Testing the Canon R6 for Astrophotography


In an extensive technical blog, I put the Canon R6 mirrorless camera through its paces for the demands of astrophotography. 

Every major camera manufacturer, with the lone exception of stalwart Pentax, has moved from producing digital lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, to digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM) cameras. The reflex mirror is gone, allowing for a more compact camera, better movie capabilities, and enhanced auto-focus functions, among other benefits. 

But what about for astrophotography? I reviewed the Sony a7III and Nikon Z6 mirrorless cameras here on my blog and, except for a couple of points, found them excellent for the demands of most astrophotography. 

For the last two years I’ve primarily used Canon’s astro-friendly and red-sensitive EOS Ra mirrorless, a model sadly discontinued in September 2021 after just two years on the market. I reviewed that camera in the April 2020 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, with a quick first look here on my blog

The superb performance of the Ra has prompted me to stay with the Canon mirrorless R system for future camera purchases. Here I test the mid-priced R6, introduced in August 2020.

CLICK or TAP on an image to bring it up full screen for closer inspection. All images are © 2021 by Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com. Use without permission is prohibited.

M31, the spiral galaxy in Andromeda, with the Canon R6 mirrorless camera. It is a stack of 8 x 8-minute exposures at ISO 800, blended with a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 400 for the core, to prevent it from overexposing too much, all with a SharpStar 76mm apo refractor at f/4.4 with its field flattener/reducer.

TL;DR SUMMARY

The Canon R6 has proven excellent for astrophotography, exhibiting better dynamic range and shadow recovery than most Canon DSLRs, due to the ISO invariant design of the R6 sensor. It is on par with the low-light performance of Nikon and Sony mirrorless cameras. 

The preview image is sensitive enough to allow easy framing and focusing at night. The movie mode produces usable quality up to ISO 51,200, making 4K movies of auroras possible. Canon DSLRs cannot do this. 

Marring the superb performance are annoying deficiencies in the design, and one flaw in the image quality – an amp glow – that particularly impacts deep-sky imaging.

R6 pros

The Canon R6 is superb for its:

  • Low noise, though not exceptionally so
  • ISO invariant sensor performance for good shadow recovery 
  • Sensitive live view display with ultra-high ISO boost in Movie mode 
  • Relatively low noise Movie mode with full frame 4K video
  • Low light auto focus and accurate manual focus assist  
  • Good battery life 

R6 cons

The Canon R6 is not so superb for its:

Design Deficiencies 

  • Lack of a top LCD screen
  • Bright timer display in Bulb on the rear screen
  • No battery level indication when shooting 
  • Low grade R3-style remote jack, same as on entry-level Canon DSLRs 

Image Quality Flaw

  • Magenta edge “amp glow” in long exposures 
The Canon Ra on the left with the 28-70mm f/2 RF lens and the Canon R6 on the right with the 70-200mm f/2/8 RF lens, two superb but costly zooms for the R system cameras.

CHOOSING THE R6

Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, the 30-megapixel EOS R, was introduced in late 2018 to compete with Sony. As of late-2021 the main choices in a Canon DSLM for astrophotography are either the original R, the 20-megapixel R6, the 26-megapixel Rp, or the 45-megapixel R5. 

The new 24-megapixel Canon R3, while it has impressive low-noise performance, is designed primarily for high-speed sports and news photography. It is difficult to justify its $6,000 cost for astro work. 

I have not tested Canon’s entry-level, but full-frame Rp. While the Rp’s image quality is likely quite good, its small battery and short lifetime on a single charge will be limiting factors for astrophotography. 

Nor have I tested the higher-end R5. Friends who use the R5 for nightscape work love it, but with smaller pixels the R5 will be noisier than the R6, which lab tests at sites such as DPReview.com seem to confirm. 

Meanwhile, the original EOS R, while having excellent image quality and features, is surely destined for replacement in the near future – with a Canon EOS R Mark II? The R’s successor might be a great astrophoto camera, but with the Ra gone, I feel the R6 is currently the prime choice from Canon, especially for nightscapes.

I tested an R6 purchased in June 2021 and updated in August with firmware v1.4. I’ll go through its performance and functions with astrophotography in mind. I’ve ignored praised R6 features such as eye tracking autofocus, in-body image stabilization, and high speed burst rates. They are of limited or no value for astrophotography. 

Along the way, I also offer a selection of user tips, some of which are applicable to other cameras. 

LIVE VIEW FOCUSING AND FRAMING

“Back-of-the-camera” views of the R6 in its normal Live View mode (upper left) and its highly-sensitive Movie Mode (upper right), compared to views with four other cameras. Note the Milky Way visible with the R6 in its Movie mode, similar to the Sony in Bright Monitoring mode.

The first difference you will see when using any new mirrorless camera, compared to even a high-end DSLR, is how much brighter the “Live View” image is when shooting at night. DSLM cameras are always in Live View – even the eye-level viewfinder presents a digital image supplied by the sensor. 

As such, whether on the rear screen on in the viewfinder, you see an image that closely matches the photo you are about to take, because it is the image you are about to take. 

To a limit. DSLMs can do only so much to simulate what a long 30-second exposure will look like. But the R6, like many DSLMs, goes a long way in providing a preview image bright enough to frame a dark scene and focus on bright stars. Turn on Exposure Simulation to brighten the live image, and open the lens as wide as possible. 

The Canon R6 in its Movie Mode at ISO 204,800 and with a lens wide open.

But the R6 has a trick up its sleeve for framing nightscapes. Switch the Mode dial to Movie, and set the ISO up to 204,800 (or at night just dial in Auto ISO), and with the lens wide open and shutter on 1/8 second (as above), the preview image will brighten enough to show the Milky Way and dark foreground, albeit in a noisy image. But it’s just for aiming and framing.

This is similar to the excellent, but well-hidden Bright Monitoring mode on Sony Alphas. This high-ISO Movie mode makes it a pleasure using the R6 for nightscapes. The EOS R and Ra do not have this ability. While their live view screens are good, they are not as sensitive as the R6’s, with the R and Ra’s Movie modes able to go up to only ISO 12,800. The R5 can go up to “only” ISO 51,200 in its Movie mode, good but not quite high enough for live framing on dark nights. 

Comparing Manual vs. Auto Focus results with the R6.

The R6 will also autofocus down to a claimed EV -6.5, allowing it to focus in dim light for nightscapes, a feat impossible in most cameras. In practice with the Canon RF 15-35mm lens at f/2.8, I found the R6 can’t autofocus on the actual dark landscape, but it can autofocus on bright stars and planets (provided, of course, the camera is fitted with an autofocus lens). 

Autofocusing on bright stars proved very accurate. By comparison, while the Ra can autofocus on distant bright lights, it fails on bright stars or planets. 

Turning on Focus Peaking makes stars turn red, yellow or blue (your choice of colours) when they are in focus, as a reassuring confirmation. 

The Focus Peaking and Focus Guide menu.
The R6 live view display with Focus Guide arrows on and focused on a star, Antares.

In manual focus, an additional Focus Aid overlay provides arrows that close up and turn green when in focus on a bright star or planet. Or you can zoom in by 5x or 10x to focus by eye the old way by examining the star image. I wish the R6 had a 15x or 20x magnification; 5x and 10x have long been the Canon standards. Only the Ra offered 30x for ultra-precise focusing on stars. 

In all, the ease of framing and focusing will be the major improvement you’ll enjoy by moving to any mirrorless, especially if your old camera is a cropped-frame Canon Rebel or T3i! But the R6 particularly excels at ease of focusing and framing. 

NOISE PERFORMANCE

The key camera characteristic for astrophoto use is noise. I feel it is more important than resolution. There’s little point in having lots of fine detail if it is lost in a blizzard of high-ISO noise. And for astro work, we are almost always shooting at high ISOs.

Comparing the R6’s noise at increasingly higher ISO speeds on a starlit nightscape.

With just 20 megapixels, low by today’s standards, the R6 has individual pixels, or more correctly “photosites,” that are each 6.6 microns in size, the “pixel pitch.” 

By comparison, the 30-megapixel R (and Ra) has a pixel pitch of 5.4 microns, the 45-megapixel R5’s pixel pitch is 4.4 microns, while the acclaimed low-light champion in the camera world, the 12-megapixel Sony a7sIII, has large 8.5-micron photosites. 

The bigger the photosites (i.e. the larger the pixel pitch), the more photons each photosite can collect in a given amount of time – and the more photons they can collect, period, before they overfill and clip highlights. More photons equals more signal, and therefore a better signal-to-noise ratio, while the greater “full-well depth” yields higher dynamic range. 

Each generation of camera also improves the signal-to-noise ratio by suppressing noise via its sensor design and improved signal processing hardware and firmware. The R6 uses Canon’s latest DIGIC X processor shared by the company’s other mirrorless cameras. 

Comparing the R6 noise with the 6D MkII and EOS Ra on a deep-sky subject, galaxies.

In noise tests comparing the R6 against the Ra and Canon 6D Mark II, all three cameras showed a similar level of noise at ISO settings from 400 up to 12,800. But the 6D Mark II performed well only when properly exposed. Both the R6 and Ra performed much better for shadow recovery in underexposed scenes. 

Comparing the R6 noise with with the 6D MkII and EOS Ra on a shadowed nightscape.
Comparing the R6 noise with the EOS Ra on the Andromeda Galaxy at typical deep-sky ISO speeds.

In nightscapes and deep-sky images the R6 and Ra looked nearly identical at each of their ISO settings. This was surprising considering the Ra’s smaller photosites, which perhaps attests to the low noise of the astronomical “a” model. 

Or it could be that the R6 isn’t as low noise as it should be for a 20 megapixel camera. But it is as good as it gets for Canon cameras, and that’s very good indeed.

I saw no “magic ISO” setting where the R6 performed better than at other settings. Noise increased in proportion to the ISO speed. It proved perfectly usable up to ISO 6400, with ISO 12,800 acceptable for stills when necessary. 

ISO INVARIANCY

The flaw in many Canon DSLRs, one documented in my 2017 review of the 6D Mark II, was their poor dynamic range due to the lack of an ISO invariant sensor design. 

The R6, as with Canon’s other R-series cameras, has largely addressed this weakness. The sensor in the R6 appears to be nicely ISO invariant and performs as well as the Sony and Nikon cameras I have used and tested, models praised for their ISO invariant behaviour. 

Where this trait shows itself to advantage is on nightscapes where the starlit foreground is often dark and underexposed. Bringing out detail in the shadows in raw files requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure slider. Images from an ISO invariant sensor can withstand the brightening “in post” far better, with minimal noise increase or degradations such as a loss of contrast, added banding, or horrible discolourations. 

Comparing the R6 for ISO Invariancy on a starlit nightscape.

To test the R6, I shot sets of images at the same shutter speed, one well-exposed at a high ISO, then several at successively lower ISOs to underexpose by 1 to 5 stops. I then brightened the underexposed images by increasing the Exposure in Camera Raw by the same 1 to 5 stops. In an ideal ISO invariant sensor, all the images should look the same. 

The R6 did very well in images underexposed by up to 4 stops. Images underexposed by 5 stops started to fall apart, but I’ve seen that in Sony and Nikon images as well. 

Comparing the R6 for ISO Invariancy on a moonlit nightscape.

This behaviour applies to images underexposed by using lower ISOs than what a “normal” exposure might require. Underexposing with lower ISOs can help maintain dynamic range and avoid highlight clipping. But with nightscapes, foregrounds can often be too dark even when shot at an ISO high enough to be suitable for the sky. Foregrounds are almost always underexposed, so good shadow recovery is essential for nightscapes, and especially time-lapses, when blending in separate longer exposures for the ground is not practical.

With its improved ISO invariant sensor, the R6 will be a fine camera for nightscape and time-lapse use, which was not true of the 6D Mark II. 

For those interested in more technical tests and charts, I refer you to DxOMark’s report on the Canon R6.  

Comparing R6 images underexposed in 1-stop increments by using shorter shutter speeds.
Comparing R6 images underexposed in 1-stop increments by using smaller apertures.

However, to be clear, ISO invariant behaviour doesn’t help you as much if you underexpose by using too short a shutter speed or too small a lens aperture. I tested the R6 in series of images underexposed by keeping ISO the same but decreasing the shutter speed then the aperture in one-stop increments. 

The underexposed images fell apart in quality much sooner, when underexposed more than 3 stops. Again, this is behaviour similar to what I’ve seen in Sonys and Nikons. For the best image quality I feel it is always a best practice to expose well at the camera. Don’t count on saving images in post. 

An in-camera image fairly well exposed with an ETTR histogram.

TIP: Underexposing by using too short an exposure time is the major mistake astrophotographers make, who then wonder why their images are riddled with odd artifacts and patten noise. Always Expose to the Right (ETTR), even with ISO invariant cameras. The best way to avoid noise is to give your sensor more signal, by using longer exposures or wider apertures. Use settings that push the histogram to the right. 

LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION

All cameras will exhibit thermal noise in long exposures, especially on warm nights. This form of noise peppers the shadows with hot pixels, often brightly coloured. 

This is not the same as the shot and read noise that adds graininess to high-ISO images and that noise reduction software can smooth out. This is a common misunderstanding, even among professional photographers who should know better! 

Thermal noise is more insidious and harder to eliminate in post without harming the image. However, Monika Deviat offers a clever method here at her website

The standard Canon LENR menu.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) eliminates this thermal noise by taking a “dark frame” and subtracting it in-camera to yield a raw file free of hot pixels. 

And yes, LENR does apply to raw files, another fact even many professional photographers don’t realize. It is High ISO Noise Reduction that applies only to JPGs, along with Color Space and Picture Styles.

Comparing a dark nightscape without and with LENR on a warm night. Hot pixels are mostly gone at right.

The LENR option on the R6 did eliminate most hot pixels, though sometimes still left, or added, a few. LENR is needed more on warm nights, and with longer exposures at higher ISOs. So the extent of thermal noise in any camera can vary a lot from shoot to shoot.

When LENR is active, the R6’s rear screen lights up with “Busy,” which is annoyingly bright. To hide this display, the only option is to close the screen. 

As with the EOS Ra, and all mirrorless cameras, the R6 has no “dark frame buffer” that allows several exposures to be taken in quick succession even with LENR on. Canon’s full-frame DSLRs have this little-known buffer that allows 3, 4, or 5 “light frames” to be taken in a row before the LENR dark frame kicks in a locks up the camera on Busy. 

Comparing long exposure images with the lens cap on (dark frames), to show just thermal noise. The right edge of the frame is shown, blown up, to reveal the amp glow, which LENR removes.

With all Canon R cameras, and most other DSLRs, turning on LENR forces the camera to take a dark frame after every light frame, doubling the time it takes to finish every exposure. That’s a price many photographers aren’t willing to pay, but on warm nights it can be necessary, and a best practice, for the reward of cleaner images.

