Testing Raw Developer Software for Astrophotography


I test nine programs for processing raw files for the demands of nightscape astrophotography. 

Warning! This is a long and technical blog, but for those interested in picking the best software, I think you’ll find it the most comprehensive test of programs for processing nightscapes. The review is illustrated with 50 high-resolution, downloadable images which will take a while to load. Patience!

As a background, in December 2017 I tested ten contenders vying to be alternatives to Adobe’s suite of software. You can find that earlier survey here on my blog. But 2017 was ages ago in the lifetime of software. How well do the latest versions of those programs compare now for astrophotography? And what new software choices do we have as we head into 2023? 

To find out, I compared eight programs, pitting them against what I still consider the standard for image quality when developing raw files, Adobe Camera Raw (the Develop module in Adobe Lightroom is essentially identical). I tested them primarily on sample nightscape images described below. 

I tested only programs that are offered for both MacOS and Windows, with identical or nearly identical features for both platforms. However, I tested the MacOS versions. 

In addition to Adobe Camera Raw (represented by the Adobe Bridge icon), I tested, in alphabetical order, and from left to right in the icons above:

  • ACDSee Photo Studio
  • Affinity Photo 2 (from Serif)
  • Capture One 23
  • Darktable 4
  • DxO PhotoLab 6
  • Exposure X7
  • Luminar Neo (from SkyLum) 
  • ON1 Photo RAW 2023

I tested all the programs strictly for the purpose of processing, or “developing” raw files, using nightscape images as the tests. I also looked at features for preparing and exporting a large batch of images to assemble into time-lapse movies, though the actual movie creation usually requires specialized software. 

NOTE: I did not test the programs with telescope images of nebulas or galaxies. The reason — most deep-sky astrophotographers never use a raw developer anyway. Instead, the orthodox workflow is to stack and align undeveloped raw files with specialized “calibration” software such as DeepSkyStacker or PixInsight that outputs 16-bit or 32-bit TIFFs, bypassing any chance to work with the raw files.


TL;DR Conclusions

Here’s a summary of my recommendations, with the evidence for my conclusions presented at length (!) in the sections that follow:

What’s Best for Still Image Nightscapes?

  • Adobe Camera Raw (or its equivalent in Adobe Lightroom) still produces superb results, lacking only the latest in AI noise reduction, sharpening and special effects. Though, as I’ve discovered, AI processing can ruin astrophotos if not applied carefully. 
  • The Adobe alternatives that provided the best raw image quality in my test nightscapes were Capture One and DxO PhotoLab
  • ACDSee Photo Studio, Exposure X7,and Luminar Neo produced good results, but all had flaws. 
  • ON1 Photo RAW had its flaws as well, but can serve as a single-program replacement for both Lightroom and Photoshop.
  • Affinity Photo works well as a Photoshop replacement, and at a low one-time cost. But it is a poor choice for developing raw images.

If you are adamant about avoiding subscription software, then a combination of DxO PhotoLab and Affinity Photo can work well, providing great image quality, and serving to replace both Lightroom and Photoshop. 

  • I cannot recommend Darktable, despite its zero price. I struggled to use its complex and overly technical interface, only to get poor results. It also kept crashing, despite me using the new ARM version on my M1 MacBook Pro. It was worth what I paid for it. 

At the end of my blog, I explain the reasons why I did not include other programs in the test, to answer the inevitable “But what about …!?” questions. 

What’s Best for Basic Time-Lapses?

For simple time-lapse processing, where the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, all the programs except Affinity Photo, can copy and paste settings from one key image to all the others in a set, then export them out as JPGs for movie assembly. 

However, for the best image quality and speed, I feel the best choices are:

  • Adobe, either Lightroom or the combination of Camera Raw/Bridge
  • Capture One 23
  • DxO PhotoLab 6
  • While ON1 Photo RAW can assemble movies directly from developed raw files, I found Capture One or DxO PhotoLab can do a better job processing the raw files. And ON1’s time-lapse function is limited, so in my opinion it is not a major selling point of ON1 for any serious time-lapse work. 
  • Luminar Neo was so slow at Copy & Paste and Batch Export it was essentially unusable. 

What’s Best for Advanced Time-Lapses?

  • None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing.

While ON1 offers time-lapse movie assembly, it cannot do what LRTimelapse does — gradually shift processing settings over a sequence based on keyframes to accommodate changing lighting, and to micro-adjust exposure levels based on actual image brightness to smooth out the bane of time-lapse shooters — image flickering. 

LRTimelapse works only with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge. If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will do the job. Period. Subscribe to Adobe software. And buy LRTimelapse.


Avoiding Adobe?

My testing demonstrated to me that for nightscape photography, Adobe software remains a prime choice, for its image quality and ease of use. However, the reasons to go with any program other than Adobe are:

  • For equal or even better image quality, or for features not offered by Adobe.
  • But mostly to avoid Adobe’s subscription model of monthly or annual payments.
Capture One pricing as of early 2023, in Canadian funds.

All the non-Adobe alternatives can be purchased as a “perpetual license” for a one-time fee, though often with significant annual upgrade costs for each year’s major new release. However, you needn’t purchase the upgrade; your old version will continue to run. Below, I provide purchase prices in U.S. funds, but most companies have frequent sales and discount offers. 

While all of Adobe’s competitors will proclaim one-time pricing, several also offer their software via annual subscriptions, with additional perks and bonuses, such as file syncing to mobile apps, or better long-term or package pricing, to entice you to subscribe. 

Keep in mind that whatever program you use, its catalog and/or sidecar files where your raw image settings are stored will always be proprietary to that program. ON1 and Affinity also each save files in their own proprietary format. Switch to any other software in the future and your edits will likely not be readable by that new software. 


Raw Editing vs. Layer-Based Editing

As I mentioned, I tested all the programs strictly for their ability to process, or “develop,” raw image files for nightscapes. (Raw files are likened to being digital negatives that we “develop.”)

For some nightscape still images, raw developing might be all that’s needed, especially as software companies add more advanced “AI” (artificial intelligence) technology to their raw developers for precise selection, masking, and special effects. 

In the case of time-lapse sequences made of hundreds of raw frames, raw developing is the only processing that is practical. What we need for time-lapses is to:

  • Develop a single key raw file to look great, then …
  • Copy all its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
  • Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie, usually with a specialized assembly program. 
The programs that offer layer-based editing: Adobe Photoshop, ON1 Photo RAW, and Serif Affinity Photo

However, for most still-image astrophotography, including nightscapes, we often stack and/or blend multiple images to create the final scene, for several reasons:

  • To stack multiple images with a Mean or Median stack mode to smooth noise.
  • To layer dozens of images with a Lighten blend mode to create star trails.
  • To layer and blend images via masking to combine the different exposures often needed to record the ground and sky each at their best. 
  • Or often as not, a combination of all of the above! 

All those methods require a layer-based program. Adobe Photoshop is the most popular choice. 

Of the programs tested here, only two also offer the ability to layer multiple images for stacks, blends and composites. They are:

  • Affinity Photo 2 
  • ON1 Photo RAW 2023

I did not test these two programs to compare their image layering and masking abilities vs. Photoshop, as important as those functions might be. 

Fans of Skylum’s Luminar Neo will point out that it also supports image layers. In theory. In the version I tested (v1.6.2) bugs made it impossible to load files into layers properly — the layer stack became confused and failed to display the stack’s contents. I could not tell what it was stacking! Skylum is notorious for its buggy releases. 

Those determined not to use Adobe software should be aware that, apart from Affinity Photo and ON1 Photo RAW, all the other programs tested here are not replacements for Adobe Photoshop, nor are they advertised as such. They are just raw developers, and so can serve only to replace Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw/Adobe Bridge. 


The Challenge

This is the main image I threw at all nine programs, a single 2-minute exposure taken at Lake Louise, Alberta in October 2022. The lens was the Canon RF15-35mm at f/2.8 on a Canon R5 camera at ISO 800. 

The original raw image

Above is the raw image as it came out of camera, with the default Adobe Color camera profile applied, but no other adjustments. The length of exposure on a static tripod meant the stars trailed. The image has: 

  • A sky that needs color correcting and contrast enhancement.
  • Dark shadows in the foreground and distance that need recovery.
  • Bright foreground areas that need suppressing, where lights from the Chateau Lake Louise hotel illuminate the mountainsides and water.
  • Lens flares and lights from night hikers that need retouching out.

It is an iconic scene, but when shot at night, it’s a challenging one to process. 

The untracked image developed in Adobe Camera Raw

Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Optics, Detail, Curve, Color Mixer, and Calibration tabs, and applying the Adobe Landscape camera profile. Plus I added retouching, and local adjustments with ACR’s masks to affect just the sky and parts of the ground individually. This is the result I think looks best, and is the look I tried to get all other programs to match or beat. You might prefer a different look or style.  

The developed tracked image

In addition, I tried all programs on another two-minute exposure of the scene (shown above) but taken on a star tracker to produce untrailed, pinpoint stars, but a blurred ground. It served to test how well each program’s noise reduction and sharpening dealt with stars. 

The final layered and blended image in Adobe Photoshop

I shot that tracked version to blend with the untracked version to produce the very final image above, created from the Camera Raw edits. That blending of sky and ground images (with each component a stack of several images) was done in Photoshop. However, Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW could have done the required layering and masking. I show a version done with Affinity at the end of the blog. 


The Competitors

In a statement I read some time ago, DxO stated that Adobe products enjoy a 90% share of the image processing market, leaving all the competitors to battle over the remaining 10%. I’m not sure how accurate that is today, especially as many photographers will use more than one program.

However, I think it is fair to say Adobe’s offerings are the programs all competitors are out to beat. 

NOTE: Click/tap on any of the images to bring them up full screen as high-res JPGs so you can inspect them more closely.

The Established Standard

Adobe Camera Raw (included with Photoshop, Adobe Bridge and Lightroom)

Cost: $10 a month, or $120 a year by subscription for 20 Gb of cloud storage (all prices in U.S. $)

Website: https://www.adobe.com 

Version tested: 15.1

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development utility that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and asset management software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results, but I tested ACR. I use it in conjunction with Adobe Bridge as an image browser. Bridge can then send multiple developed images into Photoshop as layers for stacking. All programs are included in Adobe’s Photo subscription plan. 

The Contenders (in Alphabetical Order)

Here are the eight programs I tested, comparing them to Adobe Camera Raw. All but Skylum’s Luminar Neo offer free trial copies.  

