Testing the Canon 6D Mark II for Nightscapes


Canon 6DMkII vs 6D Front

In a technical blog I compare the new Canon 6D Mark II camera with its predecessor, the Canon 6D, with the focus on performance for nightscape astrophotography.

No pretty pictures in this blog I’m afraid! This is a blog for gear geeks.

The long-awaited Canon 6D Mark II camera is out, replacing the original 6D after that camera’s popular 5-year reign as a prime choice among astrophotographers for all kinds of sky images, including nightscapes and time-lapses.

As all new cameras do, the 6D Mark II is currently fetching a full list price of $2000 U.S. Eventually it will sell for less. The original 6D, introduced in 2012 at that same list price, might still be available from many outlets, but for less, likely below $1500 US.

Shown on the left, above, the 6D Mark II is similar in size and weight to the original 6D.

However, the new Mark II offers 6240 x 4160 pixels for 26 megapixels, a bump up in resolution over the 5472 x 3648 20-megapixel 6D. The pixel pitch of the Mark II sensor is 5.7 microns vs. 6.6 microns for the 6D. 

One difference is that the port for a remote release is now on the front, but using the same solid 3-pin N3 connector as the 6D and other full-frame Canons. That makes it compatible with all external controllers for time-lapse shooting.

TESTING FOR THE NIGHT

My interest is in a camera’s performance for long-exposure astrophotography, with images taken at high ISO settings. I have no interest in auto-focus performance (we shoot at night with focus set manually), nor how well a camera works for high-speed sports shooting.

To test the Mark II against the original 6D I took test shots at the same time of a high-contrast moonlit scene in the backyard, using a range of ISO speeds typical of nightscape scenes.

The comparisons show close-ups of a scene shown in full in the smaller inset screen.

COMPARING NOISE

The key characteristic of interest for night work is noise. How well does the camera suppress the noise inherent in digital images when the signal is boosted to the high ISO settings we typically use?

6D MkII Noise at 5 ISOs
6D Mark II noise at 5 ISO speeds
This set shows the 6D MkII at five ISOs, from ISO 1600 all the way up to the seldom-used ISO 25,600, all shot in Raw, not JPG. In all cases, no noise reduction was applied in later processing, so the results do look worse than what processed images would.

Click or tap on all images to expand each image to full screen for closer inspection. 

6D Noise at 5 ISOs
6D noise at 5 ISO speeds
This set shows the same range of ISOs with the original 6D. All were taken at the same aperture, f/2.8, with a 35mm lens. Exposures were halved for each successive bump up in ISO speed, to ensure equally exposed images.

Comparing the sets, the 6D MkII shows a much greater tendency to exhibit a magenta cast in the shadows at very high ISOs, plus a lower contrast in the shadows at increasing ISOs, and slightly more luminance noise than the 6D. 

How much more noise the 6D MkII exhibits is demonstrated here.

6D MkII Noise at ISO 3200
6D MkII noise at ISO 3200 compared to 6D
To me, visually, the MkII presents about 1/2 stop, or EV, worse noise than the 6D. 

In this example, the MkII exhibits a noise level at ISO 3200 (a common nightscape setting) similar to what the 6D does if set between ISO 4000 and 5000 – about 1/2 stop worse noise.

Frankly, this is surprising. 

Yes, the MkII has a higher pixel count and therefore smaller pixels (5.7 microns in this case) that are always more prone to noise. But in the past, advances to the in-camera signal processing has prevented noise from becoming worse, despite increasing pixel count, or has even produced an improvement in noise.

For example, the 2012-vintage 6D is better for noise than Canon’s earlier 2008-era 5D MkII model by about half a stop, or EV.

After five years of camera development I would have expected a similar improvement in the 6D MkII. After all, the 6D MkII has Canon’s latest DIGIC 7 processor, vs. the older 6D’s DIGIC 5+.

Instead, not only is there no noise improvement, the performance is worse. 

That said, noise performance in the 6D MkII is still very good, and better than you’ll get with today’s 24 megapixel cropped-frame cameras with their even smaller 4 micron pixels. But the full frame 6D MkII doesn’t offer quite as much an improvement over cropped-frame cameras as does the five-year-old 6D.

ISO INVARIANCY

In the previous sets all the images were well-exposed, as best they could be for such a contrasty scene captured with a single exposure.

What happens when Raw images are underexposed, then boosted later in exposure value in processing? 

This is not an academic question, as that’s often the reality for nightscape images where the foreground remains dark. Bringing out detail in the shadows later requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure. How well will the image withstand that work on the shadows?

To test this, I shot a set of images at the same shutter speed, but at successively slower ISOs, from a well-exposed ISO 3200, to a severely underexposed ISO 100. I then boosted the Exposure setting later in Raw processing by an amount that compensated for the level of underexposure in the camera, from a setting of 0 EV at ISO 3200, to a +5 EV boost for the dark ISO 100 shots.

This tests for a camera’s “ISO Invariancy.” If a camera has a sensor and signal processing design that is ISO invariant, a boosted underexposed image at a slow ISO should look similar to a normally exposed image at a high ISO.

You’re just doing later in processing what a camera does on its own in-camera when bumping up the ISO.

But cameras that use ISO “variant” designs suffer from increased noise and artifacts when severely underexposed images are boosted later in Raw processing.

