Here’s a short promo video, one that also opens the ebook as one of the embedded videos.
I originally published this ebook in 2014, then revised it in late 2016. Here’s what’s new in this 2018 Third Edition:
Updated equipment (cameras, lenses, filters, time-lapse gear) to reflect what’s current as of mid-2018. For example I added: the Revolve Camera slider; functions from the Canon 6D MkII; and information about the Sony a7III Mirrorless.
Updated the processing tutorials with current software: Photoshop CC2018, Lightroom Classic CC, Starry Landscape Stacker, TLDF, Timelapse Workflow, and LRTimelapse version 5.
Added tutorials on selected non-Adobe programs: DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, Affinity Photo, and the extensions Raya Pro 3 and Dr. Brown’s Services.
Added some 50 new topic pages, such as on memory cards and exposure blending.
In addition I’ve performed “housekeeping chores” such as:
Removing some embedded movies to reduce the file size and
Converting interactive diagrams into labeled images and
Flattening some of the interactive image galleries, all for facilitating conversion to PDFs for non-Apple platforms.
Improving the resolution of most tutorial screenshot images.
Improving many diagrams and updating many images.
Merging the chapter on Intervalometers into Chapter 1.
Plus I’ve added a section on lunar eclipses back in. Yay!
Here are screen shots of sample chapter content pages, to provide an idea of what the ebook contains and looks like.
All current owners of the older editions get the Third Edition update for free through the iBooks app (Mac or iPad, and also iPhone).
I hope you enjoy the new edition. Tell your friends! And do leave a rating or review at the iBooks sales page. Thanks!
And yes, for non-Apple people, a non-interactive PDF version for all other platforms (Windows and Android) is in production for later this year.
I put the new Sony a7III mirrorless camera through its paces for the features and functions we need to shoot the night sky.
Sony’s a7III camera has enjoyed rave reviews since its introduction earlier in 2018. Most tests focus on its superb auto exposure and auto focus capabilities that rival much more costly cameras, including Sony’s own a7rIII and a9.
For astrophotography, none of those auto functions are of any value. We shoot everything on manual. Indeed, the ease of manually focusing in Live View is a key function.
In my testing I compared the Sony a7III to two competitive DSLRs, the Canon 6D MkII and Nikon D750.
All three are “entry-level” full-frame cameras, with 24 to 26 megapixels and in a similar price league of $1,500 (Nikon) to 2,000 (Sony).
I tested a Sony a7III purchased locally. It was not supplied to me by Sony in return for an “influential” blog post.
I did this testing in preparation for the new third edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse eBook, which will include information on Sony mirrorless cameras, as well as many, many other updates and additions!
NOTE:Click or Tap on most images to bring them up full-frame for inspection.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
As with Sony’s other popular Alpha 7 and 9 series cameras, the new Alpha 7III is a full-frame mirrorless camera, a class of camera Canon and Nikon have yet to offer, though models are rumoured or promised.
In the meantime, Sony commands the full-frame mirrorless market.
As its name implies, a mirrorless camera lacks the reflex mirror of a digital single lens reflex camera that, in a DSLR, provides the light path for framing the scene though the optical viewfinder.
In a mirrorless, the camera remains in “live view” all the time, with the sensor always feeding a live image to either or both the rear LCD screen and electronic viewfinder (EVF). While you can look through and frame using the EVF as you would with a DSLR, you are looking at an electronic image from the sensor, not an optical image from the lens.
The advantage of purely electronic viewing is that the image you are previewing matches the image you’ll capture, at least for short exposures. The disadvantage is that full-time live view draws more power, with mirrorless cameras notorious for being battery hungry.
Other mirrorless advantages include:
Compact size and lighter weight, yet offering all the image quality of a full-frame DSLR.
The thinner body allows the use of lenses from any manufacturer, albeit requiring the right adapter, an additional expense.
Lenses developed natively for mirrorless models can be smaller and lighter. An example is the Laowa 15mm f/2 I used for some of the testing.
The design lends itself to video shooting, with many mirrorless cameras offering 4K as standard, while often in DSLRs only high-end models do.
More rapid-fire burst modes and quieter shutters are a plus for action and wedding photographers, though they are of limited value for astrophotography.
Points of Comparison
In testing the Sony a7III I ignored all the auto functions. Instead, I concentrated on those points I felt of most concern to astrophotographers, such as:
Effectiveness of Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR)
Quality of Raw files, such as sharpness of stars
Brightness of Live View for framing and focusing
Uniformity of sensor illumination
Compatibility for time-lapse imaging
Levels of luminance and chrominance noise were excellent and similar to – but surprisingly not better than – the Nikon D750.
The Star Eater is gone. Stars are not smoothed out in long exposures.
The Sony exhibited good – though not great – “ISO invariant” performance.
Dark frame subtraction using Long Exposure Noise Reduction removed most – but not all – hot pixels from thermal noise.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Live View was absolutely superb, though the outstanding Bright Monitoring function is as well-hidden as Sony could possibly make it.
Sensor Illumination Uniformity
The Sony showed some slight edge-of-frame shadowing from the mask in front of the sensor, as well as a weak purple amp glow.
• The a7III lacks any internal intervalometer or ability to add one via an app. But it is compatible with many external intervalometers and controllers.
• The a7III’s red sensitivity for recording H-Alpha-emitting nebulas was poor.
• It lacks the “light-frame” buffer offered by full-frame Canons that allows shooting several frames in quick succession even with LENR turned on.
The a7III offers 4K video and, at 24 frames-per-second, is full-frame. Shutter speeds can be as slow as 1/4-second, allowing real-time aurora shooting at reasonable ISO speeds.
Shooting typical 400-frame time-lapses used about 40% of the battery capacity, similar to the other DSLRs.
The Sony a7III is a superb camera for still and time-lapse nightscape shooting, and excellent for real-time aurora videos. It is good, though not great, for long-exposure deep-sky imaging.
The Sony a7III uses a sensor that is “Backside Illuminated,” a feature that promises to improve low-light performance and reduce noise.
I saw no great benefit from the BSI sensor. Noise at typical astrophoto ISO speeds – 800 to 6400 – were about equal to the four-year-old Nikon D750.
That was a bit surprising. I expected the new BSI-equipped Sony to better the Nikon by about a stop. It did not. This emphasizes just how good the Nikon D750 is.
Nevertheless, noise performance of the Sony a7III was still excellent, with both the Sony and Nikon handily outperforming the Canon 6D MkII, with its slightly smaller pixels, by about a stop in noise levels.
NOTE: I performed all Raw developing with Adobe Camera Raw v10.3. It is possible some of the artifacts I saw are due to ACR not handling the a7III’s .ARW files as well as it should. But to develop all the images from Sony, Nikon, and Canon equally for comparisons, ACR is the best choice.
Both the Sony and Nikon use sensor and signal path designs that are “ISO invariant.” As a result, images shot underexposed at slower ISOs, then boosted in exposure later in processing look identical to properly exposed high-ISO images. Well, almost.
The Sony still showed some discoloration artifacts and added noise when boosting images by +4 EV that the Nikon did not. Even with uncompressed Raws, the Sony was not quite as ISO invariant as the Nikon, though the difference shows up only under extreme push-processing of badly underexposed frames.
Plus, the Sony was far better than the Canon 6D MkII’s “ISO variant” sensor. Canon really needs to improve their sensors to keep in the game.
Compressed vs. Uncompressed
The Sony a7III offers a choice of shooting Uncompressed or Compressed Raw files. Uncompressed Raws are 47 Mb in size; Compressed Raws are 24 Mb.
In well-exposed images, I saw little difference in image quality.
But the dark shadows in underexposed nightscapes withstood shadow recovery better in the uncompressed files. Compressed files showed more noise and magenta discoloration in the shadows.
It is not clear if Sony’s compressed Raws are 12-bit vs. 14-bit for uncompressed files.
Nevertheless, for the demands of nightscape and deep-sky shooting and processing, I suggest shooting Uncompressed Raws. Use Compressed only if you plan to take lots of time-lapse frames and need to conserve memory card space on extended shoots.
Star Eater (Updated June 3, 2018)
Over the last year or so, firmware updates from Sony introduced a much-publicized penchant for Sony Alphas to “eat” stars even in Raw files, apparently due to an internal noise reduction or anti-aliasing routine users could not turn off. Stars were smoothed away along with the noise in exposures longer than 3.2 seconds in some Sony cameras (longer than 30 seconds in others).
I feel that in the a7III the Star Eater has been largely vanquished.
As the images below show, there is a very slight one-pixel-level softening that kicks in at 4 seconds and longer but it did not eat or wipe out stars. Stars are visible to the same limiting magnitude and close double stars are just as well resolved across all exposures. Indeed, at slower ISOs and longer exposures, more stars are visible.
I saw none of the extreme effects reported by others with other Sonys, where masses of faint stars disappeared or turned into multi-colored blotches.
I did not see any significant “star eating” in any long exposures even up to the 4 minutes I used for some deep-sky shots. In images taken at the same time with other cameras not accused of star eating, the Sony showed just as many faint stars as the competitors. Long exposures showed just as many stars as did short exposures.
This was true whether I was shooting compressed or uncompressed Raws, with or without Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Neither compression nor LENR invoked “star eating.”
LENR Dark frames
For elimination of hot pixels from thermal noise I prefer to use Long Exposure Noise Reduction when possible for nightscape and deep-sky images, especially on warm summer nights.
Exceptions are images taken for star trail stacking and for time-lapses, images that must be taken in quick succession, with minimal time gap between frames.
Turning on LENR did eliminate most hot pixels in long exposures, but not all. A few remained. Also, when boosting the exposure a lot in processing, the images taken with LENR on showed more shot and read noise than non-LENR frames.
The dark frame the camera was taking and subtracting was actually adding some noise, perhaps due to a temperature difference. The cause is not clear.
Sony advises that when using LENR Raw images are recorded with only 12-bit depth, not 14-bit. This might be a contributing factor. Yet frames taken with LENR on were the same 47 Mb size as normal uncompressed frames.
For those who think this is normal for LENR use, the Nikon D750 shows nothing like this – frames taken with LENR on are free of all hot pixels and do not show more shot or read noise, nor deterioration of shadow detail from lower bit depths.