The standard Canon Sensor Cleaning menu.

TIP: If you find hot pixels are becoming more obvious over time, try this trick: turn on the Clean Manually routine for 30 seconds to a minute. In some cameras this can remap the hot pixels so the camera can better eliminate them.  

STAR QUALITY 

Using LENR with the R6 did not introduce any oddities such as oddly-coloured, green or wiped-out stars. Even without LENR I saw no evidence of green stars, a flaw that plagues some Sony cameras at all times, or Nikons when using LENR. 

Comparing the R6 for noise and star colours at typical deep-sky ISOs and exposure times.

Canons have always been known for their good star colours, and the R6 is no exception. According to DPReview the R6 has a low-pass anti-alias filter in front of its sensor. Cameras which lack such a sensor filter do produce sharper images, but stars that occupy only one or two pixels might not de-Bayer properly into the correct colours. That’s not an issue with the R6.

I also saw no “star-eating,” a flaw Nikons and Sonys have been accused of over the years, due to aggressive in-camera noise reduction even on raw files. Canons have always escaped charges of star-eating. 

VIGNETTING/SHADOWING

DSLRs are prone to vignetting along the top and bottom of the frame from shadowing by the upraised mirror and mirror box. Not having a mirror, and a sensor not deeply recessed in the body, largely eliminates this edge vignetting in mirrorless cameras. 

This illustrates the lack of edge shadows but magenta edge glows in a single Raw file boosted for contrast.

That is certainly true of the R6. Images boosted a lot in contrast, as we do with deep-sky photos, show not the slightest trace of vignetting along the top or bottom edges There were no odd clips or metal bits intruding into the light path, unlike in the Sony a7III I tested in 2018. 

The full frame of the R6 can be used without need for cropping or ad hoc edge brightening in post. Except …

EDGE ARTIFACTS/AMP GLOWS

The R6 did exhibit one serious and annoying flaw in long exposure images – a magenta glow along the edges, especially the right edge and lower right corner. 

Comparing a close-up of a nightscape, without and with LENR, to show the edge glow gone with LENR on.

Whether this is the true cause or not, it looks like “amplifier glow,” an effect caused by heat from circuitry illuminating the sensor with infra-red light. It shows itself when images are boosted in contrast and brightness in processing. It’s the sort of flaw revealed only when testing for the demands of astrophotography. It was present in images I took through a telescope, so it is not IR leakage from an auto-focus lens. 

I saw this type of amp glow with the Sony a7III, a flaw eventually eliminated in a firmware update that, I presume, turned off unneeded electronics in long exposures. 

Amp glow is something I have not seen in Canon cameras for many years. In a premium camera like the R6 it should not be there. Period. Canon needs to fix this with a firmware update.

It is the R6’s only serious image flaw, but it’s surprising to see it at all. Turning on LENR eliminates the amp glow, as it should, but using LENR is not always practical, such as in time-lapses and star trails.

For deep-sky photography images are pushed to extremes of contrast, revealing any non-uniform illumination or colour. The usual practice of taking and applying calibration dark frames should also eliminate the amp glow. But I’d rather it not be there in the first place!

RED SENSITIVITY

The R6 I bought was a stock “off-the-shelf” model. It is Canon’s now-discontinued EOS Ra model that is (or was) “filter-modified” to record a greater level of the deep red wavelength from red nebulas in the Milky Way. Compared to the Ra, the R6 did well, but could not record the depth of nebulosity the Ra can, to be expected for a stock camera. 

Comparing the stock R6 with the filter-modified Ra on Cygnus nebulosity.

In wide-field images of the Milky Way, the R6 picked up a respectable level of red nebulosity, especially when shooting through a broadband light pollution reduction filter, and with careful processing. 

Comparing the stock R6 with the filter-modified Ra on the Swan Nebula with a telescope with minimal processing to the Raw images.
Comparing the stock R6 with the filter-modified Ra on the Swan Nebula with a telescope with a dual narrowband filter and with colour correction applied to the single Raw images.

However, when going after faint nebulas through a telescope, even the use of a narrowband filter did not help bring out the target. Indeed, attempting to correct the extreme colour shift introduced by such a filter resulted in a muddy mess and accentuated edge glows with the R6, but worked well with the Ra. 

While the R6 could be modified by a third party, the edge amp glow might spoil images, as a filter modification can make a sensor even more sensitive to IR light, potentially flooding the image with unwanted glows. 

TIP: Buying a used Canon Ra (if you can find one) might be one choice for a filter-modified mirrorless camera, one much cheaper than a full frame cooled CMOS camera such as a ZWO ASI2400MC. Or Spencer’s Camera sells modified versions of all the R series cameras with a choice of sensor filters. But I have not used any of their modded cameras.

RESOLUTION 

A concern of prospective buyers is whether the R6’s relatively low 20-megapixel sensor will be sharp enough for their purposes. R6 images are 5472 by 3648 pixels, much less than the 8000+ pixel-wide images from high-resolution cameras like the Canon R5, Nikon Z7II or Sony a1.

Unless you sell your astrophotos as very large prints, I’d say don’t worry. In comparisons with the 30-megapixel Ra I found it difficult to see a difference in resolution between the two cameras. Stars were nearly as well resolved in the R6, and only under the highest pixel-peeping magnification did stars look a bit more pixelated in the R6 than in the Ra. Faint stars were equally well recorded. 

Comparing resolution of the R6 vs. Ra with a blow-up of wide-field 85mm images
Comparing resolution of the R6 vs. Ra on blow-ups of the Andromeda Galaxy with a 76mm apo refractor. The R6 is more pixellated but it takes pixel peeping to see it!

The difference between 20 and 30 megapixels is not as great as you might think for arc-second-per-pixel plate scale. I think it would take going to the R5 with its 45 megapixel sensor to provide enough of a difference in resolution over the R6 to be obvious in nightscape scenes, or when shooting small, detailed deep-sky subjects such as globular clusters. 

If landscape or wildlife photography by day is your passion, with astrophotography a secondary purpose, then the more costly but highly regarded R5 might be the better choice. 

Super Resolution menu in Adobe Lightroom.

TIP: Adobe now offers (in Lightroom and in Camera Raw) a Super Resolution option, that users might think (judging by the rave reviews on-line) would be the answer to adding resolution to astro images from “low-res” cameras like the R6. 

Comparing a normal R6 image with the same image upscaled with Super Resolution.

Sorry! In my tests on astrophotos I’ve found Super Resolution results unsatisfactory. Yes, stars were less pixelated, but they became oddly coloured in the AI-driven up-scaling. Green stars appeared! The sky background also became mottled and uneven. 

I would not count on such “smart upscaling” options to add more pixels to astro-images from the R6. Then again, I don’t think there’s a need to. 

RAW vs. cRAW

Canon now offers the option of shooting either RAW or cRAW files, the latter being the same megapixel count but compressed in file size by almost a factor of two. This allows shooting twice as many images before card space runs out, perhaps useful for shooting lots of time-lapses on extended trips away from a computer. 

The R6 Image Quality menu with the cRAW Option.
Comparing an R6 cRAW with a RAW image.

However, the compression is not lossless. In high-ISO test images purposely underexposed, then brightened in post, I could see a slight degradation in cRAW images – the noise background looked less uniform and exhibited a blocky look, like JPG artifacts. 

The R6’s dual SD card slots.

TIP: With two SD card slots in the R6 (the second card can be set to record either a backup of images on card one, or serve as an overflow card) and the economy of large SD cards, there’s not the need to conserve card space as there once was. I would suggest always shooting in the full RAW format. Why accept any compression and loss of image quality? 

BATTERY LIFE

The R6 uses a new version of Canon’s standard LP-E6 battery, the LP-E6NH, that supports charging through the USB-C port and has a higher 2130mAh capacity than the 1800mAh LP-E6 batteries. However, the R6 is compatible with older batteries.

On warm nights, I found the R6 ran fine on one battery for the 3 to 4 hours needed to shoot a time-lapse sequence, with power to spare. However, as noted below, the lack of a top LCD screen means there’s no ongoing display of battery level, a deficiency for time-lapse and deep-sky work. 

For demanding applications, especially in winter, the R6 can be powered by an outboard USB power bank that has “Power Delivery” capability. That’s a handy feature. There’s no need to install a dummy battery leading out to a specialized power source. 

The R6’s Connection menu with Airplane mode to turn off battery-eating WiFi and Bluetooth.

TIP: Putting the camera into Airplane mode (to turn off WiFi and Bluetooth), turning off the viewfinder, and either switching off or closing the rear screen all helps conserve power. The R6 does not have GPS built in. Tagging images with location data requires connecting to your phone.

VIDEO USE

A major selling point for me was the R6’s low-light video capability. It replaces my Sony A7III, which had been my “go to” camera for real-time 4K movies of auroras. 

As best I can tell (from the dimmer auroras I’ve shot to date), the R6 performs equally as well as the Sony. It is able to record good quality (i.e. acceptably noise-free) 4K movies at ISO 25,600 to ISO 51,200. While it can shoot at up to ISO 204,800, the excessive noise makes the top ISO an emergency-use only setting. 

The R6’s Movie size and quality options, with 4K and Full HD formats and frame rates.
Comparing the R6 on a dim aurora at various high ISO speeds. Narrated at the camera — excuse the wind noise! Switch to HD mode for the best video playback quality. This was shot in 4K but WordPress plays back only in HD.

The R6 can shoot at a dragged shutter speed as slow as 1/8-second – good, though not as slow as the Sony’s 1/4-second slowest shutter speed in movie mode. That 1/8-second shutter speed and a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens are the keys to shooting movies of the night sky. Only when auroras get shadow-casting bright can we shoot at the normal 1/30-second shutter speed and at lower ISOs.

As with Nikons (but not Sonys), the Canon R6 saves its movie settings separately from its still settings. When switching to Movie mode you don’t have to re-adjust the ISO, for example, to set it higher than it might have been for stills, very handy for taking both stills and movies of an active aurora, where quick switching is often required. 

Unlike the R and Rp, the R6 captures 4K movies from the full width of the sensor, preserving the field of view of wide-angle lenses. This is excellent for aurora shooting. 

The R6’s Movie Cropping menu option
A 4K movie of the Moon in full-frame and copped-frame modes, narrated at the camera. Again, this was shot in 4K but WordPress plays back only in HD.
Comparing blow-ups of frame-grabbed stills from a full-frame 4K vs. Cropped frame 4K. The latter is less pixellated.

However, the R6 offers the option of a “Movie Crop” mode. Rather than taking the 4K movie downsampled from the entire sensor, this crop mode records from a central 1:1 sampled area of the sensor. That mode can be useful for high-magnification lunar and planetary imaging, for ensuring no loss of resolution. It worked well, producing videos with less pixelated fine details in test movies of the Moon. 

Though of course I have yet to test it on one, the R6 should be excellent for movies of total solar eclipses. It can shoot 4K up to 60 frames per second in both full frame and cropped frame. It cannot shoot 6K (buy the R3!) or 8K (buy the R5!). 

The R6’s Canon Log settings menu for video files.

Shooting in the R6’s Canon cLog3 profile records internally in 10-bit, preserving more dynamic range in movies, up to 12 stops. During eclipses, that will be a benefit for recording totality, with the vast range of brightness in the Sun’s corona. It should also aid in shooting auroras which can vary over a huge range in brightness. 

Grading a cLog format movie in Final Cut under Camera LUT.

TIP: Processing cLog movies, which look flat out of camera, requires applying a cLog3 Look Up Table, or LUT, to the movie clips in editing, a step called “colour grading.” This is available from Canon, from third-party vendors or, as it was with my copy of Final Cut Pro, might be already installed in your video editing software. When shooting, turn on View Assist so the preview looks close to what the final graded movie will look like.

EXPOSURE TRACKING IN TIME-LAPSES

In one test, I shot a time-lapse from twilight to darkness with the R6 in Aperture Priority auto-exposure mode, of a fading display of noctilucent clouds. I just let the camera lengthen the shutter speed on its own. It tracked the darkening sky very well, right down to the camera’s maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, using a fish-eye lens at f/2.8. This demonstrated that the light meter in the R6 was sensitive enough to work well in dim light.

Other cameras I have used cannot do this. The meter fails at some point and the exposure stalls at 5 or 6 seconds long, resulting in most frames after that being underexposed. By contrast, the R6 showed excellent performance, negating the need for special bulb ramping intervalometers for some “holy grail” scenes. Here’s the resulting movie.

A time-lapse of 450 frames from 0.4 seconds to 30 seconds, with the R6 in Av mode. Set to 1080P for the best view!
A screenshot from LRTimelapse showing the smoothness of the exposure tracking (the blue line) through the sequence,

In addition, the R6’s exposure meter tracked the darkening sky superbly, with nary a flicker or variation. Again, few cameras can do this. Nikons have an Exposure Smoothing option in their Interval Timers which works well.

The R6 has no such option but doesn’t seem to need it. The exposure did fail at the very end, when the shutter reached its maximum of 30 seconds. If I had the camera on Auto ISO, it might have started to ramp up the ISO to compensate, a test I have yet to try. Even so, this is impressive time-lapse performance in auto-exposure.

MISSING FEATURES

The R6, like the low-end Rp, lacks a top LCD screen for display of camera settings and battery level. In its place we get a traditional Mode dial, which some daytime photographers will prefer. But for astrophotography, a backlit top LCD screen provides useful information during long exposures. 

The R6 top and back of camera view.

Without it, the R6 provides no indication of battery level while a shoot is in progress, for example, during a time-lapse. A top screen is also useful for checking ISO and other settings by looking down at the camera, as is usually the case when it’s on a tripod or telescope. 

The lack of a top screen is an inconvenience for astrophotography. We are forced to rely on looking at the brighter rear screen for all information. It is a flip-out screen, so can be angled up for convenient viewing on a telescope.

The R6’s flip screen, similar to most other new Canon cameras.

The R6 has a remote shutter port for an external intervalometer, or control via a time-lapse motion controller. That’s good! 

However, the port is Canon’s low-grade 2.5mm jack. It works, and is a standard connector, but is not as sturdy as the three-pronged N3-style jack used on Canon’s 5D and 6D DSLRs, and on the R3 and R5. Considering the cost of the R6, I would have expected a better, more durable port. The On/Off switch also seems a bit flimsy and easily breakable under hard use. 

The R6’s side ports, including the remote shutter/intervalometer port.

These deficiencies provide the impression of Canon unnecessarily “cheaping out” on the R6. You can forgive them with the Rp, but not with a semi-professional camera like the R6.

INTERVAL TIMER

Unlike the Canon R and Ra (which still mysteriously lack a built-in interval timer, despite firmware updates), the R6 has one in its firmware. Hurray! This can be used to set up a time-lapse sequence, but on exposures only up to the maximum of 30 seconds allowed by the camera’s shutter speed settings, true of most in-camera intervalometers. 