The Canon 6D and 6D MkII are such cameras.

6D MkII ISO Variancy
6D Mark II ISO Invariancy
This set above shows the results from the 6D Mark II. Boosting underexposed shadows reveals a lot of noise and a severe magenta cast.

These are all processed with Adobe Camera Raw, identical to the development engine in Adobe Lightroom.

6D ISO Variancy
6D ISO Invariancy
This set above shows the results from the 6D. The older camera, which was never great for its lack of ISO Invariancy performance, is still much better than the new Mark II. 

Underexposed shadows show less noise and discolouration in the 6D. For a comparison of the Canon 6D with the ISO Invariant Nikon D750, see my earlier Nikon vs. Canon blog from 2015. The Nikon performs much better than the 6D.

Effectively, this is the lack of dynamic range that others are reporting when testing the 6D MkII on more normal daytime images. It really rears its ugly head in nightscapes.

The lesson here is that the Mark II needs to be properly exposed as much as possible.

Don’t depend on being able to extract details later from the shadows. The adage “Expose to the Right,” which I explain at length in my Nightscapes eBook, applies in spades to the 6D MkII. 

LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION

All the above images were taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) off. This is the function that, when turned on, forces the camera to take and internally subtract a dark frame – an image of just the noise – reducing thermal noise and discolouration in the shadows.

6DMkII LENR On & Off
6D Mark II LENR On and Off
Here is the 6D Mark II in a pair of  underexposed images at identical settings with LENR on and off. Not only did it not reduce noise and the magenta cast, using LENR made it worse.

This is so completely contrary to expectation that I wonder if the Mark II does not have a serious firmware issue in need of a fix in an upgrade. 

DARK FRAME BUFFER

A unique feature of Canon full-frame cameras is that when LENR is on you can take several exposures in quick succession before the dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera. This is extremely useful for deep-sky shooting.

The single dark frame then gets applied to the buffered “light frames.”

The 6D Mark II, when in either Raw or in Raw+JPG can take 3 shots in succession. This is a downgrade from the 6D which can take 4 shots when in Raw+JPG. Pity.

ADOBE CAMERA RAW vs. DIGITAL PHOTO PROFESSIONAL

My next thought was that Adobe Camera Raw, while it was reading the Mark II files fine, might not have been de-Bayering or developing them properly. So I developed the same image with both Raw developers, Adobe’s and Canon’s latest version of their own Digital Photo Professional (DPP).

ACR vs DPP-withNR
ACR vs. DPP
Here I did apply a modest and approximately similar level of noise reduction to both images:

In ACR: Color at 25, Luminosity at 40, with Sharpness at 25

In DPP: Chrominance at 8, Luminosity at 8, with Sharpness at 2

Yes, DPP did do a better job at eliminating the ugly magenta cast, but did a much worse job at reducing overall noise. DPP shows a lot of blockiness, detail loss, and artifacts left by the noise reduction.

Adobe Camera Raw and/or Lightroom remain among the best of many Raw developers.

IMAGE AVERAGING

A new feature the 6D Mark II offers is the ability to shoot and stack images in-camera. It can either “Add” the exposure values, or, most usefully, “Average” them, as shown here.

Multiple Exposure Menu
6D Mark II Multiple Exposure screen
Other newer Canon DSLRs also offer this feature, notably the 7D MkII, the 5D MkIV, the 5Ds, and even the entry-level 80D. So the 6D MkII is not unique. But the feature was not on the 6D.

Here’s the benefit.

6D MkII Averaging
6D Mark II Averaging results
The left image is a single exposure; the middle is an average stack of 4 exposures stacked in camera; the right image an average stack of 9 exposures, the maximum allowed.

Noise smooths out a lot, with less noise the more images you stack. The result is a single Raw file, not a JPG. Excellent! 

While this kind of stacking can be done later in processing in Photoshop, or in any layer-based program, many people might find this in-camera function handy.

Except, as you can see, the sky will exhibit star trails, and not as well defined as you would get from stacking them with a “Lighten” blend mode, as all star trail stacking routines use.

So this averaging method is NOT the way to do star trails. The Mark II does not offer the Brighten mode some other new Canons have that does allow for in-camera star trail stacking. Again, a pity in a camera many will choose for astrophotography.

Nevertheless, the Average mode is a handy way to create foreground landscapes with less noise, which then have to be composited later with a sky image or images.

OTHER FEATURES

On the left, below, the Mark II has a nearly identical layout of buttons and controls to the 6D on the right. So owners of the older model will feel right at home with the Mark II. That’s handy, as we astrophotographers work in the dark by feel!

Canon 6DMkII vs 6D Rear
6D Mark II (left) and 6D rear views
Of course the big new feature, a first for Canon in a full-frame camera, is the Mark II’s fully articulated screen. It flips out, tilts, and even flips around to face forward. This is super-great for all astrophotography, especially when conducted by aging photographers with aching backs!

And the screen, as with the entry-level cropped-frame Canons, is a touch screen. For someone who hasn’t used one before – me! – that’ll take some getting used to, if only in just remembering to use it.

And it remains to be seen how well it will work in the cold. But it’s great to have.

INTERVAL TIMER

Like other late-model Canon DSLRs, the 6D MkII has a built-in intervalometer. It works fine but is useable only on exposures with internally set shutter speeds up to 30 seconds.