However, I emphasize that the noise increase from using LENR with the Sony was visible only when severely boosting underexposed images in processing.
In most shooting situations, I found using LENR provided the overriding positive benefit of reducing hot pixels. It just needs to be better, Sony!
How evenly an image is illuminated is a common factor when testing lenses.
But astrophotography, which often requires extreme contrast boosts, reveals non-uniform illumination of the sensor itself, regardless of the optics, originating from hardware elements in front of the sensor casting shadows onto the sensor.
This is most noticeable – indeed usually only noticeable – when shooting deep-sky targets though telescopes.
With DSLRs it is the raised mirror which often casts a shadow, produced a dark vignetted band along the bottom of the frame. Its extent varies from camera model to model.
With a mirrorless camera the sensor is not set far back in a mirror box, as it is in a DSLR. As such, I would have expected a more uniformly illuminated sensor.
Instead, I saw a slight shadowing at the top and bottom edges but just at the corners. This is from a thin metal mask in front of the sensor. It intrudes into the light path ever so slightly. It shouldn’t.
This isn’t a serious flaw, and applying “flat fields” or ad hoc local adjustments would eliminate this.
However, long deep-sky exposures also exhibited a faint purple glow at the left edge, probably from heat from nearby electronics, a so-called “amp glow.” Taking a dark frame with LENR did not eliminate this, and it should, demonstrating again that for whatever reason in the a7III LENR is not as effective as it should be.
I haven’t seen amp glows in cameras (at least in the DSLRs I’ve used) for a number of years, so seeing it in the new Sony a7III was another surprise.
This would be tougher to eliminate in deep-sky images where the extreme contrast boosts we typically apply to images of nebulas and galaxies will accentuate any odd glows.
When shooting deep-sky objects, particularly red nebulas, we like a camera to have a less aggressive infrared cutoff filter, to pick up as much of the deep red Hydrogen-Alpha emission line as possible.
The Sony showed poor deep-red sensitivity, though not unlike other cameras. It was a little worse than the stock Canon 6D MkII.
This isn’t a huge detriment, as anyone who really wants to go after deep nebulosity must use a “filter-modified” camera anyway.
Canon and Nikon both offered factory modified cameras at one time, notably the Canon 60Da and Nikon D810a. Sony doesn’t have an “a” model mirrorless.
To get the most out of the Sony for deep-sky imaging you would have to have it modified by a third-party, such as Hutech, Spencers, or LifePixel though, as of this writing, none list the Sony a7III as a model they can modify.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Up to now my report on the Sony a7III hasn’t shown as glowing a performance as all the YouTube reviews would have you believe.
But Live Focus is where the a7III really stands out. I love it!
In Live View it is possible to make the image so bright you can actually see the Milky Way live on screen! Wow! This makes it so easy to frame nightscapes and deep-sky fields.
But this special “Bright Monitoring” mode is as well hidden as Sony could make it. Unless you actually read the full-length 642-page PDF manual (you have to download it), you won’t know about it. Bright Monitoring does not appear in any of the in-camera menus you can scroll through, so you won’t stumble across it.
Instead, you have to go to the Camera Settings 2 page, then select Still Image–Custom Key. In the menu options that appear you can now scroll to one called Bright Monitoring. Surprise! Assign it to one of the hardware Custom C buttons. I put it on C2, making it easy to call up when needed.
The other Live View function that works well, but also needs assigning to a C button is the Camera Settings 1 > Focus Magnifier. I put this on C1. It magnifies the Live View by 5.9x or 11.7x, allowing for precise manual focusing on a star.
Two other functions are useful for Live View:
Camera Settings 2 > Live View Display > Setting Effect ON. This allows the Live View image to reflect the camera settings in use, better simulating the actual exposure, even without Bright Monitoring on.
Camera Settings 1 > Peaking Setting. Turning this ON superimposes a shimmering effect on parts of an image judged in focus. This might be an aid, or an annoyance. Try it.
In all, the Sony provides superb, if well-hidden, Live View options that make accurately framing and focusing a nightscape or time-lapse scene a joy.
Great Features for Astrophotography
Here are some other Sony a7III features I found of value for astrophotography, and for operating the camera at night.
Tilting LCD Screen
Like the Nikon D750, the Sony’s screen tilts vertically up and down, great for use when on a telescope, or on any tripod when aimed up at the sky. As photographers age, this becomes a more essential feature!
The four C buttons can be programmed for oft-used functions, making them easy to access at night. Standard functions such as ISO and Drive Mode are easy to get at on the thumb wheel, unlike the Nikon D750 where I am forever hunting for the ISO or Focus Zoom buttons, or the Canon 6D MkII which successfully hides the Focus Zoom and Playback buttons at night.
In new models, Sony now offers the option of a final “My Menu” page which you can populate with often-used functions from the other 35 pages of menu commands!
Adaptability to Many Lenses
Using the right lens adapter (I use one from Metabones), it is possible to use lenses with mounts made for Canon, Nikon, Sigma and others. Plus there are an increasing number of lenses from third parties offered with native Sony E-mounts. This is good news, as astrophotography requires fast, high-quality lenses, and the Sony allows more choices.
Lighter Weight / Smaller Size
The compact a7III body weighs a measured 750 grams, vs. 900 grams each for the Nikon D750 and Canon 6D MkII. The lower weight can be helpful for use on lightweight telescopes, on small motion control devices, and for simply keeping weight and bulk down when traveling.
Dual Card Slots
Not essential, but having two card slots is very helpful, for backup, for handling overflows from very long time-lapse shoots, or assigning them for stills vs. movies, or Raws vs. JPGs. Only Slot 1 will work with the fastest UHS II cards that are needed for recording the highest quality 4K video.
It is possible to power the camera though the USB port (indeed that’s how you charge the battery, as no separate battery charger is supplied as standard, a deficiency). This might be useful for long shoots, though likely as not that same USB port will be needed for an intervalometer or motion control device. But if the Sony had a built-in intervalometer…!
To reduce battery drain it is possible to turn off the EVF completely – I find I never use it at night – and to turn off the LCD display when shooting, though the latter is an option you have to activate to add to the Display button’s various modes.
The downside is that when shooting is underway you get no reassuring indication anything is happening, except for a brief LED flash when an image is written to a card.
Electronic Front Curtain Shutter
Most DSLRs do not offer this, but the Sony’s option of an electronic front curtain shutter and the additional Silent Shooting mode completely eliminates vibration, useful for some high-magnification shooting through telephotos and telescopes.
What’s Missing for Astrophotography
For all the Sony’s 35 pages of Menu functions, a built-in Intervalometer isn’t one of them. While it does have a 1 frame-per-second movie mode in its “Slow-and Quick” functions, that’s not sufficient for night time-lapses, plus S&Q mode only works with HD movies, not 4K.
A built-in intervalometer is not essential, since in time-lapse shooting we often use external controllers anyway. But I find I often do use the Canon and Nikon in-camera intervalometers for simple shoots, and for cold winter aurora shoots. How tough would it be to add it, Sony?
Bulb Timer or Long Exposures
While the Sony has a Bulb setting there is no Bulb Timer as there is with the Canon. The Bulb Timer would allow setting long Bulb exposures of any length in the camera.
Instead the Sony must be used with an external Intervalometer. I use a $50 Vello unit, and it works very well. It controls the Sony through the camera’s Multi USB port.
In-Camera Image Stacking
Also missing, and present on most new Canons, are Multiple Exposure modes for in-camera stacking of exposures in a Brighten mode (for star trails) or Averaging mode (for noise smoothing).
Yes, this can all be done later in processing, but having the camera do the stacking can often be convenient, and great for beginners, as long as they understand what those functions do, or even that they exist!
When using its internal intervalometer, the Nikon D750 has an excellent Exposure Smoothing option. This does a fine job smoothing frame-to-frame flickering in time-lapses, something the Canon cannot do. Nor the Sony, as it has no intervalometer at all.
Light Frame Buffer in LENR
This feature is little known and utilized, and only Canon full-frame cameras offer it. Turn on LENR and it is possible to shoot three (with the 6D MkII) or four (with the 6D) Raw images in quick succession even with LENR turned on. The Canon 5D series also has this.
The dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera only after the series of “light frames” are taken. This is wonderful for taking a set of noise-reduced deep-sky images for later stacking. Nikons don’t have this, not even the D810a, and not Sonys.
The Sony’s buttons are not illuminated. While these might add glows to long exposure images, if they could be designed not to do that (i.e. they turn off during exposures), lit buttons would be very handy at night.
Limited Touch Screen Functions
An alternative would be an LCD screen that was touch sensitive. The Sony a7III’s screen is, but only to select an area for auto focus or zooming up an image in playback. The Canon 6D MkII has a fully functional touch screen which can be, quite literally, handy at night.
Here’s another area where the new Sony a7III really shines.
It offers 4K (or more precisely UltraHD) video recording for videos of 3840 x 2160 pixels. (True 4K is actually 4096 x 2160 pixels.)
With a fast enough UHS-II Class card it can record 4K video up to 30 frames per second and at a bit rate of either 60 or 100 Mbps.
At 24 fps videos are full-frame with no cropping. Hurray! You can take full advantage of wide-angle lenses, great for auroras. At 30 fps, 4K videos are cropped with a 1.2x crop factor.
In Movie Mode ISO speeds go up to ISO 102,400, but are pretty noisy, if unusable at such speeds.
But when shooting aurora videos I found, to my surprise, I could “drag” the shutter speeds as slow as 1/4-second, fully 4 stops better than the Nikon’s slowest shutter speed of 1/60 second in Full HD, and 3 stops better than the Canon’s slowest movie shutter of 1/30 second.
Coupled with a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens, the slow shutter speed allows real-time aurora shooting at “only” ISO 6400 to 12,800, for quite acceptable levels of noise. I am very impressed!
Real-time video of auroras is not possible with anything like this quality with the Nikon (I’ve used it often), and absolutely not with the Canon. And neither are 4K.
Is the a7III as good for low-light video as the Sony a7s models, with their larger 8.5-micron pixels?
I would assume not, but not having an a7s (either Mark I or II) to test I can’t say for sure. But the a7III should do the job for bright auroras, the ones with rapid motion worth recording with video, plus offer 24 megapixels for high-quality stills of all sky subjects.
