In mid-October 2022 I enjoyed a rare run of five clear and mild nights in the Rocky Mountains for shooting nightscapes of the stars. Here’s a portfolio … and a behind-the-scenes look at its making.
Getting two perfectly clear nights in a row is unusual in the mountains. Being treated to five is a rare treat. Indeed, had I started my shooting run earlier in the week I could have enjoyed even more of the string of cloudless nights in October, though under a full Moon. But five was wonderful, allowing me to capture some of the scenes that had been on my shot list for the last few years.
Here is a portfolio of the results, from five marvelous nights in Banff and Jasper National Parks, in Alberta, Canada.
For the photographers, I also provide some behind-the-scenes looks at the planning and shooting techniques, and of my processing steps.
Night One — Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
Peyto Lake, named for pioneer settler and trail guide Bill Peyto who had a cabin by the lakeshore, is one of several iconic mountain lakes in Banff. Every tour bus heading along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper stops here. By day is it packed. By night I had the newly constructed viewpoint all to myself.
I shot the classic view north in deep twilight, with the stars of Ursa Major and the Big Dipper low over the lake, as they are in autumn. A show of Northern Lights would have been ideal, but I was happy to settle for just the stars.
The night was perfect, not just for the clarity of the sky but also the timing. The Moon was just past full, so was rising in late evening, leaving a window of time between the end of twilight and moonrise when the sky would be dark enough to capture the Milky Way. Then shortly after, the Moon would come up, lighting the peaks with golden moonlight — alpenglow, but from the Moon not Sun.
The above is blend of two panoramas, each of seven segments, the first for the sky taken when the sky was dark, using a star tracker to keep the stars pinpoints. The second for the ground I shot a few minutes later at moonrise with no tracking, to keep the ground sharp. I show below how I blended the two elements.
To plan such shots I use the apps The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and its companion app TPE 3D. The screen shot above at left shows the scene in map view for the night in question, with the Big Dipper indicated north over the lake and the line of dots for the Milky Way showing it to the southwest over Peyto Glacier. Tap or click on the images for full-screen versions.
Switch to TPE 3D and its view at right above simulates the scene you’ll actually see, with the Milky Way over the mountain skyline just as it really appeared. The app even faithfully replicates the lighting on the peaks from the rising Moon. It is an amazing planning tool.
On the drive back from Peyto Lake to Saskatchewan River Crossing I stopped at another iconic spot, the roadside viewpoint for Mt. Cephren at Waterfowl Lakes. By this time, the Moon was well up and fully illuminating the peak and the sky, but still leaving the foreground dark. The sky is blue as it is by day because it is lit by moonlight, which is just sunlight reflecting off a perfectly neutral grey rock, the Moon!
This is from a set of untracked camera-on-tripod shots using short 30-second exposures.
Night Two — Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park
By the next night I was up in Jasper, a destination I had been trying to revisit for some time. But poor weather prospects and forest fire smoke had kept me away in recent years.
The days and nights I was there coincided with the first weekend of the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I attended one of the events, the very enjoyable Aurora Chaser’s Retreat, with talks and presentations by some well-known chasers of the Northern Lights. Attendees had come from around North America.
On my first night in Jasper I headed up to Pyramid Lake, a favorite local spot for stargazing and night sky photography, particularly from the little island connected to the “mainland” by a wooden boardwalk. Lots of people were there quietly enjoying the night. I shared one campfire spot with several other photographers also shooting the Milky Way over the calm lake before moonrise.
A little later I moved to the north end of Pyramid Island for the view of the Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain, now fully lit by the rising waning Moon, and with some aspens still in their autumn colours. A bright meteor added to the scene.
Night Three — Athabasca River Viewpoint, Jasper National Park
For my second night in Jasper, I ventured back down the Icefields Parkway to the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint overlooking the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide.
As I did at Peyto Lake, I shot a panorama (this one in three sections) for the sky before moonrise with a tracker. I then immediately shot another three-section panorama, now untracked, for the ground while it was still lit just by starlight under a dark sky. I then waited an hour for moonrise and shot a third panorama to add in the golden alpenglow on the peaks. So this is a time-blend, bending reality a bit. See my comments below!
Night Four — Edith Lake, Jasper National Park
With a long drive back to Banff ahead of me the next day, for my last night in Jasper I stayed close to town for shots from the popular Edith Lake, just up the road from the posh Jasper Park Lodge. Unlike at Pyramid Lake, I had the lakeshore to myself.
This would be a fabulous place to catch the Northern Lights, but none were out this night. Instead, I was content to shoot scenes of the northern stars over the calm lake and Pyramid Mountain.
The Moon was now coming up late, so the shots above are both in darkness with only starlight providing the illumination. Well, and also some annoying light pollution from town utility sites off the highway. Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve, but a lot of the town’s street and utility lighting remains unshielded.
Night Five — Lake Louise, Banff National Park
On my last night I was at Lake Louise, as the placement of the Milky Way would be perfect.
There’s no more famous view than this one, with Victoria Glacier at the end of the blue-green glacial lake. Again, by day the site is thronged with people and the parking lot full by early morning.
By night, there were just a handful of other photographers on the lakeshore, and the parking lot was nearly empty. I could park right by the walkway up to the lake.
Again, TPE and TPE 3D told me when the Milky Way would be well-positioned over the lake and glacier, so I could complete the untracked ground shots first, to be ready to shoot the tracked sky segments by the time the Milky Way had turned into place over the glacier.
This image is also a panorama but a vertical one, made primarily of three untracked segments for the ground and seven tracked segments for the sky, panning up from the horizon to past the zenith overhead, taking in most of the summer and autumn Milky Way from Serpens up to Cassiopeia.
As readers always want to know what gear I used, I shot all images on all nights with the 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera and Canon RF15-35mm lens, with exposures of typically 1 to 3 minutes each at ISOs of 800 to 1600. I had other cameras and lenses with me but never used them.
I use the Mini with a V-Plate designed by nightscape photographer Alyn Wallace and sold by Move-Shoot-Move. It is an essential aid to taking tracked panoramas, as it allows me to turn the camera horizontally manually from one pan segment to the next while the camera is tracking the stars. It’s easy to switch the tracker on (for the sky) and off (for the ground). The Mini tracks quite accurately and reliably. Turn it on and you can be sure it is tracking.
For those who are interested, here’s a look at how I processed and assembled the images, using the Peyto Lake panorama as an example. This is not a thorough tutorial, but shows the main steps involved. Tap or click on an image to download a full-size version.
I first develop all the raw files (seven here) in Adobe Camera Raw, applying identical settings to make them look best for what they are going to contribute to the final blend, in this case, for the tracked sky with pinpoint stars and the Milky Way.
Camera Raw (as does Adobe’s Lightroom) has an excellent Merge to Panorama function which usually works very well on such scenes. This shows the stitched sky panorama, created with one click.
I develop and stitch the untracked ground segments to look their best for revealing details in the landscape, overexposing the sky in the process. Stars are also trailed, from the long exposures needed for the dark ground. No matter – these will be masked out.
This shows the stack of images now in Adobe Photoshop, but here revealing just the layer for the sky panorama and its associated adjustment layers to further tweak color and contrast. I often add noise reduction as a non-destructive “smart filter” applied to the “smart object” image layer. See my review of noise reduction programs here.
This shows just the ground panorama layer, again with some adjustment and retouching layers dedicated to this portion of the image.
The sky has to be masked out of the ground panorama, to reveal the sky below. The Select Sky command in Photoshop usually works well, or I just use the Quick Selection tool and then Select and Mask to refine the edge. That method can be more accurate.
Aligning the two panoramas requires manually nudging the untracked ground, up in this case, to hide the blurred and dark horizon from the tracked sky panorama. Yes, we move the earth! The sky usually also requires some re-touching to clone out blurred horizon bits sticking up. Dealing with trees can be a bit messy!
The result is the scene above with both panorama layers and the masks turned on. While this now looks almost complete, we’re not done yet.
Local adjustments like Dodge and Burn (using a neutral grey layer with a Soft Light blend mode) and some luminosity masks tweak the brightness of portions of the scene for subtle improvements, to emphasize some areas while darkening others. It’s what film photographers did in the darkroom by waving physical dodging and burning tools under the enlarger.
I add finishing touches with some effect plug-ins: Radiant Photo added some pop to the ground, while Luminar Neo added a soft “Orton glow” effect to the sky and slightly to the ground.
All the adjustments, filters, and effects are non-destructive so they can be re-adjusted later, when upon further inspection with fresh eyes I realize something needs work.
Was It Photoshopped?
I hope my look behind the curtains was of interest. While these types of nightscapes taken with a tracker, and especially multi-segment panoramas, do produce dramatic images, they do require a lot of processing at the computer.
Was it “photoshopped?” Yes. Was it faked? No. The sky really was there over the scene you see in the image. However, the long exposures of the camera do reveal more details than the eye alone can see at night — that is the essence of astrophotography.
My one concession to warping reality is in the time-blending — the merging of panoramas taken 30 minutes to an hour apart. I’ll admit that does push my limits for preferring to record real scenes, and not fabricate them (i.e. “photoshop” them in common parlance).
But at this shoot on these marvelous nights, making use of the perfectly timed moonrises was hard to resist!
In a detailed technical blog I compare six AI-based noise reduction programs for the demands of astrophotography. Some can work wonders. Others can ruin your image.
Over the last two years we have seen a spate of specialized programs introduced for removing digital noise from photos. The new generation of programs use artificial intelligence (AI), aka machine learning, trained on thousands of images to better distinguish unwanted noise from desirable image content.
At least that’s the promise – and for noisy but normal daytime images they do work very well.
But in astrophotography our main subjects – stars – can look a lot like specks of pixel-level noise. How well can each program reduce noise without eliminating stars or wanted details, or introducing odd artifacts, making images worse.
To find out, I tested six of the new AI-based programs on real-world – or rather “real-sky” – astrophotos. Does one program stand out from the rest for astrophotography?
NOTE: All the images are full-resolution JPGs you can tap or click on to download for detailed inspection. But that does make the blog page slow to load initially. Patience!
The new AI-trained noise reduction programs can indeed eliminate noise better than older non-AI programs, while leaving fine details untouched or even sharpening them.
Of the group tested, the winner for use on just star-filled images is a specialized program for astrophotography, NoiseXTerminator from RC-Astro.
For nightscapes and other images, Topaz DeNoise AI performed well, better than it did in earlier versions that left lots of patchy artifacts, something AI programs can be prone to.
While ON1’s new NoNoise AI 2023 performed fine, it proved slightly worse in some cases than its earlier 2022 version. Its new sharpening routine needs work.
Other new programs, notably Topaz Photo AI and Luminar’s Noiseless AI, also need improvement before they are ready to be used for the rigours of astrophotography.
For reasons explained below, I would not recommend DxO’s PureRAW2.
As described below, while some of the programs can be used as stand-alone applications, I tested them all as plug-ins for Photoshop, applying each as a smart filter applied to a developed raw file brought into Photoshop as a Camera Raw smart object.
Most of these programs state that better results might be obtainable by using the stand-alone app on original raw files. But for my personal workflow I prefer to develop the raw files with Adobe Camera Raw, then open those into Photoshop for stacking and layering, applying any further noise reduction or sharpening as non-destructive smart filters.
Many astrophotographers also choose to stack unedited original images with specialized stacking software, then apply further noise reduction and editing later in the workflow. So my workflow and test procedures reflect that.
However, the exception is DxO’s PureRAW2. It can work only on raw files as a stand-alone app, or as a plug-in from Adobe Lightroom. It does not work as a Photoshop plug-in. I tested PureRAW2 by dropping raw Canon .CR3 files onto the app, then exporting the results as raw DNG files, but with the same settings applied as with the other raw files. For the nightscape and wide-field images taken with lenses in DxO’s extensive database, I used PureRAW’s lens corrections, not Adobe’s.
As shown above, I chose three representative images:
A nightscape with star trails and a detailed foreground, at ISO 1600.
A wide-field deep-sky image at ISO 1600 with an 85mm lens, with very tiny stars.
A close-up deep-sky image taken with a telescope and at a high ISO of 3200, showing thermal noise hot pixels.
Each is a single image, not a stack of multiple images.
Before applying the noise reduction, the raw files received just basic color corrections and a contrast boost to emphasize noise all the more.
In the test results for the three images, I show the original raw image, plus a version with noise reduction and sharpening applied using Adobe Camera Raw’s own sliders, with luminance noise at 40, color noise at 25, and sharpening at 25.
I use this as a base comparison, as it has been the noise reduction I have long applied to images. However, ACR’s routine (also found in Adobe Lightroom) has not changed in years. It is good, but it is not AI.
The new smart AI programs should improve upon this. But do they?
I have refrained from providing prices and explaining buying options, as frankly some can be complex!
For those details and for trial copies, go to the software’s website by clicking on the link in the header product names below.
All programs are available for Windows and MacOS. I tested the latter versions.
I have not provided tutorials on how to use the software; I have just reported on their results. For trouble-shooting their use, please consult the software company in question.
ON1’s main product is the Lightroom/Photoshop alternative program called ON1 Photo RAW, which is updated annually to major new versions. It has full cataloging options like Lightroom and image layering like Photoshop. Its Edit module contains the NoNoise AI routine. But NoNoise AI can be purchased as a stand-alone app that also installs as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s what I tested here. The latest 2023 version of NoNoise AI added ON1’s new Tack Sharp AI sharpening routine.
This program has proven very popular and has been adopted by many photographers – and astrophotographers – as an essential part of an editing workflow. It performs noise reduction only, offering a choice of five AI models. Auto modes can choose the models and settings for you based on the image content, but you can override those by adjusting the strength, sharpness, and recovery of original detail as desired.
A separate program, Topaz Sharpen AI, is specifically for image sharpening, but I did not test it here. Topaz Gigapixel AI is for image resizing.
In 2022 Topaz introduced this new program which incorporates the trio of noise reduction, sharpening and image resizing in one package. Like DeNoise, Sharpen and Gigapixel, Photo AI works as a stand-alone app or as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop. Photo AI’s Autopilot automatically detects and applies what it thinks the image needs. While it is possible to adjust settings, Photo AI offers much less control than DeNoise AI and Topaz’s other single-purpose programs.
As of this writing in November 2022 Photo AI is enjoying almost weekly updates, and seems to be where Topaz is focusing its development and marketing effort.
Unlike the other noise reduction programs tested here, Luminar Neo from the software company Skylum is a full-featured image editing program, with an emphasis on one-click AI effects. One of those is the new Noiseless AI, available as an extra-cost extension to the main Neo program, either as a one-time purchase or by annual subscription. Noiseless AI cannot be purchased on its own. However, Neo with most of its extensions does work as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop.
Being new, Luminar Neo is also updated frequently, with more extensions coming in the next few months.
Like ON1, DxO makes a full-featured alternative to Adobe’s Lightroom for cataloging and raw developing called DxO PhotoLab, in version 6 as of late 2022. It contains DxO’s Prime and DeepPrime noise reduction routines. However, as with ON1, DxO has spun off just the noise reduction and lens correction parts of PhotoLab into a separate program, PureRAW2, which runs either as a stand-alone app or as a plug-in for Lightroom – but not Photoshop, as PureRAW works only on original raw files.
Unlike all the other programs, PureRAW2 offers essentially no options to adjust settings, just the option to apply, or not, lens corrections, and to choose the output format. For this testing I applied DeepPrime and exported out to DNG files.
Unlike the other programs tested, NoiseXTerminator from astrophotographer Russell Croman is designed specifically for deep-sky astrophotography. It installs as a plug-in for Photoshop or Affinity Photo, but not Lightroom. It is also available under the same purchased licence as a “process” for PixInsight, an advanced program popular with astrophotographers, as it is designed just for editing deep-sky images.
I tested the Photoshop plug-in version of Noise XTerminator. It receives occasional updates to both the actual plug-in and separate updates to the AI module.
Version tested: 1.1.2, AI model 2
As with the other test images, the panels show a highly magnified section of the image, indicated in the inset. I shot the image of Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta with a Canon RF15-35mm lens on a 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera at ISO 1600.