ACDSee Photo Studio

Cost: $100 to $150, depending on version. $50 on up for annual major upgrades. By subscription from $70 a year.

Website: http://www.acdsystems.com 

Version tested: 9.1

I tested Photo Studio for Mac v9. Windows users have a choice of Photo Studio Professional or Photo Studio Ultimate. All three versions offer a suite of raw development tools, in addition to cataloging functions. However, the Ultimate version (Windows only) also offers layer-based editing, making it similar to Photoshop. ACDSee assured me that Photo Studio for Mac resembles the Windows Professional version, at least for basic raw editing and image management. However, Photo Studio Professional for Windows also has HDR and Panorama merging, which the Mac version does not. 

Affinity Photo 2

Cost: $70. Upgrades are free except for rare whole-number updates (in seven years there’s been only one of those!). No subscription plan is offered. 

Website: https://affinity.serif.com 

Version tested: 2.0.3 

Apart from the free Darktable, this is the lowest-cost raw developer on offer here. But Affinity’s strength is as a layer-based editor to compete with Photoshop. As such, Affinity Photo has some impressive features, such as the unique ability to calibrate and align deep-sky images, its stack modes (great for star trails and noise smoothing) which only Photoshop also has, and its non-destructive adjustment layers, filters and masks. Affinity Photo is the most Photoshop-like of all the programs here. However, it alone of the group lacks any image browser or cataloging function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement.

Capture One 23 Pro

Cost: $299. 33% off (about $200) for annual major upgrades. By subscription for $180 a year.

Website: https://www.captureone.com/en 

Version tested: 16.0.1.17

Capture One started life as a program for tethered capture shooting in fashion studios. It has evolved into a very powerful raw developer and image management program. While Capture One advertises that it now offers “layers,” these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of a single underlying image. While they work well, you cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one. However, it is the most costly to buy, upgrade each year, or subscribe to, which appears to be the sales model Capture One is moving toward, following Adobe.  

Darktable

Cost: Free, open source. 

Website: https://www.darktable.org 

Version tested: 4.2.0 

In contrast to Capture One, you cannot argue with Darktable’s price! For a free, open-source program, Darktable is surprisingly full-featured, while being fairly well supported and updated. As with most free cross-platform programs, Darktable uses an unconventional and complex user interface lacking any menus. It has two main modules: Lighttable for browsing images, and Darkroom for editing images. Map, Slideshow, Print and Tethering modules clearly signal this program is intended to be a free version of Lightroom. The price you pay, however, is in learning to use its complex interface.

DxO PhotoLab 6 ELITE

Cost: $219. $99 for annual major upgrades. No subscription plan is offered. 

Website: https://www.dxo.com 

Version tested: 6.1.1

DxO PhotoLab is similar to Capture One in being a very complete and feature-rich raw developer with good image management functions and a well-designed interface. While it has an image browser for culling, keywording and rating images, PhotoLab does not create a catalog as such, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement. But it is a superb raw developer, with very good image quality and noise reduction. While PhotoLab is also available in a $140 ESSENTIAL edition, it lacks the DeepPrime noise reduction and ClearView Plus haze reduction, both useful features for astrophotos. 

Exposure X7

Cost: $129. $89 for annual major upgrades. No subscription plan is offered. 

Website: https://exposure.software/ 

Version tested: 7.1.5 

Formerly known as Alien Skin Exposure, from the makers of the once-popular utilities Blow Up and Eye Candy, Exposure X7 is a surprisingly powerful raw editor (considering you might not have heard of it!), with all the expected adjustment options, plus a few unique ones such as Bokeh for purposely blurring backgrounds. It enjoys annual major updates, so is kept up to date, though is a little behind the times in lacking any AI-based effects or masking, or even automatic edge detection. Like Capture One, Exposure offers adjustment layers for ease of applying local edits. 

Luminar Neo

Cost: $149. $39 to $59 for individual Extensions. $179 for Extensions pack. By subscription for $149 a year which includes Neo and all Extensions. Frequent discounts and changing bundles make the pricing confusing and unpredictable. 

Website: https://skylum.com/luminar 

Version tested: 1.6.2

By contrast to Exposure X7, Luminar Neo from Skylum is all about AI. Indeed, its predecessor was called Luminar AI. Introduced in 2022, Neo supplanted Luminar AI, whose image catalog could not be read by Neo, much to the consternation of users. Luminar AI is now gone. All of Skylum’s effort now goes into Neo. It offers the expected raw editing adjustments, along with many powerful one-click AI effects and tools, some offered as extra-cost extensions in a controversial à la carte sales philosophy. Neo’s cataloging ability is basic and unsuitable for image management.

ON1 Photo RAW 2023

Cost: $99. $60 for annual major upgrades. $70 for individual plug-ins, each with paid annual updates. By subscription for $90 a year which includes all plug-ins and updates.

Website: https://www.on1.com 

Version tested: 17.0.2

Of all the contenders tested, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 Photo RAW has cataloging, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In recent years ON1 has introduced AI functions for selection, noise reduction, and sharpening. Some of these are also available as individual plug-ins for Lightroom and Photoshop at an additional cost. While the main program and plug-ins can be purchased as perpetual licences, the total cost makes an annual subscription the cheapest way to get and maintain the full ON1 suite. Like Capture One, they are moving customers to be subscribers. 


Feature Focus

I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files, not JPGs, for high-quality results. And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, an important step in the workflow, as it is the only time we have access to the full dynamic range of the 14-bit raw data that comes from the camera.

I judged each program based on several features I consider key to great nightscapes and time-lapses:

  • Browser/Cataloging Functions —Because we often deal with lots of images from an astrophoto shoot, the program should allow us to sort, rate, and cull images before proceeding with developing the best of the set for later stacking, and to easily compare the results. 
  • Lens Corrections —Does the program apply automatic lens corrections for distortion and vignetting? How extensive is its lens database? Or are manual adjustments required?
  • Noise Reduction —We shoot at high ISOs, so good noise reduction is essential for removing digital noise without sacrificing details such as pixel-level stars, or adding AI artifacts.
  • Shadow Recovery —While good highlight recovery can be important (and a prime reason for shooting and processing raw images), in nightscapes good shadow recovery is even more crucial. The starlit ground is dark, but rich in detail. We want to recover that shadow detail, without affecting other tonal ranges or introducing noise.
  • Local Adjustments and Masking —Good masking tools allow us to do more at the raw stage while we have access to the full range of image data. But how precise can the masks be? How easy is it to apply different settings to the ground and sky, the most common need for local adjustments with nightscapes.
  • Overall Finished Image Quality —Tools such as Dehaze and Clarity can work wonders at boosting contrast in the sky. Good color adjustments from HSL sliders can help fine-tune the overall color balance. How good did the final image look? — an admittedly subjective judgement. 
  • Copy & Paste Settings —A program should not only develop one image well, but also then be able to transfer all of that key image’s settings to several other images taken for noise stacking, or to what could be hundreds of images shot for a time-lapse movie or star trail scene. 
  • Batch Export —For stacking images for star trails, or for creating panoramas in advanced stitching programs such as PTGui, or when assembling time-lapse movies, the program should allow a “batch export” of selected images to TIFFs or JPGs for use elsewhere. 
  • Advanced Features —Does the program support panorama stitching and HDR (High Dynamic Range) merging of selected developed raw files? If so, what type of file does it create? 

Summary Comparison Table

= Feature is present; ticks the boxes! 

  = Feature is missing 

Partial = Feature only partially implemented (e.g. Only has distortion correction but not vignetting correction, or has limited cataloging functions)

I judged other features on an admittedly subjective scale of Poor, Fair, Good, or Excellent, based on my overall impressions of the reliability, options offered, quality, and/or speed of operation. 


Feature-by-Feature Details — 1. Browsing and Cataloging

Here, feature by feature, are what I feel are the differences among the programs, comparing them using the key factors I listed above.

All programs, but one, offer a Browse or Library module presenting thumbnails of all the images in a folder or on a drive. (For Adobe Camera Raw that module is Adobe Bridge, included with the Creative Cloud Photo subscription.) From the Browse/Library module you can sort, rate and cull images.

The Catalog screens from six of the programs tested
  • Luminar Neo’s Catalog function (as of early 2023) allows only flagging images as favorites. It is very crude. 

The other programs have more full-featured image management, allowing star rating, color label rating, pick/reject flags, keywording, grouping into collections or projects, and searching. 

  • Capture One and ON1 Photo RAW provide the option of importing images into formal catalogs, just as Adobe Lightroom requires. However, unlike Lightroom, both programs can also work with images just by pointing them to a folder, without any formal import process. Capture One calls this a “session.” Adobe Bridge works that way — it doesn’t produce a catalog.

While not having to import images first is convenient, having a formal catalog allows managing a library even when the original images are off-line on a disconnected hard drive, or for syncing to a mobile app. If that’s important, then consider Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW, or Adobe Lightroom. They each have mobile apps. 

  • Adobe Lightroom (but not Bridge) is also able to connect directly to what it calls “Publish Services” — Flickr, PhotoShelter, and SmugMug for example, using plug-ins offered by those services. I use that feature almost daily. ACDSee offers that feature only in its Windows versions of Photo Studio. As best I could tell, all other programs lacked anything equivalent.
  • Serif Affinity Photo is the lone exception lacking any form of image browser or asset management. It’s hard to fathom why in late 2022, with their major update to Version 2 of their software suite, Serif did not introduce a digital asset management program to link their otherwise excellent Photo, Designer and Publisher programs. This is a serious limitation of Serif’s Affinity creative suite, which is clearly aimed at competing one-on-one with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, yet Serif has no equivalent of Adobe Bridge for asset management. 

WINNERS: Capture One and ON1 Photo RAW, for the most flexibility in informal browsing vs. formal cataloguing. Adobe Lightroom for its Publish Services. 

LOSER: Affinity Photo for lacking any image management or catalog. 


Feature-by-Feature Details — 2. Lens Corrections

The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Ideally, software should automatically detect the camera and lens used and apply accurate corrections based on its equipment database. 

The Lens Corrections panels from all nine programs.
  • Of the nine programs tested, only four — Adobe Camera Raw, Darktable, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 Photo Raw — automatically applied both distortion and vignetting corrections for the Canon RF15-35mm lens I used for the test images. DxO is particularly good at applying corrections, drawing upon the company’s vast repository of camera and lens data. If your local copy of PhotoLab is missing a camera-lens combination, what it calls a “module,” DxO allows you to download it or request it. 
  • Capture One and Exposure X7 both detected the lens used and applied distortion correction, but did nothing to adjust vignetting. I had to apply vignetting correction, a more important adjustment, manually by eye. 
  • ACDSee and Luminar have no Auto Lens Corrections at all; distortion and vignetting both have to be dialed in manually. 
  • Affinity Photo lacked any automatic correction data for the Canon RF15-35mm lens in question, despite the lens being introduced in 2019. I selected the similar Canon EF16-35mm lens instead, as I show above circled in blue. Affinity gets marks off for having an outdated and incomplete lens database. 