I think it’s a great camera for both astrophoto stills and video.
An example is in a 4K video I shot on May 6, 2018 of an usual aurora known as “STEVE.”
Steve Aurora – May 6, 2018 (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
For another example of using the Sony a7III for recording real-time video of the night sky see this example of the Space Station crossing the sky.
Lilac Passages of the ISS (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I found the a7III would use up about about 40% of the battery capacity in a typical 400-frame time-lapse on mild spring nights, with 30-second exposures. This is with the EVF and rear LCD Display OFF, and the camera in Airplane mode to turn off wireless functions to further conserve battery power. I was using the wired Vello intervalometer.
This is excellent performance on par with the DSLRs I use. At last, we have a mirrorless camera that not only doesn’t eat stars, it also does not eat batteries!
One battery can get you through a night of shooting, though performance will inevitably decline in winter, as with all cameras.
Lens and Telescope Compatibility
As versatile as a mirrorless camera is for lens choice, making use of that versatility requires buying the right lens adapter(s). They can cost anywhere from $100 to $400. The lowest cost units just adapt the lens mechanically; the more costly units also transfer lens data and allow auto focusing with varying degrees of compatibility.
For use on telescopes, the simple adapters will be sufficient, and necessary as many telescope-to-camera adapters and field flatteners are optimized for the longer lens flange-to-sensor distance of a DSLR. Even if you could get a mirrorless camera to focus without a lens adapter to add the extra spacing, the image quality across the field might be compromised on many telescopes.
I used the Metabones Canon-to-Sony adapter when attaching the Sony to my telescopes using my existing Canon telescope adapters. Image quality was just fine.
Time-Lapse Controller Compatibility
Due to limitations set by Sony, controlling one of their cameras with an external controller can be problematic.
Devices that trigger only the shutter should be fine. That includes simple intervalometers like the Vello, the Syrp Genie Mini panning unit, and the Dynamic Perception and Rhino sliders, to name devices I use. However, all will need the right camera control cable, available from suppliers like B&H.
And, as I found, the Sony might need to be placed into Continuous shooting mode to have the shutter fire with every trigger pulse from the motion controller. When used with the Genie Mini (below) the Sony fired at only every other pulse if it was in Single shot mode, an oddity of Sony’s firmware.
Some time-lapse controllers are able to connect to a camera through its USB port and then adjust the ISO and aperture as well, for ramped “holy grail” sunset-to-Milky Way sequences.
In conclusion, here’s my summary recommendations for the three competitive cameras, rating them from Poor, to Fair, to Good, to Excellent.
SONY: I deducted marks from the Sony a7III for deep-sky imaging for its lack of a light frame buffer, poor red sensitivity, odd LENR performance, and amp glow not seen on the other cameras and that dark frames did not eliminate.
However, I did not consider “star eating” to be a negative factor, as the Sony showed just as many stars and as well-resolved as did the competitors, and what more could you ask for?
I rate the Sony excellent for nightscape imaging and for real-time aurora videos. I list it as just “good” for time-lapse work only because it will not be fully compatible with some motion controllers and rampers. So beware!
NIKON: I deducted points for real-time video of auroras – the D750 can do them but is pretty noisy with the high ISOs needed. Its red sensitivity is not bad, but its lack of a light frame buffer results a less productive imaging cycle when using LENR on deep-sky shooting.
I know … people shoot dark frames separately for subtracting later in processing. However, I’ve found these post-shoot darks rarely work well, as the dark frames are not at the same temperature as the light frames, and often add noise or dark holes.
CANON: The 6D MkII’s lack of an ISO invariant sensor rears its ugly head in underexposed shadows in dark-sky nightscapes. I like its image stacking options, which can help alleviate the noise and artifacts in still images, but aren’t practical for time-lapses. Thus my Good rating for nightscapes but Fair rating for time-lapses. (See my test at https://amazingsky.net/2017/08/09/testing-the-canon-6d-mark-ii-for-nightscapes/)
While the 6D MkII has HD video, it is incapable of any low-light video work.
And its light-frame buffer is great for minimizing shooting time for a series of deep-sky images with in-camera LENR dark frames, which I find are the best for minimizing thermal noise. Give me a Canon full-frame any day for prime-focus deep-sky shooting.
It’s just a pity the 6D MkII has only a 3-frame buffer when using LENR. Really Canon? The 2008-vintage 5D MkII had a 5-frame buffer! Your cameras are getting worse for astrophotography while Sony’s are getting better.
CANON 6D Mk II
Real-Time Video (Auroras)
Wide-field Deep Sky
Telescopic Deep Sky
I trust you’ll find the review of value. Thanks for reading!
ADDENDUM as of JUNE 6, 2018
Since publishing the first results a number of people commented with suggestions for further testing, to check claims that:
The Sony would perform better for noise under dark sky conditions, at high ISOs, rather than the moonlit scene above. OK, let’s try that.
The Sony would perform better in an ISO Invariancy “face-off” if its ISOs were kept above 640, to keep all the images within the Sony’s upper ISO range of its dual-gain sensor design, with two ranges (100 to 400, and 640 on up). Fair enough.
What little “star-eater” effect I saw might be mitigated by shooting on Continuous drive mode or by firing the shutter with an external timer. That’s worth a check, too.
For the additional tests, I shot all images within a 3-hour span on the night of June 5/6, using the Sony a7III, Nikon D750, and Canon 6D MkII, with the respective lenses: the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, the Sigma 14mm Art at f/2, and the Rokinon 14mm SP at f/2.5.
The cameras were on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker to keep stars pinpoints, though the ground blurred in the longer exposures.
DARK SKY NOISE TEST
I show only the Sony and Nikon compared here, shot at the common range of ISOs used for nightscape shooting, 800 to 12800. All images are equally well exposed. The inset image at right in Photoshop shows the scene, the Milky Way above dark trees in my backyard!
To the eye, the Sony and Nikon look very similar for noise levels, just as in the moonlit scene. Both are very good – indeed, among the best performing cameras for high-ISO noise levels. But the Sony, being four years newer than the Nikon, is not better.
BUT … what the Sony did exhibit was better details in the shadows than the Nikon.
And this was with equal processing and no application of Shadow Recovery. This is where the Sony’s Backside Illuminated sensor with presumably higher quantum efficiency in gathering photons might be providing the advantage. With its good shadow details, you have to apply less shadow recovery in post-processing, which does keep noise down. So points to Sony here.
I did put all the high ISO images through the classic noise reduction program Noise Ninja to measure total Luminance and Chrominance noise, and included the Canon 6D MkII’s images.
The resulting values and graph show the Sony actually measured worse for noise than the Nikon at each high ISO speed, 3200 to 12800, though with both performing much better than the Canon.
The higher noise of the Canon is visually obvious, but I’d say the Sony a7III and Nikon D750 are pretty equal visually for noise, despite the numbers.
DARK SKY ISO INVARIANCY
Again, here I show only the Sony and Nikon, the two “ISO invariant” cameras. The correct exposure for the scene was 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2. The images shown here were shot at lower ISOs to underexposure the dark scene by 2 to 4 stops or EV. Those underexposed images were then boosted later in processing (in Adobe Camera Raw) by the required Exposure Value to equalize the image brightness.
Contrary to expectations, the Sony did not show any great loss in image quality as it crossed the ISO 640 boundary into its lower ISO range. But the Nikon did show more image artifacts in the “odd-numbered” ISOs of 640 and 500. In this test, the Nikon did not perform as well as the Sony for ISO invariancy. Go figure!
Again, the differences are in images vastly underexposed. And both cameras performed much better than the ISO “variant” Canon in this test.
STAR EATER REVISITED
I shot images over a wide-range of exposures, from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, but show only the ones covering the 2-second to 4-second range, where the “star-eater” anti-aliasing or noise smoothing applied by Sony kicks in (above 3.2 seconds it seems).
I shot with the Sony a7III on Single shot drive mode, on Continuous Low drive mode (with the camera controlling the shutter speed in both cases), and a set with the Sony on Bulb and the shutter speed set by an external Vello intervalometer.
This is really pixel peeping at 400%. In Single drive mode, stars and noise soften ever so slightly at 4 seconds and higher. In Continuous mode, I think the effect is still there but maybe a little less. In shots on Bulb controlled by the External Timer, maybe the stars at 4 seconds are a little sharper still. But this is a tough call. To me, the star eater effect on the Sony a7III is a non-issue. It may be more serious on other Sony alphas.
DE-BAYERING STAR ARTIFACTS
An issue that, to me, has a more serious effect on star quality is the propensity of the Sony, and to some extent the Nikon, to render tiny stars as brightly colored points, unrealistically so. In particular, many stars look green, from the dominance of green-filtered photosites on Bayer-array sensors.
Here I compare all three cameras for this effect in two-minute tracked exposures taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (i.e. in-camera dark frame subtraction) off and on.
The Sony shows a lot of green stars with or without LENR. The Nikon seems to discolor stars only when LENR is applied. Why would that be? The Canon is free of any such issue – stars are naturally colored whether LENR dark frames are applied or not.
This is all with Raws developed with Adobe Camera Raw.
When opening the same Raws in other programs (ON1 Photo RAW, Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, and Raw Therapee) the results can be quite different, with stars often rendered with fringes of hot, colored pixels. Or rendered with little or no color at all. Raw Therapee offers a choice of de-Bayering, or “de-mosaic,” routines, and each produces different looking stars, and none look great! Certainly not as good as the Canon rendered with Camera Raw.
What’s going on here is a mystery – it’s a combination of the cameras’ unique Raw file formats and the de-Bayering routines of all the many Raw developers wrestling with the task of rendering stars that occupy only a few pixels. It’s unfair to blame just the hardware or the software.
But this test re-emphasized my thoughts that Canon DSLRs remain the best for long-exposure deep-sky imaging where you can give images as much exposure time as they need, while the ISO invariant Sony and Nikons exceed at nightscape shooting where exposures are often limited and plagued by dark shadows and noise.
I present a short video, in 4K, of two video clips of the International Space Station in two successive passages across the sky on May 24/25, 2018.
The location was my backyard in southern Alberta.