Interval Timer Menu
6D Mark II Interval Timer screen
However, setting the Interval so it fires the shutter with a minimal gap of 1 second between shots (our usual requirement for night time-lapses) is tricky: You have to set the interval to a value not 1 second, but 2 to 3 seconds longer than the shutter speed. i.e. an exposure of 30 seconds requires an interval of 33 seconds, as shown above. Anything less and the camera misses exposures.

Why? Well, when set to 30 seconds the camera actually takes a 32-second exposure. Surprise!

Other cameras I’ve used and tested with internal intervalometers (Nikon and Pentax) behave the same way. It’s confusing, but once you are used to it, the intervalometer works fine.

Except … the manual suggests the only way to turn it off and stop a sequence is to turn off the camera. That’s crude. A reader pointed out that it is also possible to stop a time-lapse sequence by hitting the Live View Start/Stop button. However, that trick doesn’t work on sequences programmed with only a second between frames, as described above. So stopping a night time-lapse is inelegant to say the least. With Nikons you can hold down the OK button to stop a sequence, with the option then of restarting it if desired. 

Also, the internal Intervalometer cannot be used for exposures longer than 30 seconds. Again, that’s the case with all in-camera intervalometers in other models and brands.

BULB TIMER

As with many other new Canons, the Mark II has a Bulb Timer function.

Bulb Timer Menu
6D Mark II Bulb Timer screen
When on Bulb you can program in exposure times of any length. That’s a nice feature that, again, might mean an external intervalometer is not needed for many situations.

PLAYBACK SCREEN

A new feature I like is the greatly expanded information when reviewing an image.

Playback Menu-LENR Status
6D Mark II Playback screen
One of the several screens you can scroll to shows whether you have shot that image with Long Exposure Noise Reduction on or not.

Excellent! I have long wanted to see that information recorded in the metadata. Digital Photo Professional also displays that status, but not Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom.

CONCLUSION

While this has been a long report, this is an important camera for us astrophotographers.

I wish the news were better, but the 6D Mark II is somewhat of a disappointment for its image quality. It isn’t bad. It’s just that it isn’t any better than than the older 6D, and in some aspects is worse.

Eclipse Rig
The 6D Mark II as part of the rig for shooting the total solar eclipse. The articulated screen will be very nice!
Canon has clearly made certain compromise decisions in their sensor design. Perhaps adding in the Dual-Pixel Autofocus for rapid focusing in Movie Mode has compromised the signal-to-noise ratio. That’s something only Canon can explain.

But the bottom-line recommendations I can offer are:

  • If you are a Canon user looking to upgrade to your first full-frame camera, the 6D Mark II will provide a noticeable and welcome improvement in noise and performance over a cropped-frame model. But an old 6D, bought new while they last in stock, or bought used, will be much cheaper and offer slightly less noise. But the Mark II’s flip-out screen is very nice!

 

  • If you are a current 6D owner, upgrading to a Mark II will not get you better image quality, apart from the slightly better resolution. Noise is actually worse. But it does get you the flip-out screen. I do like that!

 

  • If you are not wedded to Canon, but want a full-frame camera for the benefits of its lower noise, I would recommend the Nikon D750. I have one and love it. I have coupled it with the Sigma Art series lenses. I have not used any of the Sony a7-series Mirrorless cameras, so cannot comment on their performance, but they are popular to be sure.

 

You can find a thorough review of the Mark II’s performance for normal photography at DPReview at https://www.dpreview.com/reviews/canon-eos-6d-mark-ii-review

However, I hope this review aimed specifically at nightscape shooters will be of value. I have yet to test the 6D Mark II for very long-exposure tracked deep-sky images.

— Alan, August 9, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com  

 

Shooting the Heart Nebula


Testing the Nikon D810a

Last night I shot into the autumn Milky Way at the Heart Nebula.

I’m currently just finishing off a month of testing the new Nikon D810a camera, a special high-end DSLR aimed specifically at astrophotographers.

I’ll post a more thorough set of test shots and comparisons in a future blog, but for now here are some shots from the last couple of nights.

Above is the setup I used to shoot the image below, shot in the act of taking the image below!

The Nikon is at the focus of my much-loved TMB 92mm refractor, riding on the Astro-Physics Mach One mount. The mount is being “auto-guided” by the wonderful “just-press-one-button” SG-4 auto-guider from Santa Barbara Instruments. The scope is working at a fast f/4.4 with the help of a field flattener/reducer from Borg/AstroHutech.

I shot a set of 15 five-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and stacked, aligned and averaged them (using mean stack mode) in Photoshop. I explain the process in my workshops, but there’s also a Ten Steps page at my website with my deep-sky workflow outlined.

IC 1805 Heart Nebula (92mm D810a)
The Heart Nebula, IC 1805, in Cassiopeia, with nebula NGC 896 at upper right and star cluster NGC 1027 at left of centre. This is a stack of 15 x 5-minute exposures with the Nikon D810a as part of testing, at ISO 1600, and with the TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.4 with the Borg 0.85x field flattener. Taken from home Nov 29, 2015.

The main advantage of Nikon’s special “a” version of the D810 is its extended red sensitivity for a capturing just such objects in the Milky Way, nebulas which shine primarily in the deep red “H-alpha” wavelength emitted by hydrogen.

