starts looping back into Scorpius, for a rendezvous with Antares and Saturn in late August.

This little compilation of time-lapse movies shows Mars, Saturn, and the rest of the sky, rising into the southeast and across the south on two nights this past week.

Be sure to explore Mars this month and next, whether by eye or by telescope. It’s the best we’ve seen it in a decade.

It’s next close approach in 2018 will be even better, though Mars will appear even lower in our northern sky.

– Alan, May 17 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

The Beauty of the Northern Lights


Beauty of Northern Lights Title

My latest music video includes images, time-lapses and real-time videos of the Northern Lights shot in February and March 2016 in Churchill. 

While I’ve posted my recent images of the aurora here and at many social media sites, all the videos I shoot take more work before they are ready to unveil to the public. Videos work best when set to music.

In this case, I’m very pleased to have received permission from EverSound Music to incorporate the music of one of my favourite artists, John Adorney, in my latest music video montage. The selection is If a Rose Could Speak, from his 2013 album The Wonder Well. It features vocals by Daya.

The video incorporates still images, as well as time-lapse sequences, and real-time videos of the Northern Lights.

The all-sky time-lapses are intended to be projected in digital planetarium theatres, recreating the scene on their 360° domes.

Please click on the V for Vimeo button to really see the video well. And select 1080p HD for the best image quality. And do share! 

ABOUT THE VIDEO

I shot all scenes at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay at a latitude of 58° North. Churchill’s location places it under the usual location of the auroral oval, providing spectacular displays of Northern Lights even on nights when locations to the south are seeing nothing.

I was at the CNSC to present sets of 5-night aurora viewing programs to guests from across North America. Click the link above for more details on their programs. The 2016 aurora season is over, but we’ll have more aurora programs in January and February of next year.

TECHNICAL

I shot all images with Canon 6D and Nikon D750 DSLR cameras, usually at ISO 3200. The fish-eye all-sky sequences were with a Sigma 8mm lens on the Canon, while most of the still images and other full-frame time-lapses were with the Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Nikon. For the “rapid-cadence” time-lapses I used 1- to 2-second exposures at an interval of one second.

The real-time video clips were with the Nikon – set to ISO 25600 – and the Sigma wide open at f/1.4. While these clips are prone to digital noise, they do record the fast movement and subtle colour of the aurora much as the eye saw it. See my earlier music video with real-time clips shot February 12 for more examples of these.

The all-sky sequences were processed through LRTimelapse v4 software, to handle the huge range in brightness of the Lights. Real-time video clips were processed in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.

Temperatures ranged from a bitter -35° C to just (!) -15° C on most nights.

I kept the long-duration, all-sky, time-lapse camera going by placing it in a Camera Parka (www.atfrostedlens.com) and inserting disposable hand warmer packs inside the insulated parka. It worked very well, making it possible to shoot for up to 3 hours. Without it, the battery died after an hour.

— Alan, March 18, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

The Northern Lights … As They Appeared


Aurora As It Appeared Title

My 10-minute video captures the Northern Lights in real-time video – no time-lapses here!

I hadn’t tried this before but the display of February 12, 2016 from Churchill, Manitoba was so active it was worth trying to shoot it with actual video, not time-lapse still frames.

I used very high ISO speeds resulting in very noisy frames. But I think the motion and colours of the curtains as they ripple and swirl more than overpower the technical limitations. And there’s live commentary!

 

Select HD and Enter Full Screen for the best quality.

Scenes have been edited for length, and I did not use all the scenes I shot in the final edit. So the scenes you see in the 10-minute video actually took place over about 20 minutes. But each scene is real-time. They show the incredibly rapid motion and fine structure in the auroral curtains, detail blurred in long multi-second exposures.

I used a Nikon D750 camera at ISO speeds from 12,800 to 51,200. While it is certainly very capable of shooting low-light video, the D750 is not optimized for it. A Sony a7s, with its larger pixels and lower noise, would have been a better camera. Next time!

The lens, however, was key. I used the new Sigma 20mm Art lens which, at f/1.4, is the fastest lens in its focal length class. And optical quality, even wide open, is superb.

The temperature was about -30 degrees C, with a windchill factor of about -45 C. It was cold! But no one in the aurora tour group of 22 people I was instructing was complaining. Everyone was outside, bundled up, and enjoying the show.