The clips were shot in 4K in real-time video at 24 frames per second but with a 1/4-second shutter speed with a Sony a7III camera, and with 15mm full-frame fish-eye (first clip) and 8mm circular fish-eye lenses. ISO speeds were 6400 and 16,000.
The clips are sped up by 2x and 4X in post-production to make a shorter video for the web. The background sounds of the night are real-time and were recorded live with the videos.
What I cannot capture is the smell!
The lilacs were in bloom and lent a wonderful fragrant scent to the night air, which added to the sights and sounds of a spring night.
Thus the title of the video.
Much of North America is now enjoying great passes of the ISS. To find out when you can see it from your backyard see NASA’s Spot the Station website and enter your location.
Prospects looked bleak for seeing the January 31 total eclipse of the Moon. A little planning, a chase, and a lot of luck made it possible.
A mid-winter eclipse doesn’t bode well. Especially one in the cold dawn hours. Skies could be cloudy. Or, if they are clear, temperatures could be -25° C.
I managed to pull this one off, not just seeing the eclipse of the Moon, but getting a few photos.
The secret was in planning, using some helpful apps …
Because this eclipse was occurring before dawn for western North America the eclipsed Moon was going to be in the west, setting.
To plan any shoot the first app I turn to is the desktop planetarium program Starry Night™.
Shown above, the program simulates the eclipse with the correct timing, accurate appearance, and location in the sky at your site. You can set up indicators for the fields of various lenses, to help you pick a lens. The yellow box shows the field of view of a 50mm lens on my full-frame camera, essential information for framing the scene.
With that information in mind, the plan was to shoot the Moon over the Rocky Mountains, which lie along the western border of Alberta.
The original plan was a site in Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway looking west toward the peaks of the Divide.
But then the next critical information was the weather.
Not good! Home on the prairies was not an option. While Banff looked OK, the best prospects were from farther south in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta, as marked. So a chase was in order, involving a half-day drive south.
But what actual site was going to be useful? Where could I set up for the shot I wanted?
I needed a spot off a main highway but drivable to, and with no trees in the way. I did not know the area, but Allison Road looked like a possibility.
The TPE app shows the direction to the Sun and Moon to help plan images by day. And in its night mode it can show where the Milky Way is. Here, the thin blue line is showing the direction to the Moon during totality, showing it to the south of Mt. Tecumseh. I wanted the Moon over the mountains, but not behind a mountain!
With a possible site picked out, it was time to take a virtual drive with Google Earth.
The background map TPE uses is from Google Earth. But the actual Google Earth app also offers the option of a Street View for many locations.
Above is its view from along Allison Road, on the nice summer day when the Google camera car made the drive. But at least this confirms there are no obstructions or ugly elements to spoil the scene, or trees to block the view.
But there’s nothing like being there to be sure. It looks a little different in winter!
After driving down to the Crowsnest Pass the morning before, the first order of the day upon arrival was to go to the site before it got dark, to see if it was usable.
I used the mobile app Theodolite to take images (above) that superimpose the altitude and azimuth (direction) where the camera was aimed. It confirms the direction where the Moon will be is in open sky to the left of Tecumseh peak. And the on-site inspection shows I can park there!
There is one more new and very powerful app that provides another level of planning. From The Photographer’s Ephemeris, you can hand off your position to a companion mobile app (for iOS only) called TPE 3D …
It provides elevation maps and places you on site, with the actual skyline around you drawn in. And with the Moon and stars in the sky at their correct positions.
While it doesn’t simulate the actual eclipse, it sure shows an accurate sky … and what you’ll frame with your lens with the actual skyline in place.
Compare the simulation, above, to the real thing, below:
Zooming out with TPE 3D provides this preview of a panorama I hoped to take.
It shows Cassiopeia (the W of stars at right) over the iconic Crowsnest Mountain, and the stars of Gemini setting to the right of Tecumseh.
Here’s the real thing, in an even wider 180° view sweeping from south to north. Again, just as predicted!
Between the weather predictions – which proved spot on – and the geographical and astronomical planning apps – which were deadly accurate – we now have incredible tools to make it easier to plan the shot.
If only we could control the clouds! As it was, the Moon was in and out of clouds throughout the 70 minutes of totality. But I was happy to just get a look, let alone a photo.
The next total lunar eclipse is in six months, on July 27, 2018, but in an event visible only from the eastern hemisphere.
The next TLE for North America is a more convenient evening event on January 20, 2019. That will be another winter eclipse requiring careful planning!
On a very clear night, Orion shines over the skyline of Calgary.
As I live in the country, it’s not often I shoot the stars from urban sites, and certainly not from downtown Calgary. But the combination of a clear night and a speaking commitment in Calgary provided a chance to see what was possible under ideal conditions.
The lead image is real – I did not paste an image of the sky taken at some other time or place over the skyline image.
However, the sky image is a longer exposure (10 seconds) than the ground (3 seconds) in order to bring out the stars better, while keeping the city lights under control with no overexposure. So it is sort of a high dynamic range blend.
The other factor that helped reveal stars as faint as shown here (fainter than what the naked eye can see) is the use of a light pollution reduction filter (a NISI Natural Night filter) to penetrate the yellow sky glow and provide a more pleasing colour to the sky.
Earlier in the night, during twilight when urban light pollution is not so much of an issue, I shot the waxing crescent Moon setting over the skyline.
This is a panorama image made from high dynamic range blends of various exposures, to again accommodate the large range in brightness in the scene. But I did not use the NISI filter here.
These images demonstrate how you can get fine astronomy images even from urban sites, with planning and timing.
To that end, I used my favourite app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to determine where the sky elements would be as seen from a couple of viewpoints over the city that I’ve used in the past.
The blue spheres in the left image of TPE in its Night mode represent the Milky Way. That chart also shows the direction toward Orion over the city core.
The right image of TPE in its Day mode shows the position of the Moon at 6 pm that evening, again showing it to the left of the urban core.
Other apps are capable of providing the same information, but I like TPE for its ease of use.
The first total lunar eclipse in 2.5 years provides lots of opportunities for some great photos.
On the morning of January 31, before sunrise for North America, the Full Moon passes through the umbral shadow of the Earth, creating the first total eclipse of the Moon since September 27, 2015.
The pre-dawn event provides many photo opportunities. Here’s my summary of tips and techniques for capturing the eclipsed Moon.
But First … What is a Lunar Eclipse?
As the animation (courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center) shows, an eclipse of the Moon occurs when the Full Moon (and they can happen only when the Moon is exactly full) travels through the shadow of the Earth.
The Moon does so at least two times a year, though often not as a total eclipse, one where the entire disk of the Moon is engulfed by the umbra.
When the Moon is within only the outer penumbral shadow we see very little effect, with a barely perceptible darkening of the Moon, if that. I don’t even list the times below for the start and end of the penumbral phases.
It’s only when the Moon begins to enter the central umbral shadow that we see an obvious effect. That’s when the partial eclipse begins, and we see a dark bite appear on the left edge of the Moon. The shadow appears to creep across the Moon to darken more of its disk. While it looks like the shadow is moving across the Moon, it is really the Moon moving into, then out of, the umbral shadow that causes the eclipse.
At this eclipse the partial phases last about an hour before and after totality.
Once the Moon is completely immersed in the umbra, totality begins, and lasts 77 minutes at this eclipse, a generous length. However, in North America, only sites in the western half of the continent get to see all or most of totality.
Where is the Eclipse?
As the chart above shows, the Pacific area including Hawaii, Australia, and eastern Asia can see the entire eclipse with the Moon high in the evening or midnight sky.
Most of North America (my tips are aimed at North American photographers) can see at least some part of this eclipse.
From the eastern half of the continent the Moon sets at sunrise during either totality (from the central areas of North America), or during the first partial phases (from eastern North America). Those in the east can take advantage of interesting photo opportunities by capturing the partially eclipsed Moon setting in the west in the dawn twilight.
However, the most dramatic images of a deep red Moon in the western sky, such as above, will be possible only from the west. And even then, the further north and west you live, the better your view.
Even from the southwestern United States the Moon sets just after the end of totality, requiring a site with a low and clear horizon to the west in order to see the whole event.
I live in Alberta, Canada, and the diagrams I provide here are for my area, where the Moon sets during the final partial phase. I offer them as examples of the kinds of planning you can do to ensure great photos. But exactly where the Moon will be during totality, and where and when it will set on your horizon, will depend on your location.
The latter two apps present the sightlines toward the Moon overlaid on a map of your location, to help you plan where to be to shoot the eclipsed Moon setting behind a suitable foreground.
When is the Eclipse?
While where the Moon is in your sky depends on your site, the various eclipse events happen at the same time for everyone, with differences in hour due only to the time zone you are in.
Here are the times for the start and end of the partial and total phases.
Note that all times are A.M., in the early morning, before sunrise, on January 31. Go out at 6 P.M. on the evening of January 31 and you’ll be 12 hours too late. You missed it!
All times are A.M. on January 31. “—“ means the event is not visible; the Moon has set.
The time of moonset at your site will vary with your location. Use planning apps to calculate your local moonset time.
Picking a Site
No matter where you are in North America you want a site with a good view to the west and northwest, preferably with a clear view of a relatively unobstructed but photogenic horizon.
While having an eclipse occur at dawn (or at dusk) does limit the amount of eclipse we can see, it has the benefit of providing many more photo opportunities of the eclipsed Moon above a scenic landscape or foreground element.
From eastern North America you will have to be content with images of the partially eclipsed Moon setting, similar to the image above of a rising partially-eclipsed Moon.
From the centre of the continent, where the Moon sets during totality, the dim, reddened Moon is likely to disappear into the brightening sky. Remember, when the Moon is full it sets just as the Sun rises. So shots of a red Moon right on the horizon aren’t likely to be possible. The Moon will be too dim and the sky too bright.
From sites in the west, the Moon will set either just at the end of totality or shortly afterwards, making the Moon brighter and more obvious in the sunrise sky, as the foreground in the west lights up with red light from the Sun rising in the east.
It is that same red sunlight filtered by our atmosphere that continues on into our planet’s shadow and lights the Moon red during totality.