It works very well! And the D810a’s 36 megapixels really do resolve better detail, something you appreciate in wide-angle shots like this one, below, of the autumn Milky Way.

It’s taken with the equally superb 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom lens. Normally, you would never use a zoom lens for such a demanding subject as stars, but the 14-24mm is stunning, matching or beating the performance of many “prime” lenses.

The Autumn Milky Way (Perseus to Cygnus)
The Milky Way from Perseus, at left, to Cygnus, at right, with Cassiopeia (the “W”) and Cepheus at centre. Dotted along the Milky Way are various red H-alpha regions of glowing hydrogen. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is at botton. The Double Cluster star cluster is left of centre. Deneb is the bright star at far right, while Mirfak, the brightest star in Perseus, is at far left. The Funnel Nebula, aka LeGentil 3, is the darkest dark nebula left of Deneb. This is a stack of 4 x 1-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the Nikkor 14-24mm lens wide open, and at 24mm, and with the Nikon D810a red-sensitive DSLR, at ISO 1600. Shot from home, with the camera on the iOptron Sky-Tracker.

The D810a’s extended red end helps reveal the nebulas along the Milky Way. The Heart Nebula, captured in the close-up at top, is just left of centre here, left of the “W” forming Cassiopeia.

The Nikon D810a is a superb camera, with low noise, high-resolution, and features of value to astrophotographers. Kudos to Nikon for serving our market!

– Alan, November 30, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Last of the Summer Milky Way


Last of the Summer Milky Way

The summer Milky Way sets into the southwest on a late November night. 

On Saturday, November 28, well into winter here in Alberta, the stars of the Summer Triangle and the summer Milky Way set into the southwest on a clear, though slightly hazy, late November night.

This is the last of the summer Milky Way, with the centre of the Galaxy now long gone, but the Summer Triangle stars remaining in the evening sky well into autumn. Glows from light pollution in the west light the horizon, in a quick series of images shot in my rural backyard.

In the Summer Triangle, Vega is at right, as the brightest star; Deneb is above centre, and Altair is below centre, farthest south in the Milky Way.

I shot this as a test image for the Nikkor 14-24mm lens, here wide-open at f/2.8 and at 14mm, where it performs beautifully, with very tight star images to the corners. It does very well at 24mm, too! This is astonishing performance for a zoom lens. It matches or beats many “prime” lenses for quality.

The camera was the 36-megapixel Nikon D810a, Nikon’s “astronomical DSLR” camera, also on test. Here it shows its stuff by picking up the red nebulas in Cygnus and Cepheus.

Thorough tests of both the camera and lens will appear later in the year. Stay tuned.

Do subscribe to my blog (click below) to get email notices of new entries.

For the even more technically-minded, this image is a stack, mean combined, of five 2-minute tracked exposures, at f/2.8 and ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. So the stars are not trailed but the ground is! I made no attempt here to layer in an untracked ground shot, as there isn’t much detail of interest worth showing, quite frankly.

At least not in the ground. But the Milky Way is always photogenic.

– Alan, November 28, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Astrophotography Video Tutorials – Free!


 

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

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

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


 

Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights

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


 

Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes

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


 

Tutorial #3 – Star Trails

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

 

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

Or they can be viewed on my YouTube channel

Thanks for watching!

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

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

 

10 Tips for Terrific Time-Lapses


eMotimo at Dino Park #1

Here are my top tips for shooting terrific still-image nightscapes … and time-lapse movies of the night sky. 

Canon 6D

1. Go for pixel size, not pixel count

When choosing a camera for night sky scenes, the most important characteristic is not number of megapixels. Just the opposite.

The best cameras are usually models with more modest megapixel counts. Each of their individual pixels is larger and so collects more photons in a given exposure time, yielding higher a signal-to-noise ratio – or lower noise, critical for night shooting.

Cameras with pixels (the “pixel pitch”) 6 to 8 microns across are best. Many high-megapixel cameras have tiny 4-micron pixels.

Large-pixel cameras are often the full-frame models, such as the Canon 5D MkIII and 6D, the Nikon D610, D750, and Df, and the Sony a7s and a7S II.

Many “cropped-frame” cameras are now 18- to 24-megapixel models with smaller, noise-prone pixels. They can certainly be used, but will require more care in exposing well at lower ISOs, and in processing to smooth out noise without blurring detail.

Manual Settings

2. Learn to fly on manual

While DSLRs and Compact System Cameras have amazing automatic functions we use none of them at night.

Instead, we use the camera on Manual or Bulb, dialling in shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed manually. We also have to focus manually, using Live View mode to focus on a bright star or distant light.

Learn the tradeoffs involved: Increasing ISO sensitivity of the sensor keeps exposure times down but increases noise. Opening up the lens aperture to f/2 or f/1.4 also keeps exposures short but introduces image-blurring aberrations, especially at the frame corners.

To prevent stars from trailing due to the sky’s motion adhere to the “500 Rule:” the maximum exposure time is roughly 500 divided by the focal length of your lens.

Histogram-Correct

3. Expose to the right 

At night, always give the sensor plenty of signal.

Use whatever combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO will provide a well-exposed image. The image “histogram,” the graph of number of pixels at each brightness level shown above, should never be slammed to the left.