WINNERS: Adobe, Darktable, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 Photo RAW, for full Auto Lens Corrections.

LOSERS: ACDSee and Luminar, for lacking Auto Lens Corrections.


Feature-by-Feature Details — 3. Noise Reduction and Sharpening

Absolutely essential to astrophotography is effective noise reduction, of both grainy “luminance” noise, as well as colorful speckles and splotches from “chrominance” noise. Programs should smooth noise without eliminating stars, removing star colors, or adding odd structures and artifacts. 

Conversely, programs should offer a controllable level of sharpening, without introducing dark halos around stars, a sure sign of over-zealous sharpening. 

Closeups of the tracked image comparing noise reduction and star image quality in all 9 programs. Tap or click to download a high-res version for closer inspection to see the pixel-level differences.

I tested noise reduction using the tracked version of my test images, as the pinpoint stars from the 45-megapixel Canon R5 will reveal any star elimination or discoloration. 

  • Adobe Camera Raw’s aging noise reduction routine stood up very well against the new AI competitors. It smoothed noise acceptably, while retaining star colors and Milky Way structures. But turn it up too high, as might be needed for very high ISO shots, and it begins to blur or wipe out stars. AI noise reduction promises to solve this. 

AI-Based Noise Reduction: 

  • DxO PhotoLab’s Prime and DeepPrime AI-based options can also do a good job. But … I find DeepPrime (shown above) and the newer DeepPrimeXD (shown below) can introduce wormy looking artifacts to starfields. The older Prime method might be a better choice. However, the annoyance with DxO PhotoLab is that it is not possible to preview any of its Prime noise reduction results full-screen, only in a tiny preview window, making the best settings a bit of a guess, requiring exporting the image to see the actual results. 
  • ON1 Photo RAW’s NoNoise AI can also do a good job, but has to be backed off a lot from the automatic settings its AI technology applies. Even so, I found it still left large-scale color blotches, a pixel-level mosaic pattern, and worst of all, dark halos around stars, despite me applying no sharpening at all to the image. ON1 continues to over-sharpen under the hood. I criticized it for star halos in my 2017 survey — the 2023 version behaves better, but still leaves stars looking ugly.
  • The other AI program, Luminar Neo with its Noiseless AI extension (an extra-cost option) did a poor job, adding strange artifacts to the background sky and colored halos around stars.
Comparing DxO’s three Prime noise reduction options on the untracked image. DeepPrimeXD is sharper!
Comparing DxO’s three Prime noise reduction methods on the tracked image. DeepPrimeXD is riddled with artifacts.

So beware of AI. As I show above with DxO, because they are not trained on starfields, AI routines can introduce unwanted effects and false structures. What works wonders on high-ISO wildlife or wedding shots can ruin astrophotos. 

For a more complete test of AI programs, such as Topaz DeNoise AI and Noise XTerminator, made specifically for noise reduction, see my review from November 2022, Testing Noise Reduction Programs for Astrophotography

Non AI-Based Noise Reduction: 

  • Capture One smoothed noise very well, but tended to bloat stars and soften fine detail with its Single Pixel control turned up even to one pixel, as here. 
  • Affinity Photo nicely smoothed noise, but also removed star colors, yet added colored rims to some stars, perhaps from poor de-Bayering. Serif Lab’s raw engine still has its flaws. 
  • ACDSee Photo Studio also added loads of unacceptable halos to stars, and could not reduce noise well without smoothing details. 
  • Darktable has very good noise reduction, including a panel specifically for Astrophoto Denoise. Great! Pity its routines seemed to wipe out star colors and fine structures in the Milky Way. 
  • Exposure X7 smoothed noise well, but also wiped out details and structures, and its sharpening adds dark halos to stars. 

That said, it might be possible to eke out better results from all these programs with more careful settings. Backing off sharpening or noise reduction can avoid some of the unwanted side effects I saw, but leave more noise. 

Adobe Camera Raw does eliminate most random hot or dead pixels “under the hood.” However, I wish it had an adjustable filter for removing any that still remain (usually from thermal noise) and that can plague the shadows of nightscapes. Single-pixel filters are offered by Capture One, Darktable, DxO, and Exposure X7. Though turning them up too high can ruin image detail. 

WINNERS: Adobe and DxO PhotoLab (if the latter is used cautiously) 

LOSERS: ACDSee, Affinity, Darktable, Exposure X7, and Luminar Neo for unacceptable loss of detail and star colors, while adding in false structures (Neo)


Feature-by-Feature Details — 4. Shadow Recovery

While all programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows in the dark starlit ground, while preventing the sky or other areas of the image from becoming overly bright or washed out. 

Comparing Shadow Recovery in two programs (Camera Raw – top – and DxO PhotoLab – middle) that worked quite well, with Darktable (bottom) that did not.

In the three examples above I have applied only white balance and exposure correction, then “lifted” the Shadows. I added some contrast adjustment to Darktable, to help improve it, and Smart Lighting to the DxO image, which was needed here.  

Here are my findings, roughly in order of decreasing image quality, but with Adobe first as the one to match or beat. 

  • Adobe Camera Raw has a very good Shadows slider that truly affects just the dark tonal areas and with a slight touch (turning it up to 100 doesn’t wipe out the image). Some other programs’ Shadows adjustments are too aggressive, affect too wide a range of tones, or just add a grey wash over the image, requiring further tweaks to restore contrast. 
  • Capture One did an excellent job on Shadow recovery under its High Dynamic Range set of sliders. The dark landscape brightened without becoming flat or grey. This is a primary contributor to its excellent image quality. 
  • DxO PhotoLab’s Shadows slider affects a wider tonal range than ACR or Capture One, also brightening mid-tones, though it has a Midtones slider to separately adjust those. On its own, the Shadows slider didn’t work as well as in ACR or Capture One. But DxO’s superb feature is its “Smart Lighting,” which can work wonders on a scene with one click. Another unique adjustment is “ClearView Plus,” a form of Dehaze which can snap up contrast, often too aggressively, but it can be backed off in intensity. Those two adjustments alone might be reason enough to use PhotoLab. 
  • ON1 Photo RAW’s Shadows slider affected too wide a range of tonal values, brightening the entire scene and making it look flat. This can be overcome with some tweaks to the Contrast, Blacks and Midtones sliders. It takes more work to make a scene look good. 
  • ACDSee’s Fill Light and Shadows sliders were also much too broad. But its unique LightEQ panel has options for “Standard” and “Advanced” settings which each provide an equalizer interface for making more selective tonal adjustments. It worked well, though the image looked too harsh and contrasty, despite me adding no contrast adjustments, the opposite flaw of other programs. 
  • Luminar Neo’s Shadows slider under its DevelopRAW panel was also broad, washing out contrast, requiring a liberal application of its SuperContrast slider to return the image to a better look. But the final result looked fine.
  • Exposure X7’s Shadows slider also lowered overall contrast, requiring boosting Contrast and Blacks to return the image to a pleasing tonal balance. 
  • Affinity Photo’s Shadows slider did a far better job in its new v2 (released in late 2022) than in the original Affinity Photo, which was frankly awful. Even so, I found Affinity Photo 2 still tended to produce flat results, hard to compensate for from within the Develop Persona, as its options are so limited. 
  • Darktable’s Shadows slider (which has several sub-sliders) produced a flat result. Despite the numerous variations of other contrast and level adjustments scattered over various panels, I could not get a pleasing result. It will take a true Darktable fan and expert to exact a good image from its bewildering options, if it’s even possible.

WINNERS: Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, plus Adobe still works well

LOSERS: Affinity Photo and Darktable


Feature-by-Feature Details — 5. Local Adjustments and Masking

This is the area where programs have made major improvements in the five years since my last survey of raw developers. Thus I devote a major section to the feature. 

With accurate and easy masking it is now easier to apply adjustments to just selected areas of a raw image. We can finish off a raw file to perhaps be publication ready, without having to use a layer-based program like Photoshop to perform those same types of local adjustments. Adobe Camera RAW, Luminar Neo, and ON1 Photo Raw are leaders in this type of advanced AI masking. But other programs have good non-AI methods of masking – and making – local adjustments. 