Picking a Technique
Lunar eclipses lend themselves to a wide range of techniques, from a simple camera on a tripod, to a telescope on a tracking mount following the sky.
What you use depends not only on the gear you have on hand, but also on your site. It might not be practical to set up loads of gear at a scenic site you have to trek into — especially when you have to set up in the wee hours of a cold winter morning.
You could set up earlier that night on January 30, but only if your site is safe enough to leave the gear unattended while you sleep.
Keep it simple!
Option 1: Simple Camera-on-Tripod
The easiest method is to take single shots with a moderate wide-angle or normal lens with the camera on a fixed tripod. No fancy trackers are needed here.
If the sky is bright with twilight, you might be able to meter the scene and use Auto exposure.
But earlier in the night, with the Moon in a darker sky, as I show above, use Manual exposure and try settings of 1 to 10 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 at ISO 400 to 1600. That’s a wide range, to be sure, but it will vary a lot depending on when you shoot and where you are, factors that will affect how bright the sky is at your site. Just shoot, check, and adjust.
Option 2: Advanced Camera-on-Tripod
A more advanced method is to compose the scene so the lens frames the entire path of the Moon from the start of the partial eclipse until moonset.
As shown above, that will take at least a 35mm lens on a full frame camera, or 20mm lens on a cropped frame camera.
Take exposures every 15 to 30 seconds if you want to turn the set into a time-lapse movie. But a still-image composite with the lunar disks well separated will need shots only every 5 to 10 minutes.
Such a composite takes good planning and proper exposures to pull off, but will be true to the scene, with the lunar disk and its motion shown to the correct scale as it was in the sky. That’s in stark contrast to the flurry of ugly “faked” composites that will appear on the web by the end of February 1, ones with huge telephoto Moons pasted willy-nilly onto a wide-angle sky. Don’t do it!
Exposures for any lunar eclipse are tricky, whether you are shooting closeups or wide-angles, because the Moon and sky change so much in brightness.
For wide-angle composites, you can expose just for the bright lunar disk and let the sky go dark. Exposures for just the Moon will range from very short (about 1/500th second at ISO 100) for the partials, to 1 to 2 seconds at ISO 400 for the totals, then shorter again (1/15 to 1/2 second at ISO 400) for the end shots in twilight when the Moon and sky may be similar in brightness. That’ll take constant monitoring and adjusting throughout the shoot.
As I did below, you’d then composite and layer the well-exposed disks into another background image exposed longer for the sky, likely shot in twilight. To maintain the correct relative locations of the lunar disks and foreground, the camera cannot move.
That technique works best if it’s just a still image you are after, such as below.
The above image is a composite of the April 4, 2015 total lunar eclipse from Monument Valley, Utah. That eclipse occurred under similar circumstances as this month’s eclipse, with the eclipse underway as the Moon set in the west at sunrise.
By comparison, the composite here is made of a few selected frames out of hundreds I took at 15-second intervals, and with each frame exposed for the sky, for use in a time-lapse movie. In this case, the Moon became overexposed at the end as it emerged from the umbra.
Indeed, if it’s a time-lapse movie you want (see the video linked to below), then each frame will have to be exposed well enough to show the sky and landscape.
While this method will overexpose the partially-eclipsed Moon, the Moon will darken and become better exposed throughout totality when the same long exposure for the reddened Moon might also work for the sky, to pick up stars. Exposures will have to shorten again as the sky brightens with twilight.
Again, constant baby-sitting and adjusting the camera will be needed. So if it’s cold where you are prepare for a frigid multi-hour shoot. I doubt you’ll be able to leave the camera on Auto exposure to run on its own, not until at least bright twilight begins.
Option 3: Telephoto Close-Ups
The Moon is surprisingly small (only 1/2-degree across) and needs a lot of focal length to do it justice.
For an “in-your-face” close-up of the eclipse you’ll need a 300mm to 800mm (!) lens. Unfortunately, the Moon and sky are moving and any exposures over 1 to 2 seconds (required during totality) will blur the Moon badly if its disk is large on the frame.
If you don’t have a tracking mount, one solution is to keep the Moon’s disk small (using no more than a fast f/2.8 200mm lens) and exposures short by using a high ISO speed.
Or plan to shoot with a telephoto only when the Moon is low in the sky, as I did above, when you can include the horizon which you would want to be sharp anyway. Framing the Moon and horizon won’t need a super telephoto.
The sky will then also be brighter and require short exposures that don’t need to be tracked. However, how bright and obvious the Moon will be will again depend on your location. This may or may not be a practical option, certainly not if the Moon is setting during mid-totality where you are.
Option 4: Tracked Telescopic Close-Ups
If you have a mount that can be polar aligned to track the sky, then more options are open to you.
You can use a telescope mount or one of the compact and portable trackers, such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron Sky Tracker units. While these latter units work great, you are best to keep the payload weight down and your lens size under 300mm.
That’s just fine for this eclipse, as you really don’t need a frame-filling Moon. The reason is that the Moon will appear about 4 degrees away from the bright star cluster called the Beehive, or Messier 44, in Cancer. As shown above, a 200mm to 300mm lens will frame this unique pairing well.
Even so, exposures to show the cluster properly might have to be long enough that the Moon overexposes, even at mid-totality. If so, take different exposures for the Moon and stars and composite them later, as I did below.
If you do want to shoot with more focal length, a monster telephoto lens will work, but a small telescope such as an 80mm aperture f/6 to f/7 refractor will provide enough focal length and image size at much lower cost. But either way, the lens or telescope should be mounted on a solid equatorial telescope mount, and polar aligned to track the sky.
For the sharpest lunar disks, use the Lunar tracking rate.
Exposures will vary from as short as 1/500th second at ISO 100 to 200 for the barely eclipsed Moon, to 4 to 16 seconds at f/6 to f/8 and at ISO 400 to 1600 for the Moon at mid-totality.
As I did above, during the deep partial phases shoot both long exposures for the red umbra and short exposures for the bright part of the Moon not yet in the umbra. Merge those later with High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques and software, or with luminosity masks.
Even if you’re not sure how to do this now, shoot all the required exposures anyway so you’ll have them when your processing skills improve.
Option 5: Time-Lapse Close-Ups
With a tracking telescope you could fire shots every 30 seconds or so, and then assemble them into a time-lapse movie.
But as with wide-angle time-lapses, that will take constant attention to gradually and smoothly shift exposures, ideally by 1/3rd-stop increments every few shots during the partial and total phases.
If you track at the lunar rate, as I did in the still image below and in the music video linked to at bottom, the Moon will stay centred while it drifts though the stars.
Track at the sidereal rate and the stars will stay more or less fixed while the Moon drifts through the frame from right to left (west to east). But that takes even more careful planning to position the Moon correctly at the start of the sequence so it remains “in frame” for the duration of the eclipse and ends up where you want at the end, which will occur with the Moon low in a bright sky.
Again, planetarium software such as Starry Night, which can be set to display a camera frame, is essential to plan the shoot.
Either way, do take care to accurately polar align your mount, or you’ll be confronted with the monumental task of having to manually align hundreds of images later. Trust me, I know!
I would consider the telescopic time-lapse method the most challenging of techniques.
Considering the hour of the night and the likely cold temperatures, your best plan might be to keep it simple. It’s what I plan to do. I’ll be happy to get a few good wide-angle still images, and perhaps a tracked telephoto close-up of the Moon and Beehive as a bonus.
While there is another total lunar eclipse (TLE) in six months on July 27/28, it is not visible at all from North America.
Our next TLE occurs 12 Full Moons, or one lunar year from now, on the night of January 20/21, 2019, when all of North America gets to watch totality at a more reasonable hour, though perhaps not at a more reasonable temperature.
I leave you with a music video of the last TLE, on September 27, 2015 that incorporates still and time-lapse sequences shot using all of the above methods.
To Adobe or not to Adobe. That is the question many photographers are asking with the spate of new image processing programs vying to “kill Photoshop.”
I tested more than ten contenders as alternatives to Adobe’s image processing software, evaluating them ONLY for the specialized task of editing demanding nightscape images taken under the Milky Way, both for single still images and for time-lapses of the moving sky. I did not test these programs for other more “normal” types of images.
Also, please keep in mind, I am a Mac user and tested only programs available for MacOS, though many are also available for Windows. I’ve indicated these.
But I did not test any Windows-only programs. So sorry, fans of Paintshop Pro (though see my note at the end), Photoline, Picture Window Pro, or Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. They’re not here. Even so, I think you will find there’s plenty to pick from!
If you are hoping there’s a clear winner in the battle against Adobe, one program I can say does it all and for less cost and commitment, I didn’t find one.
However, a number of contenders offer excellent features and might replace at least one member of Adobe’s image processing suite.
For example, only four of these programs can truly serve as a layer-based editing program replacing Photoshop.
The others are better described as Adobe Lightroom competitors – programs that can catalog image libraries and develop raw image files, with some offering adjustment layers for correcting color, contrast, etc. But as with Lightroom, layering of images – to stack, composite, and mask them – is beyond their ability.
For processing time-lapse sequences, however, we don’t need, nor can we use, the ability to layer and mask several images into one composite.
What we need for time-lapses is to:
Develop a single key raw file, then …
Copy its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie.
Even so, not all these contenders are up to the task.
Here are the image processing programs I looked at. Costs are in U.S. dollars. Most have free trial copies available.
The Champion from Adobe
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom, the standards to measure others by
Cost: $10 a month by subscription, includes ACR, Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development plug-in that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application that accompanies Photoshop. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and raw processing software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results.
Photoshop and Lightroom complement each other and are now available together, but only by monthly subscription through Adobe’s Creative Cloud service, at $10/month. Though $120 for a year is not far off the cost of purchasing many of these other programs and perhaps upgrading them annually, many photographers prefer to purchase their software and not subscribe to it.
Thus the popularity of these alternative programs. Most offered major updates in late 2017.
My question is, how well do they work? Are any serious contenders to replace Photoshop or Lightroom?
Lightroom Contenders: Five Raw Developers
ACDSee Photo Studio (current as of late 2017)
Cost: $60 to $100, depending on version, upgrades $40 to $60.
I tested the single MacOS version. Windows users have a choice of either a Standard or Professional version. Only the Pro version offers the full suite of raw development features, in addition to cataloging functions. The MacOS version resembles the Windows Pro version.