Adobe Camera Raw’s basic noise reduction did a good job, but like all general routines it does soften the image as a by-product of smoothing out high-ISO noise.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 retained landscape detail better than ACR but softened the star trails, despite me adding sharpening. It also produced a somewhat patchy noise smoothing in the sky. This was with Luminosity backed off to 75 from the auto setting (which always cranks up the level to 100 regardless of the image), and with the Tack Sharp routine set to 40 with Micro Contrast at 0. It left a uniform pixel-level mosaic effect in the shadow areas. Despite the new Tack Sharp option, the image was softer than with last year’s NoNoise 2022 version (not shown here as it is no longer available) which produced better shadow results.
Topaz DeNoise AI did a better job than NoNoise retaining the sharp ground detail while smoothing noise, always more obvious in the sky in such images. Even so, it also produced some patchiness, with some areas showing more noise than others. This was with the Standard model set to 40 for Noise and Sharpness, and Recover Details at 75. I show the other model variations below.
Topaz Photo AI did a poor job, producing lots of noisy artifacts in the sky and an over-sharpened foreground riddled with colorful speckling. It added noise. This was with the Normal setting and the default Autopilot settings.
Noiseless AI in Luminar Neo did a decent job smoothing noise while retaining, indeed sharpening ground detail without introducing ringing or colorful edge artifacts. The sky was left with some patchiness and uneven noise smoothing. This was with the suggested Middle setting (vs Low and High) and default levels for Noise, Detail and Sharpness. However, I do like Neo (and Skylum’s earlier Luminar AI) for adding other finishing effects to images such as Orton glows.
DxO PureRAW2 did smooth noise very well while enhancing sharpness quite a lot, almost too much, though it did not introduce obvious edge artifacts. Keep in mind it offers no chance to adjust settings, other than the mode – I used DeepPrime vs the normal Prime. Its main drawback is that in making the conversion back to a raw DNG image it altered the appearance of the image, in this case darkening the image slightly. It also made some faint star trails look wiggly!
Noise XTerminator really smoothed out the sky, and did so very uniformly without doing much harm to the star trails. However, it smoothed out ground detail unacceptably, not surprising given its specialized training on stars, not terrestrial content.
Conclusion: For this image, I’d say Topaz DeNoise AI did the best, though not perfect, job.
This was surprising, as tests I did with earlier versions of DeNoise AI showed it leaving many patchy artifacts and colored edges in places. Frankly, I was put off using it. However, Topaz has improved DeNoise AI a lot.
Why it works so well, when Topaz’s newer program Photo AI works so poorly is hard to understand. Surely they use the same AI code? Apparently not. Photo AI’s noise reduction is not the same as DeNoise AI.
Similarly, ON1’s NoNoise 2023 did a worse job than their older 2022 version. One can assume its performance will improve with updates. The issue seems to be with the new Tack Sharp addition.
NoiseXTerminator might be a good choice for reducing noise in just the sky of nightscape images. It is not suitable for foregrounds.
WIDE-FIELD IMAGE TEST
I shot this image of Andromeda and Triangulum with an 85mm Rokinon RF lens on the 45-megapixel Canon R5 on a star tracker. Stars are now points, with small ones easily mistaken for noise. Let’s see how the programs handle such an image, zooming into a tiny section showing the galaxy Messier 33.
Adobe Camera Raw’s noise and sharpening routines do take care of the worst of the luminance and chrominance noise, but inevitably leave some graininess to the image. This is traditionally dealt with by stacking multiple sub-exposures.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 did a better job than ACR, smoothing the worst of the noise and uniformly, without leaving uneven patchiness. However, it did soften star images, almost like it was applying a 1- or 2-pixel gaussian blur, adding a slight hazy look to the image. And yet the faintest stars that appeared as just perceptible blurs in the original image were sharpened to one- or two-pixel points. This was with only NoNoise AI applied, and no Tack Sharp AI. And, as I show below, NoNoise’s default “High Detail” option introduced with the 2022 version and included in the 2023 edition absolutely destroys star fields. Avoid it.
Topaz DeNoise AI did a better job than Camera Raw, though it wasn’t miles ahead. This was with the Standard setting. Its Low Light and Severe models were not as good, surprising as you might think one of those choices would be the best for such an image. It pays to inspect Topaz’s various models’ results. Standard didn’t erase stars; it actually sharpened the fainter ones, almost a little too much, making them look like specks of noise. Playing with Enhance Sharpness and Recover Detail didn’t make much difference to this behavior.
Topaz Photo AI again performed poorly. Its Normal mode left lots of noise and grainy artifacts. While its Strong mode shown here did smooth background noise better, it softened stars, wiping out the faint ones and leaving colored edges on the brighter ones.
Noiseless AI in Luminar Neo did smooth fine noise somewhat, better than Camera Raw, but still left a grainy background, though with the stars mostly untouched in size and color.
DxO PureRAW2did eliminate noise quite well, while leaving even the faintest stars intact, unlike with the deep-sky image below, which is odd. However, it added some dark halos to bright stars from over-sharpening. And, as with the nightscape example, PureRAW’s output DNG was darker than the raw that went in. I don’t want noise reduction programs altering the basic appearance of an image, even if that can be corrected later in the workflow.
Noise XTerminator performed superbly, as expected – after all, this is the subject matter it is trained to work on. It smoothed out random noise better than any of the other programs, while leaving even the faintest stars untouched, in fact sharpening them slightly. Details in the little galaxy were also unharmed.
Conclusion: The clear winner was NoiseXTerminator.
Topaz DeNoise was a respectable second place, performing better than it had done on such images in earlier versions. Even so, it did alter the appearance of faint stars which might not be desirable.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 also performed quite well, with its softening of brighter stars yet sharpening of fainter ones perhaps acceptable, even desirable for an effect.
TELESCOPIC DEEP-SKY TEST
I shot this image of the NGC 7822 complex of nebulosity with a SharpStar 61mm refractor, using the red-sensitive 30-megapixel Canon Ra and with a narrowband filter to isolate the red and green light of the nebulas.
Again, the test image is a single raw image developed only to re-balance the color and boost the contrast. No dark frames were applied, so the 8-minute exposure at ISO 3200 taken on a warm night shows thermal noise as single “hot pixel” white specks.
Adobe Camera Raw did a good job smoothing the worst of the noise, suppressing the hot pixels but only by virtue of it softening all of the image slightly at the pixel level. However, it leaves most stars intact.
ON1 NoNoise 2023 also did a good job smoothing noise while also seeming to boost contrast and structure slightly. But as in the wide-field image, it did smooth out star images a little, though somewhat photogenically, while still emphasizing the faintest stars. This was with no sharpening applied and Luminosity at 60, down from the default 100 NoNoise applies without fail. One wonders if it really is analyzing images to produce optimum settings. With no Tack Sharp sharpening applied, the results on this image with NoNoise 2023 looked identical to NoNoise 2022.
Topaz DeNoise AI did another good job smoothing noise, while leaving most stars unaffected. However, the faintest stars and hot pixels were sharpened to be more visible tiny specks, perhaps too much, even with Sharpening at its lowest level of 1 in Standard mode. Low Light and Severe modes produced worse results, with lots of mottling and unevenness in the background. Unlike NoNoise, at least its Auto settings do vary from image to image, giving you some assurance it really is responding to the image content.
Topaz Photo AI again produced unusable results. Its Normal modes produced lots of mottled texture and haloed stars. Its Strong mode shown here did smooth noise better, but still left lots of uneven artifacts, like DeNoise AI did in its early days. It certainly seems like Photo AI is using old hand-me-down code from DeNoise AI.
Noiseless AI in Luminar Neo did smooth noise but unevenly, leaving lots of textured patches. Stars had grainy halos and the program increased contrast and saturation, adjustments usually best left for specific adjustment layers dedicated to the task.
DxO PureRAW2 did smooth noise very well, including wiping out the faintest specks from hot pixels, but it also wiped out the faintest stars, I think unacceptably and more than other programs like DeNoise AI. For this image it did leave basic brightness alone, likely because it could not apply lens corrections to an image taken with unknown optics. However, it added an odd pixel-level mosaic-like effect on the sky background, again unacceptable.
Noise XTerminator did a great job smoothing random noise without affecting any stars or the nebulosity. The Detail level of 20 I used actually emphasized the faintest stars, but also the hot pixel specks. NoiseXTerminator can’t be counted on to eliminate thermal noise; that demands the application of dark frames and/or using dithering routines to shift each sub-frame image by a few pixels when autoguiding the telescope mount. Even so, Noise XTerminator is so good users might not need to take and stack as many images.
Conclusion: Again, the winner was NoiseXTerminator.
Deep-sky photographers have praised “NoiseX” for its effectiveness, either when applied early on in a PixInsight workflow or, as I do in Photoshop, as a smart filter to the base stacked image underlying other adjustment layers.
Topaz DeNoise is also a good choice as it can work well on many other types of images. But again, play with its various models and settings. Pixel peep!
ON1 NoNoise 2023 did put in a respectable performance here, and it will no doubt improve – it had been out less than a month when I ran these tests.
Based on its odd behavior and results in all three test images I would not recommend DxO’s PureRAW2. Yes, it reduces noise quite well, but it can alter tone and color in the process, and add strange pixel-level mosaic artifacts.
COMPARING DxO and TOPAZ OPTIONS
DxO and Topaz DeNoise AI offer the most choices of AI models and strength of noise reduction. Here I compare:
Topaz DeNoise AI on the nightscape image using three of its models: Standard (which I used in the comparisons above), plus Low Light and Severe. These show how the other models didn’t do as good a job.
The set below also compares DeNoise AI to Topaz’s other program, Photo AI, to show how poor a job it is doing in its early form. Its Strong mode does smooth noise but over-sharpens and leaves edge artifacts. Yes, Photo AI is one-click easy to use, but produces bad results – at least on astrophotos.
As of this writing DxO’s PureRAW2 offers the Prime and newer DeepPrime AI models – I used DeepPrime for my tests.
However, DxO’s more expensive and complete image processing program, PhotoLab 6, also offers the even newer DeepPrimeXD model, which promises to preserve or recover even more “Xtra Detail” over the DeepPrime model. As of this writing, the XD mode is not offered in PureRAW2. Perhaps that will wait for PureRAW3, no doubt a paid upgrade.
The set above compares the three noise reduction models of DxO’s PhotoLab 6. DeepPrime does do a better job than Prime. DeepPrimeXD does indeed sharpen detail more, but in this example it is too sharp, showing artifacts, especially in the sky where it is adding structures and textures that are not real.
However, when used from within PhotoLab 6, the DeepPrime noise reduction becomes more usable. PhotoLab is then being used to perform all the raw image processing, so PureRAW’s alteration of color and tone is not a concern. Conversely, it can also output raw DNGs with only noise reduction and lens corrections applied, essentially performing the same tasks as PureRAW. If you have PhotoLab, you don’t need PureRAW.
COMPARING AI TO OLDER NON-AI PROGRAMS
The new generation of AI-based programs have garnered all the attention, leaving older stalwart noise reduction programs looking a little forlorn and forgotten.
Here I compare Camera Raw and two of the best of the AI programs, Topaz DeNoise AI and NoiseXTerminator, with two of the most respected of the “old-school” non-AI programs:
Dfine2, included with the Nik Collection of plug-ins sold by DxO (shown above), and
Reduce Noise v9 sold by Neat Image (shown below).
I tested both by using them in their automatic modes, where they analyze a section or sections of the image and adjust the noise reduction accordingly, but then apply that setting uniformly across the entire image. However, both allow manual adjustments, with Neat Image’s Reduce Noise offering a bewildering array of technical adjustments.
How do these older programs stack up to the new AI generation? Here are comparisons using the same three test images.
In the nightscape image, Nik Dfine2 and Neat Image’s Reduce Noise did well, producing uniform noise reduction with no patchiness. But the results weren’t significantly better than with Adobe Camera Raw’s built-in routine. Like ACR, both non-AI programs did smooth detail in the ground, compared to DeNoise AI which sharpened the mountain details.
In the tracked wide-field image, the differences were harder to distinguish. None performed up to the standard of Noise XTerminator, with both Nik Dfine2 and Neat Image softening stars a little compared to DeNoise AI.
In the telescopic deep-sky image, all programs did well, though none matched NoiseXTerminator. None eliminated the hot pixels. But Nik Dfine2 and Neat Image did leave wanted details alone, and did not alter or eliminate desired content. However, they also did not eliminate noise as well as did Topaz DeNoise AI or NoiseXTerminator.
The AI technology does work!
YOUR RESULTS MAY VARY
I should add that the nature of AI means that the results will certainly vary from image to image.
In addition, with many of these programs offering multiple models and settings for strength and sharpening, results even from the same program can be quite different. In this testing I used either the program’s auto defaults or backed off those defaults where I thought the effect was too strong and detrimental to the image.
Software is also a constantly moving target. Updates will alter how these programs perform, we hope for the better. For example, two days after I published this test, ON1 updated NoNoise AI to v17.0.2 with minor fixes and improvements.
And do remember I’m testing on astrophotos, and pixel peeping to the extreme. Rave reviews claiming how well even the poor performers here work on “normal” images might well be valid.
This is all by way of saying, your mileage may vary!
So don’t take my word for it. Most programs (Luminar Neo is an exception) are available as free trial copies to test out on your astro-images and in your preferred workflow. Test for yourself. But do pixel peep. That’s where you’ll see the flaws.
WHAT ABOUT ADOBE?
In the race for AI supremacy, one wonders where Adobe is in the field.
In the last couple of years Adobe has introduced several amazing and powerful “Neural Filters” into Photoshop, which work wonders with one click. And Lightroom and Camera Raw have received powerful AI-based selection and masking tools far ahead of most of the competition, with only Luminar Neo and ON1 Photo RAW coming close with similar auto-select capabilities.
But AI Noise Reduction? You think it would be a high priority.
A neural filter for Noise Reduction is on Adobe’s Wait List for development, so perhaps we will see something in the next few months from Adobe to compete with the AI offerings of Topaz, ON1 and Luminar/Skylum.
Until then we have lots of choices for third party programs that all improve with every update. I hope this review has helped you make a choice.
On the night of November 18/19 eclipse fans across North America can enjoy the sight of the Moon turning deep red. Here’s how to capture the scene.
Seeing and shooting this eclipse will demand staying up late or getting up very early. That’s the price to pay for an eclipse everyone on the continent can see.
Also, this is not a total eclipse of the Moon. But it’s the next best thing, a 97% partial eclipse – almost total! So the main attraction — a red Moon — will still be front and centre.
CLICK ON AN IMAGE to bring it up full screen for closer inspection.
NOT QUITE TOTAL
At mid-eclipse 97% of the disk of the Full Moon will be within Earth’s dark umbral shadow, and should appear a bright red colour to the eye and even more so to the camera. A sliver of the southern edge of the Moon will remain outside the umbra and will appear bright white, like a southern polar cap on the Moon.
While some references will say the eclipse begins at 1:01 am EST, that’s when the Moon first enters the outer lighter penumbral shadow. Nothing unusual can be seen at that point, as the darkening of the Moon’s disk by the penumbra is so slight, you won’t notice any difference over the normally bright Full Moon.
It isn’t until the Moon begins to enter the umbra that you can see a dark bite being taken out of the edge of the Moon.
WHAT TO SEE
At mid-eclipse the Full Moon will look deep red or perhaps bright orange — the colours can vary from eclipse to eclipse, depending on the clarity of the Earth’s atmosphere through which the sunlight is passing to light the Moon. The red is the colour of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around the Earth during the eclipse.
The unique aspect of this eclipse is that for the 15 to 30 minutes around mid-eclipse we might see some unusual colour gradations at the edge of the umbral shadow, from sunlight passing through Earth’s upper atmosphere and ozone layer. This can tint the shadow edge blue or even green.
WHERE CAN THE ECLIPSE BE SEEN?
The last lunar eclipse six months ago on the morning of May 26, 2021 (see my blog here) was visible during its total phase only from western North America, and then only just. However, this eclipse can be seen from coast to coast.
Only from the very easternmost points in North America does the Moon set with the eclipse in progress, but during the inconsequential penumbral phase. All of the umbral phase is visible from the Eastern Seaboard, though the last stages will be in progress with the Moon low in the west in the pre-dawn hours. But that positioning can make for photogenic sight.
WHEN IS THE ECLIPSE?
The show really begins when the Moon begins to enter the umbra at 2:18 am EST (1:18 am CST, 12:18 am MST, 11:18 pm PST).
But note,these times are for the night of November 18/19. If you go out on the evening of November 19 expecting to see the eclipse, you’ll be sadly disappointed as you will have missed it. It’s the night before!