It was what they had traveled north to see, to fulfill a life-long desire to stand under the Northern Lights. Everyone could well and truly check seeing the aurora off their personal bucket lists this night.

For more information about aurora and other northern eco-tourism tours offered by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, see churchillscience.ca 

— Alan, February 17, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com 

New Year’s Eve Sky: Aurora, Orion, and a Comet


New Year's Eve Winter Sky

The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.

It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora, Dec. 31, 2015

Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora #2 (Dec 31, 2015)

I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.


 


 

Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.

That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way,  from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.

It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.


 

Comet Catalina near Arcturus on New Year's Day
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) near Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes, at pre-dawn on the morning of January 1, 2016, with the Last Quarter Moon nearby illluminating the sky. A long, faint ion tail is visible extending 2 to 3 degrees to the right while a brighter but stubby dust tail extends down to the south. Shot from home using the 200mm Canon telephoto and 1.4x extender at f/4.5 for a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. Median combined stacked to eliminate satellite trails. The comet is slightly blurred due to its own motion in that time.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.

The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.

Happy New Year to all! Have a celestial 2016!

 

Don’t forget, you can download my free 2016 Sky Calendar as a PDF. See my previous blog for details and the link. 

— Alan, January 1, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazing sky.com

Orion Star Trails in the Moonlight


Orion Rising in the Moonlight

Orion ascends into the sky on a clear autumn night, with its stars drawing trails behind it as it rises.

Only on November nights is it possible to capture Orion rising in the evening sky. Here, I used the light of the waxing gibbous Moon to illuminate the landscape … and the sky, creating the deep blue tint.

The lead image above is an example of a star trail, a long exposure that uses Earth’s rotation to turn the stars into streaks across the sky. In the old days of film you would create such an exposure by opening the shutter for an hour or more and hoping for the best.

Today, with digital cameras, the usual method is to shoot lots of short exposures, perhaps no more than 20 to 40 seconds each in rapid succession. You then stack them later in Photoshop or other specialized software to create the digital equivalent of a single long exposure.

The image above is a stack of 350 images taken over 2.5 hours.

With a folder of such images, you can either stack them to create a single image, such as above, or string them together in time to create a time-lapse of the stars moving across the sky. The short video below shows the result. Enlarge the screen and click HD for the best quality.

 

For the still image and time-lapse, I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions from StarCircleAcademy to do the stacking in Photoshop and create the tapering star trail effect. A separate exposure after the main trail set added the point-like stars at the end of the trails.


 

My tutorial on Vimeo provides all the details on how to shoot, then stack, such a star trail image…


 

… While this video illustrates how to capture and process nightscapes shot under the light of the Moon.

 

Enjoy the videos! And happy trails!

— Alan, November 24, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Astrophotography Video Tutorials – Free!


 

Video Tutorial FB PR ImageLearn the basics of shooting nightscape and time-lapse images with my three new video tutorials.

In these comprehensive and free tutorials I take you from “field to final,” to illustrate tips and techniques for shooting the sky at night.

At sites in southern Alberta I first explain how to shoot the images. Then back at the computer I step you through how to process non-destructively, using images I shot that night in the field.


 

Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights

This 24-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at a lakeside site in southern Alberta on a night with a fine aurora display, through to the steps to processing a still image and assembling a time-lapse movie.


 

Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes

This 28-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at Waterton Lakes National Park on a bright moonlit night, to the steps for processing nightscapes using Camera Raw and Photoshop, with smart filters, adjustment layers and masks.


 

Tutorial #3 – Star Trails

This 35-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at summer solstice at Dinosaur Provincial Park, then through the steps for stacking star trail stills and assembling star trail time-lapse movies, using specialized programs such as StarStaX and the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop.

 

As always, enlarge to full screen for the HD versions. These are also viewable at my Vimeo channel.  

Or they can be viewed on my YouTube channel

Thanks for watching!

And for much more information about shooting and processing nightscapes and time-lapse movies, check out my 400-page multimedia eBook, linked below.

— Alan, November 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com/tutorials.html

 

The Dancing Lights over Dinosaur Park


The Northern Lights over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. This is one frame from a 280-frame time-lapse sequence. Although, in this image the ground came from a later exposure in the sequence when passing car headlights lit the ground briefly on an otherwise dark, moonless night, to help sculpt the ground. This was with the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens for 15 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 6400.