The Interval Timer menu page.

For 30-second exposures taken in succession as quickly as possible the interval on the R6 has to be set to 34 seconds. The reason is that the 30-second exposure is actually 32 seconds, true of all cameras. With the R6, having a minimum gap in time between shots requires an Interval not of 33 seconds as with some cameras, but 34 seconds. Until you realize this, setting the intervalometer correctly can be confusing. 

Like all Canon cameras, the R6 can be set to take only up to 99 frames, not 999. That seems a dumb deficiency. Almost all time-lapse sequences require at least 200 to 300 frames. What could it possibly take in the firmware to add an extra digit to the menu box? It’s there at in the Time-lapse Movie function that assembles a movie in camera, but not here where the camera shoots and saves individual frames. It’s another example where you just can’t fathom Canon’s software decisions.

Setting the Interval Timer for rapid sequence shots with a 30-second exposure.

TIP: If you want to shoot 100 or more frames, set the Number of Frames to 00, so it will shoot until you tell the camera to stop. But awkwardly, Canon says the way to stop an interval shoot is to turn off the camera! That’s crude, as doing so can force you to refocus if you are using a Canon RF lens. Switching the Mode dial to Bulb will stop an interval shoot, an undocumented feature. 

BULB TIMER

As with most recent Canon DSLRs and DSLMs, the menu also includes a Bulb Timer. This allows setting an exposure of any length (many minutes or hours) when the camera is in Bulb mode. This is handy for single long shots at night. 

The Bulb Timer menu page. Bulb Timer only becomes an active choice when the camera is on Bulb.

However, it cannot be used in conjunction with the Interval Timer to program a series of multi-minute exposures, a pity. Instead, a separate outboard intervalometer has to be used for taking an automatic set of any exposures longer than 30 seconds, true of all Canons. 

In Bulb and Bulb Timer mode, the R6’s rear screen lights up with a bright Timer readout. While the information is useful, the display is too bright at night and cannot be dimmed, nor turned red for night use, exactly when you are likely to use Bulb. The power-saving Eco mode has no effect on this display, precisely when you would want it to dim or turn off displays to prolong battery life, another odd deficiency in Canon’s firmware. 

The Bulb Timer screen active during a Bulb exposure. At night it is bright!

The Timer display can only be turned off by closing the flip-out screen, but now the viewfinder activates with the same display. Either way, a display is on draining power during long exposures. And the Timer readout lacks any indication of battery level, a vital piece of information during long shoots. The Canon R, R3 and R5, with their top LCD screens, do not have this annoying “feature.” 

TIP: End a Bulb Timer shoot prematurely by hitting the Shutter button. That feature is documented. 

IN-CAMERA IMAGE STACKING

The R6 offers a menu option present on many recent Canon cameras: Multiple Exposure. The camera can take and internally stack up to 9 images, stacking them by using either Average (best for reducing noise) or Bright mode (best for star trails). An Additive mode also works for star trails, but stacking 9 images requires reducing the exposure of each image by 3 stops, say from ISO 1600 to ISO 200, as I did in the example below. 

The Multiple Exposure menu page.

The result of the internal stacking is a raw file, with the option of also saving the component raws. While the options work very well, in all the cameras I’ve owned that offer such functions, I’ve never used them. I prefer to do any stacking needed later at the computer. 

Comparing a single image with a stack of 9 exposures with 3 in-camera stacking methods.

TIP: The in-camera image stacking options are good for beginners wanting to get advanced stacking results with a minimum of processing fuss later. Use Average to stack ground images for smoother noise. Use Bright for stacking sky images for star trails. Activate one of those modes, then control the camera with a separate intervalometer to automatically shoot and internally stack several multi-minute exposures. 

SHUTTER OPERATION

Being a mirrorless camera, there is no reflex mirror to introduce vibration, and so no need for a mirror lockup function. The shutter can operate purely mechanically, with physical metal curtains opening and closing to start and end the exposure. 

However, the default “out of the box” setting is Electronic First Curtain, where the actual exposure, even when on Bulb, is initiated electronically, but ended by the mechanical shutter. That’s good for reducing vibration, perhaps when shooting the Moon or planets through a telescope at high magnification. 

R6 Shutter Mode options.

In Mechanical, the physical curtains both start and end the exposure. It’s the mode I usually prefer, as I like to hear the reassuring click of the shutter opening. I’ve never found shutter vibration a problem when shooting deep sky images on a telescope mount of any quality. 

In Mechanical mode the shutter can fire at up to 12 frames a second, or up to 20 frames a second in Electronic mode where both the start and end of the exposure happen without the mechanical shutter. That makes for very quiet operation, good for weddings and golf tournaments! 

Electronic Shutter Mode is for fastest burst rates but has limitations.

Being vibration free, Electronic shutter might be great during total solar eclipses for rapid-fire bursts at second and third contacts when shooting through telescopes. Maximum exposure time is 1/2 second in this mode, more than long enough for capturing fleeting diamond rings.

Longer exposures needed for the corona will require Mechanical or Electronic First Curtain shutter. Combinations of shutter modes, drive rates (single or continuous), and exposure bracketing can all be programmed into the three Custom Function settings (C1, C2 and C3) on the Mode dial, for quick switching at an eclipse. It might not be until April 8, 2024 until I have a chance to test these features. And by then the R6 Mark II will be out! 

TIP: While the R6’s manual doesn’t state it, some reviews mention (including at DPReview) that when the shutter is in fully Electronic mode the R6’s image quality drops from 14-bit to 12-bit, true of most other mirrorless cameras. This reduces dynamic range. I would suggest not using Electronic shutter for most astrophotography, even for exposures under 1/2 second. For longer exposures, it’s a moot point as it cannot be used. 

The menu option that fouls up all astrophotographers using an R-series camera.

TIP: The R6 has the same odd menu item that befuddles many a new R-series owner, found on Camera Settings: Page 4. “Release Shutter w/o Lens” defaults to OFF, which means the camera will not work if it is attached to a manual lens or telescope it cannot connect to electronically. Turn it ON and all will be solved. This is a troublesome menu option that Canon should eliminate or default to ON. 

OTHER MENU FEATURES

The rear screen is fully touch sensitive, allowing all settings to be changed on-screen if desired, as well as by scrolling with the joystick and scroll wheels. I find going back to an older camera without a touchscreen annoying – I keep tapping the screen expecting it to do something! 

The Multi-Function Button brings up an array of 5 settings to adjust. This is ISO.

The little Multi-Function (M-Fn) button is a worth getting used to, as it allows quick access to a choice of five important functions such as ISO, drive mode and exposure compensation. However, the ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all changeable by the three scroll wheels. 

The Q button brings up the Quick Menu for displaying and adjusting key functions.

There’s also the Quick menu activated by the Q button. While the content of the Quick menu screen can’t be edited, it does contain a good array of useful functions, adjustable with a few taps. 

Under Custom settings, the Dials and Buttons can be re-assigned to other functions.

Unlike Sonys, the R6 has no dedicated Custom buttons per se. However, it does offer a good degree of customization of its buttons, by allowing users to re-assign them to other functions they might find more useful than the defaults. For example ….

This shows the AF Point button being re-assigned to the Maximize Screen Brightness (Temporary) command.
  • I’ve taken the AF Point button and assigned it to the Maximize Screen Brightness function, to temporarily boost the rear screen to full brightness for ease of framing. 
  • The AE Lock button I assigned to switch the Focus Peaking indicators on and off, to aid manual focusing when needed. 
  • The Depth of Field Preview button I assigned to switching between the rear screen and viewfinder, through that switch does happen automatically as you put your eye to the viewfinder.
  • The Set button I assigned to turning off the Rear Display, though that doesn’t have any effect when the Bulb Timer readout is running, a nuisance. 

While the physical buttons are not illuminated, having a touch screen makes it less necessary to access buttons in the dark. It’s a pity the conveniently positioned but mostly unused Rate button can’t be re-programmed to more useful functions. It’s a waste of a button. 

Set up the Screen Info as you like it by turning on and off screen pages and deciding what each should show.

TIP: The shooting screens, accessed by the Info button (one you do need to find in the dark!), can be customized to show a little, a lot, or no information, as you prefer. Take the time to set them up to show just the information you need over a minimum of screen pages. 

LENS AND FILTER COMPATIBILITY

The new wider RF mount accepts only Canon and third-party RF lenses. However, all Canon and third-party EF mount lenses (those made for DSLRs) will fit on RF-mount bodies with the aid of the $100 Canon EF-to-RF lens adapter. 

The Canon ER-to-RF lens adapter will be needed to attach R cameras to most telescope camera adapters and Canon T-rings made for older DSLR cameras.

This adapter will be necessary to attach any Canon R camera to a telescope equipped with a standard Canon T-ring. That’s especially true for telescopes with field flatterers where maintaining the standard 55mm distance between the flattener and sensor is critical for optimum optical performance. 

The shallower “flange distance” between lens and sensor in all mirrorless cameras means an additional adapter is needed not just for the mechanical connection to the new style of lens mount, but also for the correct scope-to-sensor spacing. 

The extra spacing provided by a mirrorless camera has the benefit of allowing a filter drawer to be inserted into the light path. Canon offers a $300 lens adapter with slide-in filters, though the choice of filters useful for astronomy that fit Canon’s adapter is limited. AstroHutech offers a few IDAS nebula filters.

Clip-in filters made for the EOS R, such as those offered by Astronomik, will also fit the R6. Though, again, most narrowband filters will not work well with an unmodified camera.

The AstroHutech adapter allows inserting filters into the light path on telescopes.

TIP: Alternatively, AstroHutech also offers its own lens adapter/filter drawer that goes from a Canon EF mount to the RF mount, and accepts standard 52mm or 48mm filters. It is a great way to add interchangeable filters to any telescope when using an R-series camera, while maintaining the correct back-focus spacing. I use an AstroHutech drawer with my Ra, where the modified camera works very well with narrowband filters. Using such filters with a stock R6 won’t be as worthwhile, as I showed above. 

A trio of Canon RF zooms — all superb but quite costly.

As of this writing, the selection of third-party lenses for the Canon RF mount is limited, as neither Canon or Nikon have “opened up” their system to other lens makers, unlike Sony with their E-mount system. For example, we have yet to see much-anticipated RF-mount lenses from Sigma, Tamron and Tokina. 

A trio of third party RF lenses — L to R: the TTArtisan 7.5mm f/2 and 11mm f/2.8 fish-eyes and the Samyang/Rokinon AF 85mm f/1.4.

Samyang offers 14mm and 85mm auto-focus RF lenses, but now only under their Rokinon branding. I tested the Samyang RF 85mm f/1.4 here at AstroGearToday

The few third-party lenses that are available, from TTArtisan, Venus Optics and other boutique Chinese lens companies, are usually manual focus lenses with reverse-engineered RF mounts offering no electrical contact with the camera. Some of these wide-angle lenses are quite good and affordable. (I tested the TTArtisan 11mm fish-eye here.)

Until other lens makers are “allowed in,” if you want lenses with auto-focus and camera metadata connections, you almost have to buy Canon. Their RF lenses are superb, surpassing the quality of their older EF-mount equivalents. But they are costly. I sold off a lot of my older lenses and cameras to help pay for the new Canon glass! 

I also have reviews of the superb Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8, as well as the unique Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 and popular Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses (a trio making up the  “holy trinity” of zooms) at AstroGearToday.com.

CONTROL COMPATIBILITY 

Astrophotographers often like to operate their cameras at the telescope using computers running specialized control software. I tested the R6 with two popular Windows programs for controlling DSLR and now mirrorless cameras, BackyardEOS (v3.2.2) and AstroPhotographyTool (v3.88). Both recognized and connected to the R6 via its USB port. 

Both programs recognized the Canon R6.

Another popular option is the ASIair WiFi controller from ZWO. It controls cameras via one of the ASIair’s USB ports, and not (confusingly) through the Air’s remote shutter jack marked DSLR. Under version 1.7 of its mobile app, the ASIair now controls Canon R cameras and connected to the R6 just fine, allowing images to be saved both to the camera and to the Air’s own MicroSD card. 

With an update in 2021, the ZWO ASIair now operates Canon R-series cameras.

The ASIair is an excellent solution for both camera control and autoguiding, with operation via a mobile device that is easier to use and power in the field than a laptop. I’ve not tried other hardware and software controllers with the R6. 

TIP: While the R6, like many Canon cameras, can be controlled remotely with a smartphone via the CanonConnect mobile app, the connection process is complex and the connection can be unreliable. The Canon app offers no redeeming features for astrophotography, and maintaining the connection via WiFi or Bluetooth consumes battery power. 

A dim red and green aurora from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on August 29/30, 2021. This is a stack of 4 exposures for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Canon 15-35mm RF lens at 25mm and the Canon R6 at ISO 4000.

SUGGESTIONS TO CANON

To summarize, in firmware updates, Canon should:

  • Fix the low-level amp glow. No camera should have amp glow. 
  • Allow either dimming the Timer readout, turning it red, or just turning it off!
  • Add a battery display to the Timer readout. 
  • Expand the Interval Timer to allow up to 999 frames, as in the Time-Lapse Movie. 
  • Allow the Rate button to be re-assigned to more functions.
  • Default the Release Shutter w/o Lens function to ON.
  • Revise the manual to correctly describe how to stop an Interval Timer shoot.
  • Allow programming multiple long exposures by combining Interval and Bulb Timer, or by expanding the shutter speed range to longer than 30 seconds, as some Nikons can do.
The Zodiacal Light in the dawn sky, September 14, 2021, from home in Alberta, with the winter sky rising. This is a stack of 4 x 30-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise, and a single 30-second exposure for the sky, all with the TTArtisan 7.5mm fish-eye lens at f/2 and on the Canon R6 at ISO 1600.

CONCLUSION

The extended red sensitivity of the Canon EOS Ra makes it better suited for deep-sky imaging. But with it now out of production (Canon traditionally never kept its astronomical “a” cameras in production for more than two years), I think the R6 is now Canon’s best camera (mirrorless or DSLR) for all types of astrophotography, both stills and movies. 

However, I cannot say how well it will work when filter-modified by a third-party. But such a modification is necessary only for recording red nebulas in the Milky Way. It is not needed for other celestial targets and forms of astrophotography. 

A composite showing about three dozen Perseid meteors accumulated over 3 hours of time, compressed into one image showing the radiant point of the meteor shower in Perseus. All frames were with the Canon R6 at ISO 6400 and with the TTArtisan 11mm fish-eye lens at f/2.8.

The low noise and ISO invariant sensor of the R6 makes it superb for nightscapes, apart from the nagging amp glow. That glow will also add an annoying edge gradient to deep-sky images, best dealt with when shooting by the use of LENR or dark frames. 

As the image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, at the top of the blog attests, with careful processing it is certainly possible to get fine deep-sky images with the R6. 

For low-light movies the R6 is Canon’s answer to the Sony alphas. No other Canon camera can do night sky movies as well as the R6. For me, it was the prime feature that made the R6 the camera of choice to complement the Ra. 

Alan, September 22, 2021 / © 2021 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com  

Chasing the Shadowed Moon


The tradition continued of chasing clear skies to see a lunar eclipse.

It wouldn’t be an eclipse without a chase. Total eclipses of the Sun almost always demand travel, often to the far side of the world, to stand in the narrow path of the Moon’s shadow. 

By contrast, total eclipses of the Moon come to you — they can be seen from half the planet when the Full Moon glides through Earth’s shadow. 

Assuming you have clear skies! That’s the challenge. 

Of the 14 total lunar eclipses (TLEs) visible from here in Alberta since 2000, I have seen all but one, missing the January 21, 2000 TLE due to clouds. 

But of the remaining 13 TLEs so far in the 21st century, I watched only three from home, the last home lunar eclipse being in December 2010. 

The total lunar eclipse of May 26, 2021 here in the initial partial phases with it embedded in thin cloud. The clouds add a glow of iridescent colours around the Moon, with the part of the Moon’s disk in the umbral shadow a very deep, dim red. A subtle blue band appears along the umbral shadow line, usually attributed to ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere. With the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens.

I viewed three TLEs (August 2007, February 2008, and December 2011) from the Rothney Observatory south-west of Calgary as part of public outreach programs I was helping with. 

In April 2014, I was in Australia and viewed the eclipsed Moon rising in the evening sky over Lake Macquarie, NSW. 

A year later, in April 2015, I was in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border for the short total eclipse of the Moon at dawn. 

But of the eclipses I’ve seen from Alberta since 2014, I have had to chase into clear skies for all of them — to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in both October 2014 and September 2015, to the Crowsnest Pass for January 2018, and to Lloydminster for January 2019. 

A selfie of the successful eclipse chaser bagging his trophy, the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019. This was from a site south of Lloydminster on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, but just over into the Saskatchewan side.

The total lunar eclipse on the morning of May 26, 2021 was no exception. 

Leading up to eclipse day prospects for finding clear skies anywhere near home in southern Alberta looked bleak. The province was under widespread cloud bringing much-needed rain. Good for farmers, but bad for eclipse chasers.

Then, two days prior to the eclipse a hole in the clouds was predicted to open up along the foothills in central Alberta just at the right time, at 4 a.m. The predictions stayed consistent a day later. 

Environment Canada predictions, as displayed by the wonderful Astrospheric app, showed Rocky Mountain House (the red circle) on the edge of the retreating clouds.

So trusting the Environment Canada models that had served me well since 2014, I made plans to drive north the day before the eclipse to Rocky Mountain House, a sizeable town on Highway 11 west of Red Deer, where the foothills begin. “Rocky” was predicted to be on the edge of the clearing, with a large swath of clear sky in the right direction, to the southwest where the Moon would be.

Fortunately, COVID restrictions are not so severe here as to demand stay-at-home orders. I could travel, at least within Alberta. Hotels were open, but restaurants only for takeaway.

The Starry Night desktop planetarium program provided a preview of the eclipsed Moon’s location and movement, plus the field of view of lenses, to plan the main shots with an 85mm lens (the time-lapse) and a 200mm lens (the close-ups over the horizon).

This was going to be a tough eclipse even under the best of sky conditions, as for us in Alberta the Moon would be low and setting into the southwest at dawn. The Moon would be darkest and in mid-eclipse just as the sky was also brightening with dawn twilight. 

However, a low eclipse offers the opportunity of a view of the reddened Moon over a scenic landscape, in this case of the eclipsed Moon setting over the Rockies. That was the plan.

Unfortunately, Rocky Mountain House wasn’t the ideal destination as it lies far from the mountains. I was hoping for a site closer to the Rockies in southern Alberta. But a site with clear skies is always the first priority.

The task is then finding a spot to set up with a clear view to the southwest horizon, which from the area around Rocky is tough — it’s all trees! 

This is where planning apps are wonderful. 

The Photographer’s Ephemeris app showed possible side road sites and the position of the eclipsed Moon relative to the site terrain. The arc of spheres is the Milky Way.

I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to search for a side road or spot to pull off where I could safely set up and be away from trees to get a good sightline to the horizon and possibly distant mountains. 

A site not far from town was ideal, to avoid long pre- and post-eclipse drives in the wee hours of the morning. The timing of this eclipse was part of the challenge — in having to be on site at 4 a.m.

TPE showed several possible locations and a Google street view (not shown here) seemed to confirm that the horizon in that area off Highway 11 would be unobstructed over cultivated fields. 

But you don’t know for sure until you get there. 

The PhotoPills AR mode overlays a graphic of the night sky on top of a live view from the phone’s camera, useful when on site to check the shooting geometry for that night. The Moon was in the right place!

So as soon as I arrived, I went to one site I had found remotely, only to discover power lines in the way. Not ideal.

I found another nearby side road with a clean view. From there I used the PhotoPills app (above) and its augmented reality “AR” mode to confirm, that yes, the Moon would be in the right place over a clear horizon at eclipse time the next morning. 

The Theodolite app records viewing directions onto site images, useful for documenting sites for later use at night.

Another app I like for site scouting, Theodolite, also confirmed that the view toward the eclipsed Moon’s direction (with an azimuth of about 220°) would be fine from that site. 

As a Plan B — it’s always good to have a Plan B! — I also drove west along Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway, toward the mountains, in search of a rare site away from trees, just in case the only clear skies lay to the west. I found one, some 50 km west of Rocky, but thankfully it was not needed. The Plan A site worked fine, and was just 5 minutes south of town, and bed!

My eclipse gear at work with the eclipse in progress in the morning twilight at 4:30 a.m.

I set up two tripods. One was for the Canon R6 with an 85mm lens for a “time-lapse” sequence of the Moon moving across the frame as it entered the Earth’s umbral shadow. 

The other tripod I used for closeups of just the Moon using the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens, then switched to the Canon Ra and a 135mm lens, then the longer 200mm lens once the Moon got low enough to also be in frame with the horizon. Those were for the prime shot of the eclipse over the distant mountains and skyline. 

A composite “time-lapse” blend of the setting Full Moon entering the Earth’s umbral shadow on the morning of May 26, 2021. This shows the Moon moving into Earth’s shadow and gradually disappearing in the bright pre-dawn sky. I shot images with the 85mm lens at 1-minute intervals but choose only every 5th image for this blend, so the Moons are spaced at 5-minute intervals.

It all worked! The sky turned out to be clearer than predicted, a pleasant surprise, with only some light cloud obscuring the Moon halfway through the partial phases (the first image at top). 

The other surprise was how dark the shadowed portion of the Moon was. This was a very short total eclipse, with totality only 14 minutes long. With the Moon passing through the outer, lighter part of the umbral shadow, I would have expected a brighter eclipse, making the reddened Moon stand out better in the blue twilight.

As it was, in the minutes before the official start of totality at 5:11 a.m. MDT, the Moon effectively disappeared from view, both to the eye and camera. 

The total lunar eclipse of May 26, 2021, here in the late partial phase about 15 minutes before totality began, with a thin arc of the Full Moon at the top of the disk still in sunlight. The rest is in the red umbral shadow of the Earth. The same pinkish-red light is beginning to light the distant Rocky Mountains in the dawn twilight. This is a single 1.3-second exposure with the 200mm lens and Canon Ra, untracked on a tripod. I did blend in a short 1/6-second exposure for just the bright part of the Moon to tone down its brightness.

My best shots were of the Moon still in partial eclipse but with the umbral shaded portion bright enough to show up red in the images. The distant Rockies were also beginning to light up pink in the first light of dawn. 

The total lunar eclipse of May 26, 2021, taken at 5:01 a.m. MDT, about 10 minutes before the start of totality, with a thin arc of the Full Moon at the top of the disk still in sunlight. The rest is in the red umbral shadow of the Earth but the eclipsed portion of the Moon was so dim it was disappearing into the brightening twilight. This is a single 0.8-second exposure with the 200mm lens and Canon Ra.

My last view was of a sliver-thin Moon disappearing into Earth’s shadow just prior to the onset of totality. I packed up and headed back to bed with technically the Moon still up and in total eclipse, but impossible to see. Still I was a happy eclipse chaser! 

It was another successful eclipse trip, thwarted not so much by clouds, but by the darkness of our planet’s shadow, which might have been due to widespread cloud or volcanic ash in the atmosphere of Earth. 

The other factor at play was that this was a “supermoon,” with the larger Moon near perigee entering more deeply into the umbra than a normal-sized Moon. 

A preview using Starry Night of the November 18/19, 2021 near-total lunar eclipse from the longitude and latitude of Alberta, with the Moon hight in the south west of the Milky Way.

The next lunar eclipse is six months later, on the night of November 18/19, 2021 when the Moon will not quite fully enter Earth’s umbral shadow, for a 97% partial eclipse. But enough of the Moon will be in the dark umbra for most of the Moon to appear red, with a white crescent “smile” at the bottom. 

As shown above, from my location in Alberta the Moon will appear high in the south, in Taurus just west of the Milky Way. The winter stars and Milky Way will “turn on” and fade into view as the eclipse progresses.

We shall see if that will be a rare “home” eclipse, or if it will demand another chase to a clear hole in the clouds on a chilly November night. 

— Alan, © 2021 amazingsky.com 

How to Photograph the Great Conjunction


On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226. 

As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see. 

Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky. 

But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years! 

Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear. 


Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses

This shows the field of view of various lenses on full-frame cameras (red outlines) and a 200mm lens with 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera (blue outline). The date is December 17 when the waxing crescent Moon also appears near the planet pair for a bonus element in a nightscape image.

Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4. 

The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work. 

Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context. 

For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 3, 2020 from the Elbow Falls area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 30 seconds each, and one untracked image for the bright sky for 15 seconds to preserve colours and highlights, all with the 24mm Sigma lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 200.

NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites). 

My ebook linked to at right has pages of tips and techniques for shooting nightscapes and time-lapses. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 10, 2020 from Red Deer River valley, north of Drumheller, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 20 seconds each at f/5.6, and a single image for the sky for 5 seconds at f/2.8, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 400. All untracked.

Harder — Shooting With Longer Lenses

The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night. 

As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud. 

For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21. 

On December 21 wide-angle and even short telephoto lenses will likely show the two planets as an unresolved point of light, no brighter than Jupiter on its own.

On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects. 

However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use. 

A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds. 

To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800. 

This shows the motion of Jupiter relative to Saturn from December 17 to 25, with the outer frame representing the field of view of a 200mm lens and 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera. The smaller frame shows the field of a telescope with an effective focal length of 1,200mm.

TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos. 


Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses 

This one popular sky tracker, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, here with a telephoto lens. It and other trackers such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer seen in the opening image, can be used with lenses and telescopes up to about 300mm focal length, if they are balanced well. Even longer lenses might work for the short exposures needed for the planets, but vibration and wind can blur images.

However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site. 

Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use. 

Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds. 

You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise. 

TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing. 


The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope

An alt-azimuth mounted GoTo scope like this Celestron SE6 can work for short exposures of the planets, provided it is aligned and is tracking properly. Good focus will be critical.

Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year. 

But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars. 

While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.

You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.

A simulation of the view with a 1,200mm focal length telescope on December 21. Even with such a focal length the planet disks still appear small.

TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view! 

But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same. 

This is the setup I might use for a portable rig best for a last-minute chase to clear skies. It’s a Sky-Watcher EQM-35 mount with a 105mm apo refractor (the long-discontinued Astro-Physics Traveler), and here with a 2x Barlow to double the effective focal length to 1,200mm.

However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21! 

TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it. 

TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others. 

TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus! 

Jupiter and Saturn in the same telescope field on December 5, 2020. Some of the moons are visible in this exposure taken in twilight before the planets got too low in the southwest. This is a single exposure with a 130mm Astro-Physics apo refractor at f/6 (so 780mm focal length) for 4 seconds at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D MkII. The disks of the planets are overexposed to bring out the moons.

Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.

Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it. 

FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.

Jupiter and Saturn taken in the deep twilight on December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky (and untrailed stars) for 30 seconds each at ISO 400, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy! 

The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn! 

And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!

In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view! 

Jupiter and Saturn taken December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky for 30 seconds at ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry. 

Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene. 

Clear skies! 

— Alan, © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Geminid Meteor Shower


The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity. 

The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal! 

The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night. 

A Good Year for Geminids

While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:

• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.

• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years. 

The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower looking east to the radiant point. This is a stack of 40 images, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 40 frames with meteors out of 357 taken over 3.25 hours. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky. I rotated and moved each image in relation to the base image and around Polaris at upper left, in order to place each meteor at approximately the correct position in relation to the background stars, to preserve the effect of the meteors streaking from the radiant near Castor at centre.

What Settings to Use?

To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:

  • A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
  • A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
  • Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
  • An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins. 
  • Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Use an intervalometer to control the shutter speed, with the camera on Bulb. Set the interval to one second to minimize the time the shutter is closed.

Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:

  • A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
  • A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
  • A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible. 
  • Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
  • A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
This sky chart looking east for December 13, 2020 shows the position of the radiant and the constellation of Gemini at about 7 p.m. local time. Orion is just rising in the east.

When to Shoot?

The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.

For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14. 

For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.

So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold! 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major. Gemini itself and the radiant of the shower is at top centre. It is one frame from a 700-frame sequence for stacking and time-lapses. The ground is a mean stack of 8 frames to smooth noise. Exposures were 30 seconds at ISO 6400 with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII.

Where to Go?

To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north. 

While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town. 

From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up. 

The Geminid meteor shower of December 13, 2017 in a view framing the winter Milky Way from Auriga (at top) to Puppis (at bottom) with Gemini itself, the radiant of the shower at left, and Orion at right. The view is looking southeast. This is a composite stack of one base image with the brightest meteor, then 20 other images layered in each with a meteor. The camera was not tracking the sky, so I rotated and moved each of the layered-in frames so that their stars mroe or less aligned with the base layer. The images for this composite were taken over 107 minutes, with 22 images containing meteors picked from 196 images in total over that time. Each exposure was 30 seconds with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400.

Where to Aim?

You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west. 

But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are. 

The Star Adventurer star tracker, on its optional equatorial wedge to aid precise polar alignment of its motorized rotation axis.

Using a Tracker

Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite. 

A tracked composite showing the 2017 Geminid meteors streaking from the radiant point in Gemini at upper left. This is a stack of 43 exposures, each 1-minute with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.5 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 6400, set fast to pick up the fainter meteors. These were 43 exposures with meteors (some with 2 or 3 per frame) out of 455 taken over 5 hours. The background sky comes from just one of the exposures. All the other frames are masked to show just the meteor.

However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary. 

If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower, from the peak night of December 13, with the radiant in Gemini, at top, high overhead. So meteors appear to be raining down to the horizon. This was certainly the visual impression. This is a stack of 24 images, some with 2 or 3 meteors per frame, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 24 frames with meteors out of 171 taken over 94 minutes. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky.

Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera

The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses. 

The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant. 

To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.

Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog. 

But I cover the process in multi-step tutorials in my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook, linked to above. 

The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials. 

A trio of Geminid meteors over the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, with Orion and the winter stars setting. I shot this at the end of the night of December 13/14, 2017 with the rising waxing crescent Moon providing some ground illumination. This is a stack of one image for the ground and two fainter meteors, and another image with the bright meteor. The camera was on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker so the stars are not trailed, though the ground will be slightly blurred. All were 30-second exposures at f/2.8 with the 24mm Canon lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 5000.

Keeping Warm

Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.

Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon. 

Good luck and happy meteor hunting!

— Alan, December 2, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

 

How to Photograph Comet NEOWISE


Comet over Hoodoos at Dinosaur Park in Twilight (July 14, 2020)A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot. 

My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark. 

So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.

Comet over Hoodoos at Dinosaur Park (July 14, 2020)
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the eroded hoodoo formations at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, July 14-15, 2020. A faint aurora is at right. The foreground is lit by starlight only; there was no light painting employed here. This is a stack of 12 exposures for the ground to smooth noise, blended with a single untracked exposure of the sky, all at 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.


How Long Will the Comet be Visible?

The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.

But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night. 

As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown. 

But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July. 

Comet Path
This chart shows the position of Comet NEOWISE at nightly intervals through the rest of the summer. However, the rest of July are the prime nights left for catching the comet at its best. Click or tap on the image to download a full-res copy.


When is the Best Time to Shoot?

The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night. 

Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn. 

But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks. 

Comet NEOWISE over Red Deer River
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the Red Deer River from Orkney Viewpoint north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the morning of July 11, 2020. The sky is brightening with dawn twilight and a small display of noctilucent clouds is on the horizon at right. This is a two-segment vertical panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 200 for 13 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.


Where Do I Look? 

In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun. 

Selfie Observing Comet NEOWISE (July 15, 2020)
A selfie observing Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) with binoculars on the dark moonless night of July 14/15, 2020 from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. A faint aurora colours the sky green and magenta. The faint blue ion tail of the comet is visible in addition to its brighter dust tail. The ground is illuminated by starlight and aurora light only. This is a blend of 6 exposures stacked for the ground (except me) to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky and me, all 13 seconds at f/2.5 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. Topaz DeNoise AI applied.


What Exposures Do I Use?

There is no single best setting. It depends on …

— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).

— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.

— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.

However, here are guidelines:

— ISO 400 to 1600

— Aperture f/2 to f/4

— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds

Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.

As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.

Panorama of Comet NEOWISE Over Prince of Wales Hotel (July 14, 2
A once-in-a-lifetime scene — A panorama of the dawn sky at 4 am on July 14, 2020 from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada with Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel. Noctilucent clouds glow below the comet in the dawn twilight. Venus is rising right of centre paired with Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, while the Pleiades cluster shine above. The waning quarter Moon shines above the Vimy Peak at far right. The Big Dipper is partly visible above the mountain at far left. Capella and the stars of Auriga are at centre. This is an 8-segment panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.5 for 15 seconds each at ISO 100 with the Canon 6D MkII and stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

Exposure Considerations 

As a rule you want to …

— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.

— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image. 

— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens. 

So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot. 

Histogram
The histogram as shown in Adobe Camera Raw. Cameras also display the image’s histogram in the Live View preview and in playback of recorded images. Keep the histogram from slamming to the left.

— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left. 

Comet NEOWISE Over Dinosaur Park (July 15, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the badlands and formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on the night of July 14-15, 202. This is a blend of 6 exposures for the ground stacked to smooth noise, with a single exposure for the sky, with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII. The ground exposures are 1- and 2-minutes at ISO 1600 and f/2.8, while the single untracked sky exposure was 20 seconds at ISO 3200 and f/2.5.

My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides extensive instruction on the best camera settings for exposure and noise reduction.

Location Considerations

When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination. 

If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site. 

And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.

Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late! 


What Lens Do I Use?

Comet over Canola Field (July 15, 2020)
With a 35mm lens. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over a ripening canola field near home in southern Alberta, on the night of July 15-16, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of six 2-minute exposures at ISO 3200 and f/5.6 to smooth noise, provide depth of field, and bring out the colours of the canola, blended with a single short 15-second exposure of the sky at f/2.8 and ISO 1600, all with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

Comet over Canola Field Close-Up (July 15, 2020)
With a 50mm lens. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over a ripening canola field near home in southern Alberta, on the night of July 15-16, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of three 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and f/5 to smooth noise, provide depth of field, and bring out the colours of the canola, blended with a single short 15-second exposure of the sky at f/2.8 and ISO 3200, all with the 50mm Sigma lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well. 

Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.

A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots. 

Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.

Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show. 

StarryNightFOV
StarryNight™ and other programs offer “Field of View” indicator frames that can show how the scene will frame with (in this example) lenses from 24mm to 135mm.


Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?

Yes. Whatever you have, try it. 

However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually. 

In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes. 

It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars. 

But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot. 

Comet NEOWISE with NLCs Above Prairie Lake (July 10-11, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over Deadhorse Lake near Hussar in southern Alberta, taken just after midnight on July 10-11, 2020 during its evening appearance. The comet shines just above low noctilucent clouds. This is a blend of nine exposures for the ground stacked to smooth noise and the water, with a single exposure for the sky, all 4 seconds with the 135mm Canon lens at f/2 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 1600.


What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?

Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure. 

What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).

On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.

On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it). 

Canon 6D Live View Wide
The Live View screen of a Canon DSLR. Look in your manual for tips on how to boost the Live screen image brightness with the Exposure Simulation option.

Canon 6D Live View Zoom5x
Magnify the image 5x, 10x or more with the Zoom box centred on a star to focus the star to a pinpoint.

Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards. 

Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.

All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod. 


What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot? 

Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot. 

To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:

— First, where the comet will be in the sky, 

— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location. 

— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!

Stellarium Web
The free web version of Stellarium shows the comet, as do the paid mobile apps.

  1. Planning Where the Comet Will Be 

Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.

For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions. 

The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.org  Be sure to allow it to access your location. 

Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest). 

Comet NEOWISE and NLCs over Prince of Wales Hotel (July 14, 2020
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) with a small display of noctilucent clouds over Emerald Bay and the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, at dawn on July 14, 2020. This is a blend of a stack of four exposures for the ground and water to smooth noise, blended with a single short exposure for the sky, all 20 seconds at f/2.5 and ISO 400. All with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon 6D MkII camera.

  1. Planning Where You Need To Be

I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris mobile app (https://www.photoephemeris.com) — there is a free web version available. Many like PhotoPills (https://www.photopills.com).

With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction. 

TPE
The screen from The Photographer’s Ephemeris app showing the planning map for the image above, with the faint yellow line indicating the line toward the comet’s azimuth.

Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.

TPE 3D
The simulation of the real scene above, of the comet over the Prince of Wales Hotel, using TPE 3D app. The simulation matches the real scene very well!

I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.

Astrospheric
The Astrospheric app prediction of skies for me for the night I prepared this blog. Not great! But clear skies could be found to to east with a fresh hours drive.

  1. Planning for the Weather 

All is for nought if the sky is cloudy. 

For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies. 

For sites outside North America, try ClearOutside (https://clearoutside.com) 


Advanced Techniques 

Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot. 

But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.

Comet NEOWISE and Aurora Panorama (July 13, 2020)
A panorama of the sky just before midnight on July 13, 2020 from Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada with Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the front range of the Rocky Mountains and an arc of aurora across the north. This is a 6-segment panorama with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.2 for 25 seconds each at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D MkII and stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

1. Panoramas

On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.

Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in. 

My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas. 

Comet NEOWISE over Red Deer River Panorama (July 11, 2020)
What a magical scene this was! This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the sweep of the Red Deer River and Badlands from Orkney Viewpoint north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the morning of July 11, 2020. Light from the waning gibbous Moon provides the illumination, plus twilight. This nicely shows the arch of the twilight colours. This is a 6-segment panorama with the 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400 for 13 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI applied.

2. Exposure Blending 

If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually. 

For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus. 

For a video tutorial on how to do the layering and masking in programs such as Photoshop, see my How to Shoot Moonlit Nightscapes video at https://vimeo.com/theamazingsky/moonlighttutorial. 

Comet NEOWISE over Horseshoe Canyon (July 11, 2020)
This is Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the Horseshoe Canyon formation near Drumheller, Alberta on the night of July 10-11, 2020, taken about 2 a.m. MDT with the comet just past lower culmination with it circumpolar at this time. Warm light from the rising waning gibbous Moon provides the illumination. This is a blend of six 1- and 2-minute exposures for the ground at ISO 800 and 400 stacked to smooth noise, with a single 30-second exposure at ISO 1600 for the sky, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII.

3. Exposure Stacking 

To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images. 

Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows). 

But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them. 

Comet NEOWISE Close-Up (July 15, 2020)
A close-up of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) on the night of July 14/15, 2020 with a 135mm telephoto lens. This is a stack of nine 1-minute exposures with the 135mm Canon lens wide-open at f/2 and Canon EOS Ra camera at ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro tracker tracking the stars not the comet. Stacked and aligned in Photoshop.

4. Tracking the Sky 

If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller). 

But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing. 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro
The iOptron SkyGuider Pro and 135mm lens used to take the close-up shot of the comet above.

The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well. 

Star Adventurer Polar Axis Angle
This is the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. All trackers have a polar axis that needs to be aligned to the Celestial Pole, near Polaris.

Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.

But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.

Clear skies and happy comet hunting!

— Alan, July 18, 2020 /Revised July 23 / AmazingSky.com 

 

Ten Tips for Taking Time-Lapses


Selfie at Grasslands National Park

I present my top 10 tips for capturing time-lapses of the moving sky. 

If you can take one well-exposed image of a nightscape, you can take 300. There’s little extra work required, just your time. But if you have the patience, the result can be an impressive time-lapse movie of the night sky sweeping over a scenic landscape. It’s that simple. 

Or is it? 

Here are my tips for taking time-lapses, in a series of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that I’ve found effective for ensuring great results. 

But before you attempt a time-lapse, be sure you can first capture well-exposed and sharply focused still shots. Shooting hundreds of frames for a time-lapse will be a disappointing waste of your time if all the images are dark and blurry. 

For that reason many of my tips apply equally well to shooting still images. But taking time-lapses does require some specialized gear, techniques, planning, and software. First, the equipment. 

NOTE: This article appeared originally in Issue #9 of Dark Sky Travels e-magazine.


SELECTING EQUIPMENT

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

TIP 1 — DO:  Use a solid tripod 

A lightweight travel tripod that might suffice for still images on the road will likely be insufficient for time-lapses. Not only does the camera have to remain rock steady for the length of the exposure, it has to do so for the length of the entire shoot, which could be several hours. Wind can’t move it, nor any camera handling you might need to do mid-shoot, such as swapping out a battery. 

The tripod needn’t be massive. For hiking into scenic sites you’ll want a lightweight but sturdy tripod. While a carbon fibre unit is costly, you’ll appreciate its low weight and good strength every night in the field. Similarly, don’t scrimp on the tripod head. 

TIP 2 — DO:  Use a fast lens

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

As with nightscape stills, the single best purchase you can make to improve your images of dark sky scenes is not buying a new camera (at least not at first), but buying a fast, wide-angle lens. 

Ditch the slow kit zoom and go for at least an f/2.8, if not f/2, lens with 10mm to 24mm focal length. This becomes especially critical for time-lapses, as the fast aperture allows using short shutter speeds, which in turn allows capturing more frames in a given period of time. That makes for a smoother, slower time-lapse, and a shoot you can finish sooner if desired. 

TIP 3 — DO:  Use an intervalometer

3A-Intervalometer-Canon
Canon intervalometer functions

3B-Intervalometer-Nikon
Nikon intervalometer functions

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

Time-lapses demand the use of an intervalometer to automatically fire the shutter for at least 200 to 300 images for a typical time-lapse. Many cameras have an intervalometer function built into their firmware. The shutter speed is set by using the camera in Manual mode. 

Just be aware that a camera’s 15-second exposure really lasts 16 seconds, while a 30-second shot set in Manual is really a 32-second exposure. 

So in setting the interval to provide one second between shots, as I advise below, you have to set the camera’s internal intervalometer for an interval of 17 seconds (for a shutter speed of 15 seconds) or 33 seconds (for a shutter speed of 30 seconds). It’s an odd quirk I’ve found true of every brand of camera I use or have tested. 

Alternatively, you can set the camera to Bulb and then use an outboard hardware intervalometer (they sell for $60 on up) to control the exposure and fire the shutter. Test your unit. Its interval might need to be set to only one second, or to the exposure time + one second. 

How intervalometers define “Interval” varies annoyingly from brand to brand. Setting the interval incorrectly can result in every other frame being missed and a ruined sequence.


SETTING YOUR CAMERA

TIP 4 — DON’T:  Underexpose

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

As with still images, the best way to beat noise is to give the camera signal. Use a wider aperture, a longer shutter speed, or a higher ISO (or all of the above) to ensure the image is well exposed with a histogram pushed to the right. 

If you try to boost the image brightness later in processing you’ll introduce not only the very noise you were trying to avoid, but also odd artifacts in the shadows such as banding and purple discolouration. 

With still images we have the option of taking shorter, untrailed images for the sky, and longer exposures for the dark ground to reveal details in the landscape, to composite later. With time-lapses we don’t have that luxury. Each and every frame has to capture the entire scene well. 

At dark sky sites, expose for the dark ground as much as you can, even if that makes the sky overly bright. Unless you outright clip the highlights in the Milky Way or in light polluted horizon glows, you’ll be able to recover highlight details later in processing. 

After poor focus, underexposure, resulting in overly noisy images, is the single biggest mistake I see beginners make.

TIP 5 — DON’T:  Worry about 500 or “NPF” Exposure Rules

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

While still images might have to adhere to the “500 Rule” or the stricter “NPF Rule” to avoid star trailing, time-lapses are not so critical. Slight trailing of stars in each frame won’t be noticeable in the final movie when the stars are moving anyway. 

So go for rule-breaking, longer exposures if needed, for example if the aperture needs to be stopped down for increased depth of field and foreground focus. Again, with time-lapses we can’t shoot separate exposures for focus stacking later. 

Just be aware that the longer each exposure is, the longer it will take to shoot 300 of them. 

Why 300? I find 300 frames is a good number to aim for. When assembled into a movie at 30 frames per second (a typical frame rate) your 300-frame clip will last 10 seconds, a decent length of time in a final movie. 

You can use a slower frame rate (24 fps works fine), but below 24 the movie will look jerky unless you employ advanced frame blending techniques. I do that for auroras.

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

Bonus Tip

How long it will take to acquire the needed 300 frames will depend on how long each exposure is and the interval between them. An app such as PhotoPills (via its Time lapse function) is handy in the field for calculating exposure time vs. frame count vs. shoot length, and providing a timer to let you know when the shoot is done. 

TIP 6 — DO:  Use short intervals

6A-Intervals-No Gaps

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

At night, the interval between exposures should be no more than one or two seconds. By “interval,” I mean the time between when the shutter closes and when it opens again for the next frame. 

Not all intervalometers define “Interval” that way. But it’s what you expect it means. If you use too long an interval then the stars will appear to jump across the sky, ruining the smooth motion you are after. 

In practice, intervals of four to five seconds are sometimes needed to accommodate the movement of motorized “motion control” devices that turn or slide the camera between each shot. But I’m not covering the use of those advanced units here. I cover those options and much, much more in 400 pages of tips, techniques and tutorials in my Nightscapes ebook, linked to above.

However, during the day or in twilight, intervals can be, and indeed need to be, much longer than the exposures. It’s at night with stars in the sky that you want the shutter to be closed as little as possible. 

TIP 7 — DO:  Shoot Raw

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

This advice also applies to still images where shooting raw files is essential for professional results. But you likely knew that.

However, with time-lapses some cameras offer a mode that will shoot time-lapse frames and assemble them into a movie right in the camera. Don’t use it. It gives you a finished, pre-baked movie with no ability to process each frame later, an essential step for good night time-lapses. And raw files provide the most data to work with.

So even with time-lapses, shoot raw not JPGs. 

If you are confident the frames will be used only for a time-lapse, you might choose to shoot in a smaller S-Raw or compressed C-Raw mode, for smaller files, in order to fit more frames onto a card. 

But I prefer not to shrink or compress the original raw files in the camera, as some of them might make for an excellent stacked and layered still image where I want the best quality originals (such as for the ISS over Waterton Lakes example above). 

To get you through a long field shoot away from your computer buy more and larger memory cards. You don’t need costly, superfast cards for most time-lapse work. 


PLANNING AND COMPOSITION

TIP 8 — DO:  Use planning apps to frame 

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

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

All nightscape photography benefits from using one of the excellent apps we now have to assist us in planning a shoot. They are particularly useful for time-lapses. 

Apps such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great. I like the latter as it links to its companion TPE 3D app to preview what the sky and lighting will look like over the actual topographic horizon from your site. You can scrub through time to see the motion of the Milky Way over the scenery. The Augmented Reality “AR” modes of these apps are also useful, but only once you are on site during the day.

For planning a time-lapse at home I always turn to a “planetarium” program to simulate the motion of the sky (albeit over a generic landscape), with the ability to add in “field of view” indicators to show the view your lens will capture. 

You can step ahead in time to see how the sky will move across your camera frame during the length of the shoot. Indeed, such simulations help you plan how long the shoot needs to last until, for example, the galactic core or Orion sets.

Planetarium software helps ensure you frame the scene properly, not only for the beginning of the shoot (that’s easy — you can see that!), but also for the end of the shoot, which you can only predict. 

8C-Stellarium Start

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

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

Bonus Tip

If your shoot will last as long as three hours, do plan to check the battery level and swap batteries before three hours is up. Most cameras, even new mirrorless models, will now last for three hours on a full battery, but likely not any longer. If it’s a cold winter night, expect only one or two hours of life from a single battery.


PROCESSING

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

9A-Bridge-Copy

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

Processing the raw files takes the same steps and settings as you would use to process still images. 

With time-lapses, however, you have to do all the processing required within your favourite raw developer software. You can’t count on bringing multiple exposures into a layer-based processor such as Photoshop to stack and blend images. That works for a single image, but not for 300. 

I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge to do all my time-lapse processing. But many photographers use Lightroom, which offers all the same settings and non-destructive functions as Adobe Camera Raw. 

For those who wish to “avoid Adobe” there are other choices, but for time-lapse work an essential feature is the ability to develop one frame, then copy and paste its settings (or “sync” settings) to all the other frames in the set. 

Not all programs allow that. Affinity Photo does not. Luminar doesn’t do it very well. DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and the free Raw Therapee, among others, all work fine. 

HOW TO ASSEMBLE A TIME-LAPSE

Once you have a set of raws all developed, the usual workflow is to export all those frames out as high-quality JPGs which is what movie assembly programs need. Your raw developing software has to allow batch exporting to JPGs — most do. 

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

However, none of the programs above (except Photoshop and Adobe’s After Effects) will create the final movie, whether it be from those JPGs or from the raws. 

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

So for assembling the intermediate JPGs into a movie, I often use a low-cost program called TLDF (TimeLapse DeFlicker) available for MacOS and Windows (timelapsedeflicker.com). It offers advanced functions such as deflickering (i.e. smoothing slight frame-to-frame brightness fluctuations) and frame blending (useful to smooth aurora motions or to purposely add star trails).

While there are many choices for time-lapse assembly, I suggest using a program dedicated to the task and not, as many do, a movie editing program. For most sequences, the latter makes assembly unnecessarily difficult and harder to set key parameters such as frame rates. 

TIP 10 — DO:  Try LRTimelapse for more advanced processing

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

Get serious about time-lapse shooting and you will want — indeed, you will need — the program LRTimelapse (LRTimelapse.com). A free but limited trial version is available. 

This powerful program is for sequences where one setting will not work for all the frames. One size does not fit all.

Instead, LRTimelapse allows you to process a few keyframes throughout a sequence, say at the start, middle, and end. It then interpolates all the settings between those keyframes to automatically process the entire set of images to smooth (or “ramp”) and deflicker the transitions from frame to frame. 

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

This is essential for sequences where the lighting changes during the shoot (say, the Moon rises or sets), and for so-called “holy grails.” Those are advanced sequences that track from daylight or twilight to darkness, or vice versa, over a wide range of camera settings.

However, LRTimelapse works only with Adobe Lightroom or the Adobe Camera Raw/Bridge combination. So for advanced time-lapse work Adobe software is essential. 

A Final Bonus Tip

Keep it simple. You might aspire to emulate the advanced sequences you see on the web, where the camera pans and dollies during the movie. I suggest avoiding complex motion control gear at first to concentrate on getting well-exposed time-lapses with just a static camera. That alone is a rewarding achievement.

But before that, first learn to shoot still images successfully. All the settings and skills you need for a great looking still image are needed for a time-lapse. Then move onto capturing the moving sky. 

I end with a link to an example music video, shot using the techniques I’ve outlined. Thanks for reading and watching. Clear skies!

The Beauty of the Milky Way from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.


© 2019 Alan Dyer

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

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

 

Testing the MSM Tracker


MSM Test Title

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Tested

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounting Options

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

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

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

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

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

Polar Alignment

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

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

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

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


UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1

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


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

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

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

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

Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panning the Ground 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Too Slow or Too Fast

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

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

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

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

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


UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

MSM Rotator 2019


Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Math

Where does that number come from? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time-Lapse Movie Examples

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

Battery Life

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

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

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

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

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

Other Caveats

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

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

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

MSM Polar Aligned On Back


UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019

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

I’m sorry to report it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison with the Star Adventurer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas


The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone

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

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

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


PART 1 — SHOOTING 

What Equipment Do You Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting Horizon Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shooting 360° Panoramas

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

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

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


Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas

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

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

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

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


Automating the Pan Shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When to Shoot the Milky Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PART 2 — STITCHING

Developing Panorama Segments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stitching Simple Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14A-Camera Raw Multi-Tier Fail
When Stitching Goes Awry
Throw a multi-tier pano at Adobe Camera Raw and you might end up with this type of unsalvageable result. Here’s where you have to turn to specialized panorama software

14B-Adobe Camera Raw 14mm Fail
Warp Factor
Even single-tier panos but shot with 14mm rectilinear (in this case) or fish-eye lenses will create warped results with ACR, only partly correctable with Boundary Warp.

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

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


Stitching Complex Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other Stitching Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing the Nikon Z6 for Astrophotography


Nikon Z Title

I put the new Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera through its paces for astrophotography. 

Following Sony’s lead, in late 2018 both Nikon and Canon released their entries to the full-frame mirrorless camera market. 

Here I review one of Nikon’s new mirrorless models, the Z6, tested solely with astrophotography in mind. I did not test any of the auto-exposure, auto-focus, image stabilization, nor rapid-fire continuous mode features. 

For full specs and details on the Z-series cameras see Nikon USA’s website.

Sony a7III vs Nikon Z6 copy

In my testing I compared the Nikon Z6 (at right above) to two competitive cameras, the relatively new Sony a7III mirrorless (at left above) and 2015-vintage Nikon D750 DSLR.

All three are “entry-level” full-frame cameras, with 24 megapixels and in a similar $2,000 price league, though the older D750 now often sells at a considerable discount.


Disclosure

I should state at the outset that my conclusions are based on tests conducted over only three weeks in mid-winter 2019 while I had the camera on loan from Nikon Canada’s marketing company. 

I don’t own the camera and didn’t have many moonless nights during the loan period to capture a lot of “beauty” shots under the stars with the Z6.

Auroral Arc (January 10, 2019)
An arc of the auroral oval across the northern horizon on the night of January 10-11, 2019. With the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon Z6 for testing.

However, I think my testing was sufficient to reveal the camera’s main traits of interest — as well as deficiencies it might have — for astrophotography.

I should also point out that I do not participate in “affiliate links,” so I have no financial motivation to prompt you to buy gear from merchants. 

But if you buy my ebook (at right), which features reams of sections on camera and time-lapse gear, I would be very pleased! 


TL;DR Conclusions

In short — I found the Nikon Z6 superb for astrophotography. 

Nikon Z6 Screens copy

Summary:

• It offers as low a noise level as you’ll find in a 24-megapixel full-frame camera, though its noise was not significantly lower than the competitive Sony a7III, nor even the older Nikon D750. 

• The Z6’s ISO-invariant sensor proved excellent when dealing with the dark underexposed shadows typical of Milky Way nightscapes.

• The Live View was bright and easy to enhance to even brighter levels using the Movie mode to aid in framing nightscapes. 

• When shooting deep-sky images through telescopes using long exposures, the Z6 did not exhibit any odd image artifacts such as edge vignetting or amplifier glows, unlike the Sony a7III. See my review of that camera in my blog from 2018. 

Recommendations: 

• Current owners of Nikon cropped-frame cameras wanting to upgrade to full-frame would do well to consider a Z6 over any current Nikon DSLR. 

• Anyone wanting a full-frame camera for astrophotography and happy to “go Nikon” will find the Z6 nearly perfect for their needs. 


Nikon Z6 vs. Z7

Nikon Front View copy

I opted to test the Z6 over the more expensive Z7, as the 24-megapixel Z6 has 6-micron pixels resulting in lower noise (according to independent tests) than the 46 megapixel Z7 with its 4.4 micron pixels. 

In astrophotography, I feel low noise is critical, with 24-megapixel cameras hitting a sweet spot of noise vs. resolution.

However, if the higher resolution of the Z7 is important for your daytime photography needs, then I’m sure it will work well at night. The Nikon D850 DSLR, with a sensor similar to the Z7, has been proven by others to be a good astrophotography camera, albeit with higher noise than the lesser megapixel Nikons such as the D750 and Z6.

NOTE: Tap or click on images to download and display them full screen for closer inspection.


High ISO Noise

Comparison - Noise at 3 ISOs
The three 24-megapixel cameras compared at three high ISO levels in a close-up of a dark-sky nightscape.

To test noise in a real-world situation, I shot a dark nightscape scene with the three cameras, using a 24mm Sigma Art lens on the two Nikons, and a 24mm Canon lens on the Sony via a MetaBones adapter. I shot at ISOs from 800 to 12,800, typical of what we use in nightscapes and deep-sky images. 

The comparison set above shows performance at the higher ISOs of 3200 to 12,800. I saw very little difference among the trio, with the Nikon Z6 very similar to the Sony a7III, and with the four-year-old Nikon D750 holding up very well against the two new cameras. 

The comparison below shows the three cameras on another night and at ISO 3200.

Noise at 3200-3 Cameras
The three cameras compared for noise at properly exposed moonlit scenes at ISO 3200, a typical nightscape setting.

Both the Nikon Z6 and Sony a7III use a backside illuminated or “BSI” sensor, which in theory is promises to provide lower noise than a conventional CMOS sensor used in an older camera such as the D750. 

In practice I didn’t see a marked difference, certainly not as much as the one- or even 1/2-stop improvement in noise I might have expected or hoped for.

Nevertheless, the Nikon Z6 provides as low a noise level as you’ll find in a camera offering 24 megapixels, and will perform very well for all forms of astrophotography. 


ISO Invariance

Comparison - ISO Invariancy
The three cameras compared for ISO invariance at 0EV (well exposed) and -5EV (5 stops underexposed then brightened in processing).

Nikon and Sony both employ an “ISO-invariant” signal flow in their sensor design. You can purposely underexpose by shooting at a lower ISO, then boost the exposure later “in post” and end up with a result similar to an image shot at a high ISO to begin with in the camera. 

I find this feature proves its worth when shooting Milky Way nightscapes that often have well-exposed skies but dark foregrounds lit only by starlight. Boosting the brightness of the landscape when developing the raw files reveals details in the scene without unduly introducing noise, banding, or other artifacts such as magenta tints. 

That’s not true of “ISO variant” sensors, such as in most Canon cameras. Such sensors are far less tolerant of underexposure and are prone to noise, banding, and discolouration in the brightened shadows.

See my test of the Canon 6D MkII for its performance under the differing demands of nightscape photography and deep-sky imaging.

To test the Z6’s ISO invariance (as shown above) I shot a dark nightscape at ISO 3200 for a properly exposed scene, and also at ISO 100 for an image underexposed by a massive 5 stops. I then boosted that image by 5 stops in exposure in Adobe Camera Raw. That’s an extreme case to be sure. 

I found the Z6 provided very good ISO invariant performance, though with more chrominance specking than the Sony a7III and Nikon D750 at -5 EV.

Below is a less severe test, showing the Z6 properly exposed on a moonlit night and at 1 to 4 EV steps underexposed, then brightened in processing. Even the -4 EV image looks very good.

Comparison-ISO Invariancy in Moonlight
This series taken under moonlight shows that even images underexposed by -4 EV in ISO and boosted later by +4 EV in processing look similar for noise and image quality as an image properly exposed in the camera (at ISO 800 here).