The eclipse effectively ends at 5:47 am EST (4:47 am CST, 3:47 am MST, 2:47 am PST) when the Moon leaves the umbra. That makes the eclipse 3 1/2 hours long, though the most photogenic part will be for the 15 to 30 minutes centred on mid-eclipse at 4:03 am EST (3:03 am CST, 2:03 am MST, 1:03 am PST).
WHERE WILL THE MOON BE?
The post-midnight timing places the Moon at mid-eclipse high in the south to southwest for most of North America, just west (right) of the winter Milky Way and below the distinctive Pleiades star cluster.
The high altitude of the Moon (some 60º to 70º above the horizon) puts it well above haze and murk low in the sky, but makes it a challenge to capture in a frame that includes the landscape below for an eclipse nightscape.
ASTRONOMY 101: The high altitude of the Moon is a function of both the eclipse timing in the middle of the night and its place on the ecliptic. The Full Moon is always 180° away from the Sun. So it sits where the Sun was six months earlier, in this case back in May, when the high Sun was bringing us warmer and longer days. Winter lunar eclipses are always high; summer lunar eclipses are always low, the opposite of what the Sun does.
From eastern North America the Moon appears lower in the west at mid-eclipse, making it easier to frame above a landscape. For example from Boston the Moon is 30º up, lending itself to nightscape scenes.
However, the sky will still be dark. To make use of the darkness to capture scenes which include the Milky Way, I suggest making the effort to travel away from urban light pollution to a dark sky site. That applies to all locations. Yes, that means a very long night!
PHOTO OPTIONS 1 — CAMERA ON A FIXED TRIPOD
With just a camera on a tripod, if you are on the East Coast (I show Boston here) it will be possible to frame the eclipsed Moon above a landscape with a 24mm lens (assuming a full frame camera; a cropped frame camera will require a 16mm lens).
What exposure will be best will depend on the level of local light pollution at your site. But from a dark site, 30 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 should work well. But without tracking, you will see some star trailing at 30 seconds. Also try shorter exposures at a higher ISO.
There’s lots of time, so take lots of shots. Include some short shots of just the Moon to blend in later, as the exposures best for picking up the Milky Way will still overexpose the Moon, even when it is darkest at mid-eclipse.
From western North America, including the landscape below will require wide lenses and a vertical format, with the Moon appearing quite small. But from a photogenic site, it might be worth the effort.
However, as my images above from the December 2010 eclipse show, if there’s any haze, the Moon could turn into a reddish blob.
You might be tempted to shoot with a long telephoto lens, but unless the camera is on a tracker, as below, the result will likely be a blurry mess. The sky moves enough during the long (over 1 second) exposures needed to pick up the reddened portion of the Moon that the image will smear when shot with long focal lengths. The solution is to use a sky tracker.
PHOTO OPTIONS 2 — CAMERA ON A TRACKER
Placing the camera on a motorized tracker that has been polar aligned to follow the motion of the stars opens up many more possibilities.
From a dark site, make use of the Moon’s position near the Milky Way to frame it and Orion and his fellow winter constellations. A 24mm lens will do the job nicely, in exposures up to 2 to 4 minutes long. But take short ones for just the Moon to layer in later.
A 50mm lens (again assuming a full frame camera) frames the Moon with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus.
Switching to an 85mm lens frames the clusters more tightly and makes the Moon’s disk a little larger. For me, this is the best shot to go for at this eclipse, as it tells the story of the eclipse and its unique position near the two star clusters.
But going with a longer lens allows framing the red eclipsed Moon below the blue Pleiades cluster, a fine colour contrast. A 200mm lens will do the job nicely (or a 135mm on a cropped frame camera).
Or, as I show here, the popular William Optics RedCat with its 250mm focal length will also work well. But such a lens must be on a polar-aligned tracker to get sharp shots. Use the Sidereal rate drive speed to ensure the sharpest stars over the 1 to 4 minutes needed to record lots of stars.
Take lots of exposures over a range of settings — long to bring out the deep sky detail and shorter to preserve detail in the reddened lunar disk. These can be layered and blended later in Photoshop, or in the layer-based image editing program of your choice, such as Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW.
PHOTO OPTIONS 3 — THROUGH A TELESCOPE
While I think the tracked wide-field options are some of the best for this eclipse, many photographers will want frame-filling close-ups of the red Moon. While a telescope will do the job, unless it has motors to track the sky, your options are limited.
A phone clamped to the eyepiece of a telescope can capture the shrinking bright part of the eclipsed Moon as the Moon enters more deeply into the umbra. Exposures for the bright part of the Moon are short enough a motor drive on the telescope is not essential.
But if you haven’t shot the Moon with this gear before, eclipse night is not the time to learn. Practice on the Moon before the eclipse.
For shooting with a DSLR camera through a telescope you’ll need a special camera adapter nosepiece and T-ring for your camera. Again, if you don’t have the gear and the experience doing this, I would suggest not making the attempt at two in the morning on eclipse night!
For example, owners of typical beginner reflectors are often surprised to find their cameras won’t even reach focus on their telescope. Many are simply not designed for photography. Adding a Barlow lens is required for the camera to reach focus, though without a drive, exposures will be limited to short (under 1/15s) shots of the bright part of the Moon.
The challenge with this and all lunar eclipses is that the Moon presents a huge range of brightness. Short snapshots can capture the bright part of the Moon not in the umbra, but the dark umbral-shaded portion requires much longer exposures, usually over one second.
Your eye can see the whole scene (as depicted above) but the camera cannot, not in one exposure. This example is a “high dynamic range” blend of several exposures.
Plus as the eclipse progresses, longer and longer exposures are needed to capture the sequence as the Moon is engulfed by more of the umbra.
After mid-eclipse, the exposures must get progressively shorter again in reverse order. So attempting to capture an entire sequence requires a lot of exposure adjustments.
TIP: Bracket a lot! Take lots of frames at each burst of images shot every minute, or however often you wish to capture the progress of the eclipse for a final set. Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses provide lots of time to take lots of images.
PHOTO OPTIONS 4 — THROUGH A TRACKING TELESCOPE
If you want close-ups of the eclipsed red Moon, you will need to use a mount equipped with a tracking motor, such as an equatorial mount shown here. But for use with telephoto lenses and short telescopes, a polar-aligned sky tracker, as above, will work.
Exposures can now be several seconds long, and at a lower ISO speed for less noise, allowing the Moon to be captured in sharp detail and with great colour. Long exposures will even pick up stars near the Moon.
However, when shooting close-ups, use the Lunar drive rate (if your mount offers that choice) to follow the Moon itself, as it has a motion of its own against the background stars. It’s that orbital motion that takes it from west to east (right to left) through the Earth’s shadow.
Filling the camera frame with the Moon requires a surprising amount of focal length. The Moon appears big to our eyes, but is only 1/2º across.
Even with 800mm of focal length, the Moon fills only a third of a full frame camera field. Using a cropped frame camera has the advantage of tightening the field of view, but it still takes 1200mm to 1500mm of focal length to fill the frame.
But I wouldn’t worry about doing so, as longer focal lengths typically also come with slower f-ratios, requiring longer exposure times or higher ISOs, both of which can blur detail.
For close-ups, a polar-aligned equatorial mount is best. But if your telescope is a GoTo telescope on an alt-azimuth mount (such as a Schmidt-Cassegrain shown here), you should be able to get good shots.
The field of view will slowly rotate during the eclipse, making it more difficult to later accurately assemble a series of shots documenting the entire sequence.
But any one shot should be fine, though it might be best to keep exposures shorter by using a higher ISO speed. As always, take lots of shots at different settings.
You won’t be able to tell which is sharpest until you inspect them later at the computer.
TIP: People worry about exposures, but the flaw that ruins many eclipse shots is poor focus. Use Live View to focus carefully on the sharp edge of the bright part of the Moon. Or better yet, focus on a bright star nearby. Zoom up to 10x to make it easier to see when the star is in sharpest focus. It can be a good idea to refocus through the night as the changing temperature can shift the focus point of long lenses and telescopes. That might take moving the scope over to a bright star, which won’t be possible if you need to preserve the framing for a composite.
PHOTO OPTIONS 5 — HDR COMPOSITES
Using an equatorial mount tracking at the lunar rate keeps the Moon stationary. This opens up the possibility of taking a series of shots over the wide range of exposures needed to capture the Moon from bright to dark, to assemble later in processing. Take 5 to 7 shots in quick succession.
High dynamic range software can blend the images, or use luminosity masks created by extension panels for Photoshop such as Lumenzia, TK8 or Raya Pro. Either technique can create a final image that looks like what your eye saw. The key is making sure all the images are aligned. HDR software likely won’t align them for you very well.
Blending multiple exposures will also be needed to properly capture the eclipsed Moon below the Pleiades, similar to what I show here (and below) from the January 2019 eclipse when the Moon appeared near the Beehive star cluster.
PHOTO OPTIONS 6 — ECLIPSE TRACK COMPOSITES
Another popular form of eclipse image (though also one rife for laughably inaccurate fakes) is capturing the entire path of the Moon across the sky over the duration of the eclipse from start to end.
It can be done with a fixed camera on a tripod but requires a wide (14mm to 20mm) and properly framed lens, to capture the sequence as it actually appeared to proper scale, and not created by just pasting over-sized moons onto a sky to “simulate” the scene, usually badly. By the end of the day on November 19 the internet will be filled with such ugly fakes.
You could set the camera at one exposure setting (one best for when the Moon and sky are darkest at mid-eclipse) and let the camera run, shooting frames every 5 seconds or so. The result might work well as a time-lapse sequence, showing the bright sky darkening, then brightening again.
But chances are the frames taken at the start and end when the sky is lit by full moonlight will be blown out. It will still take some manual camera adjustments through the eclipse.
For a still-image composite, you should instead expose properly for the Moon’s disk at all times, a setting that will change every few minutes, then take a long exposure at mid-eclipse to pick up the stars and Milky Way. The short Moon shots are then blended into the base-layer sky image later in processing.
If the camera has been well-framed and was not moved over the 3.5 hours of the eclipse, the result is an accurate and authentic record of the Moon’s path and passage into the shadow, and not a faked atrocity!
But creating a real image requires a lot of work at the camera, and at the computer.
TIP: Shooting for composites is not work I would recommend attempting while also running other cameras. Focus on one type of image and get it right, rather than trying to do too many and doing them all poorly.
PHOTO OPTION 7 — ECLIPSE SHADOW COMPOSITE
One of the most striking types of lunar eclipse images is a close-up composite showing the Moon passing through the Earth’s umbral shadow, with the arc of the shadow edge on the Moon defining the extent of the shadow, which is about three times larger than the Moon.
Such a composite can be re-created later by placing individual exposures accurately on a wider canvas, using screen shots from planetarium software as a template guide.
But to create an image that is more accurate, it is possible to do it “in camera.” Unlike in the film days, we don’t have to do it with multiple exposures onto one piece of film.
We take lots of separate frames with a telescope or lens wide enough to contain the entire path of the Moon through the umbra. A polar-aligned equatorial mount tracking at the sidereal rate is essential. That way the scope follows the stars, not the Moon, and so the Moon travels across the frame from right to left.
Start such a sequence with the Moon at lower right if you are framing just the path through the shadow. Use planetarium software (I used Starry Night™ to create the star charts for this blog) to plan the framing for your camera, lens and site, so the Moon ends up in the middle of the frame at mid-eclipse. This is not a technique for the faint of heart!
An interesting variation would be using a 200mm to 250mm lens to frame the Moon’s shadow passage below the Pleiades, to create an image as above. That will be unique. Again, an accurately aligned tracker turning at the sidereal rate will be essential.
Acquiring the frames for any composite takes constantly adjusting the exposure during the length of eclipse, which can try your patience and gear during the wee hours of the morning.
I’ll be happy just to get a good set of images at mid-eclipse to make a single composite of the red Moon below the Pleiades.
TIP: It could be cold and lenses can frost over. A battery-powered heater coil on the optics might be essential. And spare warm batteries.
To test your equipment and your skills at focusing, you can use the waning crescent Moon in the dawn hours on the mornings of October 29 to November 2 or, after New Moon on November 4, the waxing crescent Moon on the evenings of November 6 to 10. While the crescent Moon isn’t as bright as the Full Moon, it will be a good stand in for the bright part of the eclipsed Moon when it is deep in the umbra.
Even better, the dark part of the crescent Moon lit by Earthshine is a good stand-in for the part of the Moon in the umbra. Like the eclipsed Moon, the crescent Moon’s bright and dark parts can’t be captured in one exposure. So it’s a good test for the range of exposures you’ll need for the eclipse, for practising changing settings on your camera, and for checking your tracking system.
The crescent Moon is also useful to test your manual focusing, though the sharp detail along the terminator (the line dividing the bright crescent from the earthlit dark part of the Moon) is much easier to focus on than the flat, low contrast Full Moon.
DON’T FORGET TO LOOK!
Amid all the effort needed to shoot this or any eclipse, lunar or solar, don’t forget to just look at it. No photo can ever quite capture the glowing nature of the eclipsed Moon set against the stars.
I wish you clear skies and good luck with your lunar eclipse photography. If you miss it, we have two more visible from North America next year, both total eclipses, on May 15/16 and November 8, 2022.
In an extensive technical blog, I put the Canon R6 mirrorless camera through its paces for the demands of astrophotography.
Every major camera manufacturer, with the lone exception of stalwart Pentax, has moved from producing digital lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, to digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM) cameras. The reflex mirror is gone, allowing for a more compact camera, better movie capabilities, and enhanced auto-focus functions, among other benefits.
But what about for astrophotography? I reviewed the Sony a7III and Nikon Z6 mirrorless cameras here on my blog and, except for a couple of points, found them excellent for the demands of most astrophotography.
For the last two years I’ve primarily used Canon’s astro-friendly and red-sensitive EOS Ra mirrorless, a model sadly discontinued in September 2021 after just two years on the market. I reviewed that camera in the April 2020 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, with a quick first look here on my blog.
The superb performance of the Ra has prompted me to stay with the Canon mirrorless R system for future camera purchases. Here I test the mid-priced R6, introduced in August 2020.
NOTE: In early November 2022 Canon announced the EOS R6 MkII, which one assumes will eventually replace the original R6 once stock of that camera runs out. The MkII has a 24 Mp sensor for slightly better resolution, and offers longer battery life. But the main improvements over the R6 is to autofocus accuracy, a function of little use to astrophotographers. Only real-world testing will tell if the R6 MkII has better or worse noise levels than the R6, or has eliminated the R6’s amp glow, reported on below.
The Canon R6 has proven excellent for astrophotography, exhibiting better dynamic range and shadow recovery than most Canon DSLRs, due to the ISO invariant design of the R6 sensor. It is on par with the low-light performance of Nikon and Sony mirrorless cameras.
The preview image is sensitive enough to allow easy framing and focusing at night. The movie mode produces usable quality up to ISO 51,200, making 4K movies of auroras possible. Canon DSLRs cannot do this.
Marring the superb performance are annoying deficiencies in the design, and one flaw in the image quality – an amp glow – that particularly impacts deep-sky imaging.
The Canon R6 is superb for its:
Low noise, though not exceptionally so
ISO invariant sensor performance for good shadow recovery
Sensitive live view display with ultra-high ISO boost in Movie mode
Relatively low noise Movie mode with full frame 4K video
Low light auto focus and accurate manual focus assist
Good battery life
The Canon R6 is not so superb for its:
Lack of a top LCD screen
Bright timer display in Bulb on the rear screen
No battery level indication when shooting
Low grade R3-style remote jack, same as on entry-level Canon DSLRs
Image Quality Flaw
Magenta edge “amp glow” in long exposures
CHOOSING THE R6
Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, the 30-megapixel EOS R, was introduced in late 2018 to compete with Sony. As of late-2021 the main choices in a Canon DSLM for astrophotography are either the original R, the 20-megapixel R6, the 26-megapixel Rp, or the 45-megapixel R5.
The new 24-megapixel Canon R3, while it has impressive low-noise performance, is designed primarily for high-speed sports and news photography. It is difficult to justify its $6,000 cost for astro work.
I have not tested Canon’s entry-level, but full-frame Rp. While the Rp’s image quality is likely quite good, its small battery and short lifetime on a single charge will be limiting factors for astrophotography.
Nor have I tested the higher-end R5. Friends who use the R5 for nightscape work love it, but with smaller pixels the R5 will be noisier than the R6, which lab tests at sites such as DPReview.com seem to confirm.