Capture One v11 (late 2017 release)
Cost: $299, and $120 for major upgrades, or by subscription for $180/year
As of version 11 this powerful raw developer and cataloguing program offers “Layers.” But these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of an image. You cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one indeed.
The ELITE version of what DxO now calls “PhotoLab” offers DxO’s superb PRIME noise reduction and excellent ClearView contrast enhancement feature. While it has an image browser, PhotoLab does not create a catalog, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement, but it is a superb raw developer. DxO also recently acquired the excellent Nik Collection of image processing plug-ins, so we can expect some interesting additions and features.
This free open source program has been created and is supported by a loyal community of programmers. It offers a bewildering blizzard of panels and controls, among them the ability to apply dark frames and flat field images, features unique among any raw developer and aimed specifically at astrophotographers. Yes, it’s free, but the learning curve is precipitous.
Photoshop Contenders: Four Raw Developers with Layering/Compositing
These programs can not only develop at least single raw images, if not many, but also offer some degree of image layering, compositing, and masking like Photoshop.
However, only ON1 Photo RAW can do that and also catalog/browse images as Lightroom can. Neither Affinity, Luminar, or Pixelmator offer a library catalog like Lightroom, nor even a file browsing function such as Adobe Bridge, serious deficiencies I feel.
This is the lowest cost raw developer and layer-based program on offer here, and has some impressive features, such as stacking images, HDR blending, and panorama stitching. However, it lacks any library or cataloguing function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement, but it could replace Photoshop.
Macphun has changed their name to Skylum and now makes their fine Luminar program for both Mac and Windows. While adding special effects is its forte, Luminar does work well both as a raw developer and layer-based editor. But like Affinity, it has no cataloguing feature. It cannot replace Lightroom.
Of all the contenders tested here, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 has cataloguing, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In fact, ON1 allows you to migrate your Lightroom catalog into its format. However, ON1’s cost to buy and maintain is similar to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photo subscription plan. It’s just that ON1’s license is “perpetual.”
NOTE: Windows users might find Corel’s Paintshop Pro 2018 a good “do-it-all” solution – I tested only Corel’s raw developer program Aftershot Pro, which Paintshop Pro uses.
The “Pro” version of Pixelmator was introduced in November 2017. It has an innovative interface and many fine features, and it allows layering and masking of multiple images. However, it lacks some of the key functions (listed below) needed for nightscape and time-lapse work. Touted as a Photoshop replacement, it isn’t there yet.
This is the image I threw at all the programs, a 2-minute exposure of the Milky Way taken at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in late July 2017.
NOTE: Click/tap on any of the screen shots to bring them up full screen so you can inspect and save them.
The lens was the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and the camera the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.
Thus the ground is blurred. Keep that in mind, as it will always look fuzzy in the comparison images. But it does show up noise well, including hot pixels. This image of the sky is designed to be composited with one taken without the tracker turning, to keep the ground sharp.
Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, HSL, Lens Corrections, and Effects tabs. Plus I added a “local adjustment” gradient to darken the sky at the top of the frame. I judged programs on how well they could match or beat this result.
Above is the same image developed in Adobe Lightroom, to demonstrate how it can achieve identical results to Camera Raw, because at heart it is Camera Raw.
I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files from the camera, not JPGs, for high-quality results.
And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, before it goes to Photoshop or some other bit-mapped editor. That’s an essential workflow for time-lapse shooting, if not still-image nightscapes.
However, I made no attempt to evaluate all these programs for a wide range of photo applications. That would be a monumental task!
Nor, in the few programs capable of the task, did I test image layering. My focus was on developing a raw image. As such, I did not test the popular free program GIMP, as it does not open raw files. GIMP users must turn to one of the raw developers here as a first stage.
If you are curious how a program might perform for your purposes and on your photos, then why not test drive a trial copy?
Instead, my focus was on these programs’ abilities to produce great looking results when processing one type of image: my typical Milky Way nightscape, below.
Such an image is a challenge because…
The subject is inherently low in contrast, with the sky often much brighter than the ground. The sky needs much more contrast applied, but without blocking up the shadows in the ground.
The sky is often plagued by off-color tints from artificial and natural sky glows.
The ground is dark, perhaps lit only by starlight. Bringing out landscape details requires excellent shadow recovery.
Key to success is superb noise reduction. Images are shot at high ISOs and are rife with noise in the shadows. We need to reduce noise without losing stars or sharpness in the landscape.
I focused on being able to make one image look as good as possible as a raw file, before bringing it into Photoshop or a layer-based editor – though that’s where it will usually end up, for stacking and compositing, as per the final result shown at the end.
I then looked at each program’s ability to transfer that one key image’s settings over to what could be hundreds of other images taken that night, either for stacking into star trails or for assembling into a time-lapse movie.
None of the programs I tested ticked all the boxes in providing all the functions and image quality of the Adobe products.
But here’s a summary of my recommendations:
For Advanced Time-Lapse
None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing. LRTimelapse works with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge to gradually shift processing settings over a sequence, and smooth annoying image flickering.
If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will work. Period. Subscribe to Creative Cloud. And buy LRTimelapse.
For Basic Time-Lapse
However, for less-demanding time-lapse shooting, when the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, then I feel the best non-Adobe choices are, in alphabetical order:
Corel Aftershot Pro
ON1 Photo RAW
… With, in my opinion, DxO and Capture One having the edge for image quality and features. But all five have a Library or Browser mode with easy-to-use Copy & Paste and Batch Export functions needed for time-lapse preparation.
Also worth a try is PhotoDirector9 (MacOS and Windows), a good Lightroom replacement. Scroll to the end for more details and a link.
For Still Image Nightscapes
If you are processing just individual still images, perhaps needing only to stack or composite a few exposures, and want to do all the raw development and subsequent layering of images within one non-Adobe program, then look at (again alphabetically):
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
… With Affinity Photo having the edge in offering a readily-available function off its File menu for stacking images, either for noise smoothing (Mean) or creating star trails (Maximum).
However, I found its raw development module did not produce as good a result as most competitors due to Affinity’s poorer noise reduction and less effective shadow and highlight controls. Using Affinity’s “Develop Persona” module, I could not make my test image look as good as with other programs.
Luminar 2018 has better noise reduction but it demands more manual work to stack and blend images.
While ON1 Photo Raw has some fine features and good masking tools, it exhibits odd de-Bayering artifacts, giving images a cross-hatched appearance at the pixel-peeping level. Sky backgrounds just aren’t smooth, even after noise reduction.
To go into more detail, these are the key factors I used to compare programs.
Absolutely essential is effective noise reduction, of luminance noise and chrominance color speckles and splotches.
Ideally, programs should also have a function for suppressing bright “hot” pixels and dark “dead” pixels.
Here’s what I consider to be the “gold standard” for noise reduction, Adobe Camera Raw’s result using the latest processing engine in ACR v10/Photoshop CC 2018.
I judged other programs on their ability to produce results as good as this, if not better, using their noise reduction sliders. Some programs did better than others in providing smooth, noiseless skies and ground, while retaining detail.
For example, one of the best was DxO PhotoLab, above. It has excellent options for reducing noise without being overwhelming in its choices, the case with a couple of other programs. For example, DxO has a mostly effective dead/hot pixel removal slider.
ACR does apply such a hot pixel removal “under the hood” as a default, but often still leaves many glaring hot specks that must be fixed later in Photoshop.
Comparing Noise Reduction
Above are 8 of the contender programs compared to Camera Raw for noise reduction.
Missing from this group is the brand new Pixelmator Pro, for MacOS only. It does not yet have any noise reduction in its v1 release, a serious deficiency in imaging software marketed as “Pro.” For that reason alone, I cannot recommend it. I describe its other deficiencies below.
The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Having software that can automatically detect the lens used and apply bespoke corrections is wonderful.
Only a few programs, such as Capture One (above), have a library of camera and lens data to draw upon to apply accurate corrections with one click. With others you have to dial in corrections manually by eye, which is crude and inaccurate.
Shadows and Highlights
All programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, but the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows (the dark ground) while preventing the sky from becoming overly bright, yet while still applying good contrast to the sky.
Of the contenders, I liked DxO PhotoLab best (shown above), not only for its good shadow and highlight recovery, but also excellent “Smart Lighting” and “ClearView” functions which served as effective clarity and dehaze controls to snap up the otherwise low-contrast sky. With most other programs it was tough to boost the shadows without also flattening the contrast.
On the other hand, Capture One’s excellent layering and local adjustments did make it easier to brush in adjustments just to the sky or ground.
However, any local adjustments like those will be feasible only for still images or time-lapses where the camera does not move. In any motion control sequences the horizon will be shifting from frame to frame, making precise masking impractical over a sequence of hundreds of images.
Therefore, I didn’t place too much weight on the presence of good local adjustments. But they are nice to have. Capture One, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 win here.
Selective Color Adjustments
All programs allow tweaking the white balance and overall tint.
But it’s beneficial to also adjust individual colors selectively, to enhance red nebulas, enhance or suppress green airglow, bring out green grass, or suppress yellow or orange light pollution.
Some programs have an HSL panel (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) or an equalizer-style control for boosting or dialing back specific colors.
Capture One (above) has the most control over color correction, with an impressive array of color wheels and sliders that can be set to tweak a broad or narrow range of colors.
And yet, despite this, I was still unable to make my test image look quite the way I wanted for color balance. ACR and DxO PhotoLab still won out for the best looking final result.
Copy and Paste Settings
Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later. It’s desirable to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good.
Some programs (Affinity Photo, Luminar, Pixelmator Pro) lack any library function for viewing or browsing a folder of thumbnail images. Yes, you can export a bunch of images with your settings applied as a user preset, but that’s not nearly as good as actually seeing those images displayed in a Browser mode.
What’s ideal is a function such as ON1 Photo RAW displays here, and that some other programs have: the ability to inspect a folder of images, work on one, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in the set.
This is absolutely essential for time-lapse work, and nice to have even when working on a small set to be stacked into a still image.
Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy and Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files.
This step is to create an intermediate set of JPGs to assemble into a movie. Or perhaps to stack into a star trail composite using third party software such as StarStaX, or to work on the images in another layer-based program of your choice.