The Northern Lights dance over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage Site.

Aurora alerts called for a fine display on Friday, September 11. Forewarned, I headed to one of my favourite shooting spots at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and aimed three cameras at the sky. It didn’t take long before the lights appeared, right on cue.

An aurora and the autymn Milky Way over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. The stars, constellations and Milky Way of the autumn and early winter sky are rising in the northeast, including the objects: the Andromeda Galaxy at top, and the Pleiades at bottom.  This is one frame from a 200-frame time-lapse sequence, though in this image the ground comes from a Mean Combine stack of 7 images to smooth noise but the sky is from one image, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Rokinon 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 on a dark moonless night.

The display started out with lots of promise, but did fade after 12:30 a.m., just when it was supposed to be peaking in intensity. I let the cameras run for a while but eventually stopped the shutters and packed it in…

…But not before I captured this odd bit of aurora in the east, shown below, that appeared as an isolated and stationary band pulsing up and down in brightness, but with little movement.

An odd isolated arc of aurora in the eastern sky over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. This arc sat stationary and pulsed up and down in brightness over a few seconds. It was in some frames but not others. The winter stars of Taurus, including the Pleiades cluster, and Auriga are rising in the east.  The sky here is from a single exposure but the ground came from a Mean Combine stack of 8 exposures to smooth noise. Each was 40 seconds at f/2.8 with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 on a moonless night.

I’ve seen these before and have never heard a good explanation of what process creates such an effect, with a patch of sky appearing to “turn on” and off.

You can see the effect at the end of the time-lapse compilation, linked below from Vimeo.

As usual, please enlarge to full-screen and watch in HD for the best quality.

Unfortunately, a patrolling park official checking on things, spoiled some frames with her truck’s headlights. It’s one of the hazards of time-lapse imaging.

As a final image, here are all the fish-eye lens frames stacked into one image, to create a single star trail showing the sky rotating about the celestial pole.

A composite stack of 198 images creating a circumpolar star trail image of the entire sky, with the motion of the stars and the Northern Lights over an hour recorded onto one frame.  The 8mm fish-eye lens take in almost all the sky, with the camera aimed northeast to the centre of the auroral arc, with Polaris, the centre of the sky’s rotation, at left. The scene is at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, from September 11, 2015.  Each exposure was 20 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and at ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The ground comes from a stack of 16 images taken early in the sequence turned into a smart object and mean combined with Mean stack mode, to average out and smooth noise. The sky comes from 198 exposures, Lighten stacked using the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com.
Each exposure was 20 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and at ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The ground comes from a stack of 16 images taken early in the sequence turned into a smart object and mean combined with Mean stack mode, to average out and smooth noise. The sky comes from 198 exposures, Lighten stacked using the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com.

It’s been a good week for auroras, with a promise of more to come perhaps, as we approach equinox, traditionally a good time for magnetic field lines to align, funnelling solar storm particles into our magnetosphere.

Keep looking up!

— Alan, September 13, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

The Dancing Northern Lights


A still frame from a 865-frame time-lapse movie taken the morning of Sept. 9, 2015 from the back deck, using the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens for 2-second exposures for a fast cadence. Focus is soft.

The lights came out and danced in my sky in the early morning hours.

The early warning signs weren’t calling for anything too impressive for a display last night, September 8/9, but the sky surprised us with a fantastic display of Northern lights.

I shot with one camera – it was very late, or very early! – but shot enough frames to create this short 1.5-minute music video.

I photographed the sequence with a single fixed-camera aimed east toward a bright auroral curtain, showing fast pulsing forms common to the later stages of a substorm. But then a new bright curtain sweeps in from the north and the display brightens even more in a new substorm. The display then fades.

The exposures were taken over an hour from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. MDT. Each was a 2-second exposure with an interval of 2 seconds, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm lens at f/2, for a total of just over 850 frames.

Music is my Adi Goldstein at AGSoundtrax.com.

— Alan, September 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Time and Tide … and the Pull of the Moon


Sunset at Point Prim Lighthouse, near Digby, Nova Scotia on the Fundy side of the peninsula, with a waxing crescent Moon in the western twilight sky. The dark rocks are basaltic volcanic rocks from the late Triassic formed as part of the rifting that split Gondwonaland into the Americas and Europe and Africa. The Lighthouse is the fourth in a succession of lighthouses built at Point Prim starting in 1804. It was automated in 1984. This is a panorama created from 9 segments taken with the 16-35mm lens at 35mm and Canon 6D. Stitched in Photoshop.