Meanwhile, the original EOS R, while having excellent image quality and features, is surely destined for replacement in the near future – with a Canon EOS R Mark II? The R’s successor might be a great astrophoto camera, but with the Ra gone, I feel the R6 is currently the prime choice from Canon, especially for nightscapes.
I tested an R6 purchased in June 2021 and updated in August with firmware v1.4. I’ll go through its performance and functions with astrophotography in mind. I’ve ignored praised R6 features such as eye tracking autofocus, in-body image stabilization, and high speed burst rates. They are of limited or no value for astrophotography.
Along the way, I also offer a selection of user tips, some of which are applicable to other cameras.
LIVE VIEW FOCUSING AND FRAMING
The first difference you will see when using any new mirrorless camera, compared to even a high-end DSLR, is how much brighter the “Live View” image is when shooting at night. DSLM cameras are always in Live View – even the eye-level viewfinder presents a digital image supplied by the sensor.
As such, whether on the rear screen on in the viewfinder, you see an image that closely matches the photo you are about to take, because it is the image you are about to take.
To a limit. DSLMs can do only so much to simulate what a long 30-second exposure will look like. But the R6, like many DSLMs, goes a long way in providing a preview image bright enough to frame a dark scene and focus on bright stars. Turn on Exposure Simulation to brighten the live image, and open the lens as wide as possible.
But the R6 has a trick up its sleeve for framing nightscapes. Switch the Mode dial to Movie, and set the ISO up to 204,800 (or at night just dial in Auto ISO), and with the lens wide open and shutter on 1/8 second (as above), the preview image will brighten enough to show the Milky Way and dark foreground, albeit in a noisy image. But it’s just for aiming and framing.
This is similar to the excellent, but well-hidden Bright Monitoring mode on Sony Alphas. This high-ISO Movie mode makes it a pleasure using the R6 for nightscapes. The EOS R and Ra do not have this ability. While their live view screens are good, they are not as sensitive as the R6’s, with the R and Ra’s Movie modes able to go up to only ISO 12,800. The R5 can go up to “only” ISO 51,200 in its Movie mode, good but not quite high enough for live framing on dark nights.
The R6 will also autofocus down to a claimed EV -6.5, allowing it to focus in dim light for nightscapes, a feat impossible in most cameras. In practice with the Canon RF 15-35mm lens at f/2.8, I found the R6 can’t autofocus on the actual dark landscape, but it can autofocus on bright stars and planets (provided, of course, the camera is fitted with an autofocus lens).
Autofocusing on bright stars proved very accurate. By comparison, while the Ra can autofocus on distant bright lights, it fails on bright stars or planets.
Turning on Focus Peaking makes stars turn red, yellow or blue (your choice of colours) when they are in focus, as a reassuring confirmation.
In manual focus, an additional Focus Aid overlay provides arrows that close up and turn green when in focus on a bright star or planet. Or you can zoom in by 5x or 10x to focus by eye the old way by examining the star image. I wish the R6 had a 15x or 20x magnification; 5x and 10x have long been the Canon standards. Only the Ra offered 30x for ultra-precise focusing on stars.
In all, the ease of framing and focusing will be the major improvement you’ll enjoy by moving to any mirrorless, especially if your old camera is a cropped-frame Canon Rebel or T3i! But the R6 particularly excels at ease of focusing and framing.
The key camera characteristic for astrophoto use is noise. I feel it is more important than resolution. There’s little point in having lots of fine detail if it is lost in a blizzard of high-ISO noise. And for astro work, we are almost always shooting at high ISOs.
With just 20 megapixels, low by today’s standards, the R6 has individual pixels, or more correctly “photosites,” that are each 6.6 microns in size, the “pixel pitch.”
By comparison, the 30-megapixel R (and Ra) has a pixel pitch of 5.4 microns, the 45-megapixel R5’s pixel pitch is 4.4 microns, while the acclaimed low-light champion in the camera world, the 12-megapixel Sony a7sIII, has large 8.5-micron photosites.
The bigger the photosites (i.e. the larger the pixel pitch), the more photons each photosite can collect in a given amount of time – and the more photons they can collect, period, before they overfill and clip highlights. More photons equals more signal, and therefore a better signal-to-noise ratio, while the greater “full-well depth” yields higher dynamic range.
Each generation of camera also improves the signal-to-noise ratio by suppressing noise via its sensor design and improved signal processing hardware and firmware. The R6 uses Canon’s latest DIGIC X processor shared by the company’s other mirrorless cameras.
In noise tests comparing the R6 against the Ra and Canon 6D Mark II, all three cameras showed a similar level of noise at ISO settings from 400 up to 12,800. But the 6D Mark II performed well only when properly exposed. Both the R6 and Ra performed much better for shadow recovery in underexposed scenes.
In nightscapes and deep-sky images the R6 and Ra looked nearly identical at each of their ISO settings. This was surprising considering the Ra’s smaller photosites, which perhaps attests to the low noise of the astronomical “a” model.
Or it could be that the R6 isn’t as low noise as it should be for a 20 megapixel camera. But it is as good as it gets for Canon cameras, and that’s very good indeed.
I saw no “magic ISO” setting where the R6 performed better than at other settings. Noise increased in proportion to the ISO speed. It proved perfectly usable up to ISO 6400, with ISO 12,800 acceptable for stills when necessary.
The flaw in many Canon DSLRs, one documented in my 2017 review of the 6D Mark II, was their poor dynamic range due to the lack of an ISO invariant sensor design.
The R6, as with Canon’s other R-series cameras, has largely addressed this weakness. The sensor in the R6 appears to be nicely ISO invariant and performs as well as the Sony and Nikon cameras I have used and tested, models praised for their ISO invariant behaviour.
Where this trait shows itself to advantage is on nightscapes where the starlit foreground is often dark and underexposed. Bringing out detail in the shadows in raw files requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure slider. Images from an ISO invariant sensor can withstand the brightening “in post” far better, with minimal noise increase or degradations such as a loss of contrast, added banding, or horrible discolourations.
To test the R6, I shot sets of images at the same shutter speed, one well-exposed at a high ISO, then several at successively lower ISOs to underexpose by 1 to 5 stops. I then brightened the underexposed images by increasing the Exposure in Camera Raw by the same 1 to 5 stops. In an ideal ISO invariant sensor, all the images should look the same.
The R6 did very well in images underexposed by up to 4 stops. Images underexposed by 5 stops started to fall apart, but I’ve seen that in Sony and Nikon images as well.
This behaviour applies to images underexposed by using lower ISOs than what a “normal” exposure might require. Underexposing with lower ISOs can help maintain dynamic range and avoid highlight clipping. But with nightscapes, foregrounds can often be too dark even when shot at an ISO high enough to be suitable for the sky. Foregrounds are almost always underexposed, so good shadow recovery is essential for nightscapes, and especially time-lapses, when blending in separate longer exposures for the ground is not practical.
With its improved ISO invariant sensor, the R6 will be a fine camera for nightscape and time-lapse use, which was not true of the 6D Mark II.
However, to be clear, ISO invariant behaviour doesn’t help you as much if you underexpose by using too short a shutter speed or too small a lens aperture. I tested the R6 in series of images underexposed by keeping ISO the same but decreasing the shutter speed then the aperture in one-stop increments.
The underexposed images fell apart in quality much sooner, when underexposed more than 3 stops. Again, this is behaviour similar to what I’ve seen in Sonys and Nikons. For the best image quality I feel it is always a best practice to expose well at the camera. Don’t count on saving images in post.
TIP: Underexposing by using too short an exposure time is the major mistake astrophotographers make, who then wonder why their images are riddled with odd artifacts and patten noise. Always Expose to the Right (ETTR), even with ISO invariant cameras. The best way to avoid noise is to give your sensor more signal, by using longer exposures or wider apertures. Use settings that push the histogram to the right.
LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION
All cameras will exhibit thermal noise in long exposures, especially on warm nights. This form of noise peppers the shadows with hot pixels, often brightly coloured.
This is not the same as the shot and read noise that adds graininess to high-ISO images and that noise reduction software can smooth out. This is a common misunderstanding, even among professional photographers who should know better!
Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) eliminates this thermal noise by taking a “dark frame” and subtracting it in-camera to yield a raw file free of hot pixels.
And yes, LENR does apply to raw files, another fact even many professional photographers don’t realize. It is High ISO Noise Reduction that applies only to JPGs, along with Color Space and Picture Styles.
The LENR option on the R6 did eliminate most hot pixels, though sometimes still left, or added, a few. LENR is needed more on warm nights, and with longer exposures at higher ISOs. So the extent of thermal noise in any camera can vary a lot from shoot to shoot.
When LENR is active, the R6’s rear screen lights up with “Busy,” which is annoyingly bright. To hide this display, the only option is to close the screen.
As with the EOS Ra, and all mirrorless cameras, the R6 has no “dark frame buffer” that allows several exposures to be taken in quick succession even with LENR on. Canon’s full-frame DSLRs have this little-known buffer that allows 3, 4, or 5 “light frames” to be taken in a row before the LENR dark frame kicks in a locks up the camera on Busy.
With all Canon R cameras, and most other DSLRs, turning on LENR forces the camera to take a dark frame after every light frame, doubling the time it takes to finish every exposure. That’s a price many photographers aren’t willing to pay, but on warm nights it can be necessary, and a best practice, for the reward of cleaner images.
TIP: If you find hot pixels are becoming more obvious over time, try this trick: turn on the Clean Manually routine for 30 seconds to a minute. In some cameras this can remap the hot pixels so the camera can better eliminate them.
Using LENR with the R6 did not introduce any oddities such as oddly-coloured, green or wiped-out stars. Even without LENR I saw no evidence of green stars, a flaw that plagues some Sony cameras at all times, or Nikons when using LENR.
Canons have always been known for their good star colours, and the R6 is no exception. According to DPReview the R6 has a low-pass anti-alias filter in front of its sensor. Cameras which lack such a sensor filter do produce sharper images, but stars that occupy only one or two pixels might not de-Bayer properly into the correct colours. That’s not an issue with the R6.
I also saw no “star-eating,” a flaw Nikons and Sonys have been accused of over the years, due to aggressive in-camera noise reduction even on raw files. Canons have always escaped charges of star-eating.
DSLRs are prone to vignetting along the top and bottom of the frame from shadowing by the upraised mirror and mirror box. Not having a mirror, and a sensor not deeply recessed in the body, largely eliminates this edge vignetting in mirrorless cameras.
That is certainly true of the R6. Images boosted a lot in contrast, as we do with deep-sky photos, show not the slightest trace of vignetting along the top or bottom edges There were no odd clips or metal bits intruding into the light path, unlike in the Sony a7III I tested in 2018.
The full frame of the R6 can be used without need for cropping or ad hoc edge brightening in post. Except …
EDGE ARTIFACTS/AMP GLOWS
The R6 did exhibit one serious and annoying flaw in long-exposure high-ISO images – a magenta glow along the edges, especially the right edge and lower right corner.
Whether this is the true cause or not, it looks like “amplifier glow,” an effect caused by heat from circuitry illuminating the sensor with infra-red light. It shows itself when images are boosted in contrast and brightness in processing. It’s the sort of flaw revealed only when testing for the demands of astrophotography. It was present in images I took through a telescope, so it is not IR leakage from an auto-focus lens.
I saw this type of amp glow with the Sony a7III, a flaw eventually eliminated in a firmware update that, I presume, turned off unneeded electronics in long exposures.
Amp glow is something I have not seen in Canon cameras for many years. In a premium camera like the R6 it should not be there. Period. Canon needs to fix this with a firmware update.
UPDATE AUGUST 1, 2022: As of v1.6 of the R6 firmware, released in July 2022, the amp glow issue remains and has not been fixed. It may never be at this point.
It is the R6’s only serious image flaw, but it’s surprising to see it at all. Turning on LENR eliminates the amp glow, as it should, but using LENR is not always practical, such as in time-lapses and star trails.
For deep-sky photography high-ISO images are pushed to extremes of contrast, revealing any non-uniform illumination or colour. The usual practice of taking and applying calibration dark frames should also eliminate the amp glow. But I’d rather it not be there in the first place!
The R6 I bought was a stock “off-the-shelf” model. It is Canon’s now-discontinued EOS Ra model that is (or was) “filter-modified” to record a greater level of the deep red wavelength from red nebulas in the Milky Way. Compared to the Ra, the R6 did well, but could not record the depth of nebulosity the Ra can, to be expected for a stock camera.
In wide-field images of the Milky Way, the R6 picked up a respectable level of red nebulosity, especially when shooting through a broadband light pollution reduction filter, and with careful processing.
However, when going after faint nebulas through a telescope, even the use of a narrowband filter did not help bring out the target. Indeed, attempting to correct the extreme colour shift introduced by such a filter resulted in a muddy mess and accentuated edge glows with the R6, but worked well with the Ra.
While the R6 could be modified by a third party, the edge amp glow might spoil images, as a filter modification can make a sensor even more sensitive to IR light, potentially flooding the image with unwanted glows.
TIP: Buying a used Canon Ra (if you can find one) might be one choice for a filter-modified mirrorless camera, one much cheaper than a full frame cooled CMOS camera such as a ZWO ASI2400MC. Or Spencer’s Camera sells modified versions of all the R series cameras with a choice of sensor filters. But I have not used any of their modded cameras.
A concern of prospective buyers is whether the R6’s relatively low 20-megapixel sensor will be sharp enough for their purposes. R6 images are 5472 by 3648 pixels, much less than the 8000+ pixel-wide images from high-resolution cameras like the Canon R5, Nikon Z7II or Sony a1.
Unless you sell your astrophotos as very large prints, I’d say don’t worry. In comparisons with the 30-megapixel Ra I found it difficult to see a difference in resolution between the two cameras. Stars were nearly as well resolved in the R6, and only under the highest pixel-peeping magnification did stars look a bit more pixelated in the R6 than in the Ra. Faint stars were equally well recorded.
The difference between 20 and 30 megapixels is not as great as you might think for arc-second-per-pixel plate scale. I think it would take going to the R5 with its 45 megapixel sensor to provide enough of a difference in resolution over the R6 to be obvious in nightscape scenes, or when shooting small, detailed deep-sky subjects such as globular clusters.
If landscape or wildlife photography by day is your passion, with astrophotography a secondary purpose, then the more costly but highly regarded R5 might be the better choice.
TIP: Adobe now offers (in Lightroom and in Camera Raw) a Super Resolution option, that users might think (judging by the rave reviews on-line) would be the answer to adding resolution to astro images from “low-res” cameras like the R6.
Sorry! In my tests on astrophotos I’ve found Super Resolution results unsatisfactory. Yes, stars were less pixelated, but they became oddly coloured in the AI-driven up-scaling. Green stars appeared! The sky background also became mottled and uneven.
I would not count on such “smart upscaling” options to add more pixels to astro-images from the R6. Then again, I don’t think there’s a need to.
RAW vs. cRAW
Canon now offers the option of shooting either RAW or cRAW files, the latter being the same megapixel count but compressed in file size by almost a factor of two. This allows shooting twice as many images before card space runs out, perhaps useful for shooting lots of time-lapses on extended trips away from a computer.
However, the compression is not lossless. In high-ISO test images purposely underexposed, then brightened in post, I could see a slight degradation in cRAW images – the noise background looked less uniform and exhibited a blocky look, like JPG artifacts.
TIP: With two SD card slots in the R6 (the second card can be set to record either a backup of images on card one, or serve as an overflow card) and the economy of large SD cards, there’s not the need to conserve card space as there once was. I would suggest always shooting in the full RAW format. Why accept any compression and loss of image quality?
The R6 uses a new version of Canon’s standard LP-E6 battery, the LP-E6NH, that supports charging through the USB-C port and has a higher 2130mAh capacity than the 1800mAh LP-E6 batteries. However, the R6 is compatible with older batteries.
On warm nights, I found the R6 ran fine on one battery for the 3 to 4 hours needed to shoot a time-lapse sequence, with power to spare. However, as noted below, the lack of a top LCD screen means there’s no ongoing display of battery level, a deficiency for time-lapse and deep-sky work.
For demanding applications, especially in winter, the R6 can be powered by an outboard USB power bank that has “Power Delivery” capability. That’s a handy feature. There’s no need to install a dummy battery leading out to a specialized power source.