In my testing, even with frames underexposed by -5 EV, I did not see any of the banding effects (due to the phase-detect auto-focus pixels) reported by others. 

As such, I judge the Z6 to be an excellent camera for nightscape shooting when we often want to extract detail in the shadows or dark foregrounds. 


Compressed vs. Uncompressed / Raw Large vs. Small 

Comparison - Z6 Large vs Medium RAW
Comparing Z6 images shot at full resolution and at Medium Raw size. to show resolution and noise differences.

The Z6, as do many Nikons, offers a choice of shooting 12-bit or 14-bit raws, and either compressed or uncompressed. 

I shot all my test images as 14-bit uncompressed raws, yielding 46 megabyte files with a resolution of 6048 x 4024 pixels. So I cannot comment on how good 12-bit compressed files are compared to what I shot. Astrophotography demands the best original data. 

Z6 Menu - Raw Formats

However, as the menu above shows, Nikon now also offers the option of shooting smaller raw sizes. The Medium Raw setting produces an image 4528 x 3016 pixels and a 18 megabyte file (in the files I shot), but with all the benefits of raw files in processing.

Nikon with Card Slot copy
The Z cameras use the XQD style memory cards and in a single card slot. The fast XQDs are ideal for recording 4K movies at high data rates but are more costly than the more common SD cards.

The Medium Raw option might be attractive when shooting time-lapses, where you might need to fit as many frames onto the single XQD card as possible, yet still have images large enough for final 4K movies. 

However, comparing a Large Raw to a Medium Raw did show a loss of resolution, as expected, with little gain in noise reduction. 

This is not like “binning pixels” in CCD cameras to increase signal-to-noise ratio. I prefer to never throw away information in the camera, to allow the option of creating the best quality still images from time-lapse frames later. 

Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Nikon now offer this option on new models, a feature which has long been on Canon cameras. 


Star Image Quality

Orion Nebula, M42 and M43, with Nikon Z6
The Orion Nebula with the Nikon Z6

The Orion Nebula in Moonlight
The Orion Nebula with the Nikon D750

Above is the Orion Nebula with the D750 and with the Z6, both shot in moonlight with the same 105mm refractor telescope.

I did not find any evidence for “star-eating” that Sony mirrorless cameras have been accused of. (However, I did not find the Sony a7III guilty of eating stars either.) Star images looked as good in the Z6 as in the D750. 

M42 Blow-up in ACR
A single Orion Nebula image with the Z6 in a 600% blow-up in Adobe Camera Raw, showing clean artifact-free star images with good, natural colours.

Raw developers (Adobe, DxO, ON1, and others) decoded the Z6’s Bayer-array NEF files fine, with no artifacts such as oddly-coloured or misshapen stars, which can arise in cameras lacking an anti-alias filter. 


LENR Dark frames 

Z6 Dark Frame- No LENR
A blank long exposure with no LENR applied – click or tap to open the image full screen

Z6 Dark Frame-With LENR
A blank long exposure with LENR – tap or click to open the image full screen

Above, 8-minute exposures of nothing, taken with the lens cap on at room temperature: without LENR, and with LENR, both boosted a lot in brightness and contrast to exaggerate the visibility of any thermal noise. These show the reduction in noise speckling with LENR activated, and the clean result with the Z6. At small size you’ll likely see nothing but black!

For deep-sky imaging a common practice is to shoot “dark frames,” images recording just the thermal noise that can then be subtracted from the image. 

The Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature offered by all cameras performs this dark frame subtraction internally and automatically by the camera for any exposures over one second long. 

I tested the Z6’s LENR and found it worked well, doing the job to effectively reduce thermal noise (hot pixels) without adding any other artifacts. 

Z6 iMenu Screen
The rear screen “i” menu as I had it customized for my testing, with functions for astrophotography such as LENR assigned to the 12 boxes.

NOTE:

Some astrophotographers dismiss LENR and never use it. By contrast, I prefer to use LENR to do dark frame subtraction. Why? Through many comparison tests over the years I have found that separate dark frames taken later at night rarely do as good a job as LENR darks, because those separate darks are taken when the sensor temperature, and therefore the noise levels, are different than they were for the “light” frames. 

I’ve found that dark frames taken later, then subtracted “in post” inevitably show less or little effect compared to images taken with LENR darks. Or worse, they add a myriad of pock-mark black specks to the image, adding noise and making the image look worse.

The benefit of LENR is lower noise. The penalty of LENR is that each image takes twice as long to shoot — the length of the exposure + the length of the dark frame. Because …


As Expected on the Z6 … There’s no LENR Dark Frame Buffer

Only Canon full-frame cameras offer this little known but wonderful feature for astrophotography. Turn on LENR and it is possible to shoot three (with the Canon 6D MkII) or four (with the Canon 6D) raw images in quick succession even with LENR turned on. The Canon 5D series also has this feature. 

The single dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera only after the series of “light frames” are taken. This is excellent for taking a set of noise-reduced deep-sky images for later stacking without need for further “image calibration.” 

No Nikon has this dark frame buffer, not even the “astronomical” D810a. And not the Z6.

ANOTHER NOTE: 

I have to mention this every time I describe Canon’s dark frame buffer: It works only on full-frame Canons, and there’s no menu function to activate it. Just turn on LENR, fire the shutter, and when the first exposure is complete fire the shutter again. Then again for a third, and perhaps a fourth exposure. Only then does the LENR dark frame lock up the camera as “Busy” and prevent more exposures. That single dark frame gets applied to each of the previous “light” frames, greatly reducing the time it takes to shoot a set of dark-frame subtracted images. 

But do note that Canon’s dark frame buffer will not work if…:

a) You leave Live View on. Don’t do that for any long exposure shooting.

b) You control the camera through the USB port via external software. It works only when controlling the camera via its internal intervalometer or via the shutter port using a hardware intervalometer.


Sensor Illumination 

M35 with Z6 & Traveler (4 Minutes)
A single 4-minute exposure of Messier 35 in moonlight at ISO 400 with the Z6 and 105mm apo refractor, with no flat fielding or lens correction applied, showing the clean edges and lack of amp glows. The darkening of the corners is inherent in the telescope optical system and is not from the camera.

With DSLRs deep-sky images shot through telescopes, then boosted for contrast in processing, usually exhibit a darkening along the bottom of the frame. This is caused by the upraised mirror shadowing the sensor slightly, an effect never noticed in normal photography. 

Mirrorless cameras should be free of this mirror box shadowing. The Sony a7III, however, still exhibits some edge shadows due to an odd metal mask in front of the sensor. It shouldn’t be there and its edge darkening is a pain to eliminate in the final processing. 

As I show in my review of the a7III, the Sony also exhibits a purple edge glow in long-exposure deep-sky images, from an internal light source. That’s a serious detriment to its use in deep-sky imaging.

Happily, the Z6 proved to be free of any such artifacts. Images are clean and evenly illuminated to the edges, as they should be. I saw no amp glows or other oddities that can show up under astrophotography use. The Z6 can produce superb deep-sky images. 


Red Sensitivity

M97 with Z6 & Traveler (4 Minutes)
Messer 97 planetary nebula and Messier 108 galaxy in a lightly processed single 4-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 105mm refractor, again showing a clean field. The glow at top right is from a Big Dipper star just off the edge of the field.

During my short test period, I was not able to shoot red nebulas under moonless conditions. So I can’t say how well the Z6 performs for recording H-alpha regions compared to other “stock” cameras. 

However, I would not expect it to be any better, nor worse, than the competitors. Indeed, the stock Nikon D750 I have does a decent job at picking up red nebulas, though nowhere near as well as Nikon’s sadly discontinued D180a. See my blog post from 2015 for an example shot with that camera. 

With the D810a gone, if it is deep red nebulosity you are after with a Nikon, then consider buying a filter-modified Z6 or having yours modified. 

Both LifePixel and Spencer’s Camera offer to modify the Z6 and Z7 models. However, I have not used either of their services, so cannot vouch for them first hand. 


Live View Focusing and Framing 

Z6 Live View Screen
An image of the back of the camera with a scene under moonlight, with the Z6 set to the highest ISO speed in the movie mode, to aid framing the scene at night.

For all astrophotography manually focusing with Live View is essential. And with mirrorless cameras there is no optical viewfinder to look through to frame scenes. You are dependent on the live electronic image (on the rear LCD screen or in the eye-level electronic viewfinder, or EVF) for seeing anything.

Thankfully, the Z6 presents a bright Live View image making it easy to frame, find, and focus on stars. Maximum zoom for precise focusing is 15x, good but not as good as the D750’s 20x zoom level, but better than Canon’s 10x maximum zoom in Live View. 

The Z6 lacks the a7III’s wonderful Bright Monitoring function that temporarily ups the ISO to an extreme level, making it much easier to frame a dark night scene. However, something similar can be achieved with the Z6 by switching it temporarily to Movie mode, and having the ISO set to an extreme level.

As with most Nikons (and unlike Sonys), the Z6 remembers separate settings for the still and movie modes, making it easy to switch back and forth, in this case for a temporarily brightened Live View image to aid framing. 

That’s very handy, and the Z6 works better than the D750 in this regard, providing a brighter Live View image, even with the D750’s well-hidden Exposure Preview option turned on. 


Video Capability 

Comparison - Movie Noise Levels
Comparing the three cameras using 1/25-second still frames grabbed from moonlit night movies (HD with the D750 and 4K with the Z6 and a7III) shot at ISO 51200, plus a similarly exposed frame from the a7III shot with a shutter speed of only 1/4 second allowing the slower ISO of 8000.

Where the Z6 pulls far ahead of the otherwise similar D750 is in its movie features.

The Z6 can shoot 4K video (3840 x 2160 pixels) at either 30, 25, or 24 frames per second. Using 24 frames per second and increasing the ISO to between 12,800 to 51,200 (the Z6 can go as high as ISO 204,800!) it is possible to shoot real-time video at night, such as of auroras.

But the auroras will have to be bright, as at 24 fps, the maximum shutter speed is 1/25-second, as you might expect. 

The a7III, by comparison, can shoot 4K movies at “dragged” shutter speeds as slow as 1/4 second, even at 24 fps, making it possible to shoot auroras at lower and less noisy ISO speeds, albeit with some image jerkiness due to the longer exposures per frame. 

The D750 shoots only 1080 HD and, as shown above, produces very noisy movies at ISO 25,600 to 51,200. It’s barely usable for aurora videos.

The Z6 is much cleaner than the D750 at those high ISOs, no doubt due to far better internal processing of the movie frames. However, if night-sky 4K videos are an important goal, a camera from the Sony a7 series will be a better choice, if only because of the option for slower dragged shutter speeds.

For examples of real-time auroras shot with the Sony a7III see my music videos shot in Yellowknife and in Norway. 


Battery Life

Nikon Z6 Battery copy

The Z6 uses the EN-EL15b battery compatible with the battery and charger used for the D750. But the “b” variant allows for in-camera charging via the USB port. 

In room temperature tests the Z6 lasted for 1500 exposures, as many as the D750 was able to take in a side-by-side test. That was with the screens off.

At night, in winter temperatures of -10 degrees C (14° F), the Z6 lasted for three hours worth of continuous shooting, both for long deep-sky exposure sets and for a test time-lapse I shot, shown below. 

A time-lapse movie, downsized here to HD from the full-size originals, shot with the Z6 and its internal intervalometer, from twilight through to moonrise on a winter night. Processed with Camera Raw and LRTimelapse. 

However, with any mirrorless camera, you can extend battery life by minimizing use of the LCD screen and eye-level EVF. The Z6 has a handy and dedicated button for shutting off those screens when they aren’t needed during a shoot.

The days of mirrorless cameras needing a handful of batteries just to get through a few hours of shooting are gone. 


Lens and Telescope Compatibility 

Nikon with Sigma and FTZ copy
A 14mm Sigma Art lens with the Nikon FTZ lens adapter needed to attach any “legacy” F-mount lens to the Z6.

As with all mirrorless cameras, the Nikon Z cameras use a new lens mount, one that is incompatible with the decades-old Nikon F mount. 

The Z mount is wider and can accommodate wider-angle and faster lenses than the old F mount ever could, and in a smaller package. While we have yet to see those lenses appear, in theory that’s the good news.

The bad news is that you’ll need Nikon’s FTZ lens adapter to use any of your existing Nikon F-mount lenses on either the Z6 or Z7. As of this writing, Nikon is supplying an FTZ free with every Z body purchase. 

I got an FTZ with my loaner Z6 and it worked very well, allowing even third-party lenses like my Sigma Art lenses to focus at the same point as they normally do (not true of some thIrd-party adapters), preserving the lens’s optical performance. Autofocus functions all worked fine and fast.

Nikon with Scope Adapter and FTZ copy
The FTZ adapter needed to attach the Z6 to a telescope camera adapter (equipped with a standard Nikon T-ring) and field flattener lens for a refractor.

You’ll also need the FTZ adapter for use on a telescope, as shown above, to go from your telescope’s camera adapter, with its existing Nikon T-ring, to the Z6 body. 

T-rings are becoming available for the Z-mount, but even these third-party adapters are actually extension tubes, not just rings.

The reason is that the field flattener or coma corrector lenses often required with telescopes are designed to work best with the longer lens-to-sensor distance of a DSLR body. The FTZ adapter provides the necessary spacing, as do third-party adapters. 

Nikon Z6 FTZ Foot copy
The FTZ lens adapter has its own tripod foot, useful for balancing front-heavy lenses like the big Sigma here.

The only drawback to the FTZ is that any tripod plate attached to the camera body itself likely has to come off, and the tripod foot incorporated into the FTZ used instead. I found myself often having to swap locations for the tripod plate, an inconvenience. 


Camera Controller Compatibility 

Nikon with Ports copy
The port side of the Z6, with the DC2 shutter remote jack at bottom, and HDMI and USB-C ports above. There’s also a mic and headphone jack for video use.

Since it uses the same Nikon-type DC2 shutter port as the D750, the Z6 it should be compatible with most remote hardware releases and time-lapse motion controllers that operate a Nikon through the shutter port. An example are the controllers from SYRP.

On the other hand, time-lapse devices and external intervalometers that run Nikons through the USB port might need to have their firmware or apps updated to work with the Z6.

For example, as of early May 2019, CamRanger lists the Z6 as a supported camera; the Arsenal “smart controller” does not. Nor does Alpine Labs for their Radian and Pulse controllers, nor TimeLapse+ for its excellent View bramping intervalometer. Check with your supplier.

For those who like to use laptops to run their camera at the telescope, I found the Windows program Astro Photography Tool (v3.63) worked fine with the Z6, in this case connecting to the camera’s USB-C port using the USB-C to USB-A cable that comes with the camera. This allows APT to shift not only shutter speed, but also ISO and aperture under scripted sequences. 