It should be a well-distributed “mountain range” of pixels, extending well to the right. If the 500 Rule restricts your shutter speed, and your desire for sharp images across the frame demands you shoot at f/2.8 or even slower, then don’t be afraid to bump up the ISO speed to whatever it takes to produce a good histogram and a well-exposed image.

Noise will look far worse if you underexpose, then try to boost the image brightness later in processing. Expose to the right!

File Format #2 7D

4. Shoot Raw!

Shoot Raw. Period.

When comparing Raw and compressed JPG versions of the same image, you can be fooled into thinking the JPGs look better (i.e. smoother) because of the noise reduction the camera has applied to the JPG that is beyond your control. However, that smoothing has also wiped out fine detail, like stars.

By shooting Raw you get to control whatever level of noise reduction and sharpening the image needs later in processing.

JPGs are also 8-bit images with a limited tonal range – or palette – in which to record the subtle gradations of brightness and colour present in our images.

Imported Raw files are 16-bit, with a much wider tonal scale and colour palette. That’s critical for all astrophotos when, even with a well-exposed image, many tonal values are down in the dark end of the range. Processing Raw images makes it possible to extract detail in the shadows and highlights.

Even when shooting a time-lapse sequence, shoot Raw.

LENR

5. Take dark frames (sometimes!)

LENR reduces noise.

It’s a topic of some debate, but in my experience it is always better to turn on the camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) function when shooting individual nightscape images. Doing so forces the camera to take a “dark frame,” an exposure of equal length but with the shutter closed.

It records just the noise, which the camera then subtracts from the image. Yes, it takes twice as long to acquire an image, but the image is cleaner, with fewer noisy pixels.

This is especially true when shooting on hot summer nights (the warmer the sensor the higher the noise). That said, you cannot use LENR when shooting frames for star trail composites or time-lapse movies.

For those, the interval between images should be no more than 1 to 5 seconds. Using LENR would introduce unsightly gaps in the trails or jumps in the star motion in time-lapses.

As an alternative, it is possible to take separate dark frames at the end of the night by simply covering the lens and taking exposures of the same duration and at the same ISO as your “light frames.”

Some stacking software, such as StarStax and the Advanced Stacker Actions have places to put these dark frames, to subtract them from the stack later in processing.

811eBU4sBkL._SL1500_

6. Use fast lenses

A fast lens is your best accessory.

While the “kit zoom” lenses that come with many DSLRs are great for shooting bright twilight or Full Moon scenes, they will prove too slow for dark starlit scenes with the Milky Way.

In addition to exposing to the right and shooting Raw, the secret to great nightscapes is to shoot with fast lenses, usually “prime” lenses with fixed focal lengths. They are usually faster and have better image quality than zooms.

Your most-used lens for nightscape and time-lapse shooting is likely to be a 14mm to 24mm f/2 to f/2.8 lens.

Fortunately, because we don’t need (and indeed can’t use) autofocus we can live happily with low-cost manual lenses, such as the models made in Korea and sold under brands such as Rokinon, Samyang and Bower. They work very well.

The quarter Moon reflected in the waters of Reesor Lake, Alberta in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Taken on July 5, 2014. This is with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 6D at ISO800. This is a high dynamic range stack of6 exposures from 1/15 to 0.6 seconds taken just before using the camera to take a motion control time-lapse. The Moon was in conjunction with Mars (right of Moon) and Spica (left of Moon) but in the bright twilight they are not showing up here.

7. Get to know the Moon & Milky Way

For many nightscape and time-lapse shoots, the Moon is your light source for illuminating the landscape.

When the Moon is absent, the Milky Way is often your main sky subject.

Knowing where the Moon will be in the sky at its various phases, and when it will rise (in its waning phases after Full Moon) or set (in its waxing phases before Full) helps you a plan a shoot, so you’ll know whether a landscape will be well lit.

Astronomy apps for desktop computers and mobile devices are essential planning aids. A good one specifically for photographers is The Photographer’s Ephemeris.

Knowing in what season and time of night the Milky Way will be visible is essential if you want to capture it. Don’t try for Milky Way shots in spring – it isn’t up!

Me with cameras shooting time-lapses at Crawling Lake reservoir, Alberta, June 30/July 1, 2013. Perpetual twilight of summer solstice shines to the north and very weak noctilucent clouds.

8. Keep it simple to start

Don’t be seduced by the fancy gear. 

Time-lapse imaging has blossomed into a field replete with incredible gear for moving a camera incrementally during a shoot, and for automating a shoot as day turns to night.

I explain how to use all the fancy gear in my ebook, linked to below, however … Great time-lapses, and certainly still-frame nightscapes, can be taken with no more than a DSLR camera with a good fast lens and mounted on a sturdy tripod. Invest in the lens and don’t scrimp on the tripod.

Another essential for shooting multi-frame star trails and time-lapses is a hardware intervalometer ($50 to $150).

TC-80N3 Masked

9. Learn the intricacies of intervals

For time-lapses, an intervalometer is essential.

Mastering exposure and focus in still images is essential for great time-lapse movies because they are simply made of hundreds of well-exposed still frames.

But move to time-lapses and you have additional factors to consider: how many frames to shoot and how often to shoot them. A good rule of thumb is to shoot 200 to 300 frames per sequence, shot with an interval of no more than 1 to 5 seconds between exposures, at least for starry night sequences.