TIP: Putting the camera into Airplane mode (to turn off WiFi and Bluetooth), turning off the viewfinder, and either switching off or closing the rear screen all helps conserve power. The R6 does not have GPS built in. Tagging images with location data requires connecting to your phone.
A major selling point for me was the R6’s low-light video capability. It replaces my Sony A7III, which had been my “go to” camera for real-time 4K movies of auroras.
As best I can tell (from the dimmer auroras I’ve shot to date), the R6 performs equally as well as the Sony. It is able to record good quality (i.e. acceptably noise-free) 4K movies at ISO 25,600 to ISO 51,200. While it can shoot at up to ISO 204,800, the excessive noise makes the top ISO an emergency-use only setting.
The R6 can shoot at a dragged shutter speed as slow as 1/8-second – good, though not as slow as the Sony’s 1/4-second slowest shutter speed in movie mode. That 1/8-second shutter speed and a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens are the keys to shooting movies of the night sky. Only when auroras get shadow-casting bright can we shoot at the normal 1/30-second shutter speed and at lower ISOs.
As with Nikons (but not Sonys), the Canon R6 saves its movie settings separately from its still settings. When switching to Movie mode you don’t have to re-adjust the ISO, for example, to set it higher than it might have been for stills, very handy for taking both stills and movies of an active aurora, where quick switching is often required.
Unlike the R and Rp, the R6 captures 4K movies from the full width of the sensor, preserving the field of view of wide-angle lenses. This is excellent for aurora shooting.
However, the R6 offers the option of a “Movie Crop” mode. Rather than taking the 4K movie downsampled from the entire sensor, this crop mode records from a central 1:1 sampled area of the sensor. That mode can be useful for high-magnification lunar and planetary imaging, for ensuring no loss of resolution. It worked well, producing videos with less pixelated fine details in test movies of the Moon.
Though of course I have yet to test it on one, the R6 should be excellent for movies of total solar eclipses. It can shoot 4K up to 60 frames per second in both full frame and cropped frame. It cannot shoot 6K (buy the R3!) or 8K (buy the R5!).
Shooting in the R6’s Canon cLog3 profile records internally in 10-bit, preserving more dynamic range in movies, up to 12 stops. During eclipses, that will be a benefit for recording totality, with the vast range of brightness in the Sun’s corona. It should also aid in shooting auroras which can vary over a huge range in brightness.
TIP: Processing cLog movies, which look flat out of camera, requires applying a cLog3 Look Up Table, or LUT, to the movie clips in editing, a step called “colour grading.” This is available from Canon, from third-party vendors or, as it was with my copy of Final Cut Pro, might be already installed in your video editing software. When shooting, turn on View Assist so the preview looks close to what the final graded movie will look like.
EXPOSURE TRACKING IN TIME-LAPSES
In one test, I shot a time-lapse from twilight to darkness with the R6 in Aperture Priority auto-exposure mode, of a fading display of noctilucent clouds. I just let the camera lengthen the shutter speed on its own. It tracked the darkening sky very well, right down to the camera’s maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, using a fish-eye lens at f/2.8. This demonstrated that the light meter in the R6 was sensitive enough to work well in dim light.
Other cameras I have used cannot do this. The meter fails at some point and the exposure stalls at 5 or 6 seconds long, resulting in most frames after that being underexposed. By contrast, the R6 showed excellent performance, negating the need for special bulb ramping intervalometers for some “holy grail” scenes. Here’s the resulting movie.
In addition, the R6’s exposure meter tracked the darkening sky superbly, with nary a flicker or variation. Again, few cameras can do this. Nikons have an Exposure Smoothing option in their Interval Timers which works well.
The R6 has no such option but doesn’t seem to need it. The exposure did fail at the very end, when the shutter reached its maximum of 30 seconds. If I had the camera on Auto ISO, it might have started to ramp up the ISO to compensate, a test I have yet to try. Even so, this is impressive time-lapse performance in auto-exposure.
The R6, like the low-end Rp, lacks a top LCD screen for display of camera settings and battery level. In its place we get a traditional Mode dial, which some daytime photographers will prefer. But for astrophotography, a backlit top LCD screen provides useful information during long exposures.
Without it, the R6 provides no indication of battery level while a shoot is in progress, for example, during a time-lapse. A top screen is also useful for checking ISO and other settings by looking down at the camera, as is usually the case when it’s on a tripod or telescope.
The lack of a top screen is an inconvenience for astrophotography. We are forced to rely on looking at the brighter rear screen for all information. It is a flip-out screen, so can be angled up for convenient viewing on a telescope.
The R6 has a remote shutter port for an external intervalometer, or control via a time-lapse motion controller. That’s good!
However, the port is Canon’s low-grade 2.5mm jack. It works, and is a standard connector, but is not as sturdy as the three-pronged N3-style jack used on Canon’s 5D and 6D DSLRs, and on the R3 and R5. Considering the cost of the R6, I would have expected a better, more durable port. The On/Off switch also seems a bit flimsy and easily breakable under hard use.
These deficiencies provide the impression of Canon unnecessarily “cheaping out” on the R6. You can forgive them with the Rp, but not with a semi-professional camera like the R6.
Unlike the Canon R and Ra (which still mysteriously lack a built-in interval timer, despite firmware updates), the R6 has one in its firmware. Hurray! This can be used to set up a time-lapse sequence, but on exposures only up to the maximum of 30 seconds allowed by the camera’s shutter speed settings, true of most in-camera intervalometers.
For 30-second exposures taken in succession as quickly as possible the interval on the R6 has to be set to 34 seconds. The reason is that the 30-second exposure is actually 32 seconds, true of all cameras. With the R6, having a minimum gap in time between shots requires an Interval not of 33 seconds as with some cameras, but 34 seconds. Until you realize this, setting the intervalometer correctly can be confusing.
Like all Canon cameras, the R6 can be set to take only up to 99 frames, not 999. That seems a dumb deficiency. Almost all time-lapse sequences require at least 200 to 300 frames. What could it possibly take in the firmware to add an extra digit to the menu box? It’s there at in the Time-lapse Movie function that assembles a movie in camera, but not here where the camera shoots and saves individual frames. It’s another example where you just can’t fathom Canon’s software decisions.
TIP: If you want to shoot 100 or more frames, set the Number of Frames to 00, so it will shoot until you tell the camera to stop. But awkwardly, Canon says the way to stop an interval shoot is to turn off the camera! That’s crude, as doing so can force you to refocus if you are using a Canon RF lens. Switching the Mode dial to Bulb will stop an interval shoot, an undocumented feature.
As with most recent Canon DSLRs and DSLMs, the menu also includes a Bulb Timer. This allows setting an exposure of any length (many minutes or hours) when the camera is in Bulb mode. This is handy for single long shots at night.
However, it cannot be used in conjunction with the Interval Timer to program a series of multi-minute exposures, a pity. Instead, a separate outboard intervalometer has to be used for taking an automatic set of any exposures longer than 30 seconds, true of all Canons.
In Bulb and Bulb Timer mode, the R6’s rear screen lights up with a bright Timer readout. While the information is useful, the display is too bright at night and cannot be dimmed, nor turned red for night use, exactly when you are likely to use Bulb. The power-saving Eco mode has no effect on this display, precisely when you would want it to dim or turn off displays to prolong battery life, another odd deficiency in Canon’s firmware.
The Timer display can only be turned off by closing the flip-out screen, but now the viewfinder activates with the same display. Either way, a display is on draining power during long exposures. And the Timer readout lacks any indication of battery level, a vital piece of information during long shoots. The Canon R, R3 and R5, with their top LCD screens, do not have this annoying “feature.”
TIP: End a Bulb Timer shoot prematurely by hitting the Shutter button. That feature is documented.
IN-CAMERA IMAGE STACKING
The R6 offers a menu option present on many recent Canon cameras: Multiple Exposure. The camera can take and internally stack up to 9 images, stacking them by using either Average (best for reducing noise) or Bright mode (best for star trails). An Additive mode also works for star trails, but stacking 9 images requires reducing the exposure of each image by 3 stops, say from ISO 1600 to ISO 200, as I did in the example below.
The result of the internal stacking is a raw file, with the option of also saving the component raws. While the options work very well, in all the cameras I’ve owned that offer such functions, I’ve never used them. I prefer to do any stacking needed later at the computer.
TIP: The in-camera image stacking options are good for beginners wanting to get advanced stacking results with a minimum of processing fuss later. Use Average to stack ground images for smoother noise. Use Bright for stacking sky images for star trails. Activate one of those modes, then control the camera with a separate intervalometer to automatically shoot and internally stack several multi-minute exposures.
Being a mirrorless camera, there is no reflex mirror to introduce vibration, and so no need for a mirror lockup function. The shutter can operate purely mechanically, with physical metal curtains opening and closing to start and end the exposure.
However, the default “out of the box” setting is Electronic First Curtain, where the actual exposure, even when on Bulb, is initiated electronically, but ended by the mechanical shutter. That’s good for reducing vibration, perhaps when shooting the Moon or planets through a telescope at high magnification.
In Mechanical, the physical curtains both start and end the exposure. It’s the mode I usually prefer, as I like to hear the reassuring click of the shutter opening. I’ve never found shutter vibration a problem when shooting deep sky images on a telescope mount of any quality.
In Mechanical mode the shutter can fire at up to 12 frames a second, or up to 20 frames a second in Electronic mode where both the start and end of the exposure happen without the mechanical shutter. That makes for very quiet operation, good for weddings and golf tournaments!
Being vibration free, Electronic shutter might be great during total solar eclipses for rapid-fire bursts at second and third contacts when shooting through telescopes. Maximum exposure time is 1/2 second in this mode, more than long enough for capturing fleeting diamond rings.
Longer exposures needed for the corona will require Mechanical or Electronic First Curtain shutter. Combinations of shutter modes, drive rates (single or continuous), and exposure bracketing can all be programmed into the three Custom Function settings (C1, C2 and C3) on the Mode dial, for quick switching at an eclipse. It might not be until April 8, 2024 until I have a chance to test these features. And by then the R6 Mark II will be out!
TIP: While the R6’s manual doesn’t state it, some reviews mention (including at DPReview) that when the shutter is in fully Electronic mode the R6’s image quality drops from 14-bit to 12-bit, true of most other mirrorless cameras. This reduces dynamic range. I would suggest not using Electronic shutter for most astrophotography, even for exposures under 1/2 second. For longer exposures, it’s a moot point as it cannot be used.
TIP: The R6 has the same odd menu item that befuddles many a new R-series owner, found on Camera Settings: Page 4. “Release Shutter w/o Lens” defaults to OFF, which means the camera will not work if it is attached to a manual lens or telescope it cannot connect to electronically. Turn it ON and all will be solved. This is a troublesome menu option that Canon should eliminate or default to ON.
OTHER MENU FEATURES
The rear screen is fully touch sensitive, allowing all settings to be changed on-screen if desired, as well as by scrolling with the joystick and scroll wheels. I find going back to an older camera without a touchscreen annoying – I keep tapping the screen expecting it to do something!
The little Multi-Function (M-Fn) button is a worth getting used to, as it allows quick access to a choice of five important functions such as ISO, drive mode and exposure compensation. However, the ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all changeable by the three scroll wheels.
There’s also the Quick menu activated by the Q button. While the content of the Quick menu screen can’t be edited, it does contain a good array of useful functions, adjustable with a few taps.
Unlike Sonys, the R6 has no dedicated Custom buttons per se. However, it does offer a good degree of customization of its buttons, by allowing users to re-assign them to other functions they might find more useful than the defaults. For example ….
I’ve taken the AF Point button and assigned it to the Maximize Screen Brightness function, to temporarily boost the rear screen to full brightness for ease of framing.
The AE Lock button I assigned to switch the Focus Peaking indicators on and off, to aid manual focusing when needed.
The Depth of Field Preview button I assigned to switching between the rear screen and viewfinder, through that switch does happen automatically as you put your eye to the viewfinder.
The Set button I assigned to turning off the Rear Display, though that doesn’t have any effect when the Bulb Timer readout is running, a nuisance.
While the physical buttons are not illuminated, having a touch screen makes it less necessary to access buttons in the dark. It’s a pity the conveniently positioned but mostly unused Rate button can’t be re-programmed to more useful functions. It’s a waste of a button.
TIP: The shooting screens, accessed by the Info button (one you do need to find in the dark!), can be customized to show a little, a lot, or no information, as you prefer. Take the time to set them up to show just the information you need over a minimum of screen pages.
LENS AND FILTER COMPATIBILITY
The new wider RF mount accepts only Canon and third-party RF lenses. However, all Canon and third-party EF mount lenses (those made for DSLRs) will fit on RF-mount bodies with the aid of the $100 Canon EF-to-RF lens adapter.
This adapter will be necessary to attach any Canon R camera to a telescope equipped with a standard Canon T-ring. That’s especially true for telescopes with field flatterers where maintaining the standard 55mm distance between the flattener and sensor is critical for optimum optical performance.
The shallower “flange distance” between lens and sensor in all mirrorless cameras means an additional adapter is needed not just for the mechanical connection to the new style of lens mount, but also for the correct scope-to-sensor spacing.
The extra spacing provided by a mirrorless camera has the benefit of allowing a filter drawer to be inserted into the light path. Canon offers a $300 lens adapter with slide-in filters, though the choice of filters useful for astronomy that fit Canon’s adapter is limited. AstroHutech offers a few IDAS nebula filters.
Clip-in filters made for the EOS R, such as those offered by Astronomik, will also fit the R6. Though, again, most narrowband filters will not work well with an unmodified camera.
TIP: Alternatively, AstroHutech also offers its own lens adapter/filter drawer that goes from a Canon EF mount to the RF mount, and accepts standard 52mm or 48mm filters. It is a great way to add interchangeable filters to any telescope when using an R-series camera, while maintaining the correct back-focus spacing. I use an AstroHutech drawer with my Ra, where the modified camera works very well with narrowband filters. Using such filters with a stock R6 won’t be as worthwhile, as I showed above.
As of this writing, the selection of third-party lenses for the Canon RF mount is limited, as neither Canon or Nikon have “opened up” their system to other lens makers, unlike Sony with their E-mount system. For example, we have yet to see much-anticipated RF-mount lenses from Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.
The few third-party lenses that are available, from TTArtisan, Venus Optics and other boutique Chinese lens companies, are usually manual focus lenses with reverse-engineered RF mounts offering no electrical contact with the camera. Some of these wide-angle lenses are quite good and affordable. (I tested the TTArtisan 11mm fish-eye here.)
Until other lens makers are “allowed in,” if you want lenses with auto-focus and camera metadata connections, you almost have to buy Canon. Their RF lenses are superb, surpassing the quality of their older EF-mount equivalents. But they are costly. I sold off a lot of my older lenses and cameras to help pay for the new Canon glass!
Astrophotographers often like to operate their cameras at the telescope using computers running specialized control software. I tested the R6 with two popular Windows programs for controlling DSLR and now mirrorless cameras, BackyardEOS (v3.2.2) and AstroPhotographyTool (v3.88). Both recognized and connected to the R6 via its USB port.
Another popular option is the ASIair WiFi controller from ZWO. It controls cameras via one of the ASIair’s USB ports, and not (confusingly) through the Air’s remote shutter jack marked DSLR. Under version 1.7 of its mobile app, the ASIair now controls Canon R cameras and connected to the R6 just fine, allowing images to be saved both to the camera and to the Air’s own MicroSD card.
The ASIair is an excellent solution for both camera control and autoguiding, with operation via a mobile device that is easier to use and power in the field than a laptop. I’ve not tried other hardware and software controllers with the R6.
TIP: While the R6, like many Canon cameras, can be controlled remotely with a smartphone via the CanonConnect mobile app, the connection process is complex and the connection can be unreliable. The Canon app offers no redeeming features for astrophotography, and maintaining the connection via WiFi or Bluetooth consumes battery power.
SUGGESTIONS TO CANON
To summarize, in firmware updates, Canon should:
Fix the low-level amp glow. No camera should have amp glow.
Allow either dimming the Timer readout, turning it red, or just turning it off!
Add a battery display to the Timer readout.
Expand the Interval Timer to allow up to 999 frames, as in the Time-Lapse Movie.
Allow the Rate button to be re-assigned to more functions.
Default the Release Shutter w/o Lens function to ON.
Revise the manual to correctly describe how to stop an Interval Timer shoot.
Allow programming multiple long exposures by combining Interval and Bulb Timer, or by expanding the shutter speed range to longer than 30 seconds, as some Nikons can do.