As ON1 Photo RAW shows above, this is best done using a Library or Browser mode to visually select the images, then call up an Export panel or menu to choose the image size, format, quality, and location for the exports.
Click Export and go for coffee – or a leisurely dinner – while the program works through your folder. All programs took an hour or more to export hundreds of images.
Those functions were the key features I looked for when evaluating the programs for nightscape and time-lapse work.
Every program had other attractive features, often ones I wished were in Adobe Camera Raw. But if the program lacked any of the above features, I judged it unsuitable.
Yes, the new contenders to the Photoshop crown have the benefit of starting from a blank slate for interface design.
Many, such as Luminar 2018 above, have a clean, attractive design, with less reliance on menus than Photoshop.
Photoshop has grown haphazardly over 25 years, resulting in complex menus. Just finding key functions can take many tutorial courses!
But Adobe dares to “improve” Photoshop’s design and menu structure at its peril, as Photoshop fans would scream if any menus they know and love were to be reorganized!
The new mobile-oriented Lightroom CC is Adobe’s chance to start afresh with a new interface.
Summary Table of Key Features
Fair = Feature is present but doesn’t work as easily or produce as good a result
Partial = Program has lens correction but failed to fully apply settings automatically / DxO has a Browse function but not Cataloging
Manual = Program has only a manually-applied lens correction
– = Program is missing that feature altogether
I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of screen shots of all the programs, showing both the whole image, and a close-up to show the all-important noise reduction.
ACDSee Photo Studio
PROS: This capable cataloging program has good selective color and highlight/shadow recovery, and pretty smooth noise reduction. It can copy and paste settings and batch export images, for time-lapses. It is certainly affordable, making it a low-cost Lightroom contender.
CONS: It lacks any gradient or local adjustments, or even spot removal brushes. Lens corrections are just manual. There is no dehaze control, which can be useful for snapping up even clear night skies. You cannot layer images to create composites or image stacks. This is not a Photoshop replacement.
PROS: Affinity supports image layers, masking with precise selection tools, non-destructive “live” filters (like Photoshop’s Smart Filters), and many other Photoshop-like functions. It has a command for image stacking with a choice of stack modes for averaging and adding images.
It’s a very powerful but low cost alternative to Photoshop, but not Lightroom. It works fine when restricted to working on just a handful of images.
CONS: Affinity has no lens correction database, and I found it hard to snap up contrast in the sky and ground without washing them out, or having them block up. Raw noise reduction was acceptable but not up to the best for smoothness. It produced a blocky appearance. There are no selective color adjustments.
Nor is there any library or browse function. You can batch export images, but only through an unfriendly dialog box that lists images only by file name – you cannot see them. Nor can you copy and paste settings visually, but only apply a user-defined “macro” to develop images en masse upon export.
This is not a program for time-lapse work.
Capture One 11
PROS: With version 11 Capture One became one of the most powerful raw developers, using multiple layers to allow brushing in local adjustments, a far better method than Adobe Camera Raw’s local adjustment “pins.” It can create a catalog from imported images, or images can be opened directly for quick editing. Its noise reduction was good, with hot pixel removal lacking in Camera Raw.
Its color correction options were many!
It can batch export images. And it can export files in the raw DNG format, though in tests only Adobe Camera Raw was able to read the DNG file with settings more or less intact.
CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Creative Cloud to subscribe to. Despite all its options I could never quite get as good looking an image using Capture One, compared to DxO PhotoLab for example.
It is just a Lightroom replacement; it can’t layer images.
Corel Aftershot Pro 3
PROS: This low-cost option has good noise reduction using Athentech’s Perfectly Clear process, with good hot pixel or “impulse” noise removal. It has good selective color and offers adjustment layers for brushing in local corrections. And its library mode can be used to copy and paste settings and batch export images.
Again, it’s solely a Lightroom alternative.
CONS: While it has a database of lenses, and identified my lens, it failed to apply any automatic corrections. Its shadow and highlight recovery never produced a satisfactory image with good contrast. Its local adjustment brush is very basic, with no edge detection.
PROS: I found DxO produced the best looking image, better perhaps than Camera Raw, because of its DxO ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, with its PRIME option producing by far the best results of all the programs, better perhaps than Camera Raw, plus with hot pixel suppression.
DxO has good selective color adjustments, and its copy and paste and batch export work fine.
CONS: There are no adjustment layers as such. Local adjustments and repairing are done through the unique U-Point interface which works something like ACR’s “pins,” but isn’t as visually intuitive as masks and layers. Plus, DxO is just a raw developer; there is no image layering or compositing. Nor does it create a catalog as such.
So it is not a full replacement for either Lightroom or Photoshop. But it does produce great looking raw files for export (even as raw DNGs) to other programs.
PROS: Luminar has good selective color adjustments, a dehaze control, and good contrast adjustments for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Adjustments can be added in layers, making them easier to edit. Noise reduction was smooth and artifact-free, but adjustments were basic. Many filters can be painted on locally with a brush, or with a radial or gradient mask.
CONS: It has no lens correction database; all adjustments are manual. The preview was slow to refresh and display results when adjusting filters. The interface is clean but always requires adding filters to the filter panel to use them when creating new layers. Its batch export is crude, with only a dialog box and no visual browser to inspect or select images.
Settings are applied as a user preset on export, not through a visual copy-and-paste function. I don’t consider that method practical for time-lapses.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
PROS: ON1 is the only program of the bunch that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It is fast to render previews in its “Fast” mode, but in its “Accurate” mode ON1 is no faster than Lightroom. It has good layering and masking functions, both in its Develop mode and in its Photoshop-like Layers mode.
Selective color and contrast adjustments were good, as was noise reduction. Developing, then exporting a time-lapse set worked very well, but still took as long as with Lightroom or Photoshop.
CONS: Despite promising automatic lens detection and correction, ON1 failed to apply any vignetting correction for my 20mm Sigma lens. Stars exhibited dark haloes, even with no sharpening, dehaze, or noise reduction applied. Its de-Bayering algorithm produced a cross-hatched pattern at the pixel level, an effect not seen on other programs.
Noise reduction did not smooth this. Thus, image quality simply wasn’t as good.
PROS: It is low cost. And it has an attractive interface.
CONS: As of version 1 released in November 2017 Pixelmator Pro lacks: any noise reduction (it’s on their list to add!), any library mode or copy and paste function, nor even the ability to open several images at once displayed together.
It is simply not a contender for “Photoshop killer” for any photo application, despite what click-bait “reviews” promise, ones that only re-write press releases and don’t actually test the product.
Raw Therapee v5.3
PROS: It’s free! It offers an immense number of controls and sliders. You can even change the debayering method. It detects and applies lens corrections (though in my case only distortion, not vignetting). It has good selective color with equalizer-style sliders. It has acceptable (sort of!) noise reduction and sharpening with a choice of methods, and with hot and dead pixel removal.
It can load and apply dark frames and flat fields, the only raw developer software that can. This is immensely useful for deep-sky photography.
CONS: It offers an immense number of controls and sliders! Too many! It is open source software by committee, with no one in charge of design or user friendliness. Yes, there is documentation, but it, too, is a lot to wade through to understand, especially with its broken English translations. This is software for digital signal processing geeks.
But worst of all, as shown above, its noise reduction left lots of noisy patches in shadows, no matter what combination of settings I applied. Despite all its hundreds of sliders, results just didn’t look as good.
What About …? (updated December 28)
No matter how many programs I found to test, someone always asks, “What about …?” In some cases such comments pointed me to programs I wasn’t even aware of, but subsequently tried out. So here are even more to pick from…
Billed as having “everything you need in an image editor,” this low-cost ($30) MacOS-only program is anything but. Its raw developer module is crude and lacks any of the sophisticated range of adjustments offered by all the other programs on offer here. It might be useful as a layer-based editor of images developed by another program.
Available for Mac and Windows for $150, this Lightroom competitor offers a good browser function, with the ability to “copy-from-one and paste-to-many” images (unlike some of the programs below), and a good batch export function for time-lapse work. It has good selective color controls and very good noise reduction providing a smooth background without artifacts like blockiness or haloes. Local adjustments, either through brushed-on adjustments or through gradients, are applied via handy and easy to understand (I think!) layers.
While it has auto lens corrections, its database seemed limited — it did not have my Sigma 20mm lens despite it being on the market for 18 months. Manual vignetting correction produced a poor result with just a washed out look.
The main issue was that its shadow, highlight, and clarity adjustments just did not produce the snap and contrast I was looking for, but that other programs could add to raw files. Still, it looks promising, and is worth a try with the trial copy. You might find you like it. I did not. For similar cost, other programs did a better job, notably DxO PhotoLab.
In the same ilk as Raw Therapee, I also tested out another free, open-source raw developer, one simply called “darktable,” with v2.2.5 shown below. While it has some nice functions and produced a decent result, it took a lot of time and work to use.
The MacOS version I tried (on a brand new 5K iMac) ran so sluggishly, taking so long to re-render screen previews, that I judged it impractical to use. Sliders were slow to move and when I made any adjustments often many seconds would pass before I would see the result. Pretty frustrating, even for free.
A similar crowd-developed raw processing program, Iridient Developer (above), sells for $99 US. I tested a trial copy of v3.2. While it worked OK, I was never able to produce a great looking image with it. It had no redeeming features over the competition that made its price worthwhile.
Using Parallels running Windows 10 on my Mac, I did try out this popular Windows-only program from Corel. By itself, Paintshop Pro’s raw developer module (shown above) is basic, crude and hardly up to the tax of processing demanding raw files. You are prompted to purchase Corel’s Aftershot Pro for more capable raw development, and I would agree – Aftershot would be an essential addition. However …
As I showed above, I did test the MacOS version of Aftershot Pro on my raw sample image, and found it did the poorest job of making my raw test image look good. Keep in mind that it is the ability of all these programs to develop this typical raw nightscape image that I am primarily testing.