  • Adobe Camera Raw (and Adobe Lightroom) now has far better masking than in older versions that used the awkward method of applying multiple “pins.” Masks now occupy separate layers, and AI masks can be created in one-click for the sky (and ground by inverting the Sky mask) and for key subjects in the image. Other non-AI masks can be created with brushes (with an Auto Mask option for edge detection) and gradient overlays, and with the option of luminance and color range masks. The AI-created Sky masks proved the most accurate compared to other programs’ AI selections, though they can intrude into the ground at times. But the sky masks do include the stars. In all, Camera Raw (or Lightroom) has the most powerful masking tools of the group, though they can be tricky to master. 
  • ACDSee Photo Studio allows up to eight different brushed-on mask areas, each with its own adjustments, in addition to gradient masks. There is no edge detection as such, though the brushes can be limited to selecting areas of similar brightness and color. The “Magic” brush option didn’t help in selecting just the sky and stars. Local adjustments are possible to only Exposure, Saturation, Fill Light, Contrast, and Clarity. So no local color adjustments are possible. In all, local adjustments are limited. 
  • Affinity Photo has, in its Develop Persona, what it calls Overlays, where for each Overlay, or layer, you can brush on separate sets of adjustments using all the sliders in the Develop Persona. Oddly, there is no option for decreasing the opacity of a brush, only its size and feathering. While there is an Edge Aware option, it did a poor job on the test image detecting the boundary between land and sky, despite the edge being sharply defined. So local adjustments require a lot of manual brushing and erasing to get an accurate mask. The red mask Overlay, useful at times, has to be turned on and off manually. Other programs (ACR and Capture One) have the option of the colored overlay appearing automatically just when you are brushing. 
  • Capture One offers adjustment layers for each mask required. The only “smart” brush is the Magic Brush which affects areas across the entire image with similar luminosity. There isn’t any edge detection option as such, so creating masks for the sky and ground is still largely a manual process requiring careful brushing. Separate layers can be added for healing and retouching. While Capture One’s local adjustments can work well, they require a lot more manual work than do programs equipped with AI-driven selection tools. 
  • DxO PhotoLab allows multiple local adjustments, with the option of an Auto Mask brush that nicely detects edges, though the mask overlay itself (as shown above on the sky) doesn’t accurately show the area being affected. Strange. Masks can also be added with what are called Control Points to affect just areas of similar luminance within a wide circle, often requiring multiple Control Points to create an adjustment across a large region. Masks can also be created with adjustable brushes. Each masked area is then adjusted using a set of equalizer-like mini-controls, rather than in the main panels. In all, it’s a quirky interface, but it can work quite well once you get used to it. 
  • Exposure X7 offers adjustment layers with options to add a gradient, or to draw or brush on an area to make a selection. There is no edge detection, only a color range mask option, so creating a sky or ground mask can require lots of hand painting. I found the preview sluggish, making it a bit of a trial-and-error exercise to make fine adjustments. However, the full range of tone and color adjustments can be applied to any local mask, a plus compared to ACDSee for example. 
  • Luminar was first out with AI masks to automatically select the sky, and various landscape elements it detects. In all it does a good job, making it easy to add local adjustments. There are also gradient tools and normal brushes, but oddly, considering the amount of AI Luminar relies on, there is no edge detection (at least, as of early 2023). So brushing to create a mask requires a lot of finicky painting and erasing to refine the mask edge. The strong point is that masks can be added to any of Luminar’s many filters and adjustment panels, allowing for lots of options for tweaking the appearance of selected areas, such as adding special effects like glows to the sky or landscape. However, most of those filters and effects are added to the image after it is developed, and not to the original raw file. 
ON1’s AI Sky mask does not include the stars.
  • ON1 Photo RAW has always offered good local adjustments, with each occupying its own layer. Photo RAW 2023 added its new “Super Select” AI tools to compete with Adobe. But they are problematic. The select Sky AI masking fails to include stars, leaving a sky mask filled with black holes, requiring lots of hand painting to eliminate. You might as well have created the mask by hand to begin with. Plus in the test image, selecting “Mountain” to create a ground mask just locked up the program, requiring a Force Quit to exit it. However, ON1’s conventional masks and adjustments work well, with a wide choice of brush options. The Perfect Brush detects areas of similar color, not edges per se. 

WINNERS: Adobe and Luminar for accurate AI masks

LOSER: Darktable— it has no Local Adjustments at all


Feature-by-Feature Details — 6. Overall Finished Image Quality 

I provide each of the finished images for the untracked star trail example below, under Program-by-Program Results. But here’s a summary, in what I admit is a subjective call. One program would excel in one area, but be deficient in another. But who produced the best looking end result? 

Overall, I think Capture One came closest to matching or exceeding Adobe Camera Raw for image quality. Its main drawback is the difficulty in creating precise local adjustment masks.

DxO PhotoLab also produced a fine result, but still looking a little flat compared to ACR and Capture One. But it does have good AI noise reduction.

In the middle of the ranking are the group of ACDSee Photo Studio, Exposure X7, and ON1 Photo RAW. Their results look acceptable, but closer examination reveals the flaws such as haloed stars and loss of fine detail. So they rank from Fair to Good, depending on how much you pixel peep! 

Luminar Neo did a good job, though achieving those results required going beyond what its DevelopRAW panel can do, to apply Neo’s other filters and effects. So in Neo’s case, I did more to the image than what was possible with just raw edits. But with Luminar, the distinction between raw developer and layer-based editor is fuzzy indeed. It operates quite differently than other programs tested here, perhaps refreshingly so. 

For example, with the more conventionally structured workflow of Affinity Photo, I could have exacted better results from it had I taken the developed raw image into its Photo Persona to apply more adjustments farther down the workflow. The same might be said of ON1 Photo RAW.

But the point of this review was to test how well programs could do just at the raw-image stage. Due to the unique way it operates, I’ll admit Luminar Neo did get the advantage in this raw developer test. Though it failed on several key points. 

WINNERS: Adobe and Capture One, with DxO a respectable second

LOSER: Darktable— it was just plain poor 


Feature-by-Feature Details — 7. Copy & Paste Settings 

Getting one image looking great is just the first step. Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later. 

As such, we want to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then we need to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good, as some might need individual tweaking.

While it’s a useful feature for images destined for a still-image composite, Copy & Paste Settings is an absolutely essential feature for processing a set for a time-lapse movie or a star trail stack. 

The Copy and Paste Settings panels from the 8 programs that offer this feature.

I tested the programs on the set of 360 time-lapse frames of the Perseid meteor shower used next for the Batch Export test. 

  • Adobe Bridge makes it easy to copy and paste Camera Raw settings to identically process all the files in a folder. Lightroom has a similar function. Adobe also has adaptive masks, where a sky mask created for one image will adapt to all others, even if the framing or composition changes, as it would in a motion-control time-lapse sequence or panorama set. Applying settings to several hundred images is fairly quick, though Bridge can be slow at rendering the resulting thumbnails. 
  • ON1 Photo RAW can also copy and paste AI masks adaptively, so a Sky mask created for one image will adapt to match another image, even if the framing is different. However, applying all the settings to a large number of images and rendering the new previews proved achingly slow. And it’s a pity it doesn’t create a better sky mask to begin with.
  • Capture One has a single Copy and Apply Adjustments command where you develop one image, select it plus all the other undeveloped images in the set to sync settings from the processed image to all the others. But the adjustment layers and their masks copy identically; there is no adaptive masking because there are no AI-generated masks. However, applying new settings to hundreds of images and rendering their thumbnails is very fast, better than other programs.
  • DxO PhotoLab’s Control Point masks and local adjustments also copy identically. Copying adjustments from one image to the rest in the set of 360 test images was also very fast. 
  • ACDSee Photo Studio and Exposure X7 also allow copying and pasting all or selected settings, including local adjustment masks. ACDSee was slow, but Exposure X7 was quite quick to apply settings to a large batch of images, such as the 360 test images. 
  • Darktable’s function is under the History Stack panel where you can copy and paste all or selected settings, but all are global — there are no local adjustments or masks.
  • Luminar Neo allows only copying and pasting of all settings, not a selected set. When testing it on the set of 360 time-lapse frames, Neo proved unworkably slow, taking as much as an hour to apply settings and render the resulting thumbnails in its Catalog view, during which time my M1 MacBook Pro warned the application was running out of memory, taking up 110 Gb! I had to Force Quit it.
  • Affinity Photo is capable of editing only one image at a time. There is no easy or obvious way to copy the Develop Persona settings from one raw image, open another, then paste in those settings. You can only save Presets for each Develop Persona panel, making transferring settings from one image to even just one other image a tedious process. 

Affinity Photo with several raw images stacked and identically processed with the method below.

Affinity Workaround

But … there is a non-obvious and unintuitive method in Affinity which works for stacking and processing a few raw files for a blend: 

  1. Process one raw image and then click Develop so it moves into the Photo Persona, as a “RAW Layer (Embedded),” a new feature in Affinity Photo 2. 
  2. Find the other raw image files (they won’t have any settings applied) and simply drag them onto the Photo Persona screen.
  3. Use the Move tool to align the resulting new layers with the original image. 
  4. Select all the image layers (but only the first will have any settings applied) and hit the Develop Persona button. 
  5. Then hit the Develop button — this will apply the settings from the first image to all the others in the layer stack. It’s the best Affinity can do for a “copy and paste” function. 
  6. Change the blend mode or add masks to each layer to create a composite or star trail stack. 
  7. Each layer can be re-opened in the Develop Persona if needed to adjust its settings.
  8. It’s all a bit of a kludge, but it does work.

WINNERS: Capture One for blazing speed; Adobe and ON1 for adaptive masks

LOSER: Affinity Photo, for lacking this feature entirely, except for a method that is not at all obvious and limited in its use. 


Feature-by-Feature Details — 8. Batch Export 

Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy & Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files. 

This step creates an intermediate set of TIFFs or JPGs to either assemble into a movie with programs such as TimeLapse DeFlicker, or to stack into a star trail composite using software such as StarStaX

The Batch Export panels from all 9 programs.

To test the Batch Export function, I used each program to export the same set of 360 developed raw files taken with a 20-megapixel Canon R6, shot for a meteor shower time-lapse, exporting them into full-resolution, low-compression JPGs.

While all programs can do the task, some are much better than others. 

Adobe Bridge has a configurable Export panel (though it can be buggy at times), as does Lightroom. Its speed is good, but is beaten by several of the competitors. 

Even Affinity Photo can do a batch export, done through its “New Batch Job” function. As with its other image selection operations, Affinity depends on your operating system’s Open dialog box to pick images. Exporting worked well, though without being able to develop a batch of raw files, I’m not sure why you would have cause to use this batch function to export them. I had to test it with undeveloped raws. Oddly, Affinity’s exported JPGs (at 5496 x 3664 pixels) were slightly larger than the size of the original raws (which were 5472 x 3648 pixels). No other program did this. 

Most programs allow saving combinations of Export settings as frequently used presets. An exception is Exposure X7 where separate presets have to be saved and loaded for each option in its Export panel, awkward. And Luminar Neo’s batch export is basic, with no option for saving Export presets at all. 

In the export of the 360 test images, each program took:

  • Adobe Bridge 15 minutes (after 3 attempts to get it to actually work!)
  • ACDSee Photo Studio 33 minutes 
  • Affinity Photo 2 32 minutes
  • Capture One 23   6 minutes
  • Darktable 4 16 minutes
  • DxO PhotoLab 6   8 minutes
  • Exposure X7   5 minutes 30 seconds
  • Luminar Neo 8.5 hours (!)
  • ON1 Photo RAW 2023 1.4 hours

This was on my M1 Max MacBook Pro. Your mileage will vary! The clear winners in the export race were Exposure X7, Capture One, and DxO. ON1 was way behind the pack. Luminar was impossibly slow. It is not a program for working with lots of images.


ON1’s Time-Lapse Function

Unique among these programs, ON1 Photo RAW provides a Time-Lapse function that allows directly exporting developed raw files to a final movie, without the need to export an intermediate JPG set. That sounds like a great time saver. Only Adobe After Effects can do the same. 

However … ON1’s options are limited: up to a maximum DCI 4K size, in H264 or Apple ProRes codecs, and with a choice of just three frame rates: 24, 25, or 30 frames per second. A dedicated assembly program such as TimeLapse DeFlicker can do a much better job, and faster, with more options such as frame blending, and up to 8K movie sizes. 