The extended red sensitivity of the Canon EOS Ra makes it better suited for deep-sky imaging. But with it now out of production (Canon traditionally never kept its astronomical “a” cameras in production for more than two years), I think the R6 is now Canon’s best camera (mirrorless or DSLR) for all types of astrophotography, both stills and movies.
However, I cannot say how well it will work when filter-modified by a third-party. But such a modification is necessary only for recording red nebulas in the Milky Way. It is not needed for other celestial targets and forms of astrophotography.
The low noise and ISO invariant sensor of the R6 makes it superb for nightscapes, apart from the nagging amp glow. That glow will also add an annoying edge gradient to deep-sky images, best dealt with when shooting by the use of LENR or dark frames.
As the image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, at the top of the blog attests, with careful processing it is certainly possible to get fine deep-sky images with the R6.
For low-light movies the R6 is Canon’s answer to the Sony alphas. No other Canon camera can do night sky movies as well as the R6. For me, it was the prime feature that made the R6 the camera of choice to complement the Ra.
The tradition continued of chasing clear skies to see a lunar eclipse.
It wouldn’t be an eclipse without a chase. Total eclipses of the Sun almost always demand travel, often to the far side of the world, to stand in the narrow path of the Moon’s shadow.
By contrast, total eclipses of the Moon come to you — they can be seen from half the planet when the Full Moon glides through Earth’s shadow.
Assuming you have clear skies! That’s the challenge.
Of the 14 total lunar eclipses (TLEs) visible from here in Alberta since 2000, I have seen all but one, missing the January 21, 2000 TLE due to clouds.
But of the remaining 13 TLEs so far in the 21st century, I watched only three from home, the last home lunar eclipse being in December 2010.
I viewed three TLEs (August 2007, February 2008, and December 2011) from the Rothney Observatory south-west of Calgary as part of public outreach programs I was helping with.
In April 2014, I was in Australia and viewed the eclipsed Moon rising in the evening sky over Lake Macquarie, NSW.
A year later, in April 2015, I was in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border for the short total eclipse of the Moon at dawn.
But of the eclipses I’ve seen from Alberta since 2014, I have had to chase into clear skies for all of them — to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in both October 2014 and September 2015, to the Crowsnest Pass for January 2018, and to Lloydminster for January 2019.
The total lunar eclipse on the morning of May 26, 2021 was no exception.
Leading up to eclipse day prospects for finding clear skies anywhere near home in southern Alberta looked bleak. The province was under widespread cloud bringing much-needed rain. Good for farmers, but bad for eclipse chasers.
Then, two days prior to the eclipse a hole in the clouds was predicted to open up along the foothills in central Alberta just at the right time, at 4 a.m. The predictions stayed consistent a day later.
So trusting the Environment Canada models that had served me well since 2014, I made plans to drive north the day before the eclipse to Rocky Mountain House, a sizeable town on Highway 11 west of Red Deer, where the foothills begin. “Rocky” was predicted to be on the edge of the clearing, with a large swath of clear sky in the right direction, to the southwest where the Moon would be.
Fortunately, COVID restrictions are not so severe here as to demand stay-at-home orders. I could travel, at least within Alberta. Hotels were open, but restaurants only for takeaway.
This was going to be a tough eclipse even under the best of sky conditions, as for us in Alberta the Moon would be low and setting into the southwest at dawn. The Moon would be darkest and in mid-eclipse just as the sky was also brightening with dawn twilight.
However, a low eclipse offers the opportunity of a view of the reddened Moon over a scenic landscape, in this case of the eclipsed Moon setting over the Rockies. That was the plan.
Unfortunately, Rocky Mountain House wasn’t the ideal destination as it lies far from the mountains. I was hoping for a site closer to the Rockies in southern Alberta. But a site with clear skies is always the first priority.
The task is then finding a spot to set up with a clear view to the southwest horizon, which from the area around Rocky is tough — it’s all trees!
This is where planning apps are wonderful.
I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to search for a side road or spot to pull off where I could safely set up and be away from trees to get a good sightline to the horizon and possibly distant mountains.
A site not far from town was ideal, to avoid long pre- and post-eclipse drives in the wee hours of the morning. The timing of this eclipse was part of the challenge — in having to be on site at 4 a.m.
TPE showed several possible locations and a Google street view (not shown here) seemed to confirm that the horizon in that area off Highway 11 would be unobstructed over cultivated fields.
But you don’t know for sure until you get there.
So as soon as I arrived, I went to one site I had found remotely, only to discover power lines in the way. Not ideal.
I found another nearby side road with a clean view. From there I used the PhotoPills app (above) and its augmented reality “AR” mode to confirm, that yes, the Moon would be in the right place over a clear horizon at eclipse time the next morning.
Another app I like for site scouting, Theodolite, also confirmed that the view toward the eclipsed Moon’s direction (with an azimuth of about 220°) would be fine from that site.
As a Plan B — it’s always good to have a Plan B! — I also drove west along Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway, toward the mountains, in search of a rare site away from trees, just in case the only clear skies lay to the west. I found one, some 50 km west of Rocky, but thankfully it was not needed. The Plan A site worked fine, and was just 5 minutes south of town, and bed!
I set up two tripods. One was for the Canon R6 with an 85mm lens for a “time-lapse” sequence of the Moon moving across the frame as it entered the Earth’s umbral shadow.
The other tripod I used for closeups of just the Moon using the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens, then switched to the Canon Ra and a 135mm lens, then the longer 200mm lens once the Moon got low enough to also be in frame with the horizon. Those were for the prime shot of the eclipse over the distant mountains and skyline.
It all worked! The sky turned out to be clearer than predicted, a pleasant surprise, with only some light cloud obscuring the Moon halfway through the partial phases (the first image at top).
The other surprise was how dark the shadowed portion of the Moon was. This was a very short total eclipse, with totality only 14 minutes long. With the Moon passing through the outer, lighter part of the umbral shadow, I would have expected a brighter eclipse, making the reddened Moon stand out better in the blue twilight.
As it was, in the minutes before the official start of totality at 5:11 a.m. MDT, the Moon effectively disappeared from view, both to the eye and camera.
My best shots were of the Moon still in partial eclipse but with the umbral shaded portion bright enough to show up red in the images. The distant Rockies were also beginning to light up pink in the first light of dawn.
My last view was of a sliver-thin Moon disappearing into Earth’s shadow just prior to the onset of totality. I packed up and headed back to bed with technically the Moon still up and in total eclipse, but impossible to see. Still I was a happy eclipse chaser!
It was another successful eclipse trip, thwarted not so much by clouds, but by the darkness of our planet’s shadow, which might have been due to widespread cloud or volcanic ash in the atmosphere of Earth.
The other factor at play was that this was a “supermoon,” with the larger Moon near perigee entering more deeply into the umbra than a normal-sized Moon.
The next lunar eclipse is six months later, on the night of November 18/19, 2021 when the Moon will not quite fully enter Earth’s umbral shadow, for a 97% partial eclipse. But enough of the Moon will be in the dark umbra for most of the Moon to appear red, with a white crescent “smile” at the bottom.
As shown above, from my location in Alberta the Moon will appear high in the south, in Taurus just west of the Milky Way. The winter stars and Milky Way will “turn on” and fade into view as the eclipse progresses.
We shall see if that will be a rare “home” eclipse, or if it will demand another chase to a clear hole in the clouds on a chilly November night.
On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226.
As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see.
Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky.
But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years!
Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear.
Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses
Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4.
The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work.
Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context.
For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well.
NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites).
The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night.
As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud.
For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21.
On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects.
However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use.
A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds.
To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800.
TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos.
Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses
However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site.
Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use.
Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds.
You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise.
TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing.
The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope
Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year.
But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars.
While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.
You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.
TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view!
But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same.
However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21!
TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it.
TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others.
TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus!
Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.
Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it.
FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.
Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy!
The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn!
And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!
In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view!
If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry.
Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene.
The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity.
The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal!
The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night.
A Good Year for Geminids
While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:
• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.
• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years.
The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here.
What Settings to Use?
To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:
A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins.
Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:
A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible.
Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
When to Shoot?
The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.
For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14.
For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.
So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold!
Where to Go?
To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north.
While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town.
From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up.
Where to Aim?
You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west.
But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are.
Using a Tracker
Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite.
However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary.
If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky.
Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera
The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses.
The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant.
To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.
Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog.
The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials.
Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.
Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon.
A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot.
My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark.
So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.
How Long Will the Comet be Visible?
The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.
But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night.
As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown.
But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July.
When is the Best Time to Shoot?
The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night.
Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn.
But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks.
Where Do I Look?
In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun.
What Exposures Do I Use?
There is no single best setting. It depends on …
— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).
— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.
— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.
However, here are guidelines:
— ISO 400 to 1600
— Aperture f/2 to f/4
— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds
Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.
As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.
As a rule you want to …
— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.
— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image.
— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens.
So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot.
— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left.
When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination.
If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site.
And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.
Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late!
What Lens Do I Use?
Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well.
Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.
A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots.
Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.
Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show.
Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?
Yes. Whatever you have, try it.
However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually.
In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes.
It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars.
But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot.
What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?
Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure.
What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).
On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.
On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it).
Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards.
Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.
All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod.
What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot?
Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot.
To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:
— First, where the comet will be in the sky,
— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location.
— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!
Planning Where the Comet Will Be
Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.
For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions.
The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.orgBe sure to allow it to access your location.
Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest).
With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction.
Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.
I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.
Planning for the Weather
All is for nought if the sky is cloudy.
For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies.
Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot.
But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.
On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.
Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in.
My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas.
2. Exposure Blending
If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually.
For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus.
To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images.
Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows).
But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them.
4. Tracking the Sky
If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller).
But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing.
The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well.
Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.
But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.
I present my top 10 tips for capturing time-lapses of the moving sky.
If you can take one well-exposed image of a nightscape, you can take 300. There’s little extra work required, just your time. But if you have the patience, the result can be an impressive time-lapse movie of the night sky sweeping over a scenic landscape. It’s that simple.
Or is it?
Here are my tips for taking time-lapses, in a series of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that I’ve found effective for ensuring great results.
But before you attempt a time-lapse, be sure you can first capture well-exposed and sharply focused still shots. Shooting hundreds of frames for a time-lapse will be a disappointing waste of your time if all the images are dark and blurry.
For that reason many of my tips apply equally well to shooting still images. But taking time-lapses does require some specialized gear, techniques, planning, and software. First, the equipment.
NOTE: This article appeared originally in Issue #9 of Dark Sky Travels e-magazine.
TIP 1 — DO: Use a solid tripod
A lightweight travel tripod that might suffice for still images on the road will likely be insufficient for time-lapses. Not only does the camera have to remain rock steady for the length of the exposure, it has to do so for the length of the entire shoot, which could be several hours. Wind can’t move it, nor any camera handling you might need to do mid-shoot, such as swapping out a battery.
The tripod needn’t be massive. For hiking into scenic sites you’ll want a lightweight but sturdy tripod. While a carbon fibre unit is costly, you’ll appreciate its low weight and good strength every night in the field. Similarly, don’t scrimp on the tripod head.
TIP 2 — DO: Use a fast lens
As with nightscape stills, the single best purchase you can make to improve your images of dark sky scenes is not buying a new camera (at least not at first), but buying a fast, wide-angle lens.
Ditch the slow kit zoom and go for at least an f/2.8, if not f/2, lens with 10mm to 24mm focal length. This becomes especially critical for time-lapses, as the fast aperture allows using short shutter speeds, which in turn allows capturing more frames in a given period of time. That makes for a smoother, slower time-lapse, and a shoot you can finish sooner if desired.
TIP 3 — DO: Use an intervalometer
Time-lapses demand the use of an intervalometer to automatically fire the shutter for at least 200 to 300 images for a typical time-lapse. Many cameras have an intervalometer function built into their firmware. The shutter speed is set by using the camera in Manual mode.
Just be aware that a camera’s 15-second exposure really lasts 16 seconds, while a 30-second shot set in Manual is really a 32-second exposure.
So in setting the interval to provide one second between shots, as I advise below, you have to set the camera’s internal intervalometer for an interval of 17 seconds (for a shutter speed of 15 seconds) or 33 seconds (for a shutter speed of 30 seconds). It’s an odd quirk I’ve found true of every brand of camera I use or have tested.
Alternatively, you can set the camera to Bulb and then use an outboard hardware intervalometer (they sell for $60 on up) to control the exposure and fire the shutter. Test your unit. Its interval might need to be set to only one second, or to the exposure time + one second.
How intervalometers define “Interval” varies annoyingly from brand to brand. Setting the interval incorrectly can result in every other frame being missed and a ruined sequence.
SETTING YOUR CAMERA
TIP 4 — DON’T: Underexpose
As with still images, the best way to beat noise is to give the camera signal. Use a wider aperture, a longer shutter speed, or a higher ISO (or all of the above) to ensure the image is well exposed with a histogram pushed to the right.
If you try to boost the image brightness later in processing you’ll introduce not only the very noise you were trying to avoid, but also odd artifacts in the shadows such as banding and purple discolouration.
With still images we have the option of taking shorter, untrailed images for the sky, and longer exposures for the dark ground to reveal details in the landscape, to composite later. With time-lapses we don’t have that luxury. Each and every frame has to capture the entire scene well.
At dark sky sites, expose for the dark ground as much as you can, even if that makes the sky overly bright. Unless you outright clip the highlights in the Milky Way or in light polluted horizon glows, you’ll be able to recover highlight details later in processing.
After poor focus, underexposure, resulting in overly noisy images, is the single biggest mistake I see beginners make.
TIP 5 — DON’T: Worry about 500 or “NPF” Exposure Rules
While still images might have to adhere to the “500 Rule” or the stricter “NPF Rule” to avoid star trailing, time-lapses are not so critical. Slight trailing of stars in each frame won’t be noticeable in the final movie when the stars are moving anyway.
So go for rule-breaking, longer exposures if needed, for example if the aperture needs to be stopped down for increased depth of field and foreground focus. Again, with time-lapses we can’t shoot separate exposures for focus stacking later.
Just be aware that the longer each exposure is, the longer it will take to shoot 300 of them.
Why 300? I find 300 frames is a good number to aim for. When assembled into a movie at 30 frames per second (a typical frame rate) your 300-frame clip will last 10 seconds, a decent length of time in a final movie.
You can use a slower frame rate (24 fps works fine), but below 24 the movie will look jerky unless you employ advanced frame blending techniques. I do that for auroras.
How long it will take to acquire the needed 300 frames will depend on how long each exposure is and the interval between them. An app such as PhotoPills (via its Time lapse function) is handy in the field for calculating exposure time vs. frame count vs. shoot length, and providing a timer to let you know when the shoot is done.
TIP 6 — DO: Use short intervals
At night, the interval between exposures should be no more than one or two seconds. By “interval,” I mean the time between when the shutter closes and when it opens again for the next frame.
Not all intervalometers define “Interval” that way. But it’s what you expect it means. If you use too long an interval then the stars will appear to jump across the sky, ruining the smooth motion you are after.
In practice, intervals of four to five seconds are sometimes needed to accommodate the movement of motorized “motion control” devices that turn or slide the camera between each shot. But I’m not covering the use of those advanced units here. I cover those options and much, much more in 400 pages of tips, techniques and tutorials in my Nightscapes ebook, linked to above.
However, during the day or in twilight, intervals can be, and indeed need to be, much longer than the exposures. It’s at night with stars in the sky that you want the shutter to be closed as little as possible.
TIP 7 — DO: Shoot Raw
This advice also applies to still images where shooting raw files is essential for professional results. But you likely knew that.
However, with time-lapses some cameras offer a mode that will shoot time-lapse frames and assemble them into a movie right in the camera. Don’t use it. It gives you a finished, pre-baked movie with no ability to process each frame later, an essential step for good night time-lapses. And raw files provide the most data to work with.
So even with time-lapses, shoot raw not JPGs.
If you are confident the frames will be used only for a time-lapse, you might choose to shoot in a smaller S-Raw or compressed C-Raw mode, for smaller files, in order to fit more frames onto a card.
But I prefer not to shrink or compress the original raw files in the camera, as some of them might make for an excellent stacked and layered still image where I want the best quality originals (such as for the ISS over Waterton Lakes example above).
To get you through a long field shoot away from your computer buy more and larger memory cards. You don’t need costly, superfast cards for most time-lapse work.