That said, given a well-developed raw file, Paintshop Pro can do much more with it, such as further layering of images and applying non-destructive and masked adjustment layers, as per Photoshop. Indeed, it is sold as a low-cost (~ $60) Photoshop replacement. As such, many Windows users find Paintshop’s features very attractive. However, Paintshop lacks the non-destructive “smart” filters, and the more advanced selection and masking options offered by Photoshop, Affinity Photo, and ON1 Photo Raw. If you have never used these, you likely don’t realize what you are missing.
If it’s an Adobe alternative you are after, I would suggest Windows users would be better served by other options. Why not test drive Affinity and ON1?
This was a surprising find. Little known, certainly to me, this Windows and MacOS program from the Taiwanese company Cyberlink, is best described as a Lightroom substitute, but it’s a good one. Its regular list price is $170. I bought it on sale for $60.
Like Lightroom, working on any images with PhotoDirector requires importing them into a catalog. You cannot just browse to the images. Fine. But one thing some people complain about with Lightroom is the need to always import images.
I was impressed with how good a job PhotoDirector did on my raw test image. PhotoDirector has excellent controls for shadow and highlight recovery, HSL selective color, copying-and-pasting settings, and batch exporting. So it will work well for basic time-lapse processing.
Noise reduction was very good and artifact-free. While it does have automatic lens corrections, its database did not include the 2-year old Sigma 20mm Art lens I used. So it appears its lens data is not updated frequently.
PhotoDirector has good local adjustments and gradients using “pins” rather than layers, similar to Camera Raw and Lightroom.
After performing raw image “Adjustments,” you can take an image into an Edit module (for adding special effects), then into a Layers module for further work. However, doing so destructively “flattens” the image to apply the raw adjustments you made. You cannot go back and tweak the raw settings in the Adjustment module, as you can when opening a raw file as a “smart object” in Adobe Photoshop.
While PhotoDirector does allow you to layer in other images to make basic composites (such as adding type or logos), there is no masking function nor any non-destructive adjustment layers. So this is most assuredly not a Photoshop substitute, despite what the advertising might suggest. But if it’s a Lightroom replacement you are after, do check it out in a trial copy.
This little-known MacOS-only program (only $40 on sale) for developing raw images looks very attractive, with good selective color, lots of local adjustments, and good masking tools, the features promoted on the website. It does have a browse function and can batch export a set of developed files.
However … its noise reduction was poor, introducing glowing haloes around stars when turned up to any useful level. Its shadows, highlights, and contrast adjustments were also poor – it was tough to make the test image look good without flattening contrast or blocking up shadows. Boosting clarity even a little added awful dark haloes to stars, making this a useless function. It has no lens correction, either automatic or manual. Like Topaz Studio, below, it cannot copy and paste settings to a batch of images, only to one image at a time, so it isn’t useful for time-lapse processing.
I cannot recommend this program, no matter how affordable it might be.
Popular among some camera manufacturers as their included raw developer, Silky Pix can be purchased separately ($80 list price for the standard version, $250 list price for the Pro version) with support for many cameras’ image files. It is available for MacOS and Windows. I tried the lower-cost “non-Pro” version 8. It did produce a good-looking end result, with good shadow and highlight recovery, and excellent color controls. Also on the plus side, Silky Pix has very good copy-and-paste functions for development settings, and good batch export functions, so it can be used to work on a folder of time-lapse frames.
On the down side, noise reduction, while acceptable, left an odd mottled pattern, hardly “silky.” The added “Neat” noise reduction option only smoothed out detail and was of little value except perhaps for very noisy images. Noise reduction did nothing to remove hot pixels, leaving lots of colored specks across the image. The program uses unorthodox controls whose purposes are not obvious. Instead of Highlights and Shadows you get Exposure Bias and HDR. Instead of Luminance and Color noise reduction, you get sliders labeled Smoothness and Color Distortion. You really need to read the extensive documentation to learn how to use this program.
I found sliders could be sticky and not easy to adjust precisely. The MacOS version was slow, often presenting long bouts of spinning beachballs while it performed some function. This is a program worth a try, and you might find you like it. But considering what the competition offers, I would not recommend it.
While Topaz Labs previously offered only plug-ins for Photoshop and other programs (their Topaz DeNoise 6 is very good), their Topaz Studio stand-alone program now offers full raw processing abilities.
It is for Mac and Windows. While it did a decent job developing my test Milky Way image (above), with good color and contrast adjustments, it cannot copy and paste settings from one image to a folder of images, only to one other image. Nor can it batch export a folder of images. Both deficiencies make it useless for time-lapse work.
In addition, while the base program is free, adding the “Pro Adjustments” modules I needed to process my test image (Noise Reduction, Dehaze, Precision Contrast, etc.) would cost $160 – each Adjustment is bought separately. Some users might like it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
And … Adobe Photoshop Elements v18 (late 2017 release)
What about Adobe’s own Photoshop “Lite?” Elements is available for $99 as a boxed or downloadable one-time purchase, but with annual updates costing about $50. While it offers image and adjustment layers, it cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has very limited functions for developing raw files.
And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not have any copy-and-paste settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for time-lapse production.
Elements is for processing photos for the snapshot family album. Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. But it can be pressed into service for raw editing and layering single images, especially by beginners.
However, a Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more than buying, then upgrading Elements outright, yet gets you far, far more in professional-level software.
And Yet More…!
In addition, for just developing raw files, you likely already have software to do the job – the program that came with your camera.
For Canon it’s Digital Photo Professional (shown above); for Nikon it’s Capture NX; for Pentax it’s Digital Camera Utility, etc.
These are all capable raw developers, but have no layering capabilities. And they read only the files from their camera brand. If theirs is the only software you have, try it. They are great for learning on.
But you’ll find that the programs from other companies offer more features and better image quality.
What Would I Buy?
Except for Capture One, which I tested as a trial copy, I did buy all the software in question, for testing for my Nightscapes eBook.
However, as I’ve described, none of the programs tick all the boxes. Each has strengths, but also weaknesses, if not outright deficiencies. I don’t feel any can fully replace Adobe products for features and image quality.
A possible non-Adobe combination for the best image quality might be DxO PhotoLab for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, and Affinity Photo for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO and opened and layered with Affinity.
But that combo lacks any cataloging option. For that you’d have to add ACDSee or Aftershot for a budget option. It’s hardly a convenient workflow I’d want to use.
I’d love to recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly as a single solution, if only it had better raw processing results, and didn’t suffer from de-Bayering artifacts (shown in a 400% close-up above, compared to DxO PhotoLab). These add the star haloes and a subtle blocky pattern to the sky, most obvious at right.
To Adobe or Not to Adobe
I’m just not anxious, as others are, to “avoid Adobe.”
I’ve been a satisfied Creative Cloud subscriber for several years, and view the monthly fee as the cost of doing business. It’s much cheaper than the annual updates that boxed Photoshop versions used to cost. Nor am I worried about Adobe suddenly jacking up the fees or holding us hostage with demands.
For me, the need to use LRTimelapse (shown above) for about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great. Sold.
I feel Camera Raw/Lightroom produces results that others can only just match, if that.
Only DxO PhotoLab beat Adobe for its excellent contrast enhancements and PRIME noise reduction.
Yes, other programs certainly have some fine features I wish Camera Raw or Lightroom had, such as:
Hot and dead pixel removal
Dark frame subtraction and flat field division
Better options for contrast enhancement
And adding local adjustments to raw files via layers, with more precise masking tools
But those aren’t “must haves.”
Using ACR or Lightroom makes it easy to export raw files for time-lapse assembly, or to open them into Photoshop for layering and compositing, usually as “smart objects” for non-destructive editing, as shown below.
Above is the final layered image, consisting of:
A stack of 4 tracked exposures for the sky (the test image is one of those exposures)
And 4 untracked exposures for the ground.
The mean stacking smooths noise even more. The masking reveals just the sky on the tracked set. Every adjustment layer, mask, and “smart filter” is non-destructive and can be adjusted later.
I’ll work on recreating this same image with the three non-Adobe programs capable of doing so – Affinity, Luminar, and ON1 Photo RAW – to see how well they do. But that’s the topic of a future blog.
Making the Switch?
The issue with switching from Adobe to any new program is compatibility.
While making a switch will be fine when working on all new images, reading the terabytes of old images I have processed with Adobe software (and being able to re-adjust their raw settings and layered adjustments) will always require that Adobe software.
If you let your Creative Cloud subscription lapse, as I understand it the only thing that will continue to work is Lightroom’s Library module, allowing you to review images only. You can’t do anything to them.
None of the contender programs will read Adobe’s XMP metadata files to display raw images with Adobe’s settings intact.
Conversely, nor can Adobe read the proprietary files and metadata other programs create.
With final layered Photoshop files, while some programs can read .PSD files, they usually open them just as flattened images, as ON1 warns it will do above. It flattened all of the non-destructive editing elements created in Photoshop. Luminar did the same.
Only Affinity Photo (above) successfully read a complex and very large Photoshop .PSB file correctly, honouring at least its adjustment and image layers. So, if backwards compatibility with your legacy Photoshop images is important, choose Affinity Photo.
However, Affinity flattened Photoshop’s smart object image layers and their smart filters. Even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements doesn’t honor smart objects.
Lest you think that’s a “walled garden” created by “evil Adobe,” keep in mind that the same will be true of the image formats and catalogs that all the contender programs produce.
To read the adjustments, layers, and “live filters” you create using any another program, you will need to use that program.
Will Affinity, DxO, Luminar, ON1, etc. be around in ten years?
Yes, you can save out flattened TIFFs that any program can read in the future, but that rules out using those other programs to re-work any of the image’s original settings.
I can see using DxO PhotoLab (above) or Raw Therapee for some specific images that benefit from their unique features.
Or using ACDSee as a handy image browser.
And ON1 and Luminar have some lovely effects that can be applied by calling them up as plug-ins from within Photoshop, and applied as smart filters. Above, I show Luminar working as a plug-in, applying its “Soft & Airy” filter.
In the case of Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, their ability to save images back as raw DNG files (the only contender programs of the bunch that can), means that any raw processing program in the future should be able to read the raw image.
However, only Capture One’s Export to DNG option produced a raw file readable and editable by Adobe Camera Raw with its settings from Capture One (mostly) intact (as shown above).
Even so, I won’t be switching away from Adobe any time soon.
But I hope my survey has given you useful information to judge whether you should make the switch. And if so, to what program.