And oddly, ON1’s Time-Lapse panel provides no option for where to save the movie or what to name it — it defaults to saving the movie to the original folder with the images, and with the name of one of the images. I had to search for it to locate it. 

WINNERS: Exposure X7 and Capture One for sheer speed 

LOSER: Luminar Neo for being unusably slow   


Feature-by-Feature Details — 9. Advanced Features 

Here I’ve noted what programs offer what features, but I tested only the panorama stitching function. For a panorama test I used a set of seven images shot with the Canon R5 and RF15-35mm lens at Peyto Lake, Banff. 

The Panorama options from 4 programs. ON1 (lower left) failed to stitch 2 of the 7 segments).
  • Adobe Camera Raw (and Lightroom) offers HDR Merge and Panorama stitching plus, uniquely, the ability to merge multi-exposure HDR panoramas. But it has no Focus Stack option (that’s in Photoshop). For panoramas, ACR offers a choice of projection geometries, and the very excellent Boundary Warp function for filling in blank areas, as well as content-aware Fill Edges. The result is a raw DNG file. 
  • Capture One has HDR Merge and Panorama stitching, but no Focus Stack option. Like ACR, Capture One’s panorama mode offers a choice of projection geometries and results in a raw DNG file for further editing at the raw level. It worked well on the test set, though lacks anything equivalent to ACR’s content-aware Fill Edges and Boundary Warp options. 
  • ON1 Photo RAW offers HDR Merge, Focus Stack, and Panorama stitching of raw files. Using the same seven images that ACR and Capture One succeeded with, ON1 failed to stitch two of the segments, leaving a partial pano. It does offer a limited choice of projection methods and, like ACR, has the option to warp the image to fill blank areas. It creates a raw DNG file. 
  • Affinity Photo also offers HDR Merge, Focus Stack, and Panorama stitching, all from raw files. However, the panorama function is quite basic, with no options for projection geometry or content-aware fill. But it did a good job blending all segments of the test set seamlessly. The result is a raw file that can be further processed in the Develop Persona. 
  • ACDSee Photo Studio for Mac lacks any HDR, Focus Stack, or Panorama stitching. Those functions are available in the Windows versions (Pro and Ultimate), but I did not test them. 
  • Luminar Neo offers HDR Merge and Focus Stack through two extra-cost extensions. As of this writing it does not offer Panorama stitching, but more extensions (yet to be identified!) will be released in 2023. 
  • Darktable offers just HDR Merge, but no Focus Stack or Panorama functions. 
  • DxO PhotoLab 6 lacks any HDR, Focus Stack or Panorama functions. Ditto for Exposure X7. Those are serious deficiencies, as we have a need for all those functions when processing nightscapes. You would have to develop the raw files in DxO or Exposure, then export TIFFs to merge or stitch them using another program such as Affinity Photo. 

WINNERS: Adobe and Capture One

LOSER: DxO for missing key functions expected in a premium “Adobe killer”


Program-by-Program Summary

I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of the final images, as best I could process them with each of the programs. I rate their overall image quality and performance on a subjective scale of Poor / Fair / Good / Excellent, with additional remarks about the Pros and Cons of each program, as I see them. 

Adobe Camera Raw (also applies to Adobe Lightroom) 

IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent 

PROS: ACR has excellent selective shadow recovery and good noise reduction which, while not up to the level of new AI methods, doesn’t introduce any weird AI artifacts. Its panels and sliders are fairly easy to use, with a clean user interface. Its new AI masking and local adjustments are superb, though take some practice to master.

CONS: It is available only by monthly or annual subscription, and lacks the more advanced AI noise reduction, sharpening, and one-click special effects of some competitors. Using the Adobe suite requires moving between different Adobe programs to perform all functions. Adobe Bridge, a central program in my workflow, tends to be neglected by Adobe, and suffers from bugs and deficiencies that go uncorrected. 

ACDSee Photo Studio (for Mac)

IMAGE QUALITY: Fair 

PROS: Photo Studio in its various versions offers good image management functions, making it suitable as a non-subscription Lightroom alternative. It offers an advanced array of tonal and color adjustments in an easy-to-use interface. 

CONS: It produced badly haloed stars and had poor noise reduction. Its local adjustments are limited and lag behind the competition with no AI functions. It has no panorama stitching or HDR merging functions in the Mac version — the Windows versions get much more love and attention from ACDSee. 

Affinity Photo 2

IMAGE QUALITY: Fair (for its Develop Persona) / Good to Excellent (as a Photoshop replacement)

PROS: Affinity Photo is certainly the best alternative to Photoshop for anyone looking to avoid Adobe. It is an excellent layer-based program (far better than GIMP) with unique features for astrophotographers such as stacking and gradient removal. With v2, it is now possible to transfer a raw file from the Develop Persona to the Photo Persona non-destructively, allowing re-opening the raw file for re-editing, similar to Adobe’s Camera Raw Smart Objects. 

CONS: Affinity Photo’s Develop Persona for raw files is basic, with limited adjustments and producing average results at best. Transferring settings from one raw file to others is difficult, if not impossible. Affinity Photo is designed for editing single images only. 

Capture One 23

IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent 

PROS: Capture One has excellent shadow recovery and color adjustment controls. Local adjustments are easy to add and edit, though lack edge detection and AI selection. It has excellent cataloging functions, and overall superb image quality. It’s a good Lightroom alternative. 

CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Adobe’s Creative Cloud to subscribe to. It can easily soften stars if not careful. It lacks AI masking, and overall the program tends to lag behind competitors by a few years for advanced features — Capture One added panorama stitching only a couple of versions back. I found the program also tended to litter my drive with Capture One folders. 

Darktable

IMAGE QUALITY: Poor 

PROS: It’s free! And it offers many adjustments and intricate options not found elsewhere that the technically minded will enjoy experimenting with. 

CONS: Darktable’s community of developers has added a bewildering array of panels in a confusing interface, making Darktable not for beginners nor the feint of heart. I struggled with it, all for poor results. Just finding the Export function was a challenge. Darktable is a program designed by programmers for use by other programmers who love to play with image data, and who care little for a user interface friendly to “the rest of us!”

DxO PhotoLab 6

IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent 

PROS: Along with Capture One, I found DxO PhotoLab capable of producing a good-looking image, the equal of or perhaps better than Camera Raw, partly because of DxO’s ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has lots of downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, though its DeepPrime and DeepPrimeXD options can add AI artifacts.

CONS: There are no adjustment layers or masks as such. Local adjustments are done through DxO’s quirky Control Point interface which isn’t as visually intuitive nor as precise as masks and layers. As of PhotoLab 6, DxO has yet to offer panorama or HDR merging, lagging far behind the competition. 

Exposure X7

IMAGE QUALITY: Fair 

PROS: Exposure has a full set of tonal and color adjustments, and essential image management functions. It has good local adjustment layers, though with no AI or smart brushes to automatically detect edges. It produced acceptable final results, though still looking a little flat. 

CONS: Exposure lacks any panorama stitching or HDR merging functions. Its noise reduction can wipe out stars and image details, and its sharpening adds dark halos to stars. It often crashed during my testing, by simply quitting unexpectedly. Annoying.

Luminar Neo

IMAGE QUALITY: Good to Excellent

PROS: Luminar has a clean, fresh interface with many powerful AI-driven functions and effects unique to Luminar and that are easy to apply. The final result looks fine. Its AI masks work quite well. Neo also works as a plug-in for Photoshop or Lightroom. 

CONS: Luminar is expensive to purchase outright with all the Extensions, with a subscription the most economical method of acquiring, and maintaining, the full package. Its Noiseless AI didn’t handle starfields well. Neo lacks a useable cataloging function, and the version tested had numerous serious bugs. It is best for editing just single images. 

ON1 Photo RAW 2023

IMAGE QUALITY: Good 

PROS: ON1 Photo RAW is the only program of the set that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It can serve as a one-program solution, and has excellent Effects and NoNoise AI, also available as plug-ins for Adobe software. It offers layer-based editing as well. 

CONS: ON1 consistently produces dark halos around stars from over-sharpening in its raw engine. These cannot be eliminated. Its AI selection routines are flawed. Its AI noise reduction can leave artifacts if applied too aggressively, which is the default setting. Opening images from the Browse module as layers in the Edit module can be slow. It offers no stack modes (present in Photoshop and Affinity) for easy noise smoothing or star trail stacking, and the alternative — changing layer Blend modes — has to be done one at a time for each layer, a tedious process for a large image stack.


Why Didn’t I Test …? 

… [Insert your favorite program here!] No doubt it’s one you consider badly neglected by all the world’s photographers! 

But … as I stated at the outset, I tested only programs offered for both MacOS and Windows. I tested the MacOS versions — and for nightscapes, which are more demanding than normal daytime scenes.

Icons for the programs not tested. How many can you identify? Hint: They are in alphabetical order.

I did not test:

  • Adobe Photoshop Elements —Effectively Photoshop “Lite,” Elements is available for $99 as a one-time purchase with a perpetual license, for both MacOS and Windows. Optional annual updates cost about $80. While it offers image and adjustment layers, and can open .PSD files, Elements cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has limited functions for developing raw files, in its version of Camera Raw “Lite.” And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not not have any Copy & Paste Settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for batch editing or time-lapse production. 

Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. A Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more per year, yet gets you far, far more in Adobe’s professional-level software.