Nothing demonstrates the power of the sky to affect the Earth better than the daily ebb and flow of the tides.

For a few days earlier this week I was fortunate to visit Nova Scotia, to speak at the annual Nova East Star Party.

A scene at the Nova East Star Party near Windsor, Nova Scotia, in August 2015, showing laser pointer in use under a clear starry sky.
A scene at the Nova East Star Party near Windsor, Nova Scotia, in August 2015.
I took advantage of my visit to Canada’s east coast to shoot time-lapses of one of nature’s most amazing phenomena, the daily pulse of the tides.

The coastal regions around the Bay of Fundy, particularly on the Nova Scotia shore, and around the Minas Basin, experience the highest tides in the world. The range can be as much as 16 metres. Only remote Leaf Basin on Ungava Bay in northern Québec matches the Minas Basin for tidal range.

The reason is not, as is sometimes stated, the funnel shape of the Bay of Fundy, but rather its length. It takes about 12 hours and 25 minutes for an ocean wave to traverse the length of the Bay, equal to the time between successive high tides. This creates a resonance, with the incoming and outgoing waves building upon each other and increasing the height of the twice-a-day tides.

The amount of water moving back and forth is mind-boggling: some 9 to 16 billion tonnes of water flows daily into and out of the Minas Basin alone, enough to tilt the land.

For the time-lapse videos I shot at two locations:

  • Evangeline Beach on Minas Basin, with vast tidal flats that are engulfed twice a day.
  • And Halls Harbour on the Fundy shore, a great spot for watching boats go from grounded to afloat in just an hour or so.


I timed my arrival at both sites to be there near lowest tide and shoot for about 3 hours as the tide came in, then stop shooting at about high tide.

Luckily, high tide on both days was about 3 p.m. making for convenient shoots on a summer afternoon. Being just after New Moon, the tides were near their highest.

Earth experiences two tides a day, at an interval of about 12 hours and 25 minutes, with the extra 25 minutes coming from the motion of the Moon around the Earth during that half-day interval. It takes another 25 minutes for us to line up with the Moon again.

But why two tides a day? If the Moon pulls at our water why isn’t there just one high tide, when the Moon is highest in our sky?

The Moon doesn’t pull on just the water. It pulls on everything.

And it isn’t the Moon’s gravity per se that raises the tides, it is the difference in the strength of that gravitational pull across an object.

The side of the Earth closest to the Moon feels the strongest pull, raising the tides on the side facing the Moon. But the Earth itself is also pulled toward the Moon, but to a lesser extent because the centre of our planet lies farther from the Moon.

In effect, the Moon pulls the Earth away from the water on the far side of the Earth, the side away from the Moon. This raises a bulge of water on the other side of our planet, the side that feels the least gravitational pull from the Moon because it is farthest from the Moon.

So as Earth rotates we pass through two tidal bulges, one facing the Moon and one facing away from the Moon.

Newton's Apple Tree

It wasn’t until Isaac Newton came along in the mid-17th century that we had an explanation for and an ability to predict the tides accurately. Even Galileo got it wrong. It was Newton’s mathematical explanation of how gravity fell off with increasing distance that led to an accurate theory of the tides. See Wikipedia for much more detail.

The tree above is a direct descendent of the famous “Newton’s Apple” tree that inspired his theory of universal gravitation. It is an apple tree on the picturesque grounds of Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and was grown from a cutting from the famous apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor where Newton grew up and took refuge during the outbreak of plague in the cities.

Newton's Apple #1

It was during this retreat that, story has it – a story told by Newton himself – that an apple falling on his head inspired him to wonder if the same force that was causing the apple to fall was also keeping the Moon in perpetual orbit around the Earth.

Annapolis Tidal Generating Station

Today, we can turn the pull of the Moon into power, as here at Annapolis Royal where Nova Scotia Power operates the only tidal power station in North America, driven by water pouring into and out of the Annapolis River. The pull of the Moon here generates 20 megawatts of electricity.

New submerged turbines are now being tested in the Minas Basin, using a variety of technologies. A previous underwater turbine at the same site was ripped to pieces by the force of the water. Harnessing the tides is not so easy.