However, most intervalometers (the Canon TC-80N3 is an exception) define their “Interval” setting to mean the time from when the shutter opens to when it opens again. In that case, you set the Interval to be a value 1 to 5 seconds longer than the exposure time you are using. That’s also true of the intervalometer function Nikon builds into their internal camera firmware.

Test first!

The summer Milky Way with a meteor streaking at centre as a bonus. An aurora to the north off frame is lighting the foreground with a green glow. Haze and forest fire smoke obscure the horizon. I shot this at the Battle Scene viewpoint at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, in southern Alberta. Sagittarius and the galactic centre is on the horizon at left of centre. Capricornus is amid the haze at left of centre. On the horizon are the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana. The Milk River winds below amid the sandstone formations that are home to historic First Nations petroglyphs.  This is a single 30-second exposure with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/2, taken as part of a time-lapse sequence.

10. Go to beautiful places

While the gear can be simple, great shots demand an investment in time.

By all means practice at home and at nearby sites that are quick to get to. Try out gear and techniques at Full Moon when exposures are short (the Full Moon is bright!) and you can see what you are doing.

But beautiful images of landscapes lit by moonlight or starlight require you to travel to beautiful locations.

When you are on site, take the time to frame the scene well, just as you would during the day. Darkness is no excuse for poor composition!

While shooting nightscapes and time-lapses can be done with a minimal investment in hardware and software, it does require an investment in time – time to travel and spend nights shooting at wonderful places under the stars.

Enjoy the night!

I cover all these topics, and much more, in detail in my ebook How to Photograph & Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. Click the link below to learn more.

— Alan, September 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.AmazingSky.com

Canon vs. Nikon for Astrophotography


Canon and Nikon Cameras

I’ve been an avowed Canon DSLR user for a decade. I may be ready to switch!

This is a decidedly non-pretty-picture blog!

Here, in a technical blog, I present my tests of two leading contenders for the best DSLR camera for nightscape and astronomical photography: the Canon 6D vs. the Nikon D750. Which is better?

To answer, I subjected both to side-by-side outdoor tests, using exposures you’ll actually use in the field for typical nightscapes and for deep-sky images.

Both cameras are stock, off-the-shelf models. They have not had their filters modified for astronomy use. Both are 20- to 24-megapixel, full-frame cameras, roughly competitive in price ($1,900 to $2,300).

For images shot through lenses, I used the Canon L-Series 24mm on the Canon 6D, and the Sigma 24mm Art lens on the Nikon D750.

The bottom line: Both are great cameras, with the Nikon D750 having the edge for nightscape work, and the Canon 6D the edge for deep-sky exposures.

NOTE: Click on the test images for higher-resolution versions for closer inspection. All images and text © 2015 Alan Dyer and may not be reproduced without my permission.


TEST #1 — Noise

The 24.3-megapixel Nikon D750 has 5.9-micron pixels, while the 20.2-megapixel Canon 6D has slightly larger 6.5-micron pixels which, in theory, should lead to lower noise for the Canon. How do they compare in practice?

The scene used to test for noise (here with the Nikon images) showing the development settings applied to both the Nikon and Canon sets. NO noise reduction (colour or lunminance) was applied to any of the images, but Exposure, Shadows, Contrast and Clarity were boosted, and Highlights reduced.
The scene used to test for noise (here with the Nikon images) showing the development settings applied to both the Nikon and Canon sets. NO noise reduction (colour or lunminance) was applied to any of the images, but Exposure, Shadows, Contrast and Clarity were boosted, and Highlights reduced.

I shot a moonlit nightscape scene (above) at five ISO settings, from 800 to 12800, at increasingly shorter exposures to yield identically exposed frames. I processed each frame as shown above, with boosts to shadows, clarity, and contrast typical for nightscapes. However, I applied no noise reduction (either luminance or color) in processing. Nor did I take and apply dark frames.

Noise - Canon

Noise - Nikon

The blowups of a small section of the frame (outlined in the box in the upper right of the Photoshop screen) show very similar levels of luminance noise. The Canon shows slightly more color noise, in particular more magenta pixels in the shadows at high ISOs. Its larger pixels didn’t provide the expected noise benefit.


TEST #2 — Resolution

Much has been written about the merits of Canon vs. Nikon re: the most rigorous of tests, resolving stars down at the pixel level.

I shot the images below of the Andromeda Galaxy the same night through a 92mm aperture apo refractor. They have had minimal but equal levels of processing applied. At this level of inspection the cameras look identical.

M31 (Canon 6D)

M31 (Nikon D750)

But what if we zoom in?

For many years Nikon DSLRs had a reputation for not being a suitable for stellar photography because of a built-in noise smoothing that affected even Raw files, eliminating tiny stars along with noise. Raw files weren’t raw. Owners worked around this by turning on Long Exposure Noise Reduction, then when LENR kicked in after an exposure, they would manually turn off the camera power.

This so-called “Mode 3” operation yielded a raw frame without the noise smoothing applied. Clearly, this clumsy workaround made it impossible to automate the acquisition of raw image sequences with Nikons.

Are Nikons still handicapped? In examining deep-sky images at the pixel-peeping level (below), I saw absolutely no difference in resolution or the ability to record tiny and faint stars. With its 4-megapixel advantage the Nikon should resolve finer details and smaller stars, but in practice I saw little difference.