  • Corel PaintShop — As with ACDSee’s product suite, Corel’s PaintShop is available in Pro and Pro Ultimate versions, both updated for 2023, and each with extensive raw and layer-based editing features. But they are only for Windows. If you are a PC user, PaintShop is certainly worth testing out. Their neglected MacOS program (also available for Windows and Linux) is the raw developer AfterShot Pro 3 (currently at v3.7.0.446). It is labeled as being from 2017, and last received a minor bug fix update in January 2021. I included it in my 2017 survey, but could not this year as it refused to recognize the CR3 raw files from my Canon R5 and R6 cameras. 
  • Darkroom and Acorn are two Mac-only apps wth just basic features. There are no doubt numerous other similar Windows-only apps that I am not familiar with. 
  • GIMP — Being free, it has its loyal fans. But it is not a raw developer, so it is not tested here. It is favorite of some astrophotographers as a no-cost substitute for Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo. It’s available for MacOS and Windows. 
  • Iridient Developer — Its anachronistic, text-only website looks like it comes from 1995, giving the impression that this raw developer should be free, open-source software. It isn’t; it costs $99. It is a basic raw developer but only for MacOS. It is updated frequently, and a trial copy is available. 
  • Pixelmator Pro — While it is a very capable and well-supported program with some excellent features, it too is available only for MacOS. Like Affinity Photo, it seems to be primarily for editing individual raw images, and lacks any image management functions, notably Copy & Paste Settings.
  • PixInsight — This specialized astrophoto program is designed for deep-sky image processing and bringing out the most subtle structures in faint nebulas and galaxies. For those it works wonders. But it is not suitable for nightscapes. Examples I’ve seen from PI fans who have used it for nightscapes, including images I’ve sent them for their expert processing, have not impressed me. 
  • RawTherapee — As of early January 2023 when I completed my testing, the latest version of this free open-source program, v5.9, was available only for Windows and Linux. The MacOS version was still back at v5.8 from February 2020, a version that is unable to open the Canon CR3 raw files I was using in my tests. While the CR3 format has been out for several years, RawTherapee was still not supporting it, a hazard of open-source software dependent on the priorities of volunteer programmers who mostly use Windows. Like Darktable, RawTherapee is an incredibly complex program to use, with programmers adding every possible panel, slider and checkbox they could think of, without regard for user experience. But it’s free, so by all means try it. 
  • Topaz Studio — While Topaz Labs has been busy introducing some fine AI specialty programs, such as DeNoise AI, their main photo editor, Topaz Studio, has been neglected for years and, as of late 2022, was not even listed as a product for sale. It’s gone. 

What About? — To prevent the number of programs tested from growing even larger, I did not include a few other little-known and seldom-used programs such as Cyberlink PhotoDirector and Picktorial, though I’m sure they have their fans. 

I also did not test any camera manufacturer programs, such as Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, Nikon’s CaptureNX, or Sony’s ImagingEdge. They will open raw images only from their own cameras. Few photographers use them unless forced to, perhaps to open new raw files not yet supported by Adobe, DxO, et al, or to access files created by special camera functions such as Pixel Shift or Raw Burst Mode. 


Recommendations

Having used Adobe software for decades, I’m used to its workings and the look it provides images. I’ve yet to see any of the competitors produce results so much better that they warrant me switching programs. At best, the competitors produce results as good as Adobe, at least for nightscape astrophotos, though with some offering unique and attractive features. 

For example, the AI noise reduction routines in DxO PhotoLab and ON1 Photo RAW can outperform Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom. Adobe needs to update its raw editing software with more advanced noise reduction and sharpening. Even so, the AI routines in the competitors are prone to creating odd artifacts, so have to be applied carefully to astrophotos. 

A possible workflow: DxO PhotoLab or Capture One into Affinity Photo

As I recommended in 2017, for those who refuse to use Adobe — or any software by subscription — a possible combination for the best astrophoto image quality might be DxO PhotoLab 6 for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, paired with Affinity Photo 2 for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO then opened and layered with Affinity. 

An example of images developed in Capture One and then layered and masked in Affinity Photo.

The pairing of Capture One with Affinity could work just as well, though is more costly. And anyone who hates software by subscription in principle might want to avoid Capture One as they are pushing customers toward buying only by subscription, as is ON1.

For a single-program solution, I’d recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly, if only it produced better star image quality. Its raw engine continues to over-sharpen, and its AI masking functions are flawed, though will likely improve. I routinely use ON1’s Effects plug-in from Photoshop, as it has some excellent “finishing-touch” filters such as Dynamic Contrast. I find ON1’s NoNoise AI plug-in also very useful. 

The same applies to Luminar Neo. While I can’t see using it as a principle processing program, it works very well as a Photoshop plug-in for adding special effects, some with its powerful and innovative AI routines. 


Finally — Download Trials and Test! 

But don’t take my word for all of this. Please test for yourself! 

With the exception of Luminar Neo, all the programs I tested (and others I didn’t, but you might be interested in) are available as free trial copies. Try them out on your images and workflow. You might find you like one program much better than any of the others or what you are using now. 

Often, having more than one program is useful, if only for use as a plug-in from within Lightroom or Photoshop. Some plug-ins made for Photoshop also work from within Affinity Photo, though it is hit-and-miss what plug-ins will actually work. (In my testing, plug-ins from DxO/Nik Collection, Exposure X7, ON1, RC-Astro, and Topaz all work; ones from Skylum/Luminar install but fail to run.)

LRTimelapse working on the meteor shower time-lapse frames.

While I was impressed with Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, for me the need to use the program LRTimelapse (shown above) for processing about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great and improves wth every update of LRTimelapse.

Even for still images, the ease of working within Adobe’s ecosystem to sort, develop, layer, stack, and catalog images makes me reluctant to migrate to a mix of programs from different companies, especially when the cost of upgrading many of those programs is not much less than, or even more costly, than an Adobe Photo plan subscription. 

However … if it’s just a good raw developer you are after for astro work, without paying for a subscription, try Capture One 2023 or DxO PhotoLab 6. Try Affinity Photo if you want a good Photoshop replacement. 

Clear skies!  And thanks for reading this!

— Alan, January 2023 / © 2023 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

Tracks of the Geosats


This short video, below, captures time-lapses of the trails of geostationary satellites through southern Orion. It demonstrates the “crowded sky” we now have above us. 

If you have tried photographing the Orion Nebula and Sword of Orion area with long tracked exposures you have no doubt seen these trails in your photos. Here I shot to purposely capture them in a time-lapse, for demonstration purposes. 

Please note, these are not Starlink satellites. So do not blame Elon Musk for these! 

These are the much more established geostationary or “geosynchronous” satellites that orbit 35,785 kilometres above Earth and so take 24 hours to orbit the planet. As such they remain apparently motionless over the same spot on Earth, allowing fixed dish antennas to aim at them.

(For more about geosats see the Wikipedia page.)

So why are they moving here?

The camera is on a mount that is tracking the sky as it turns from east to west, so the stars are staying still. What would normally be satellites fixed in one spot in the sky (after all, they are called “geostationary” for a reason) instead trail into short streaks traveling from west to east (right to left) in the frame. But in reality, it is the stars that are in motion behind the satellites. 

The region of sky in Orion below the Orion Nebula (the object at top) lies south of the line that bisects the sky into northern and southern halves called the “celestial equator.” Most geostationary satellites also orbit in Earth’s equatorial plane and so appear along a belt near the celestial equator in the sky. 

This chart from SkySafari shows the belt of geosats through southern Orion with the satellites identified. The green box is the field of view of the telescope (shown below) that I used to take the time-lapses.

In this video, however, they appear about 5° to 7° south of the celestial equator (which runs through the famous Belt of Orion off frame at top). That’s because I live north of the equator of the Earth, at a latitude of 51° north. So parallax makes the geosat belt appears south of the celestial equator in my sky. From a site in the southern hemisphere the geosat belt would appear north of the celestial equator.

You’ll notice some satellites travelling diagonally — they are not geosats. You’ll also see some flashing or pulsing satellites — they are likely tumbling objects, perhaps spent rocket boosters.

The satellites are visible because they are high enough to reflect sunlight even in the middle of the night, as the sequences each end about 11:30 to midnight local time.

But in this video the satellites are not flaring — this is their normal brightness. During flare season around the two equinoxes geosats can become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. For a video of that phenomenon see my video shot in October 2020, below. 


TECH DETAILS FOR “TRACKS OF THE GEOSATS” VIDEO:

The video at top contains time-lapses shot on two nights: January 18 and 20, 2021. Both are made from hundreds of frames taken through a William Optics RedCat astrograph at f/5 with a 250mm focal length. The field of view is 8° by 5.5°. 

The William Optics RedCat 51mm f/5 astrographic refactor.

Each exposure is 30 seconds long, taken at a one second interval. The camera was a Canon 6D MkII at ISO 3200 on January 18 and ISO 1600 on January 20 in the brighter moonlight that night. 

In the first sequence from January 18 the equatorial mount, an Astro-Physics Mach1, is left to track on its own and is unguided. So the stars wobble back and forth slightly due to periodic error in the mount. The field also drifts north due to slight misalignment on the pole. Clouds pass through the field during the shoot. 

In the second clip from January 20, taken with a quarter Moon lighting the sky, the mount was autoguided, using an MGEN3 auto-guider. So the stars remained better fixed over the 5.5 hours of shooting. A slight glitch appears near the end where I swapped camera batteries, and the camera turned ever so slightly causing the stars to enlarge a bit for a moment. 

LRTimelapse at work processing the second sequence, deflickering some of the oddly exposed frames.

The frames were processed in Adobe Camera Raw and LRTimelapse

TimeLapse DeFlicker at work assembling the video, showing its All Frames + Lighten blend mode for the Accumulating version of clip #2.

I then assembled exported JPGs with TimeLapseDeFlicker, using a 3-frame Lighten blend mode to lengthen the trails. The final version was assembled with TLDF’s All Frames mode (shown above) where every frame gets stacked for an accumulated total, to show the busy sky traffic! 

Thanks! 

— Alan, © 2021 / 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 

 

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

 

10 Steps to Processing Nightscapes & Time-Lapses


Icefields-Demo StillIn a “10 Steps” tutorial I review my tips for going from “raw to rave” in processing a nightscape or time-lapse sequence.

NOTE: Click on any of the screen shots below for a full-res version that will be easier to see.

In my preferred “workflow,” Steps 1 through 6 can be performed in either Photoshop (using its ancillary programs Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw) or in Adobe Lightroom. The Develop module of Lightroom is identical to Adobe Camera Raw (ACR for short).

However, my illustrations show Adobe Bridge, Camera Raw and Photoshop CC 2014. Turn to Photoshop to perform advanced filtering, masking and stacking (Steps 7 to 10).

To use Lightroom to assemble a time-lapse movie from processed Raw frames you need the third-party program LRTimelapse, described below. Otherwise, you need to export frames from Lightroom – or from Photoshop – as “intermediate” JPGs (see Step 6), then use other third party programs to assemble them into movies (Step 10B).


Demo-Timelapse1Step 1 – Bridge or Lightroom – Import & Select

Use Adobe Bridge (shown above) or Lightroom to import the images from your camera’s card.

As you do so you can add “metadata” to each image – your personal information, copyright, keywords, etc. As you import, you can also choose to convert and save images into the open and more universal Adobe DNG format, rather than keep them in the camera’s proprietary Raw format.

Once imported, you can review images, keeping the best and tossing the rest. Mark images with star ratings or colour labels, and group images together (called “stacking” in Bridge), such as frames for a panorama or “high dynamic range” set.