However, BackyardNikon v2.0, current as of April 2019, does not list the Z6 as a supported camera. 


Raw File Compatibility 

Z6 Raw open in Raw Therapee
A Z6 Raw NEF file open in Raw Therapee 5.6, showing good star images and de-Bayering.

Inevitably, raw files from brand new cameras cannot be read by any raw developer programs other than the one supplied by the manufacturer, Nikon Capture NX in this case. However, even by the time I did my testing in winter 2019 all the major software suppliers had updated their programs to open Z6 files. 

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, Luminar 3, ON1 PhotoRAW, and the open-source Raw Therapee all open the Z6’s NEF raw files just fine. 

Z6 Raw in PixInsight
PixInsight 1.8.6 failing to open a Z6 raw NEF file.

Specialized programs for processing astronomy images might be another story. For example, as of v1.08.06, PixInsight, a favourite program among astrophotographers, does not open Z6 raw files. Nor does Nebulosity v4. But check with the developers for updates. 


Other Features for Astrophotography 

Here are other Nikon Z6 features I found of value for astrophotography, and for operating the camera at night. 

Nikon with Looking Right copy

Tilting LCD Screen 

Like the Nikon D750 and Sony A7III, the Z6 offers a tilting LCD screen great for use on a telescope or tripod when aimed up at the sky. However, the screen does not flip out and reverse, a feature useful for vloggers, but seldom needed for astrophotography. 

Nikon Z6 Top Screen copy
Showing the top OLED screen and dedicated ISO button that is easy to access in the dark. It works in conjunction with the top dial.

OLED Top Screen (Above)

The Sony doesn’t have one, and Canon’s low-cost mirrorless Rp also lacks one. But the top-mounted OLED screen of the Z6 is a great convenience for astrophotography. It makes it possible to monitor camera status and battery life during a shoot, even with the rear LCD screen turned off to prolong battery life.

Z6 Menu - Quick Menu

Touch Screen 

Sony’s implementation of touch-screen functions is limited to just choosing autofocus points. By contrast, the Nikon Z6 offers a full range of touchscreen functions, making it easy to navigate menus and choose settings. 

I do wish there was an option, as there is with Pentax, to tint the menus red for preserving night vision.

Z6 Menu - Intervalometer

Built-in Intervalometer

As with other Nikons, the Z6 offers an internal intervalometer capable of shooting time-lapses, just as long as individual exposures don’t need to be longer than 30 seconds. 

In addition, there’s the Exposure Smoothing option which, as I have found with the D750, is great for smoothing flickering in time-lapses shot using auto exposure. 

Sony has only just added an intervalometer to the a7III with their v3 firmware update, but with no exposure smoothing. 

Z6 Menu - Silent Shooting

Custom i Menu / Custom Function Buttons 

The Sony a7III has four custom function buttons users can assign to commonly used commands, for quick access. For example, I assign one Custom button to the Bright Monitoring function which is otherwise utterly hidden in the menus, but superb for framing nightscapes, if only you know it’s there! 

The Nikon Z6 has two custom buttons beside the lens mount. However, I found it easier to use the “i” menu (shown above) by populating it with those functions I use at night for astrophotography. It’s then easy to call them up and adjust them on the touch screen.

Thankfully, the Z6’s dedicated ISO button is now on top of the camera, making it much easier to find at night than the awkwardly placed ISO button on the back of the D750, which I am always mistaking for the Image Quality button, which you do not want to adjust by mistake. 

Nikon Z6-My Menu

My Menu 

As most cameras do, the Z6 also has a “My Menu” page which you can also populate with favourite menu commands. 

Nikon D750 and Z6 copy
The D750 (left) compared to the smaller and lighter Z6 (right). This shows the wider Z lens mount compared to Nikon’s old F-mount standard.

Lighter Weight / Smaller Size

The Z6 provides similar imaging performance, if not better (for movies) than the D750, and in a smaller and lighter camera, weighing 200 grams (0.44 pounds) less than the D750. Being able to downsize my equipment mass is a welcome plus to going mirrorless.

Comparison - Z6 Mech vs Silent Shutter
Extreme 800% blow-ups of the Moon show a slightly sharper image with the Z6 set to Silent Shutter.

Electronic Front Curtain Shutter / Silent Shooting 

By design, mirrorless cameras lack any vibration from a bouncing mirror. But even the mechanical shutter can impart vibration and blurring to high-magnification images taken through telescopes. 

The electronic front curtain shutter (lacking in the D750) helps eliminate this, while the Silent Shooting mode does just that — it makes the Z6 utterly quiet and vibration free when shooting, as all the shutter functions are now electronic. This is great for lunar and planetary imaging. 


What’s Missing for Astrophotography (not much!)

Bulb Timer for Long Exposures

While the Z6 has a Bulb setting, there is no Bulb Timer as there is with Canon’s recent cameras. A Bulb Timer would allow setting long Bulb exposures of any length in the camera, though Canon’s cannot be combined with the intervalometer. 

Instead, the Nikon must be used with an external Intervalometer for any exposures over 30 seconds long. Any number of units are compatible with the Z6, through its shutter port which is the same type DC2 jack used in the D750.

Z6 Menu - Multiple Exposures

In-Camera Image Stacking to Raws

The Z6 does offer the ability to stack up to 10 images in the camera, a feature also offered by Canon and Pentax. Images can be blended with a Lighten (for star trails) or Average (for noise smoothing) mode. 

However, unlike with Canon and Pentax, the result is a compressed JPG not a raw file, making this feature of little value for serious imaging. Plus with a maximum of only 10 exposures of up to 30-seconds each, the ability to stack star trails “in camera” is limited. 

Illuminated Buttons 

Unlike the top-end D850, the Z6’s buttons are not illuminated, but then again neither are the Z7’s.


As a bonus — the Nikon 35mm S-Series Lens

Nikkor 35mm Lens Test
The upper left frame corner of a tracked star image shot with the 35mm S lens wide open at f/1.8 and stopped down at third stop increments.

With the Z6 I also received a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 S lens made for the Z-mount, as the lens perhaps best suited for nightscape imaging out of the native Z-mount lenses from Nikon. See Nikon’s website for the listing. 

If there’s a downside to the Z-series Nikons it’s the limited number of native lenses that are available now from Nikon, and likely in the future from anyone, due to Nikon not making it easy for other lens companies to design for the new Z mount. 

In testing the 35mm Nikkor on tracked shots, stars showed excellent on- and off-axis image quality, even wide open at f/1.8. Coma, astigmatism, spherical aberration, and lateral chromatic aberration were all well controlled. 

However, as with most lenses now offered for mirrorless cameras, the focus is “by-wire” using a ring that doesn’t mechanically adjust the focus. As a result, the focus ring turns continuously and lacks a focus scale. 

So it is not possible to manually preset the lens to an infinity mark, as nightscape photographers often like to do. Focusing must be done each night. 

Until there is a greater selection of native lenses for the Z cameras, astrophotographers will need to use the FTZ adapter and their existing Nikon F-mount or third-party Nikon-mount lenses with the Zs.


Recommendations 

I was impressed with the Z6. 

The Owl Nebula and Messier 108 Galaxy
The Owl Nebula, Messier 97, a planetary nebula in our galaxy, and the edge-on spiral galaxy Messier 108, paired below the Bowl of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. This is a stack of 5 x 4-minute exposures at ISO 1600 with the Nikon Z6 taken as part of testing. This was through the Astro-Physics Traveler refractor at f/6 with the Hotech field flattener and FTZ adapter.

For any owner of a Nikon cropped-frame DSLR (from the 3000, 5000, or 7000 series for example) wanting to upgrade to full-frame for astrophotography I would suggest moving to the Z6 over choosing a current DSLR. 

Mirrorless is the way of the future. And the Z6 will yield lower noise than most, if not all, of Nikon’s cropped-frame cameras.

Nikkor 35mm S Lens copy
The Z6 with the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 S lens native for the Z mount.

For owners of current Nikon DSLRs, especially a 24-megapixel camera such as the D750, moving to a Z6 will not provide a significant improvement in image quality for still images. 

But … it will provide 4K video and much better low-light video performance than older DSLRs. So if it is aurora videos you are after, the Z6 will work well, though not quite as well as a Sony alpha. 

In all, there’s little downside to the Z6 for astrophotography, and some significant advantages: low noise, bright live view, clean artifact-free sensor images, touchscreen convenience, silent shooting, low-light 4K video, all in a lighter weight body than most full-frame DSLRs. 

I highly recommend the Nikon Z6. 

— Alan, April 30, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

 

Shooting Moonstrikes at Dinosaur Park


Moonlight at Dino Park Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TimeLapse+View-Day Interval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Testing the Venus Optics 15mm Lens


Laowa Test Title

I test out a fast and very wide lens designed specifically for Sony mirrorless cameras. 

In a previous test I presented results on how well the Sony a7III mirrorless camera performs for nightscape and deep-sky photography. It works very well indeed.

But what about lenses for the Sony? Here’s one ideal for astrophotography.


TL;DR Conclusions

Made for Sony e-mount cameras, the Venus Optics 15mm f/2 Laowa provides excellent on- and off-axis performance in a fast and compact lens ideal for nightscape, time-lapse, and wide-field tracked astrophotography with Sony mirrorless cameras. (UPDATE: Venus Optics has announced versions of this lens for Canon R and Nikon Z mount mirrorless cameras.)

I use it a lot and highly recommend it.


Size and Weight

While I often use the a7III with my Canon lenses by way of a Metabones adapter, the Sony really comes into its own when matched to a “native” lens made for the Sony e-mount. The selection of fast, wide lenses from Sony itself is limited, with the new Sony 24mm G-Master a popular favourite (I have yet to try it).

However, for much of my nightscape shooting, and certainly for auroras, I prefer lenses even wider than 24mm, and the faster the better.

Auroral Swirls over Båtsfjord, Norway Aurora over Båtsfjord, Norway. This is a single 0.8-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

The Laowa 15mm f/2 from Venus Optics fills the bill very nicely, providing excellent speed in a compact lens. While wide, the Laowa is a rectilinear lens providing straight horizons even when aimed up, as shown above. This is not a fish-eye lens.

Laowa 15mm Front View with Filter Though a very wide lens, the 15mm Laowa accepts standard 72mm filters. The metal lens hood is removable. © 2019 Alan Dyer

The Venus Optics 15mm realizes the potential of mirrorless cameras and their short flange distance that allows the design of fast, wide lenses without massive bulk.

Sigma 14mm vs Laowa 15mm Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens (for Nikon mount) vs. Venus Optics 15mm f/2 lens (for Sony mount). © 2019 Alan Dyer

While compact, at 600 grams the Laowa 15mm is quite hefty for its size due to its solid metal construction. Nevertheless, it is half the weight of the massive 1250-gram Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art. The Laowa is not a plastic entry-level lens, nor is it cheap, at $850 from U.S. sources.

For me, the Sony-Laowa combination is my first choice for a lightweight travel camera for overseas aurora trips

Laowa 15mm Back View The lens mount showing no electrical contacts to transfer lens metadata to the camera. © 2019 Alan Dyer

However, this is a no-frills manual focus lens. Nor does it even transfer aperture data to the camera, which is a pity. There are no electrical connections between the lens and camera.

However, for nightscape work where all settings are adjusted manually, the Venus Optics 15mm works just fine. The key factor is how good are the optics. I’m happy to report that they are very good indeed.


Testing Under the Stars

To test the Venus Optics lens I shot “same night” images, all tracked, with the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens, at left, and the Rokinon 14mm SP (labeled as being f/2.4, at right). Both are much larger lenses, made for DSLRs, with bulbous front elements not able to accept filters. But they are both superb lenses. See my test report on these lenses published in 2018.

Sigma and Rokinon 14mm The Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens (left) vs. the Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4. © 2019 Alan Dyer

The next images show blow-ups of the same scene (the nightscape shown in full below, taken at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta), and all taken on a tracker.

I used the Rokinon on the Sony a7III using the Metabones adapter which, unlike some brands of lens adapters, does not compromise the optical quality of the lens by shifting its focal position. But lacking a lens adapter for Nikon-to-Sony at the time of testing, I used the Nikon-mount Sigma lens on a Nikon D750, a DSLR camera with nearly identical sensor specs to the Sony.


Vignetting

Laowa 15mm @ f2 A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm at f/2. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection.

Above is a tracked image (so the stars are not trailed, which would make it hard to tell aberrations from trails), taken wide open at f/2. No lens correction has been applied so the vignetting (the darkening of the frame corners) is as the lens provides.

As shown above, when used wide open at f/2 vignetting is significant, but not much more so than with competitive lenses with much larger lenses, as I compare below.

And the vignetting is correctable in processing. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have this lens in their lens profile database. That’s not the case with current versions (as of April 2019) of other raw developers such as DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and Raw Therapee where vignetting corrections have to be dialled in manually by eye.

Laowa 15mm @ f2.8 A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm stopped down 1 stop to f/2.8.

When stopped down to f/2.8 the Laowa “flattens” out a lot for vignetting and uniformity of frame illumination. Corner aberrations also improve but are still present. I show those in close-up detail below.

Lens Comparison - Vignetting 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the left side of the image for vignetting (light fall-off), wide open and stopped down. ©2018 Alan Dyer

Above, I compare the vignetting of the three lenses, both wide open and when stopped down. Wide open, all the lenses, even the Sigma and Rokinon despite their large front elements, show quite a bit of drop off in illumination at the corners.

The Rokinon SP actually seems to be the worst of the trio, showing some residual vignetting even at f/2.8, while it is reduced significantly in the Laowa and Sigma lenses. Oddly, the Rokinon SP, even though it is labeled as f/2.4, seemed to open to f/2.2, at least as indicated by the aperture metadata.


On-Axis Performance

Lens Comparison - Centre 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the centre of the image for sharpness, wide open and stopped down. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection. © 2018 Alan Dyer

Above I show lens sharpness on-axis, both wide open and stopped down, to check for spherical and chromatic aberrations with the bright blue star Vega centered. The red box in the Navigator window at top right indicates what portion of the frame I am showing, at 200% magnification in Photoshop.

On-axis, the Venus Optics 15mm shows stars just as sharply as the premium Sigma and Rokinon lenses, with no sign of blurring spherical aberration nor coloured haloes from chromatic aberration.

Laowa 15mm Side with Focus Point This is where this lens reaches sharpest focus on stars, just shy of the Infinity mark. © 2019 Alan Dyer

Focusing is precise and easy to achieve with the Sony on Live View. My unit reaches sharpest focus on stars with the lens set just shy of the middle of the infinity symbol. This  is consistent and allows me to preset focus just by dialing the focus ring, handy for shooting auroras at -35° C, when I prefer to minimize fussing with camera settings, thank you very much!


Off-Axis Performance