Closeup of telescope view of Andromeda Galaxy with Canon 6D 4 minute exposure at ISO 800 No noise reduction applied in processing
Closeup of telescope view of Andromeda Galaxy with Canon 6D
4 minute exposure at ISO 800
No noise reduction applied in processing
Closeup of telescope view of Andromeda Galaxy with Nikon D750 4 minute exposure at ISO 800 No noise reduction applied in processing
Closeup of telescope view of Andromeda Galaxy with Nikon D750
4 minute exposure at ISO 800
No noise reduction applied in processing

On the other hand I saw no evidence for Nikon’s “star eater” reputation. I think it is time to lay this bugbear of Nikons to rest. The Nikon D750 proved to be just as sharp as the Canon 6D.

Note that in the closeups above, the red area marks a highlight (the galaxy core) that is overexposed and clipped. Nikon DSLRs also have a reputation for having sensors with a larger dynamic range than Canon, allowing better recording of highlights before clipping sets in.

However, in practice I saw very little difference in dynamic range between the two cameras. Both clipped at the same points and to the same degree.


TEST #3 — Mirror Box Shadowing

An issue little known outside of astrophotography is that a DSLR’s deeply-inset sensor can be shadowed by the upraised mirror and sides of the mirror box. Less light falls on the edges of the sensor.

The vignetting effect is noticeable only when we boost the contrast to the high degree demanded by deep-sky images, and when shooting through fast telescope systems.

Here I show the vignetting of the Canon and Nikon when shooting through my 92mm refractor at f/4.5.

The circular corner vignetting visible in the images below is from the field flattener/reducer I employed on the telescope. It can be compensated for by using Lens Correction in Adobe Camera Raw, or eliminated by taking flat fields.

Demonstrating the level of vignetting and mirror-box shadowing with the Canon 6D on a TMB 92mm apo refractor with a 0,85x field flattener/reducer lens
Demonstrating the level of vignetting and mirror-box shadowing with the Canon 6D on a TMB 92mm apo refractor with a 0.85x field flattener/reducer lens
Demonstrating the level of vignetting and mirror-box shadowing with the Nikon D750 on a TMB 92mm apo refractor with a 0,85x field flattener/reducer lens
Demonstrating the level of vignetting and mirror-box shadowing with the Nikon D750 on a TMB 92mm apo refractor with a 0.85x field flattener/reducer lens

The dark edge at the bottom of the frame is from shadowing by the upraised mirror. It can be eliminated only by taking flat fields, or reduced by using masked brightness adjustments in processing.

Both cameras showed similar levels of vignetting, with the Canon perhaps having the slight edge.


TEST #4 — ISO Invariancy

So far the Nikon D750 and Canon 6D are coming up fairly equal in performance. But not here. This is where the Nikon outperforms the Canon by quite a wide margin.

Sony sensors (used in Sony cameras and also used by Nikon) have a reputation for being “ISO Invariant.”

What does that mean?

A typical Milky Way nightscape with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens. With no Moon, shot at very high ISO of 6400 and wide aperture of f/1.4 to show image quality under these demanding shooting circumstances. Lens correction and basic development setttings applied.
A typical Milky Way nightscape with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens.
With no Moon, shot at very high ISO of 6400 and wide aperture of f/1.4 to show image quality under these demanding shooting circumstances.
Lens correction and basic development setttings applied.
A typical Milky Way nightscape with the Canon 6D and Canon 24mm L lens (original model). With no Moon, shot at very high ISO of 6400 and wide aperture of f/1.4 to show image quality under these demanding shooting circumstances. Lens correction and basic development setttings applied.
A typical Milky Way nightscape with the Canon 6D and Canon 24mm L lens (original model).
With no Moon, shot at very high ISO of 6400 and wide aperture of f/1.4 to show image quality under these demanding shooting circumstances.
Lens correction and basic development setttings applied.

In the examples above, the correct exposure for the starlit scene was 15 seconds at f/1.4 at ISO 6400. See how the two cameras rendered the scene? Very similar, albeit with the Canon showing more noise and discoloration in the dark frame corners.

What if we shoot at the same 15 seconds at f/1.4 … but at ISO 3200, 1600, 800, and 400? These are now 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-stops underexposed, respectively.

Then we boost the Exposure setting of the underexposed Raw files later in processing, by 1, 2, 3 or 4 f-stops. What do we see?

Nikon D750 - Comparing ISO Invariancy from ISO 6400 to 400 (Nightscape)
Nikon D750 – Comparing ISO Invariancy from ISO 6400 to 400 (Nightscape)

With the Nikon (above) we see images that look nearly identical for noise to what we got with the properly exposed ISO 6400 original. It really didn’t matter what ISO speed the image was shot at – we can turn it into any ISO we want later with little penalty.

Canon 6D - Comparing ISO Invariancy from ISO 6400 to 400 (Nightscape)
Canon 6D – Comparing ISO Invariancy from ISO 6400 to 400 (Nightscape)

With the Canon (above) we get images with grossly worse noise in the shadows and with ugly magenta discoloration. Canons cannot be underexposed. You must use as high an ISO as needed for the correct exposure.

This “ISO Invariant” advantage of Nikon over Canon is especially noticeable in nightscapes scenes lit only by starlight, as above. The Canon turns ugly purple at -3EV underexposure, and loses all detail and contrast at -4EV underexposure.