Always save images to both your working drive and to an external drive (which itself should automatically back up to yet another external drive). Never, ever save images to only one location.


Demo-Timelapse2Step 2 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Basics

Open the Raw files you want to process. From Bridge, double click on raw images and they will open in ACR. In Lightroom select the images and switch to its Develop module.

In Adobe Camera Raw be sure to first set the Workflow Preset (the blue link at the bottom of the screen) to 16 bits/channel and ProPhoto RGB colour space, for maximum tonal range. This is a one-time setting. Lightroom defaults to 16-bit and the AdobeRGB colour space.

The Basics panel (the first tab) allows you to fix Exposure and White Balance. For the latter, use the White Balance Tool (the eyedropper, keyboard shortcut I) to click on an area that should be neutral in colour.

You can adjust Contrast, and recover details in the Highlights and Shadows (turn the latter up to show details in starlit landscapes). Clarity and Vibrance improves midrange contrast and colour intensity.

Use Command/Control Z to Undo, or double click on a slider to snap it back to zero. Or under the pull-down menu in the Presets tab go to Camera Raw Defaults to set all back to zero.


Demo-Timelapse4Step 3 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Detail

The Detail panel allows you to set the noise reduction and sharpness as you like it, one of the benefits of shooting Raw.

Generally, settings of Sharpness: Amount 25, Radius 1 work well. Turn up Masking while holding the Option/Alt key to see what areas will be sharpened (they appear in white). There’s no need to sharpen blank, noisy sky, just the edge detail.

Setting Noise Reduction: Luminance to 30 to 50 and Color to 25, with others sliders left to their defaults works well for all but the noisiest of images. Luminance affects the overall graininess of the image. Color, also called chrominance, affects the coloured speckling. Turning the latter up too high wipes out star colours.

Turn up Color Smoothness, however, if the image has lots of large scale colour blotchiness.

Zoom in to at least 100% to see the effect of all noise reduction settings. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have the best noise reduction in the business. Without it your images will be far noisier than they need to be.


Demo-Timelapse4Step 4 – Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom – Lens Correction

Wide angle lenses, especially when used at fast apertures, suffer a lot from light falloff at the corners (called vignetting). There’s no need to have photos looking as if they were taken through a dark tunnel.

ACR or Lightroom can automatically detect what lens you used and apply a lens correction to brighten the corners, plus correct for other flaws such as chromatic aberration and lens distortion.

Use the Color tab to “Remove Chromatic Aberration” and dial up the Defringe sliders.

For lenses not in the database (manual lenses like the Rokinons and Samyangs will not be included, nor will any telescopes) use the Manual tab to dial in your own vignetting correction. This can take some trial-and-error to get right, but once you have it, save it as a Preset to apply in future to all photos from that lens or telescope.

I usually apply Lens Corrections as a first step, but sometimes find I have to back it off it as I boost the contrast under Basics.


Demo-Timelapse5Step 5 – Bridge or Lightroom – Copy & Paste

For a small number of images you could open them all, then Select All in ACR to apply the same settings to all images at the same time.

Or you can adjust one, then Select All and hit Synchronize.

Another method useful for processing dozens or hundreds of frames from a star trail or time-lapse set is to choose one representative image and process it. Then in Bridge choose Edit>Develop Settings>Copy Camera Raw Settings. If you are in Lightroom’s Library module, choose Photo>Develop Settings>Copy Settings.

With either program you can also right-click on an image to get to the same choices. Then select all the other images in the set (Command/Control A) and use the same menus to Paste Settings.

A dialog box comes up for choosing what settings you wish to transfer.

If you cropped the image (a good idea for images destined for an HD movie with a 16:9 aspect ratio), pick that option as well. In moments all your images get processed with identical settings. Nice!


Demo-Timelapse6Step 6 – Lightroom or Photoshop – Export

You now have a set of developed Raw images. However, the actual Raw files are never altered. They remain raw!

Instead, with Adobe Camera Raw the information on how you processed the images is stored in the “sidecar” XMP text files that live in the same folder as the Raw files.

In Lightroom’s case your settings are stored in its own database, unless you choose Metadata>Save Metadata to File (Command/Control S). In that case, Lightroom also writes the changes to the same XMP sidecar files.

To convert the images into final Photoshop PSDs, TIFFs or JPGs you have a couple of choices. In Lightroom go to the Library module and choose Export. It’s an easy way to export and convert hundreds of images, perhaps into a folder of smaller JPGs needed for assembling a time-lapse movie.

To do that from within Adobe Bridge, select the images, then go to Tools>Photoshop>Image Processor. The dialogue box allows you to choose how and where to export the images. Photoshop then opens, processes, and exports each image.


Demo-Timelapse7Step 7 – Photoshop – Smart Filters

For a folder of images intended to be stacked into star trails (Step 10A) or time-lapse movies (Step 10B), you’re done processing.

But individual nightscape images can often benefit from more advanced work in Photoshop. The next steps make use of a non-destructive workflow, allowing you to alter settings at any time after the fact. At no time do we actually change pixels.

One secret to doing that is to open an image in Photoshop and then select Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object. Or go to Filter>Convert for Smart Filters.

OR … better yet, back in Adobe Camera Raw hold down the Shift key while clicking the Open Image button, so it becomes Open Object. That image will then open in Photoshop already as a Smart Object, which you can re-open and re-edit in ACR at any time later should you wish.

Either way, with the image as a Smart Object, you can now apply useful filters such as Reduce Noise, Smart Sharpen, and Dust & Scratches, plus third-party filters such as Nik Software’s Dfine 2 Noise Reduction, all non-destructively as “smart filters.” They can be re-adjusted or turned off at any time.


Demo-Timelapse8Step 8 – Photoshop – Adjustment Layers

The other secret to non-destructive processing is to apply adjustment layers.

Go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer, or click on any of the icons in the Adjustments panel. If that panel is not visible at right, then under the Window menu check “Adjustments.”

This panel is where you can alter the colour balance, the brightness and contrast, the vibrancy, and many other choices. I find Selective Color most useful for tweaking colour.

Curves allows you to bring up detail in dark areas. Levels allows setting the black and white points, and overall contrast.

The beauty of adjustment layers is that you can click on the layer’s little icon and bring up the dialog box for changing the setting at any time. You never permanently alter pixels.

The image adjustment “Shadows & Highlights” is also immensely useful, but appears as a smart filter, not as an adjustment layer. It’s one of the prime tools for creating images with great detail in scenes lit only by starlight.


Demo-Timelapse9Step 9 – Photoshop – Masks

The power of adjustment layers is that you can apply them to just portions of an image. This is useful in nightscapes where the sky and ground often need different processing.

To create a mask first select the region you want to work on. Try the Quick Selection Tool (found near the top of the Tool palette at left). Use it to brush across the sky, or the ground, so that the entire area is outlined by “marching ants.”

Use the Refine Edge option to tweak the selection by brushing across intricate areas such as tree branches.

Once you have an area selected, hit one of the Adjustments to add an adjustment layer with the mask automatically applied. Double click on the mask to tweak it: hit Mask Edge to clean up the edge, or turn up the Feather to blur the edge.

To apply the same mask to another adjustment layer, drag the mask from one layer to another while holding down the Option/Alt key.

Invert the mask (or select it and hit Command/Control I) to apply it to the other half of the image. Paint the mask with black or white brushes if you need manually alter it. Remember – black “conceals,” while white “reveals.”

When done, be sure to always save the image as a layered “master” .PSD file.

Never, ever flatten and save – that will wipe out all your non-destructive filters and adjustment layers.

If you need to save the image as a JPG for social mediia or emailing, then Flatten and Save As …  Or use Photoshop’s File>Export>Export As .. function.


Stars setting in trails over the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields, Sept 14, 2014. The Milky Way is trailed at right. This is a stack of 100 exposures, composited with Advanced Stacker Plus actions in Photoshop, with the ground coming from a subset stack of 8 images to reduce noise. Each exposure, taken as part of a time-lapse sequence, was 45 seconds at f/2.8 with the 16-35mm lens at 23mm and Canon 6D at ISO 4000.
Stars setting in trails over the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields, Sept 14, 2014. The Milky Way is trailed at right. This is a stack of 100 exposures, composited with Advanced Stacker Plus actions in Photoshop, with the ground coming from a subset stack of 8 images to reduce noise. Each exposure, taken as part of a time-lapse sequence, was 45 seconds at f/2.8 with the 16-35mm lens at 23mm and Canon 6D at ISO 4000.

Step 10A – Photoshop or 3rd Party Programs – Stack for Star Trails 

One popular way to shoot images of stars trailing in arcs across the sky is to shoot dozens or hundreds of well-exposed frames at a fairly high ISO and wide aperture, and at a shutter speed no longer than 30 to 60 seconds. You then “stack” the images to create the equivalent of one frame shot for many minutes, if not an hour or more. The image above is an example.

There are several ways to stack.

From within Photoshop CC (or using an Extended version of the older CS5 or CS6) one method is to go to File>Scripts>Statistics. In the dialog box, drill down to the images you wish to stack (put them all in one folder) and choose Stack Mode: Maximum, and uncheck “Attempt to Automatically Align.” The result is a huge (!) smart object. This method works best on just a few dozen images. In this case, you’ll need to use Layers>Flatten to reduce its size.

Other options for stacking hundreds of images include the free program StarStax (Windows and Mac), which requires a folder of “intermediate” TIFFs or JPGs. See Step 6 above.

The Advanced Stacker Actions from Star Circle Academy are actions you install in Photoshop that work directly from Raw files to create some impressive effects. I use them and recommend them.


Demo-Timelapse10Step 10B – Photoshop or 3rd Party Programs – Assemble for Movies

The same folder of images taken for star trail stacking can also be turned into a time-lapse movie. Instead of stacking the images on top of one another in space, you string them together one after the other in time.

There are many methods for assembling movies. Free or low cost programs such as Quicktime 7 Pro, Time-Lapse Assembler, Sequence (a Mac program shown above), VirtualDub, or Time-Lapse Tool can do the job, all offering options for the final movie’s format.

Generally, an HD video of 1920×1080 pixels in the H264 format, or “codec,” is best, rendered at 15 to 30 frames per second.

Most movie assembly programs will need to work from a folder of JPGs of the right size, produced using one of the choices listed under Step 6: Export.

But … you can also use Photoshop to assemble a movie.

Choose the Window>Workspace>Motion to bring up a video timeline. Then File>Open to drill to your folder of processed and down-sized JPG files. Select one image, then check “Image Sequence.” Choose the frame rate (15 to 30 fps is best). Then go to File>Export>Render Video to turn the resulting file into a final H264 or Quicktime movie suitable for use in other movie editing programs.


Demo-Timelapse11

Advanced Techniques: Using LRTimelapse

The workflow I’ve outlined works great when you can apply the same development settings to all the images in a folder. For star trail and time-lapse sequences shot once it gets dark and under similar lighting conditions that will be the case.

But if the Moon rises or sets during the shoot, or if you are taking a much more demanding sequence that runs from sunset to night, the same settings won’t work for all frames.

The answer is to turn to the program LRTimelapse (100 Euros for the standard version, and available in a free but limited trial copy). LRTimelapse works with either Lightroom or Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw.

To use it you process just a few selected “keyframes” – at least two, at the start and end of the sequence, and perhaps other frames throughout the sequence, processing them so each frame looks great. You read that processing data into LRTimelapse and, like magic, it interpolates your settings, creating a folder of images with every setting changing incrementally from frame to frame, something you could never do by hand.

It can then work with Lightroom to export the frames out to a video in formats from HD up to 4K in size. For serious time-lapse work, LRTimelapse is an essential tool.


Much, much more information and tutorials are included in my multimedia Apple eBook, linked to below.

But I hope this quick tutorial helps in providing you with tips to make your images and movies even better! If you found it useful, please feel free to share a link to this blog page through your social media channels. Thanks!

And for tips on shooting in the field, please see my earlier blog on Ten Tips for Terrific Time-Lapses.

– Alan, November 10, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Moonlight on the Prairie


The rising almost-Full Moon, a “Blue Moon” of July 30, 2015, rising behind a rustic old farmhouse near Bow Island, Alberta. The Moon sits in the pibk Belt of Venus with the blue shadow of the Earth below. This is a single frame from a 600-frame time-lapse sequence, taken with the Canon 6D and 16-35mm lens.

I present a short time-lapse vignette of scenes shot under moonlight on the Alberta prairie.

The movie linked below features sequences shot July 29 and 30, 2015 on beautifully clear moonlit nights at locations south of Bow Island, Alberta, on the wide open prairie. The three-minute video features two photogenic pioneer sites.

Circumpolar star trails over the historic but sadly neglected St. Anthony’s Church between Bow Island and Etzikom, Alberta. The Big Dipper is at left, Polaris at top. The Roman Catholic church was built in 1911 by English, Russian German immigrants. It served a dwindling congregation until 1991 when it closed. At that time workers found a time capsule from 1915 with names of the priest and parisioners of the day. In summer of 2014 the Church suffered its latest indignity when the iron cross on its steeple tower was stolen. It was there when I stopped at this Church on a site scouting trip in May 2014. I planned to return on a moonlit night and did on July 29, 2015. A nearby house had been torn down and the cross was now gone.  This is a stack of 300 6-second exposures with the Canon 6D at ISO 1600 and 16-35mm lens at f/2.8. Bright light from a 13-day Moon lights the scene, making for very short exposures. The ground comes from one exposure to keep shadows sharp. The final stars also come from another single exppsure taken two minutes after the last trail image. I used the Advanced Stacker Actions to stack the trails.

The church is the now derelict St. Anthony’s Church, a former Roman Catholic church built in 1911 by English and Russian-German immigrants. It served a dwindling congregation until as late as 1991 when it closed. At that time workers found a time capsule from 1915 with names of the priest and parisioners of the day.

The wood church seems to have been largely neglected since.

In the summer of 2014 the Church suffered its latest indignity when the iron cross on its steeple tower was stolen. I also shot in the pioneer cemetery of the Church.

Circumpolar star trails circling above an old rustic and abandoned house near Bow Island, Alberta, with illumination from the nearly Full Moon. Cassiopeia is near centre. Polaris is at top left.  This is a stack of 140 frames from a time-lapse sequence with additional frames added for the first and last stars, and the ground coming from a mean combine stack of 8 frames to reduce noise. Each frame is 10 seconds at f/4 with the 16-35mm lens and ISO 1600 with the Canon 6D. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Actions, using the Ultrastreaks effect, from within Photoshop.

The other site is a nearby farmhouse with photogenic textures and accompanied by rustic out buildings that are barely managing to stand.

Illumination was from a waxing gibbous Moon, just 1 to 2 days before the infamous “Blue Moon” of July 31. Its bright light turned the sky blue, and lit the landscape with the same quality as sunlight, because it is sunlight!


Enlarge the video to full screen for the full HD version.

For the technically inclined:

I shot the scenes with three cameras – a Canon 60Da, Canon 6D, and Nikon D750.

The Nikon, with a 24mm lens, was on the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly and Stage R panning unit, while the 60Da, with a 14mm lens, was on the compact Radian panning unit. The third camera, the 6D, with a 16-35mm lens, was on a fixed tripod for the star trail sequences and stills.

The music is by Adi Goldstein (AGSoundtrax.com), whose music I often use in my sequences. It just seems to work so well, and is wonderfully melodic and powerful. Thank you, Adi!

To process the several thousand frames that went into the final movie, I used Adobe Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw, supplemented by the latest Version 4.2 of LRTimelapse (lrtimelapse.com). Its new “Visual Deflicker” workflow does a beautiful job smoothing out frame-to-frame flickering in sequences shot in twilight under darkening lighting conditions. Thank you Gunther!

For the star trail sequences and the still images above I used the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com. Unlike most other stacking programs, the Stacker Actions work from within Adobe Bridge and Photoshop directly, using the processed Raw images, with no need to create intermediate sets of JPGs. Thank you Steven!

— Alan, August 3, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

The “Blue Moon” over Calgary


The Full Moon of July 31, 2015, an infamous “blue Moon”, the second Full Moon of July, rising over the skyline of Calgary, Alberta. This is one frame of a 480-frame time-lapse sequence taken with the Canon 60Da and 28-105mm lens. The location was Toronto Crescent.

The much-publicized “Blue Moon” of July rises over the skyline of Calgary.

Last night, July 31, many people looked east to see a wonderful moonrise. Did it look different than any other moonrise? No. But did it look great? You bet.

I set up my cameras at a site in northwest Calgary, picked for its sightline looking east-southeast over the downtown core of Calgary and directly toward the moonrise point.

I used the software The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan the location and angles. It is wonderful for making sure you are in the right place at the right time for catching a photogenic moonset or moonset.

Here’s the screen shot from TPE that showed me where to be Friday evening. The blue line aims to the moonrise point.

IMG_2473

Of course, despite the planning the Moon did not look blue! Blue Moons, as they have come to be defined, never do. The term now means the second Full Moon in a calendar month. We had a Full Moon on Canada Day, July 1, and then enjoyed a second July Full Moon one lunar cycle later on July 31.

I shot the scene with two cameras, each shooting hundreds of frames for time-lapses, from which I extracted still images.

A short 1-minute music video of the result is here at Vimeo. Enlarge the screen and be sure HD is selected.


As a technical note, for the processing I used the latest version 4.2 of LRTimelapse and its new “Visual Deflicker” workflow which very nicely smooths out all the frame-to-frame flickering that can plague daytime and twilight shots taken under Auto Exposure.

While the shutter speed does constantly decrease, it does so in 1/3rd-f/stop steps, yielding stair-step jumps in brightness. LRT smooths all that out, with v4.2 doing a much better job than earlier versions.

Thanks for watching!

— Alan, August 1, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Dance of the Northern Lights



My new 3-minute music video compiles still and time-lapse imagery of the aurora I shot in February 2015 from Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill’s location at 58° North on the shore of Hudson Bay puts it directly under the main auroral oval, the zone of greatest auroral activity. Over the 9 nights, 2 were cloudy, with a roaring blizzard.

But on the 8 clear nights we saw aurora every night. I shot time-lapses on 6 of those nights, shooting about 3,500 frames, most of which appear in the final cut of this movie.

Despite the amazing displays we saw, on no night was the auroral activity index (on a scale of 0 to 9) higher than 2 or 3. These were all “normal” quiet nights for auroras in Churchill. Anyone farther south would have seen little in their sky on most of these nights.

I shot many of the time-lapses with an 8mm spherical fish-eye lens, to create sequences suitable for projection in digital planetarium domes. One other time-lapse sequence (the last in this movie) I shot with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye. Even it is not wide enough to take in the entire display when the Lights fill the sky.

Exposures were typically 10 to 15 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 1600 to 4000, all with the Canon 6D. I powered it from its lone internal battery. Amazingly, despite temperatures that were considered extreme even for Churchill (often -32° C at night) the batteries lasted 90 to 150 minutes allowing me to take lots of frames with no battery change or perhaps just one battery change. Churchill is very dry and only on one night did I have an issue with the lens frosting up.

Music is by Dan Phillipson, his composition “Into the Unknown,” purchased for royalty-free use through Triple Scoop Music. I edited the movie in Apple Aperture, with a title sequence created in Photoshop. Processing of the original images was with Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and LRTimelapse, with assembly of movie frames done with Sequence for MacOS.

I hope you enjoy it! Do click on the Enlarge button to watch it full screen. It may take a while to start playing.

— Alan, March 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Time-Lapse – Alberta Skies 2013


 

It was a good year for time-lapse photography at home. Here’s my compilation of Alberta time-lapses in a 3-minute music video.

For a year-end look back at 2013 I assembled these highlights of my year of shooting time-lapse movies of the Alberta sky, by day and night. 

I’ve included clips shot around home in rural southern Alberta, and further afield at popular photo spots around the province such as Waterton Lakes National Park, Banff, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, and Cypress Hills Provincial Park. 

I hope you enjoy it! Be sure to maximize the video screen and select HD.  Or for a better grade version check out my Vimeo channel.

________________________________________________

Some technical background:

I shot all the frames for the movies (150 to 300 frames for each clip) with either a Canon 5D MkII or a Canon 60Da camera, equipped with various lenses from 8mm to 200mm. For many of the clips the cameras were on motion control devices: the Radian azimuth panning unit, an Orion TeleTrack mount, or a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly unit. You see the latter in action behind the credits. 

For image processing and movie assembly I used Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, LRTimeLapse, Sequence, Panolapse/RawBlend utility, and for some of the star trails either StarStax or Star Circle Academy’s Advanced Stacker Actions.

I demonstrate all these in my Nightscapes workshops. The next one is in Edmonton, January 25!

To edit the movie I used the new OS10 Mavericks iMovie. 

– Alan, December 29, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

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