PLANNING AND COMPOSITION
TIP 8 — DO: Use planning apps to frame
All nightscape photography benefits from using one of the excellent apps we now have to assist us in planning a shoot. They are particularly useful for time-lapses.
Apps such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great. I like the latter as it links to its companion TPE 3D app to preview what the sky and lighting will look like over the actual topographic horizon from your site. You can scrub through time to see the motion of the Milky Way over the scenery. The Augmented Reality “AR” modes of these apps are also useful, but only once you are on site during the day.
For planning a time-lapse at home I always turn to a “planetarium” program to simulate the motion of the sky (albeit over a generic landscape), with the ability to add in “field of view” indicators to show the view your lens will capture.
You can step ahead in time to see how the sky will move across your camera frame during the length of the shoot. Indeed, such simulations help you plan how long the shoot needs to last until, for example, the galactic core or Orion sets.
Planetarium software helps ensure you frame the scene properly, not only for the beginning of the shoot (that’s easy — you can see that!), but also for the end of the shoot, which you can only predict.
If your shoot will last as long as three hours, do plan to check the battery level and swap batteries before three hours is up. Most cameras, even new mirrorless models, will now last for three hours on a full battery, but likely not any longer. If it’s a cold winter night, expect only one or two hours of life from a single battery.
TIP 9 — DO: Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all
Processing the raw files takes the same steps and settings as you would use to process still images.
With time-lapses, however, you have to do all the processing required within your favourite raw developer software. You can’t count on bringing multiple exposures into a layer-based processor such as Photoshop to stack and blend images. That works for a single image, but not for 300.
I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge to do all my time-lapse processing. But many photographers use Lightroom, which offers all the same settings and non-destructive functions as Adobe Camera Raw.
For those who wish to “avoid Adobe” there are other choices, but for time-lapse work an essential feature is the ability to develop one frame, then copy and paste its settings (or “sync” settings) to all the other frames in the set.
Not all programs allow that. Affinity Photo does not. Luminar doesn’t do it very well. DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and the free Raw Therapee, among others, all work fine.
HOW TO ASSEMBLE A TIME-LAPSE
Once you have a set of raws all developed, the usual workflow is to export all those frames out as high-quality JPGs which is what movie assembly programs need. Your raw developing software has to allow batch exporting to JPGs — most do.
However, none of the programs above (except Photoshop and Adobe’s After Effects) will create the final movie, whether it be from those JPGs or from the raws.
So for assembling the intermediate JPGs into a movie, I often use a low-cost program called TLDF (TimeLapse DeFlicker) available for MacOS and Windows (timelapsedeflicker.com). It offers advanced functions such as deflickering (i.e. smoothing slight frame-to-frame brightness fluctuations) and frame blending (useful to smooth aurora motions or to purposely add star trails).
While there are many choices for time-lapse assembly, I suggest using a program dedicated to the task and not, as many do, a movie editing program. For most sequences, the latter makes assembly unnecessarily difficult and harder to set key parameters such as frame rates.
TIP 10 — DO: Try LRTimelapse for more advanced processing
Get serious about time-lapse shooting and you will want — indeed, you will need — the program LRTimelapse (LRTimelapse.com). A free but limited trial version is available.
This powerful program is for sequences where one setting will not work for all the frames. One size does not fit all.
Instead, LRTimelapse allows you to process a few keyframes throughout a sequence, say at the start, middle, and end. It then interpolates all the settings between those keyframes to automatically process the entire set of images to smooth (or “ramp”) and deflicker the transitions from frame to frame.
This is essential for sequences where the lighting changes during the shoot (say, the Moon rises or sets), and for so-called “holy grails.” Those are advanced sequences that track from daylight or twilight to darkness, or vice versa, over a wide range of camera settings.
However, LRTimelapse works only with Adobe Lightroom or the Adobe Camera Raw/Bridge combination. So for advanced time-lapse work Adobe software is essential.
A Final Bonus Tip
Keep it simple. You might aspire to emulate the advanced sequences you see on the web, where the camera pans and dollies during the movie. I suggest avoiding complex motion control gear at first to concentrate on getting well-exposed time-lapses with just a static camera. That alone is a rewarding achievement.
But before that, first learn to shoot still images successfully. All the settings and skills you need for a great looking still image are needed for a time-lapse. Then move onto capturing the moving sky.
I end with a link to an example music video, shot using the techniques I’ve outlined. Thanks for reading and watching. Clear skies!
The Beauty of the Milky Way from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
A new low-cost sky tracker promises to simplify not only tracking the sky but also taking time-lapses panning along the horizon. It works but …
If you are an active nightscape photographer chances are your social media feeds have been punctuated with ads for this new low-cost tracker from MoveShootMove.com.
For $200, much less than popular trackers from Sky-Watcher and iOptron, the SiFo unit (as it is labelled) offers the ability track the sky, avoiding any star trails. That alone would make it a bargain, and useful for nightscape and deep-sky photographers.
But it also has a function for panning horizontally, moving incrementally between exposures, thus the Move-Shoot-Move designation. The result is a time-lapse movie that pans along the horizon, but with each frame with the ground sharp, as the camera moves only between exposures, not during them.
Again, for $200 this is an excellent feature lacking in trackers like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyTracker. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini does, however, offer both tracking and “move-shoot-move” time-lapse functions, but at a cost of $300 to $400 U.S., depending on accessories.
All these functions are provided in a unit that is light (weighing 700 grams with a tripod plate and the laser) and compact (taking up less space in your camera bag than most lenses). By comparison, the Star Adventurer Mini weighs 900 grams with the polar scope, while the original larger Star Adventurer is 1.4 kg, double the MSM’s weight.
Note, that the MSM’s advertised weight of 445 grams does not include the laser or a tripod plate, two items you need to use it. So 700 grams is a more realistic figure, still light, but not lighter than the competition by as much as you might be led to believe.
Nevertheless, the MSM’s small size and weight make it attractive for travel, especially for flights to remote sites. Construction is solid and all-metal. This is not a cheap plastic toy.
But does it work? Yes, but with several important caveats that might be a concern for some buyers.
What I Tested
I purchased the Basic Kit B package for $220 U.S., which includes a small case, a laser pointer and bracket for polar alignment (and with a small charger for the laser’s single 3.7-volt battery), and with the camera sync cable needed for time-lapse shooting.
I also purchased the new “button” model, not the older version that used a knob to set various tracking rates.
The ball head needed to go on top of the tracker is something you supply. The kit does come with two 3/8-inch stud bolts and a 3/8-to1/4-inch bushing adapter, for placing the tracker on tripods in the various mounting configurations I show below.
The first units were labelled as ‘SiFo,” but current units now carry the Gauda brand name. I’ll just call it the MSM.
I purchased the gear from the MSM website, and had my order fulfilled and shipped to me in Canada from China with no problems.
Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes
The attraction is its tracking function, allowing a camera to follow the sky and take exposures longer than any dictated by “500” or “NPF” Rules to avoid any star trailing.
Exposures can be a minute or more to record much more depth and detail in the Milky Way, though the ground will blur. But blending tracked sky exposures with untracked ground exposures gets around that, and with the MSM it’s easy to turn on and off the tracking motor, something not possible with the low-cost wind-up Mini Track from Omegon.
The illustrations and instructions (in a PDF well-hidden off the MSM Buy page) show the MSM mounted using the 1/4-20 bolt hole on the side of the unit opposite the LED-illuminated control panel. While this seems to be the preferredmethod, in the first unit I tested I found it produced serious mis-tracking problems.
With a Canon 6D MkII and 50mm f/1.4 lens (not a particularly heavy combination), the MSM’s gears would not engage and start tracking until after about 5 minutes. The first exposures were useless. This was also the case whenever I moved the camera to a new position to re-frame the scene or sky. Again, the first few minutes produced no or poor tracking until the gears finally engaged.
This would be a problem when taking tracked/untracked sets for nightscapes, as images need to be taken in quick succession. It’s also just plain annoying.
However, see the UPDATE at the end for the performance of a new Gauda-branded unit that was sent to me.
The solution was to mount the MSM using the 3/8-inch bolt hole on the back plate of the tracker, using the 1/4-20 adapter ring to allow it to attach to my tripod head. This still allowed me to tip the unit up to polar align it.
Tracking was now much more consistent, with only the first exposure usually badly trailed. But subsequent exposures all tracked, but with varying degrees of accuracy as I show below.
When used as a tracker, you need to control the camera’s exposure time with an external intervalometer you supply, to allow setting exposures over 30 seconds long.
The MSM offers a N and S setting, the latter for use in the Southern Hemisphere. A 1/2-speed setting turns the tracker at half the normal sidereal rate, useful for nightscapes as a compromise speed to provide some tracking while minimizing ground blurring.
For any tracker to track, its rotation axis has to be aimed at the Celestial Pole, near Polaris in the Northern Hemisphere, and near Sigma Octantis in the Southern Hemisphere.
I chose the laser pointer option for this, rather than the polar alignment scope. The laser attaches to the side of the MSM using a small screw-on metal bracket so that it points up along the axis of rotation, the polar axis.
The laser is labeled as a 1mw unit, but it is far brighter than any 1mw I’ve used. This does make it bright, allowing the beam to show up even when the sky is not dark. The battery is rechargeable and a small charger comes with the laser. Considering the laser is just a $15 option, it’s a bargain. But ….
UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1
Since I published the review, I have had the laser professionally tested, and it measured as having an output of 45 milliwatts. Yet it is labeled as being under 1 milliwatt. This is serious misrepresentation of the specs, done I can only assume to circumvent import restrictions. In Canada it is now illegal to import, own, or use any green laser over 5 milliwatts, a power level that would be sufficient for the intended use of polar aligning. 45mw is outright illegal.
So be warned, use of this laser will be illegal in some areas. And use of any green laser will be illegal close to airports, and outlawed entirely in some jurisdictions such as Australia, a fact the MSM website mentions.
The legal alternative is the optical polar alignment scope. I already have several of those, but my expectation that I could use one I had with the same bracket supplied with the laser were dashed by the fact that the bracket’s hole is too narrow to accept any of the other polar alignment scopes I have, which are all standard items. I you want a polar scope, buy theirs for $70.
However, if you can use it where you live, the laser works well enough, allowing you to aim the tracker at the Pole just by eye. For the wide lenses the tracker is intended to be used with, eyeball alignment proved good enough.
Just be very, very careful not to accidentally look down the beam. Seriously. It is far too easy to do by mistake, but doing so could damage your eye in moments.
Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images
How well does the MSM actually track? In tests of the original SiFo unit I bought, and in sets of exposures with 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses, and with the tracker mounted on the back, I found that 25% to 50% of the images showed mis-tracking. Gear errors still produced slightly trailed stars. This gear error shows itself more as you shoot with longer focal lengths.
The MSM is best for what it is advertised as — as a tracker for nightscapes with forgiving wide-angle lenses in the 14mm to 24mm range. With longer lenses, expect to throw away a good number of exposures as unusable. Take twice as many as you think you might need.
With a 135mm lens taking Milky Way closeups, more than half the shots were badly trailed. Really badly trailed. This is not from poor polar alignment, which produces a gradual drift of the frame, but from errors in the drive gears, and random errors at that, not periodic errors.
To be fair, this is often the case with other trackers as well. People always want to weight them down with heavy and demanding telephotos for deep-sky portraits, but that’s rarely a good idea with any tracker. They are best with wide lenses.
That said, I found the MSM’s error rate and amount to be much worse than with other trackers. With the Star Adventurer models and a 135mm lens for example, I can expect only 20% to 25% of the images to be trailed, and even then rarely as badly as what the MSM exhibited.
See the UPDATE at the end for the performance of the replacement Gauda-branded unit sent to me with the promise of much improved tracking accuracy.
Yes, enough shots worked to be usable, but it took using a fast f/2 lens to keep exposure times down to a minute to provide that yield. Users of slow f/5.6 kit-zoom lenses will struggle trying to take deep-sky images with the MSM.
In short, this is a low-cost tracker and it shows. It does work, but not as well as the higher-cost competitors. But restrict it to wide-angle lenses and you’ll be fine.
Panning the Ground
The other mode the MSM can be used in is as a time-lapse motion controller. Here you mount the MSM horizontally so the camera turns parallel to the horizon (or it can be mounted vertically for vertical panning, a mode I rarely use and did not test).
This is where the Move-Shoot-Move function comes in.
The supplied Sync cable goes from the camera’s flash hot shoe to the MSM’s camera jack. What happens is that when the camera finishes an exposure it sends a pulse to the MSM, which then quickly moves while the shutter is closed by the increment you set.
There is a choice of 4 speeds, marked in degrees-per-move: 0.05°, 0.2°, 0.5°, and 1.0°. For example, as the movie below shows, taking 360 frames at the 1° speed results in a complete 360° turn.
The MSM does the moving, but all the shutter speed control and intervals must be set using a separate intervalometer, either one built into the camera, or an outboard hardware unit. The MSM does not control the camera shutter. In fact, the camera controls the MSM.
Intervals should be set to be about 2 seconds longer than the shutter speed, to allow the MSM to perform its move and settle.
This connection between the MSM and camera worked very well. It is unconventional, but simple and effective.
Too Slow or Too Fast
The issue is the limited choice of move speeds. I found the 0.5° and 1° speeds much too fast for night use, except perhaps for special effects in urban cityscapes. Even in daytime use, when exposure times are very short, the results are dizzying, as I show below.
Even the 0.2°-per-move speed I feel is too fast for most nightscape work. Over the 300 exposures one typically takes for a time-lapse movie, that speed will turn the MSM (300 x 0.2°) = 60 degrees. That’s a lot of motion for 300 shots, which will usually be rendered out at 24 or 30 frames per second for a clip that lasts 10 to 12 seconds. The scene will turn a lot in that time.
On the other hand, the 0.05°-per-move setting is rather slow, producing a turn of (300 x 0.05°) = 15° during the 300 shots.
That works, but with all the motion controllers I’ve used — units that can run at whatever speed they need to get from the start point to the end point you set — I find a rate of about 0.1° per move is what works best for a movie that provides the right amount of motion. Not too slow. Not too fast. Just right.
UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019
From product photos on the MoveShootMove.com website now it appears that the tracker is now labeled MSM, as it should have been all along.
Most critically, perhaps in response to this review and my comments here, the time-lapse speeds have been changed to 0.05, 0.075, 0.1 and 0.125 degrees per move, adding the 0.1°/move speed I requested below and deleting the overly fast 0.5° and 1.0° speeds.
Plus it appears the new units have the panel labels printed the other way around so they are not upside down for most mounting situations.
I have not tested this new version, but these speeds sound much more usable for panning time-lapses. Bravo to MSM for listening!
Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse
The additional complication is trying to get the MSM to also turn at the right rate to follow the sky — for example, to keep the galaxy core in frame during the time-lapse clip. I think doing so produces one of the most effective time-lapse sequences.
But to do that with any device requires turning at a rate of 15° per hour, the rate the sky moves from east to west.
Because the MSM provides only set fixed speeds, the only way you have of controlling how much it moves over a given amount of time, such as an hour, is to vary the shutter speed.
I found that to get the MSM to follow the Milky Way in a time-lapse using the 0.05° rate and shooting 300 frames required shooting at a shutter speed of 12 seconds. No more, no less.
Do the Math
Where does that number come from?
At its rate of 0.05°/move, the MSM will turn 15° over 300 shots. The sky moves 15° in one hour, or 3600 seconds. So to fit 300 shots into 3600 seconds means each shot has to be no longer than (3600/300) = 12 seconds long.
The result works, as I show in the sampler movie.
But 12 seconds is a rather short shutter speed on a dark, moonless night with the Milky Way.
For properly exposed images you would need to shoot at very fast apertures (f/1.4 to f/2) and/or high and noisy ISO speeds. Neither are optimal. But they are forced upon you by the MSM’s restricted rates.
Using the faster 0.2° rate (of the original model) yields a turn of 60° over 300 shots. That’s four hours of sky motion. So each exposure now has to be 48 seconds long for the camera to follow the sky, four times longer because the drive rate is now four times faster.
A shutter speed of 48 seconds is a little too long in my opinion. Stars in each frame will trail. Plus a turn of 60° over 300 shots is quite a lot, producing a movie that turns too quickly.
By far the best speed for motion control time-lapses would be 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed. (DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: That speed seems to now be offered.)
Yes, having only a limited number of pre-wired speeds does make the MSM much easier to program than devices like the Star Adventurer Mini or SYRP Genie Mini that use wireless apps to set their functions. No question, the MSM is better suited to beginners who don’t want to fuss with lots of parameters.
As it is, getting a decent result requires some math and juggling of camera settings to make up for the MSM’s limited choices of speeds.
Time-Lapse Movie Examples
This compilation shows examples of daytime time-lapses taken at the fastest and dizzying 0.5° and 1.0° speeds, and night time-lapses taken at the slower speeds. The final clip is taken at 0.05°/move and with 12-second exposures, a combination that allowed the camera to nicely follow the Milky Way, albeit at a slow pace. Taking more than the 300 frames used here would have produced a clip that turned at the same rate, but lasted longer.
The MSM is powered off an internal rechargeable battery, which can be charged from any 5-volt charger you have from a mobile phone.
The MSM uses a USB-C jack for the power cable, but a USB-A to USB-C cord is supplied, handy as you might not have one if you don’t have other USB-C devices.
The battery lasted for half a dozen or more 300-shot time-lapses, enough to get you through at least 2 or 3 nights of shooting. However, my testing was done on warm summer nights. In winter battery life will be less.
While the built-in battery is handy, in the field should you find battery level low (the N and S switches blink as a warning) you can’t just swap in fresh batteries. Just remember to charge up before heading out. Alternatively, it can be charged from an external 5V battery pack such as used to prolong cell phone life.
The MSM does not offer, nor does it promise, any form of automated panorama shooting. This is where the device turns by, say, 15° to 45° between shots, to shoot the segments for a still-image panorama. More sophisticated motion controllers from SYRP and Edelkrone offer that function, including the ability to mate two devices for automated multi-tier panoramas.
Nor does the MSM offer the more advanced option of ramping speeds up and down at the start and end of a time-lapse. It moves at a constant rate throughout.
While some of the shortcomings could perhaps be fixed with a firmware update, there is no indication anywhere that its internal firmware can be updated through the USB-C port.
UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019
Since I published the review, MSM saw the initial test results and admitted that the earlier units like mine (ordered in June) exhibited large amounts of tracking error. They sent me a replacement unit, now branded with the Gauda label. According to MSM it contains a more powerful motor promised to improve tracking accuracy and making it possible to take images with lenses as long as 135mm.
I’m sorry to report it didn’t.
In tests with the 135mm lens the new, improved MSM still showed lots of tracking error, to the point that images taken with a lens as long as this were mostly unusable.
Tap or click on the images to download full-res versions.
The short movie above takes the full-frame images from the zenith set of 24 frames taken over 48 minutes and turns them into a little time-lapse. It shows how the mechanism of the MSM seems to be wobbling the camera around in a circle, creating the mis-tracking.
Comparison with the Star Adventurer
As a comparison, the next night I used a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (the full-size model not the Mini) to shoot the same fields in the northeast and overhead with the same 135mm lens and with the same ball-head, to ensure the ball-head was not at fault. Here are the results:
The Star Adventurer performed much better. Most images were well-tracked. Even on those frames that showed trailing, it was slight. The Star Adventurer is a unit you can use to take close-ups of deep-sky fields with telephoto lenses, if that’s your desire.
By contrast, the MSM is best used — indeed, I feel can only be used practically — with wide-angle lenses and with exposures under 2 minutes. Here’s a set taken with a 35mm lens, each for 2 minutes.
With the more forgiving 35mm lens, while more images worked, the success rate was still only 50%.
What I did not see with the new Gauda unit was the 5-minute delay before the gears meshed and tracking began. That issue has been resolved by the new, more powerful motor. The new Gauda model does start tracking right away.
But it is still prone to significant enough drive errors that stars are often trailed even with a 35mm lens (this was on a full-frame Canon 6D MkII).
UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)
The MSM tracker is low-cost, well-built, and compact for easy packing and travel. It performs its advertised functions well enough to allow users to get results, either tracked images of the Milky Way and constellations, or simple motion-control time-lapses.
But it is best used — indeed I would suggest can only be used — with wide-angle lenses for tracked Milky Way nightscapes. Even then, take more shots than you think you need to be sure enough are well-tracked and usable.
It can also be used for simple motion-control time-lapses, provided you do to the math to get it to turn by the amount you want, working around the too-slow or too-fast speeds. The new 0.1° per move speed (added in models as of December 2019) seems a reasonable rate for most time-lapses.
However, I think aspiring time-lapse photographers will soon outgrow the MSM’s limitations for motion-control sequences. But it can get you started.
If you really value its compactness and your budget is tight, the MSM will serve you well enough for tracked nightscape shooting with wide-angle lenses.
But if you wish to take close-ups of starfields and deep-sky objects with longer lenses, consider a unit like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer for its lower tracking errors. Or the Star Adventurer Mini for its better motion-control time-lapse functions.
Panoramas featuring the arch of the Milky Way have become the icons of dark sky locations. “Panos” can be easy to shoot, but stitching them together can present challenges. Here are my tips and techniques.
My tutorial complements the much more extensive information I provide in my eBook, at right. Here, I’ll step through techniques for simple to more complex panoramas, dealing first with essential shooting methods, then reviewing the workflows I use for processing and stitching panoramas.
What software works best depends on the number of segments in your panorama, or even on the focal length of the lens you used.
PART 1 — SHOOTING
What Equipment Do You Need?
Nightscape panoramas don’t require any more equipment than what you likely already own for shooting the night sky. For Milky Way scenes you need a fast lens and a solid tripod, but any good DSLR or mirrorless camera will suffice.
The tripod head can be either a ball head or a three-axis head, but it should have a horizontal axis marked with a degree scale. This allows you to move the camera at a correct and consistent angle from segment to segment. I think that’s essential.
What you don’t need is a special, and often costly, panorama head. These rotate the camera around the so-called “nodal point” inside the lens, avoiding parallax shifts that can make it difficult to align and stitch adjacent frames. Parallax shift is certainly a concern when shooting interiors or any scenes with prominent content close to the camera. However, in most nightscapes our scene content is far enough away that parallax simply isn’t an issue.
Though not a necessity, I find a levelling base a huge convenience. As I show above, this specialized ball head goes under the usual tripod head and makes it easy to level the main head. It eliminates all the fussing with trial-and-error adjustments of the length of each tripod leg.
Then to level the camera itself, I use the electronic level now in most cameras. Or, if your camera lacks that feature, an accessory bubble level clipped into the camera’s hot shoe will work.
Having the camera level is critical. It can be tipped up, of course, but not tilted left-right. If it isn’t level the whole panorama will be off kilter, requiring excessive straightening and cropping in processing, or the horizon will wave up and down in the final stitch, perhaps causing parts of the scene to go missing.
NOTE: Click or tap on the panorama images to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
Shooting Horizon Panoramas
While panoramas spanning the entire sky might be what you are after, I suggest starting simpler, with panos that take in just a portion of the 360° horizon and only a part of the 180° of the sky. These “partial panos” are great for auroras (above) or noctilucent clouds, (below), or for capturing just the core of the Milky Way over a landscape.
The key to all panorama success is overlap. Segments should overlap by 30 to 50 percent, enabling the stitching software to align the segments using the content common to adjacent frames. Contrary to some users, I’ve never found an issue with having too much overlap, where the same content is present on several frames.
For a practical example, let’s say you shoot with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 16mm lens on a cropped-frame camera. Both combinations yield a field of view across the long dimension of the frame of roughly 80°, and across the short dimension of the frame of about 55°.
That means if you shoot with the camera in “landscape” orientation, panning the camera by 40° between segments would provide a generous 50 percent overlap. The left half of each segment will contain the same content as the right half of the previous segment, if you take your panos by turning from left to right.
TIP: My habit is to always shoot from left to right, as that puts the segments in the correct order adjacent to each other when I view them in browser programs such as Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, with images sorted in chronological order (from first to last images in a set) as I typically prefer. But the stitching will work no matter which direction you rotate the camera.
In the example of a 24mm lens and a camera in landscape orientation you could turn at a 45° or 50° spacing and yield enough overlap. However, turning the camera at multiples of 15° is usually the most convenient, as tripod heads are often graduated with markings at 5° increments, and labeled every 15° or 30°.
Some will have coarser and perhaps unlabeled markings. If so, determine what each increment represents, then take care to move the camera consistently by the amount that will provide adequate overlap.
To maximize the coverage of the sky while still framing a good amount of foreground, a common practice is to shoot panoramas with the camera in portrait orientation. That provides more vertical but less horizontal coverage for each frame. In that case, for adequate overlap with a 24mm lens and full-frame camera shoot at 30° spacings.
TIP: When shooting a partial panorama, for example just to the south for the Milky Way, or to the north for the aurora borealis, my practice is to always shoot a segment farther to the left and another to the right of the main scene. Shoot more than you need. Those end segments can get distorted when stitching, but if they don’t contain essential content, they can be cropped out with no loss, leaving your main scene clean and undistorted.
Shooting with a longer lens, such as a 50mm (or 35mm on a cropped frame camera), will yield higher resolution in the final panorama, but you will have much less sky coverage, unless you shoot multiple tiers, as I describe below. You would also have to shoot more segments, at 15° to 20° spacings, taking longer to complete the shoot.
As the number of segments goes up shooting fast becomes more important, to minimize how much the sky moves from segment to segment, and during each exposure itself, to aid in stitching. Remember, the sky appears to be turning from east to west, but the ground isn’t. So a prolonged shoot can cause problems later as the stitching software tries to align on either the fixed ground or the moving stars.
Panoramas on moonlit nights, as I show above, are relatively easy because exposures are short.
Milky Way panoramas taken on dark, moonless nights are tougher. They require fast apertures (f/2 to f/2.8) and high ISOs (ISO 3200 to 6400), to keep individual exposures no more than 30 to 40 seconds long.
Noise lives in the dark foregrounds, so I find it best to err on the side of overexposure, to ensure adequate exposure for the ground, even if it means the sky is bright and the stars slightly trailed. It’s the “Expose to the Right” philosophy I espouse at length in my eBook.
Advanced users can try shooting in two passes: one at a low ISO and with a long exposure for the fixed ground, and another pass at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure for the moving sky. But assembling such a set will take some deft work in Photoshop to align and mask the two stitched panos. None of the examples here are “double exposures.”
Shooting 360° Panoramas
More demanding than partial panoramas are full 360° panoramas, as above. Here I find it is best to start the sequence with the camera aimed toward the celestial pole (to the north in the northern hemisphere, or to the south in the southern hemisphere). That places the area of sky that moves the least over time at the two ends of the panorama, again making it easier for software to align segments, with the two ends taken farthest apart in time meeting up in space.
In our 24mm lens example, to cover the entire 360° scene shooting with a 45° spacing would require at least eight images (8 x 45 = 360). I used 10 above. Using that same lens with the camera in portrait orientation will require at least 12 segments to cover the entire 360° landscape.
Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas
More demanding still are 360° panoramas that encompass the entire sky, from the ground below the horizon to the zenith overhead. Above is an example.
To do that with a single row of images requires shooting in portrait orientation with a very wide 14mm rectilinear lens on a full-frame camera. That combination has a field of view of about 100° across the long dimension of the sensor.
That sounds generous, but reaching up to the zenith at an altitude of 90° means only a small portion of the landscape will be included along the bottom of the frame.
To provide an even wider field of view to take in more ground, I use full-frame fish-eye lenses on my full-frame cameras, such as Canon’s old 15mm lens (as shown at top) or Rokinon’s 12mm. Even a circular-format fish-eye will work, such as an 8mm on a full-frame camera or 4.5mm on a cropped-frame camera.
All such fish-eye lenses produce curved horizons, but they take in a wide swath of sky, making it possible to include lots of foreground while reaching well past the zenith. Conventional panorama assembly programs won’t work with such wide and distorted segments, but the specialized programs described below will.
Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas
The alternative technique for “all-sky” panos is to shoot multiple tiers of images: first, a lower row covering the ground and partway up the sky, followed by an upper row completing the coverage of just the sky at top.
The trick is to ensure adequate overlap both horizontally and vertically. With the camera in landscape orientation that will require a 20mm lens for full-frame cameras, or a 14mm lens for cropped-frame cameras. Either combination can cover the entire sky plus lots of foreground in two tiers, though I usually shoot three, just to be sure!.
Shooting with longer lenses provides incredible resolution for billboard-sized “gigapan” blow-ups, but will require shooting three, if not more, tiers, each with many segments. That starts to become a chore to do manually. Some motorized assistance really helps when shooting multi-tier panoramas.
Automating the Pan Shooting
The dedicated pano shooter might want to look at a device such as the GigaPan Epic models or the iOptron iPano, (shown below), all about $800 to $1000.
I’ve tested the latter and it works great. You program in the lens, overlap, and angular sweep desired. The iPano works out how many segments and tiers will be required, and automates the shooting, firing the shutter for the duration you program, then moving to the new position, firing again, and so on. I’ve shot four-tier panos effortlessly and with great success.
However, these devices are generally bigger and heavier than I care to heft around in the field.
Instead, I use the original Genie Mini from SYRP, (below), a $250 device primarily for shooting motion control time-lapses. But the wireless app that programs the Genie also has a panorama function that automatically slews the camera horizontally between exposures, again based on the lens, overlap, and angular sweep you enter. The just-introduced Genie Mini II is similar, but with even more capabilities for camera control.
While combining two Genie Minis allows programming in a vertical motion as well, I’ve been using just a regular tripod head atop the Mini to manually move the camera vertically between each of the horizontal tiers. I don’t feel the one or two moves needed to go from tier to tier too arduous to do manually, and I like to keep my field gear compact and easy to use.
The Genie Mini (now replaced by the Mini II) works great and I highly recommend it, even if panoramas are your only interest. But it is also one of the best, yet most affordable, single-axis motion control devices on the market for time-lapse work.
When to Shoot the Milky Way
While the right gear and techniques are important, go out on the wrong night and you won’t be able to capture the Milky Way as the great sweeping arch you might have hoped for.
In the northern hemisphere the Milky Way arches directly overhead from late July to October for most of the night. That’s fine for spherical fish-eye panoramas, but in rectangular images when the Milky Way is overhead it gets stretched and distorted across the top of the final panorama. For example, in the Bow Lake by Night panorama above, I cropped out most of this distorted content.
The prime season for Milky Way arches is therefore before the Milky Way climbs overhead, while it is still across the eastern sky, as above. That’s on moonless nights from March to early July, with May and June best for catching it in the evening, and not having to wait up until dawn, as is the case in early spring.
TIP: The best way to figure out when and where the Milky Way will appear is to use a desktop planetarium program such as Starry Night or Sky Safari or the free Stellarium. All can realistically depict the Milky Way for your location and date. You can then step through time to see how the Milky Way will move through the night, and how it will frame with your camera and lens combination using the “field of view” indicators the programs provide.
When shooting in the southern hemisphere I like the April to June period for catching the sweep of the southern Milky Way and the galactic core rising in late evening. By contrast, during mid austral winter in July and August the galactic centre shines directly overhead in the evening, a spectacular sight to be sure, but tough to capture in a panorama except in a spherical or fish-eye scene.
That said, I always like to put in a good word for the often sadly neglected winter Milky Way (the summer Milky Way for those “down under”). While lacking the spectacle of the galactic core in Sagittarius, the “other” Milky Way has its attractions such as Orion and Taurus. The best months for a panorama with that Milky Way in an arch across a rectangular frame are January to March. The Zodiacal Light can be a bonus at that season, as it was above.
TIP: Always shoot raw files for the widest dynamic range and flexibility in recovering details in the highlights and shadows. Even so, each segment has to be well exposed and focused out in the field.
And unless you are doing a “two-pass” double exposure, always shoot each segment with identical exposure settings. This is especially critical for bright sky scenes such twilights or moonlit scenes. Vary the exposure and you might get unsightly banding at the seams.
There’s nothing worse than getting home only to find one or more segments was missed, or was out of focus or badly exposed, spoiling the set.
PART 2 — STITCHING
Developing Panorama Segments
Once you have your panorama segments, the next step is to develop and assemble them. For my workflow, the process of assembling a panorama from its constituent segments begins with developing each of those segments identically.
NOTE: Click or tap on the software screen shots to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
I like to develop each segment’s raw file as fully as possible at this first stage in the workflow, applying noise reduction, colour correction, contrast adjustments, shadow and highlight recovery, and any special settings such as dehaze and clarity that can make the Milky Way pop.
I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions.
There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.