For nightscape imaging this is an important consideration. We are limited in exposure time and aperture, and so are often working at the ragged edge of exposure. Dark areas of a scene are often underexposed and prone to noise. With the Nikon D750 these areas may still look noisy, but not much more so than they would be at that ISO speed.

With the Canon 6D, underexpose the shadows and you pay the price of increased noise and discoloration when you try to recover details in the shadows.

NOTE: In case you think this difference arises only because of the lens, not the camera or sensor, I invite you to check the version of this review at my website page, where there are images taken with each camera shooting through the same optics, the telescope. They show the same difference due to the “ISO invariant” sensor in the Nikon vs. the “ISO variant” sensor in the Canon. 

For more technical information on the topic of ISO invariancy, see DPReview.com and many of their recent reviews of DSLRs, such as this page about the Canon 5Ds/r models. 

Apparently, the difference comes from where the manufacturer places the analog-to-digital circuitry: on the sensor (ISO invariant) or outboard on a separate circuit (ISO variant), and thus where in the signal path the amplification occurs when we boost ISO speed.


TEST #6 — Features

One could go on endlessly about features, but here I compare the two cameras on just a few key operating features very important to astrophotographers.

Nikon Intervalometer Start

Intervalometer:

The Canon 6D has none, though newer Canons do. The Nikon D750, as do many Nikons, has a built-in intervalometer (shown above), even with a deflickering “Exposure Smoothing” option. However, exposure time is limited to the camera’s maximum of 30 seconds. Any longer requires an outboard intervalometer, as with the Canon.

If you use your camera with any motion control time-lapse unit, then it becomes the intervalometer, negating any capability built into the camera. But it’s nice to have.

Small Advantage: Nikon


Interval Length:

When taking time-lapse or star trail images with the Canon I can set an interval as short as 1 second between frames, for a minimum of gaps or jumps in the stars. With the Nikon, depending on whether it is controlled internally or externally, and on the length of exposure, the interval usually has to be no less than 3 to 4 seconds, which can lead to unsightly gaps in star trails.

Small Advantage: Canon


Nikon D750 with Radian

Tiltable LCD Screen:

The Canon 6D has none. The Nikon D750 has a very useful tilt-out screen as shown above. This is hugely convenient for all forms of astrophotography. Only cropped-frame Canons have tilt-out screens. This feature might add weight, but it’s worth it!

Big Advantage: Nikon


Dark Frame Buffer:

The Nikon has none. With Long Exposure Noise Reduction ON, the Canon 6D allows up to four exposures to be shot in quick succession before the dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera. (Put the camera into Raw+JPG.)

This is very useful for deep-sky imaging, for acquiring a set of images for stacking that have each had a dark frame subtracted in-camera, with a minimum of “down-time” at the camera.

Big Advantage: Canon


Live View Screen Brightness:

As pointed out to me by colleague Christoph Malin, with the Nikon you cannot dim the screen when in Live View mode and with Exposure Simulation ON. So it can be too bright at night. With the Canon you can dim the Live View screen — the LCD Brightness control affects the screen both during Live View as well as during playback of images.

Small Advantage: Canon


Canon with GBTimelapse

Software Compatibility:

Canon EOS cameras are well supported by advanced software, such as GBTimelapse (above) that controls only Canons, not Nikons, in complex time-lapse sequences, and Nebulosity, popular among deep-sky imagers for DSLR control.

Small Advantage: Canon


My take-away conclusions: 

• Nikon DSLRs now are just as good for astrophotography as Canons, though that wasn’t always the case – early models did suffer from more noise and image artifacts than their Canon counterparts.

• Canon DSLRs, due to their sensor design, are more prone to exhibiting noise and image artifacts when images are greatly underexposed then boosted later in processing. Just don’t underexpose them – good advice for any camera.


You can read a slightly more complete version of this report at my website at

http://www.amazingsky.com/canon-vs-nikon.html

… where you can also download higher resolution versions of the test images for closer inspection.

My website version contains test images of the ISO Invariance difference on images of the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as comparison images of the Canon 24mm L-series lens vs. the Sigma 24mm Art lens.

All images and text are © 2015 Alan Dyer.

– Alan, August 27, 2015 & Revised August 28, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

An Orion Portrait from Alberta


Orion in Porttrait Format

He’s certainly the sky’s most photogenic mythological figure. Here’s my full-length portrait of Orion the hunter, captured from Alberta.

I’ve shot him many times before but this was a new combination of gear: the Canon 60Da camera and the Sigma 50mm lens, nicely framing the hunter in portrait format. This version of Orion isn’t as deep as the one I took last month from Australia. But skies were darker there, and I used my filter-modified Canon 5D MkII for his Oz portrait, a camera which picks up more faint red nebulosity than does the 60Da, Canon’s own specialized DSLR camera for astronomy. The 60Da does do a very good job though, much better than would a normal DSLR.

For this shot, as I do for many constellation images, I layered in exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, the Kenko Softon, to enlarge and “fuzzify” the stars! It really helps bring out their colours, contrasting cool, orange Betelgeuse with the hot blue-white stars in the rest of Orion.

I shot this January 4 on a fine clear winter night, the classic hunting ground for Orion.

– Alan, January 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer