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 

 

How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas


The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone

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

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

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


PART 1 — SHOOTING 

What Equipment Do You Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting Horizon Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shooting 360° Panoramas

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

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

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


Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas

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

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

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

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


Automating the Pan Shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When to Shoot the Milky Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PART 2 — STITCHING

Developing Panorama Segments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stitching Simple Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14A-Camera Raw Multi-Tier Fail
When Stitching Goes Awry
Throw a multi-tier pano at Adobe Camera Raw and you might end up with this type of unsalvageable result. Here’s where you have to turn to specialized panorama software
14B-Adobe Camera Raw 14mm Fail
Warp Factor
Even single-tier panos but shot with 14mm rectilinear (in this case) or fish-eye lenses will create warped results with ACR, only partly correctable with Boundary Warp.

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

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


Stitching Complex Panoramas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other Stitching Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing the Venus Optics 15mm Lens


Laowa Test Title

I test out a fast and very wide lens designed specifically for Sony mirrorless cameras. 

In a previous test I presented results on how well the Sony a7III mirrorless camera performs for nightscape and deep-sky photography. It works very well indeed.

But what about lenses for the Sony? Here’s one ideal for astrophotography.


TL;DR Conclusions

Made for Sony e-mount cameras, the Venus Optics 15mm f/2 Laowa provides excellent on- and off-axis performance in a fast and compact lens ideal for nightscape, time-lapse, and wide-field tracked astrophotography with Sony mirrorless cameras. (UPDATE: Venus Optics has announced versions of this lens for Canon R and Nikon Z mount mirrorless cameras.)

I use it a lot and highly recommend it.


Size and Weight

While I often use the a7III with my Canon lenses by way of a Metabones adapter, the Sony really comes into its own when matched to a “native” lens made for the Sony e-mount. The selection of fast, wide lenses from Sony itself is limited, with the new Sony 24mm G-Master a popular favourite (I have yet to try it).

However, for much of my nightscape shooting, and certainly for auroras, I prefer lenses even wider than 24mm, and the faster the better.

Auroral Swirls over Båtsfjord, Norway Aurora over Båtsfjord, Norway. This is a single 0.8-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

The Laowa 15mm f/2 from Venus Optics fills the bill very nicely, providing excellent speed in a compact lens. While wide, the Laowa is a rectilinear lens providing straight horizons even when aimed up, as shown above. This is not a fish-eye lens.

Laowa 15mm Front View with Filter Though a very wide lens, the 15mm Laowa accepts standard 72mm filters. The metal lens hood is removable. © 2019 Alan Dyer

The Venus Optics 15mm realizes the potential of mirrorless cameras and their short flange distance that allows the design of fast, wide lenses without massive bulk.

Sigma 14mm vs Laowa 15mm Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens (for Nikon mount) vs. Venus Optics 15mm f/2 lens (for Sony mount). © 2019 Alan Dyer

While compact, at 600 grams the Laowa 15mm is quite hefty for its size due to its solid metal construction. Nevertheless, it is half the weight of the massive 1250-gram Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art. The Laowa is not a plastic entry-level lens, nor is it cheap, at $850 from U.S. sources.

For me, the Sony-Laowa combination is my first choice for a lightweight travel camera for overseas aurora trips

Laowa 15mm Back View The lens mount showing no electrical contacts to transfer lens metadata to the camera. © 2019 Alan Dyer

However, this is a no-frills manual focus lens. Nor does it even transfer aperture data to the camera, which is a pity. There are no electrical connections between the lens and camera.

However, for nightscape work where all settings are adjusted manually, the Venus Optics 15mm works just fine. The key factor is how good are the optics. I’m happy to report that they are very good indeed.


Testing Under the Stars

To test the Venus Optics lens I shot “same night” images, all tracked, with the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens, at left, and the Rokinon 14mm SP (labeled as being f/2.4, at right). Both are much larger lenses, made for DSLRs, with bulbous front elements not able to accept filters. But they are both superb lenses. See my test report on these lenses published in 2018.

Sigma and Rokinon 14mm The Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens (left) vs. the Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4. © 2019 Alan Dyer

The next images show blow-ups of the same scene (the nightscape shown in full below, taken at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta), and all taken on a tracker.

I used the Rokinon on the Sony a7III using the Metabones adapter which, unlike some brands of lens adapters, does not compromise the optical quality of the lens by shifting its focal position. But lacking a lens adapter for Nikon-to-Sony at the time of testing, I used the Nikon-mount Sigma lens on a Nikon D750, a DSLR camera with nearly identical sensor specs to the Sony.


Vignetting

Laowa 15mm @ f2 A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm at f/2. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection.

Above is a tracked image (so the stars are not trailed, which would make it hard to tell aberrations from trails), taken wide open at f/2. No lens correction has been applied so the vignetting (the darkening of the frame corners) is as the lens provides.

As shown above, when used wide open at f/2 vignetting is significant, but not much more so than with competitive lenses with much larger lenses, as I compare below.

And the vignetting is correctable in processing. Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom have this lens in their lens profile database. That’s not the case with current versions (as of April 2019) of other raw developers such as DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and Raw Therapee where vignetting corrections have to be dialled in manually by eye.

Laowa 15mm @ f2.8 A tracked image with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm stopped down 1 stop to f/2.8.

When stopped down to f/2.8 the Laowa “flattens” out a lot for vignetting and uniformity of frame illumination. Corner aberrations also improve but are still present. I show those in close-up detail below.

Lens Comparison - Vignetting 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the left side of the image for vignetting (light fall-off), wide open and stopped down. ©2018 Alan Dyer

Above, I compare the vignetting of the three lenses, both wide open and when stopped down. Wide open, all the lenses, even the Sigma and Rokinon despite their large front elements, show quite a bit of drop off in illumination at the corners.

The Rokinon SP actually seems to be the worst of the trio, showing some residual vignetting even at f/2.8, while it is reduced significantly in the Laowa and Sigma lenses. Oddly, the Rokinon SP, even though it is labeled as f/2.4, seemed to open to f/2.2, at least as indicated by the aperture metadata.


On-Axis Performance

Lens Comparison - Centre 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the centre of the image for sharpness, wide open and stopped down. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection. © 2018 Alan Dyer

Above I show lens sharpness on-axis, both wide open and stopped down, to check for spherical and chromatic aberrations with the bright blue star Vega centered. The red box in the Navigator window at top right indicates what portion of the frame I am showing, at 200% magnification in Photoshop.

On-axis, the Venus Optics 15mm shows stars just as sharply as the premium Sigma and Rokinon lenses, with no sign of blurring spherical aberration nor coloured haloes from chromatic aberration.

Laowa 15mm Side with Focus Point This is where this lens reaches sharpest focus on stars, just shy of the Infinity mark. © 2019 Alan Dyer

Focusing is precise and easy to achieve with the Sony on Live View. My unit reaches sharpest focus on stars with the lens set just shy of the middle of the infinity symbol. This  is consistent and allows me to preset focus just by dialing the focus ring, handy for shooting auroras at -35° C, when I prefer to minimize fussing with camera settings, thank you very much!


Off-Axis Performance

Lens Comparison - Upper Left 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the centre of the image for sharpness, wide open and stopped down. Click or tap on an image to download a full-resolution JPG for closer inspection. © 2018 Alan Dyer
Lens Comparison - Upper Right 15mm Laowa vs. Rokinon 14mm SP vs. Sigma Art 14mm – Comparing the upper right corner of the image for aberrations, wide open and stopped down. © 2018 Alan Dyer

The Laowa and Sigma lenses show similar levels of off-axis coma and astigmatism, with the Laowa exhibiting slightly more lateral chromatic aberration than the Sigma. Both improve a lot when stopped down one stop, but aberrations are still present though to a lesser degree.

However, I find that the Laowa 15mm performs as well as the Sigma 14mm Art for star quality on- and off-axis. And that’s a high standard to match.

The Rokinon SP is the worst of the trio, showing significant elongation of off-axis star images (they look like lines aimed at the frame centre), likely due to astigmatism. With the 14mm SP, this aberration was still present at f/2.8, and was worse at the upper right corner than at the upper left corner, an indication to me that even the premium Rokinon SP lens exhibits slight lens de-centering, an issue users have often found with other Rokinon lenses.


Real-World Examples – The Milky Way

Sweep of the Autumn Milky Way This is a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures with the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800, on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker. A single exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter layered in with Lighten mode adds the star glows, though exaggerates the lens distortion on the bright stars.
Mars and the Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone This is a stack of 12 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2 with the Laowa 15mm lens on the Sony a7III camera at ISO 6400. These were the last frames in a 340-frame time-lapse sequence.

The fast speed of the Laowa 15mm is ideal for shooting tracked wide-field images of the Milky Way, and untracked camera-on-tripod nightscapes and time-lapses of the Milky Way.

Image aberrations are very acceptable at f/2, a speed that allows shutter speed and ISO to be kept lower for minimal star trailing and noise while ensuring a well-exposed frame.


Real World Examples – Auroras

Coloured Curtains over CNSC (Feb 9, 2019) Aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. This is 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optic lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.
Sky-Filling Aurora at Tibbitt Lake Aurora from near Yellowknife, NWT, September 8, 2018. This is 2.5-seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7IIII at ISO 3200.
Aurora from at Sea Near Lofotens #1 The Northern Lights from at sea when leaving the Lofoten Islands, Norway heading toward the mainlaind, from Stamsund to Bodo, March 3, 2019. This was from the Hurtigruten ship the ms Trollfjord. This is a single 1-second exposure for at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400.

Where the Laowa 15mm really shines is for auroras. On my trips to chase the Northern Lights I often take nothing but the Sony-Laowa pair, to keep weight and size down.

Above is an example, taken from a moving ship off the coast of Norway. The fast f/2 speed (I wish it were even faster!) makes it possible to capture the Lights in only 1- or 2-second exposures, albeit at ISO 6400. But the fast shutter speed is needed for minimizing ship movement.


Video Links

The Sony also excels at real-time 4K video, able to shoot at ISO 12,800 to 51,200 without excessive noise.

Aurora Reflections from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

The Sky is Dancing from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

Examples of my aurora videos shot with the Sony and Venus Optics 15mm lens are in previous blogs from Yellowknife, NWT in September 2018, from Churchill, Manitoba in February 2019, and from at sea in Norway in March 2019.

Click through to see the posts and the videos shot with the Venus Optics 15mm.

As an aid to video use, the aperture ring of the Venus Optics 15mm can be “de-clicked” at the flick of a switch, allowing users to smoothly adjust the iris during shooting, avoiding audible clicks and jumps in brightness. That’s a very nice feature indeed.

In all, I can recommend the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens as a great match to Sony mirrorless cameras, for nightscape still and video shooting. UPDATE: Versions for Canon R and Nikon Z mount mirrorless cameras will now be available.

— Alan, April 20, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

Dinosaur Park in the Dark


Winter Sky Setting in Twilight at Dinosaur Park

There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. 

Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!

I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.

I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.

Winter Sky Setting at Dinosaur Park Panorama
This is a 240° panorama stitched from 17 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, each segment 20 seconds at f/1.4 and ISO 3200. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.

The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.

Spring Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park
A 360° panorama of the spring sky over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. This is a panorama of 12 segments taken with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, all for 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Taken at 30° spacings. Stitched with PTGui.

Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.

Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.

The Winter Stars and Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
This is a panorama stitched from 3 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750, for 20 seconds at f/2.2 and ISO 4000. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.

It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!

Spring Sky RIsing at Dinosaur Park Panorama
A 180° panorama of the spring sky and constellations rising in the east over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta on March 29, 2019. This is a stitch of 6 segments, each with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait mode, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Stitched with PTGui.

A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”

Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.

Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.

The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.

I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!

Clear skies!

— Alan, April 1, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Touring the Wonders of the Winter Sky


The Wonders of the Winter Sky

I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.

While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!

In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.

Artist's impression of the Milky Way (updated - annotated)
Courtesy European Southern Observatory

These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.

(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)

The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.


The Belt and Sword of Orion

The Belt and Sword of Orion with Barnard's Loop
This is a stack of 16 x 2- to 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 to 1250 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on January 8, 2019 during a clear couple of hours between passing haze and cloud.

This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.

The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.

Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!


The Rosette Nebula and Area

Rosette and Christmas Tree Cluster with 200mm
The area of the Rosette Nebula (bottom) and Christmas Tree Cluster (top) in Monoceros with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter modified Canon 5D MkII. This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.


Gemini Clusters and Nebulas

The Clusters and Nebulas of Gemini
This is a stack of 10 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Some light haze passing through in some exposures added the natural star glows. I left those in as part of the stack to add the glows. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.


Auriga Clusters and Nebulas

The Clusters and Nebulas of Auriga
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions. Taken from home on January 4, 2019.

Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.

In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.


The California Nebula

The California Nebula in Perseus
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.


The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters

Pleiades M45 with 200mm Lens
The Pleiades with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens + Canon 5D MkII in a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.

This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.


The Hyades

The Hyades Star Cluster with NGC 1647 in Taurus
This is a stack of 5 x 2-minute exposures with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions for artistic effect.

Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.


Seagull Nebula

Seagull Nebula and Sirius with 200mm
This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 (with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8). The rings of colour around Sirius are an artifact of the sensor filter, I think!

Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.


Lambda Orionis Nebula

Lambda Orionis Nebula with 200mm
With the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII. A stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8.

This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.

While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.

PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.

See my previous blog post for details.  Thanks and clear skies!

— Alan, February 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Living Skies of Saskatchewan


Gazing at the Milky Way in Grasslands National Park

I spent a wonderful week touring the star-filled nightscapes of southwest Saskatchewan.

On their license plates Saskatchewan is billed as the Land of Living Skies. I like the moniker that Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor gives it – the sky with nothing to get in the way.

Grasslands National Park should be a mecca for all stargazers. It is a Dark Sky Preserve. You can be at sites in the Park and not see a light anywhere, even in the far distance on the horizon, and barely any sky glows from manmade sources.

The lead image shows the potential for camping in the Park under an amazing sky, an attraction that is drawing more and more tourists to sites like Grasslands.

Milky Way Panorama at 76 Ranch Corral

This is a multi- panel panorama of the Milky Way over the historic 76 Ranch Corral in the Frenchman River Valley, once part of the largest cattle ranch in Canada. Mars shines brightly to the east of the galactic core.

At the Two Trees site visitors can stay in the tipis and enjoy the night sky. No one was there the night I was shooting. The night was warm, windless, and bug-less. It was a perfect summer evening.

Twilight Panorama at SSSP 2018

From Grasslands I headed west to the Cypress Hills along scenic backroads. The main Meadows Campground in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, another Dark Sky Preserve, is home every year to the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. About 350 stargazers and lovers of the night gather to revel in starlight.

This year coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower and we saw lots!

Most nights were clear, and warmer than usual, allowing shirt-sleeve observing. It was a little bit of Arizona in Canada. Everyone enjoyed the experience. I know I did!

SSSP and Cypress Hills are stargazing heaven in Canada.

Panorama of the Milky Way over the Great Sandhills

From Cypress Hills I drove due north to finally, after years of thinking about it, visit the Great Sandhills near Leader, Saskatchewan. Above is a panorama from the “Boot Hill” ridge at the main viewing area.

The Sandhills is not a provincial park but is a protected eco zone, though used by local ranchers for grazing. However, much of the land remains uniquely prairie but with exposed sand dunes among the rolling hills.

There are farm lights in the distance but the sky above is dark and, in the panorama above, colored by twilight and bands of red and green airglow visible to the camera. It’s dark!

Four Planets Along the Ecliptic at Great Sandhills

In the twilight, from the top of one of the accessible sand dunes, I shot a panorama of the array of four planets currently across the sky, from Venus in the southwest to Mars in the southeast.

This is the kind of celestial scene you can see only where the sky has nothing to get in the way.

Sunset at Great Sandhills

If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.

— Alan, August 26, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Banff by Night


Milky Way Reflections at Bow Lake

Three perfect nights in July provided opportunities to capture the night sky at popular sites in Banff National Park.

When the weather forecast in mid-July looked so promising I made an impromptu trip to Banff to shoot nightscapes and time-lapses under unusually clear skies. Clouds are often the norm in the mountains or, increasingly these days, forest fire smoke in late summer.

But from July 15 to 17 the skies could not have been clearer, except for the clouds that rolled in late on my last night, when I was happy to pack up and get some sleep.

Conjunction over the Continental Divide with Train

My first priority was to shoot the marvellous close conjunction of the Moon and Venus on July 15. I did so from the Storm Mountain viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, with a cooperative train also coming through the scene at the right time.

The Milky Way and Mars over Storm Mountain

This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.

Bow Lake by Night Panorama

The next night, July 16, was one of the most perfect I had ever seen in the Rockies. Crystal clear skies, calm winds, and great lake reflections made for a picture-perfect night at Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. Above is a 360° panorama shot toward the end of the night when the galactic centre of the Milky Way was over Bow Glacier.

Streaks of green airglow arc across the south, while to the north the sky is purple from a faint display of aurora.

Earlier that night the usual auroral arc known as Steve put in an unexpected appearance. It was just a grey band to the eye, but the camera picked up Steve’s usual pink colours. Another photographer from the U.S. who showed up had no idea there was an aurora happening until I pointed it out.

Mars and the Milky Way at Herbert Lake

My last night was at Herbert Lake, a small pond great for capturing reflections of the mountains around Lake Louise, and the Milky Way. Here, brilliant Mars, so photogenic this summer, also reflects in the still waters.

At each site I shot time-lapses, and used those frames to have some fun with star trail stacking, showing the stars turning from east to west and reflected in the lake waters, and with a single still image taken at the end of the sequence layered in to show the untrailed sky and Milky Way.

But I also turned those frames into time-lapse movies, and incorporated them into a new music video, along with some favourite older clips reprocessed for this new video.

Banff by Night (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

Enjoy! And do enlarge to full screen. The video is also in 4K resolution.

Clear skies!

— Alan, August 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

A Wonderful Night in Waterton


The Milky Way over Vimy Peak

A clear break between storms provided a marvellous night in the mountains to shoot nightscapes. 

Every year I travel to Waterton Lakes National Park in southwest Alberta to deliver public talks and photo workshops, usually as part of one of the festivals held each year. I was there June 15 to 17 to participate in the annual Wildflower Festival.

On Sunday, June 17 skies cleared to allow my workshop group to travel to one of my favourite spots, Maskinonge, to practice nightscape shooting techniques. The sunset was stunning, then as skies darkened the Moon and Venus over Waterton River provided the scene.

As twilight deepened, a display of noctilucent clouds appeared to the north, my first sighting of the season for this unusual northern sky phenomenon. These clouds at the edge of space are lit by sunlight even at local midnight and form only around summer solstice over the Arctic.

As the sky slowly darkened and the Moon set, the Milky Way appeared arching across the east and down into the south. The sky was never “astronomically dark,” but even with perpetual twilight illuminating the sky, the Milky Way still made a superb subject, especially this night with it reflected in the calm waters on this unusually windless night for Waterton.

On the way back to town, I stopped at another favourite spot, Driftwood Beach on Middle Waterton Lake, to take more images of the Milky Way over Waterton, including the lead image at top.

It was a perfect night in Waterton for shooting the stars and enjoying the night sky. By morning it was raining again!

— Alan, June 21, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Beauty of the Milky Way


Beauty of Milky Way Title

I present a new 4-minute music video (in 4K resolution) featuring time-lapses of the Milky Way.

One of the most amazing sights is the Milky Way slowly moving across the sky. From Canada we see the brightest part of the Milky Way, its core region in Sagittarius and Scorpius moving across the souther horizon in summer.

But from the southern hemisphere, the galactic core rises dramatically and climbs directly overhead, providing a jaw-dropping view of our edge-on Galaxy stretching across the sky. It is a sight all stargazers should see.

I shot the time-lapses from Alberta, Canada and from Australia, mostly in 2016 and 2017.

I include a still-image mosaic of the Milky Way from Aquila to Crux shot in Chile in 2011.

Do watch in 4K if you can! And in Full-Screen mode.

Locations include Writing-on-Stone and Police Outpost Provincial Parks, and Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.

In Australia I shot from the Victoria coast and from inland in New South Wales near Coonabarabran, with some scenes from the annual OzSky Star Safari held each April.

I used a SYRP Genie Mini and a Star Adventurer Mini for the panning sequences, and a TimeLapse+ View intervalometer for the day-to-night sequences.

I processed all sequences (some 7500 frames in total) through the software LRTimelapse to smooth transitions and flickering.

Music is by Audiomachine.

Enjoy!

— Alan, January 22, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

Testing 10 Photoshop Contenders


1-Comparing Raw Developers (Wide)

To Adobe or not to Adobe. That is the question many photographers are asking with the spate of new image processing programs vying to “kill Photoshop.”

I tested more than ten contenders as alternatives to Adobe’s image processing software, evaluating them ONLY for the specialized task of editing demanding nightscape images taken under the Milky Way, both for single still images and for time-lapses of the moving sky. I did not test these programs for other more “normal” types of images.

Also, please keep in mind, I am a Mac user and tested only programs available for MacOS, though many are also available for Windows. I’ve indicated these.

But I did not test any Windows-only programs. So sorry, fans of Paintshop Pro (though see my note at the end), Photoline, Picture Window Pro, or Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. They’re not here. Even so, I think you will find there’s plenty to pick from!

This review expands upon and updates mini-reviews I included in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses eBook, shown at right.

If you are hoping there’s a clear winner in the battle against Adobe, one program I can say does it all and for less cost and commitment, I didn’t find one.

Group of 9 (small)

However, a number of contenders offer excellent features and might replace at least one member of Adobe’s image processing suite.


For example, only four of these programs can truly serve as a layer-based editing program replacing Photoshop.

The others are better described as Adobe Lightroom competitors – programs that can catalog image libraries and develop raw image files, with some offering adjustment layers for correcting color, contrast, etc. But as with Lightroom, layering of images – to stack, composite, and mask them – is beyond their ability.

For processing time-lapse sequences, however, we don’t need, nor can we use, the ability to layer and mask several images into one composite.

What we need for time-lapses is to:

  • Develop a single key raw file, then …
  • Copy its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
  • Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie.

Even so, not all these contenders are up to the task.

Here are the image processing programs I looked at. Costs are in U.S. dollars. Most have free trial copies available.


Photoshop+Bridge+Lightroom (small)

The Champion from Adobe

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom, the standards to measure others by

Cost: $10 a month by subscription, includes ACR, Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom

Website: https://www.adobe.com

OS: Windows and Mac

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development plug-in that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application that accompanies Photoshop. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and raw processing software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results.

Photoshop and Lightroom complement each other and are now available together, but only by monthly subscription through Adobe’s Creative Cloud service, at $10/month. Though $120 for a year is not far off the cost of purchasing many of these other programs and perhaps upgrading them annually, many photographers prefer to purchase their software and not subscribe to it.

Thus the popularity of these alternative programs. Most offered major updates in late 2017.

My question is, how well do they work? Are any serious contenders to replace Photoshop or Lightroom?


Group of 5 Raw DevelopersLightroom Contenders: Five Raw Developers

ACDSee Photo Studio (current as of late 2017)

Cost: $60 to $100, depending on version, upgrades $40 to $60.

Website: http://www.acdsystems.com

OS: Windows and Mac

I tested the single MacOS version. Windows users have a choice of either a Standard or Professional version. Only the Pro version offers the full suite of raw development features, in addition to cataloging functions. The MacOS version resembles the Windows Pro version.


Capture One v11 (late 2017 release)

Cost: $299, and $120 for major upgrades, or by subscription for $180/year

Website: https://www.phaseone.com

OS: Windows and Mac

As of version 11 this powerful raw developer and cataloguing program offers “Layers.” But these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of an image. You cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one indeed.


Corel Aftershot Pro v3 (late 2017)

Cost: $80, and $60 for upgrades

Website: http://www.aftershotpro.com/en/

OS: Windows, Mac, and Linux

Here’s a low cost Lightroom replacement for image management and raw processing abilities. Noise reduction is “Perfectly Clear” from Athentech and works well.


DxO PhotoLab ELITE v1 (late 2017)

Cost: $199

Website: http://www.dxo.com/us/photography/photo-software/dxo-photolab

OS: Windows and Mac

The ELITE version of what DxO now calls “PhotoLab” offers DxO’s superb PRIME noise reduction and excellent ClearView contrast enhancement feature. While it has an image browser, PhotoLab does not create a catalog, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement, but it is a superb raw developer. DxO also recently acquired the excellent Nik Collection of image processing plug-ins, so we can expect some interesting additions and features.


Raw Therapee v5.3 (mid-2017 release)

Cost: Free

Website: http://rawtherapee.com

OS: Windows, Mac, and Linux

This free open source program has been created and is supported by a loyal community of programmers. It offers a bewildering blizzard of panels and controls, among them the ability to apply dark frames and flat field images, features unique among any raw developer and aimed specifically at astrophotographers. Yes, it’s free, but the learning curve is precipitous.


Group of 4 Layer-Based EditorsPhotoshop Contenders: Four Raw Developers with Layering/Compositing

These programs can not only develop at least single raw images, if not many, but also offer some degree of image layering, compositing, and masking like Photoshop.

However, only ON1 Photo RAW can do that and also catalog/browse images as Lightroom can. Neither Affinity, Luminar, or Pixelmator offer a library catalog like Lightroom, nor even a file browsing function such as Adobe Bridge, serious deficiencies I feel.


Affinity Photo v1.6 (late 2017)

Cost: $50

Website: https://affinity.serif.com

OS: Windows and Mac

This is the lowest cost raw developer and layer-based program on offer here, and has some impressive features, such as stacking images, HDR blending, and panorama stitching. However, it lacks any library or cataloguing function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement, but it could replace Photoshop.


Luminar 2018

Cost: $80, and $40 for major upgrades

Website: https://macphun.com

OS: Windows and Mac

Macphun has changed their name to Skylum and now makes their fine Luminar program for both Mac and Windows. While adding special effects is its forte, Luminar does work well both as a raw developer and layer-based editor. But like Affinity, it has no cataloguing feature. It cannot replace Lightroom.


ON1 Photo RAW 2018

Cost: $120, and $100 for major upgrades

Website: https://www.on1.com

OS: Windows and Mac

Of all the contenders tested here, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 has cataloguing, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In fact, ON1 allows you to migrate your Lightroom catalog into its format. However, ON1’s cost to buy and maintain is similar to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photo subscription plan. It’s just that ON1’s license is “perpetual.”

NOTE: Windows users might find Corel’s Paintshop Pro 2018 a good “do-it-all” solution – I tested only Corel’s raw developer program Aftershot Pro, which Paintshop Pro uses.


Pixelmator Pro v1 (late 2017 release)

Cost: $60

Website: http://www.pixelmator.com/pro/

OS: MacOS only

The “Pro” version of Pixelmator was introduced in November 2017. It has an innovative interface and many fine features, and it allows layering and masking of multiple images. However, it lacks some of the key functions (listed below) needed for nightscape and time-lapse work. Touted as a Photoshop replacement, it isn’t there yet.


The Challenge

This is the image I threw at all the programs, a 2-minute exposure of the Milky Way taken at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in late July 2017.

NOTE: Click/tap on any of the screen shots to bring them up full screen so you can inspect and save them. 

2-ACR Original Undeveloped
Original Raw Image Out of the Camera, BEFORE Development

The lens was the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and the camera the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.

The camera was on a tracking unit (a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini) to keep stars pinpoints.

Thus the ground is blurred. Keep that in mind, as it will always look fuzzy in the comparison images. But it does show up noise well, including hot pixels. This image of the sky is designed to be composited with one taken without the tracker turning, to keep the ground sharp.

3-ACR Developed (Wide)
Raw Image AFTER Development in Adobe Camera Raw

Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, HSL, Lens Corrections, and Effects tabs. Plus I added a “local adjustment” gradient to darken the sky at the top of the frame. I judged programs on how well they could match or beat this result.

4-Adobe Lightroom
Same Image Developed in Adobe Lightroom

Above is the same image developed in Adobe Lightroom, to demonstrate how it can achieve identical results to Camera Raw, because at heart it is Camera Raw.


Feature Focus

I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files from the camera, not JPGs, for high-quality results.

And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, before it goes to Photoshop or some other bit-mapped editor. That’s an essential workflow for time-lapse shooting, if not still-image nightscapes.

However, I made no attempt to evaluate all these programs for a wide range of photo applications. That would be a monumental task!

Nor, in the few programs capable of the task, did I test image layering. My focus was on developing a raw image. As such, I did not test the popular free program GIMP, as it does not open raw files. GIMP users must turn to one of the raw developers here as a first stage.

If you are curious how a program might perform for your purposes and on your photos, then why not test drive a trial copy?

Instead, my focus was on these programs’ abilities to produce great looking results when processing one type of image: my typical Milky Way nightscape, below.

TIFF from DxO into Photoshop
TIFF Exported from DxO PhotoLab … then Imported into Photoshop

Such an image is a challenge because…

  • The subject is inherently low in contrast, with the sky often much brighter than the ground. The sky needs much more contrast applied, but without blocking up the shadows in the ground.
  • The sky is often plagued by off-color tints from artificial and natural sky glows.
  • The ground is dark, perhaps lit only by starlight. Bringing out landscape details requires excellent shadow recovery.
  • Key to success is superb noise reduction. Images are shot at high ISOs and are rife with noise in the shadows. We need to reduce noise without losing stars or sharpness in the landscape.

I focused on being able to make one image look as good as possible as a raw file, before bringing it into Photoshop or a layer-based editor – though that’s where it will usually end up, for stacking and compositing, as per the final result shown at the end.

I then looked at each program’s ability to transfer that one key image’s settings over to what could be hundreds of other images taken that night, either for stacking into star trails or for assembling into a time-lapse movie.


Summary Conclusions

1-Comparing Raw Developers (Wide)
Results of 8 Programs compared to ACR (at left)

None of the programs I tested ticked all the boxes in providing all the functions and image quality of the Adobe products.

But here’s a summary of my recommendations:


For Advanced Time-Lapse

Photoshop+Bridge+Lightroom+LRT

None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing. LRTimelapse works with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge to gradually shift processing settings over a sequence, and smooth annoying image flickering.

If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will work. Period. Subscribe to Creative Cloud. And buy LRTimelapse.


For Basic Time-Lapse

Group of 5 for Time-Lapse

However, for less-demanding time-lapse shooting, when the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, then I feel the best non-Adobe choices are, in alphabetical order:

  • ACDSee
  • Capture One
  • Corel Aftershot Pro
  • DxO PhotoLab
  • ON1 Photo RAW

… With, in my opinion, DxO and Capture One having the edge for image quality and features. But all five have a Library or Browser mode with easy-to-use Copy & Paste and Batch Export functions needed for time-lapse preparation.

Also worth a try is PhotoDirector9 (MacOS and Windows), a good Lightroom replacement. Scroll to the end for more details and a link.


For Still Image Nightscapes

Group of 3 for Still Images

If you are processing just individual still images, perhaps needing only to stack or composite a few exposures, and want to do all the raw development and subsequent layering of images within one non-Adobe program, then look at (again alphabetically):

  • Affinity Photo
  • Luminar 2018
  • ON1 Photo RAW 2018

… With Affinity Photo having the edge in offering a readily-available function off its File menu for stacking images, either for noise smoothing (Mean) or creating star trails (Maximum).

However, I found its raw development module did not produce as good a result as most competitors due to Affinity’s poorer noise reduction and less effective shadow and highlight controls. Using Affinity’s “Develop Persona” module, I could not make my test image look as good as with other programs.

Luminar 2018 has better noise reduction but it demands more manual work to stack and blend images.

While ON1 Photo Raw has some fine features and good masking tools, it exhibits odd de-Bayering artifacts, giving images a cross-hatched appearance at the pixel-peeping level. Sky backgrounds just aren’t smooth, even after noise reduction.

To go into more detail, these are the key factors I used to compare programs.


Noise Reduction

Absolutely essential is effective noise reduction, of luminance noise and chrominance color speckles and splotches.

Ideally, programs should also have a function for suppressing bright “hot” pixels and dark “dead” pixels.

Here’s what I consider to be the “gold standard” for noise reduction, Adobe Camera Raw’s result using the latest processing engine in ACR v10/Photoshop CC 2018.

5A-ACR (Close-Up)
BEFORE and AFTER Noise Reduction with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)

I judged other programs on their ability to produce results as good as this, if not better, using their noise reduction sliders. Some programs did better than others in providing smooth, noiseless skies and ground, while retaining detail.

5B-DxO Noise Reduction
BEFORE and AFTER Noise Reduction and Other Adjustments with DxO PhotoLab

For example, one of the best was DxO PhotoLab, above. It has excellent options for reducing noise without being overwhelming in its choices, the case with a couple of other programs. For example, DxO has a mostly effective dead/hot pixel removal slider.

ACR does apply such a hot pixel removal “under the hood” as a default, but often still leaves many glaring hot specks that must be fixed later in Photoshop.

Comparing Noise Reduction

6-Comparing Raw Developers (CU)
300% Close-Ups to Compare Noise Reduction

Above are 8 of the contender programs compared to Camera Raw for noise reduction.

Missing from this group is the brand new Pixelmator Pro, for MacOS only. It does not yet have any noise reduction in its v1 release, a serious deficiency in imaging software marketed as “Pro.” For that reason alone, I cannot recommend it. I describe its other deficiencies below.


Lens Corrections

The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Having software that can automatically detect the lens used and apply bespoke corrections is wonderful.

8B-Capture One Lens Correction
Lens Corrections in Capture One

Only a few programs, such as Capture One (above), have a library of camera and lens data to draw upon to apply accurate corrections with one click. With others you have to dial in corrections manually by eye, which is crude and inaccurate.


Shadows and Highlights

All programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, but the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows (the dark ground) while preventing the sky from becoming overly bright, yet while still applying good contrast to the sky.

7-DxO Shadows and Highlights
Shadows and Highlight and other Enhancements in DxO PhotoLab

Of the contenders, I liked DxO PhotoLab best (shown above), not only for its good shadow and highlight recovery, but also excellent “Smart Lighting” and “ClearView” functions which served as effective clarity and dehaze controls to snap up the otherwise low-contrast sky. With most other programs it was tough to boost the shadows without also flattening the contrast.

On the other hand, Capture One’s excellent layering and local adjustments did make it easier to brush in adjustments just to the sky or ground.

However, any local adjustments like those will be feasible only for still images or time-lapses where the camera does not move. In any motion control sequences the horizon will be shifting from frame to frame, making precise masking impractical over a sequence of hundreds of images.

Therefore, I didn’t place too much weight on the presence of good local adjustments. But they are nice to have. Capture One, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 win here.


Selective Color Adjustments

All programs allow tweaking the white balance and overall tint.

But it’s beneficial to also adjust individual colors selectively, to enhance red nebulas, enhance or suppress green airglow, bring out green grass, or suppress yellow or orange light pollution.

Some programs have an HSL panel (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) or an equalizer-style control for boosting or dialing back specific colors.

8A-Capture One Color Adjustments
Color Adjustments in Capture One

Capture One (above) has the most control over color correction, with an impressive array of color wheels and sliders that can be set to tweak a broad or narrow range of colors.

And yet, despite this, I was still unable to make my test image look quite the way I wanted for color balance. ACR and DxO PhotoLab still won out for the best looking final result.


Copy and Paste Settings

Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later. It’s desirable to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good.

Some programs (Affinity Photo, Luminar, Pixelmator Pro) lack any library function for viewing or browsing a folder of thumbnail images. Yes, you can export a bunch of images with your settings applied as a user preset, but that’s not nearly as good as actually seeing those images displayed in a Browser mode.

9A-ON1 Photo RAW Copy & Paste
Copy and Paste Settings in ON1 Photo RAW

What’s ideal is a function such as ON1 Photo RAW displays here, and that some other programs have: the ability to inspect a folder of images, work on one, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in the set.

This is absolutely essential for time-lapse work, and nice to have even when working on a small set to be stacked into a still image.


Batch Export

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

This step is to create an intermediate set of JPGs to assemble into a movie. Or perhaps to stack into a star trail composite using third party software such as StarStaX, or to work on the images in another layer-based program of your choice.

9B-ON1 Photo RAW Batch Export
Batch Export in ON1 Photo RAW

As ON1 Photo RAW shows above, this is best done using a Library or Browser mode to visually select the images, then call up an Export panel or menu to choose the image size, format, quality, and location for the exports.

Click Export and go for coffee – or a leisurely dinner – while the program works through your folder. All programs took an hour or more to export hundreds of images.


Design

Those functions were the key features I looked for when evaluating the programs for nightscape and time-lapse work.

Every program had other attractive features, often ones I wished were in Adobe Camera Raw. But if the program lacked any of the above features, I judged it unsuitable.

Yes, the new contenders to the Photoshop crown have the benefit of starting from a blank slate for interface design.

26-Luminar Interface
Luminar 2018’s Clean User Interface

Many, such as Luminar 2018 above, have a clean, attractive design, with less reliance on menus than Photoshop.

Photoshop has grown haphazardly over 25 years, resulting in complex menus. Just finding key functions can take many tutorial courses!

But Adobe dares to “improve” Photoshop’s design and menu structure at its peril, as Photoshop fans would scream if any menus they know and love were to be reorganized!

The new mobile-oriented Lightroom CC is Adobe’s chance to start afresh with a new interface.


Summary Table of Key Features

Comparison Table
Click or tap to view and save full screen version.

Fair = Feature is present but doesn’t work as easily or produce as good a result

Partial = Program has lens correction but failed to fully apply settings automatically / DxO has a Browse function but not Cataloging

Manual = Program has only a manually-applied lens correction

= Program is missing that feature altogether


Program-by-Program Results

Group of 9 (small)

I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of screen shots of all the programs, showing both the whole image, and a close-up to show the all-important noise reduction.


ACDSee Photo Studio

10A-ACDSee (Wide)
ACDSee Full Screen
10B-ACDSee (CU)
ACDSee Enlargement

PROS: This capable cataloging program has good selective color and highlight/shadow recovery, and pretty smooth noise reduction. It can copy and paste settings and batch export images, for time-lapses. It is certainly affordable, making it a low-cost Lightroom contender.

CONS: It lacks any gradient or local adjustments, or even spot removal brushes. Lens corrections are just manual. There is no dehaze control, which can be useful for snapping up even clear night skies. You cannot layer images to create composites or image stacks. This is not a Photoshop replacement.


Affinity Photo

11A-Affinity Photo (Wide)
Affinity Photo Full Screen
11B-Affinity Photo (CU)
Affinity Photo Enlargement

PROS: Affinity supports image layers, masking with precise selection tools, non-destructive “live” filters (like Photoshop’s Smart Filters), and many other Photoshop-like functions. It has a command for image stacking with a choice of stack modes for averaging and adding images.

It’s a very powerful but low cost alternative to Photoshop, but not Lightroom. It works fine when restricted to working on just a handful of images.

CONS: Affinity has no lens correction database, and I found it hard to snap up contrast in the sky and ground without washing them out, or having them block up. Raw noise reduction was acceptable but not up to the best for smoothness. It produced a blocky appearance. There are no selective color adjustments.

Nor is there any library or browse function. You can batch export images, but only through an unfriendly dialog box that lists images only by file name – you cannot see them. Nor can you copy and paste settings visually, but only apply a user-defined “macro” to develop images en masse upon export.

This is not a program for time-lapse work.


Capture One 11

13A-Capture One Pro (Wide)
Capture One 11 Full Screen
13B-Capture One Pro (CU)
Capture One 11 Enlargement

PROS: With version 11 Capture One became one of the most powerful raw developers, using multiple layers to allow brushing in local adjustments, a far better method than Adobe Camera Raw’s local adjustment “pins.” It can create a catalog from imported images, or images can be opened directly for quick editing. Its noise reduction was good, with hot pixel removal lacking in Camera Raw.

Its color correction options were many!

It can batch export images. And it can export files in the raw DNG format, though in tests only Adobe Camera Raw was able to read the DNG file with settings more or less intact.

CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Creative Cloud to subscribe to. Despite all its options I could never quite get as good looking an image using Capture One, compared to DxO PhotoLab for example.

It is just a Lightroom replacement; it can’t layer images.


Corel Aftershot Pro 3

12A-Aftershot Pro (Wide)
Corel Aftershot Pro Full Screen
12B-Aftershot Pro (CU)
Corel Aftershot Pro Enlargement

PROS: This low-cost option has good noise reduction using Athentech’s Perfectly Clear process, with good hot pixel or “impulse” noise removal. It has good selective color and offers adjustment layers for brushing in local corrections. And its library mode can be used to copy and paste settings and batch export images.

Again, it’s solely a Lightroom alternative.

CONS: While it has a database of lenses, and identified my lens, it failed to apply any automatic corrections. Its shadow and highlight recovery never produced a satisfactory image with good contrast. Its local adjustment brush is very basic, with no edge detection.


DxO PhotoLab

14A-DxO PhotoLab (Wide)
DxO PhotoLab Full Screen
14B-DxO PhotoLab (CU)
DxO PhotoLab Enlargement

PROS: I found DxO produced the best looking image, better perhaps than Camera Raw, because of its DxO ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, with its PRIME option producing by far the best results of all the programs, better perhaps than Camera Raw, plus with hot pixel suppression.

DxO has good selective color adjustments, and its copy and paste and batch export work fine.

CONS: There are no adjustment layers as such. Local adjustments and repairing are done through the unique U-Point interface which works something like ACR’s “pins,” but isn’t as visually intuitive as masks and layers. Plus, DxO is just a raw developer; there is no image layering or compositing. Nor does it create a catalog as such.

So it is not a full replacement for either Lightroom or Photoshop. But it does produce great looking raw files for export (even as raw DNGs) to other programs.


Luminar 2018

15A-Luminar 2018 (Wide)
Luminar 2018 Full Screen
15B-Luminar 2018 (CU)
Luminar 2018 Enlargement

PROS: Luminar has good selective color adjustments, a dehaze control, and good contrast adjustments for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Adjustments can be added in layers, making them easier to edit. Noise reduction was smooth and artifact-free, but adjustments were basic. Many filters can be painted on locally with a brush, or with a radial or gradient mask.

CONS: It has no lens correction database; all adjustments are manual. The preview was slow to refresh and display results when adjusting filters. The interface is clean but always requires adding filters to the filter panel to use them when creating new layers. Its batch export is crude, with only a dialog box and no visual browser to inspect or select images.

Settings are applied as a user preset on export, not through a visual copy-and-paste function. I don’t consider that method practical for time-lapses.


ON1 Photo RAW 2018

16A-ON1 Photo Raw (Wide)
ON1 Photo RAW Full Screen
16B-ON1 Photo Raw (CU)
ON1 Photo RAW Enlargement

PROS: ON1 is the only program of the bunch that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It is fast to render previews in its “Fast” mode, but in its “Accurate” mode ON1 is no faster than Lightroom. It has good layering and masking functions, both in its Develop mode and in its Photoshop-like Layers mode.

Selective color and contrast adjustments were good, as was noise reduction. Developing, then exporting a time-lapse set worked very well, but still took as long as with Lightroom or Photoshop.

CONS: Despite promising automatic lens detection and correction, ON1 failed to apply any vignetting correction for my 20mm Sigma lens. Stars exhibited dark haloes, even with no sharpening, dehaze, or noise reduction applied. Its de-Bayering algorithm produced a cross-hatched pattern at the pixel level, an effect not seen on other programs.

Noise reduction did not smooth this. Thus, image quality simply wasn’t as good.


Pixelmator Pro

17A-Pixelmator Pro (Wide)
Pixelmator Pro Full Screen
17B-Pixelmator Pro (CU)
Pixelmator Pro Enlargement

PROS: It is low cost. And it has an attractive interface.

CONS: As of version 1 released in November 2017 Pixelmator Pro lacks: any noise reduction (it’s on their list to add!), any library mode or copy and paste function, nor even the ability to open several images at once displayed together.

It is simply not a contender for “Photoshop killer” for any photo application, despite what click-bait “reviews” promise, ones that only re-write press releases and don’t actually test the product.


Raw Therapee v5.3

18A-Raw Therapee (Wide)
Raw Therapee Full Screen
18B-Raw Therapee (CU)
Raw Therapee Enlargement – With and Without Noise Reduction

PROS: It’s free! It offers an immense number of controls and sliders. You can even change the debayering method. It detects and applies lens corrections (though in my case only distortion, not vignetting). It has good selective color with equalizer-style sliders. It has acceptable (sort of!) noise reduction and sharpening with a choice of methods, and with hot and dead pixel removal.

It can load and apply dark frames and flat fields, the only raw developer software that can. This is immensely useful for deep-sky photography.

CONS: It offers an immense number of controls and sliders! Too many! It is open source software by committee, with no one in charge of design or user friendliness. Yes, there is documentation, but it, too, is a lot to wade through to understand, especially with its broken English translations. This is software for digital signal processing geeks.

But worst of all, as shown above, its noise reduction left lots of noisy patches in shadows, no matter what combination of settings I applied. Despite all its hundreds of sliders, results just didn’t look as good.


What About …? (updated December 28)

What About Group of 8

No matter how many programs I found to test, someone always asks, “What about …?” In some cases such comments pointed me to programs I wasn’t even aware of, but subsequently tried out. So here are even more to pick from…


Acorn (https://flyingmeat.com/acorn/)

Acorn
Acorn’s very basic raw adjustment module.

Billed as having “everything you need in an image editor,” this low-cost ($30) MacOS-only program is anything but. Its raw developer module is crude and lacks any of the sophisticated range of adjustments offered by all the other programs on offer here. It might be useful as a layer-based editor of images developed by another program.


Alien Skin Exposure x3 (https://www.alienskin.com)

Alien Skin (Wide)
Alien Skin Exposure x3 at work on the the image

Available for Mac and Windows for $150, this Lightroom competitor offers a good browser function, with the ability to “copy-from-one and paste-to-many” images (unlike some of the programs below), and a good batch export function for time-lapse work. It has good selective color controls and very good noise reduction providing a smooth background without artifacts like blockiness or haloes. Local adjustments, either through brushed-on adjustments or through gradients, are applied via handy and easy to understand (I think!) layers.

While it has auto lens corrections, its database seemed limited — it did not have my Sigma 20mm lens despite it being on the market for 18 months. Manual vignetting correction produced a poor result with just a washed out look.

The main issue was that its shadow, highlight, and clarity adjustments just did not produce the snap and contrast I was looking for, but that other programs could add to raw files. Still, it looks promising, and is worth a try with the trial copy. You might find you like it. I did not. For similar cost, other programs did a better job, notably DxO PhotoLab.


darktable (http://www.darktable.org)

In the same ilk as Raw Therapee, I also tested out another free, open-source raw developer, one simply called “darktable,” with v2.2.5 shown below. While it has some nice functions and produced a decent result, it took a lot of time and work to use.

19A-Darktable
darktable RAW Developer

The MacOS version I tried (on a brand new 5K iMac) ran so sluggishly, taking so long to re-render screen previews, that I judged it impractical to use. Sliders were slow to move and when I made any adjustments often many seconds would pass before I would see the result. Pretty frustrating, even for free.


Iridient Developer (http://www.iridientdigital.com)

19B-Iridient Developer
Iridient Developer

A similar crowd-developed raw processing program, Iridient Developer (above), sells for $99 US. I tested a trial copy of v3.2. While it worked OK, I was never able to produce a great looking image with it. It had no redeeming features over the competition that made its price worthwhile.


Paintshop Pro (https://www.paintshoppro.com/en/)

PaintShop Raw Developer
Paintshop Pro’s included but very basic Raw developer.

Using Parallels running Windows 10 on my Mac, I did try out this popular Windows-only program from Corel. By itself, Paintshop Pro’s raw developer module (shown above) is basic, crude and hardly up to the tax of processing demanding raw files. You are prompted to purchase Corel’s Aftershot Pro for more capable raw development, and I would agree – Aftershot would be an essential addition. However …

As I showed above, I did test the MacOS version of Aftershot Pro on my raw sample image, and found it did the poorest job of making my raw test image look good. Keep in mind that it is the ability of all these programs to develop this typical raw nightscape image that I am primarily testing.

That said, given a well-developed raw file, Paintshop Pro can do much more with it, such as further layering of images and applying non-destructive and masked adjustment layers, as per Photoshop. Indeed, it is sold as a low-cost (~ $60) Photoshop replacement. As such, many Windows users find Paintshop’s features very attractive. However, Paintshop lacks the non-destructive “smart” filters, and the more advanced selection and masking options offered by Photoshop, Affinity Photo, and ON1 Photo Raw. If you have never used these, you likely don’t realize what you are missing.

If it’s an Adobe alternative you are after, I would suggest Windows users would be better served by other options. Why not test drive Affinity and ON1?


PhotoDirector 9 (https://www.cyberlink.com/products/photodirector-ultra/features_en_US.html

Photo Director Wide
PhotoDirector’s very Lightroom-like interface and controls.

This was a surprising find. Little known, certainly to me, this Windows and MacOS program from the Taiwanese company Cyberlink, is best described as a Lightroom substitute, but it’s a good one. Its regular list price is $170. I bought it on sale for $60.

Like Lightroom, working on any images with PhotoDirector requires importing them into a catalog. You cannot just browse to the images. Fine. But one thing some people complain about with Lightroom is the need to always import images.

I was impressed with how good a job PhotoDirector did on my raw test image. PhotoDirector has excellent controls for shadow and highlight recovery, HSL selective color, copying-and-pasting settings, and batch exporting. So it will work well for basic time-lapse processing.

Noise reduction was very good and artifact-free. While it does have automatic lens corrections, its database did not include the 2-year old Sigma 20mm Art lens I used. So it appears its lens data is not updated frequently.

PhotoDirector has good local adjustments and gradients using “pins” rather than layers, similar to Camera Raw and Lightroom.

After performing raw image “Adjustments,” you can take an image into an Edit module (for adding special effects), then into a Layers module for further work. However, doing so destructively “flattens” the image to apply the raw adjustments you made. You cannot go back and tweak the raw settings in the Adjustment module, as you can when opening a raw file as a “smart object” in Adobe Photoshop.

While PhotoDirector does allow you to layer in other images to make basic composites (such as adding type or logos), there is no masking function nor any non-destructive adjustment layers. So this is most assuredly not a Photoshop substitute, despite what the advertising might suggest. But if it’s a Lightroom replacement you are after, do check it out in a trial copy.


Picktorial v3 (https://www.picktorial.com)

Picktorial
MacOS-only Picktorial v3, with its clean interface

This little-known MacOS-only program (only $40 on sale) for developing raw images looks very attractive, with good selective color, lots of local adjustments, and good masking tools, the features promoted on the website. It does have a browse function and can batch export a set of developed files.

However … its noise reduction was poor, introducing glowing haloes around stars when turned up to any useful level. Its shadows, highlights, and contrast adjustments were also poor – it was tough to make the test image look good without flattening contrast or blocking up shadows. Boosting clarity even a little added awful dark haloes to stars, making this a useless function. It has no lens correction, either automatic or manual. Like Topaz Studio, below, it cannot copy and paste settings to a batch of images, only to one image at a time, so it isn’t useful for time-lapse processing.

I cannot recommend this program, no matter how affordable it might be.


Silky Pix Developer Studio 8 (http://www.silkypix.us

Silky Pix Wide

Popular among some camera manufacturers as their included raw developer, Silky Pix can be purchased separately ($80 list price for the standard version, $250 list price for the Pro version) with support for many cameras’ image files. It is available for MacOS and Windows. I tried the lower-cost “non-Pro” version 8. It did produce a good-looking end result, with good shadow and highlight recovery, and excellent color controls. Also on the plus side, Silky Pix has very good copy-and-paste functions for development settings, and good batch export functions, so it can be used to work on a folder of time-lapse frames.

On the down side, noise reduction, while acceptable, left an odd mottled pattern, hardly “silky.” The added “Neat” noise reduction option only smoothed out detail and was of little value except perhaps for very noisy images. Noise reduction did nothing to remove hot pixels, leaving lots of colored specks across the image. The program uses unorthodox controls whose purposes are not obvious. Instead of  Highlights and Shadows you get Exposure Bias and HDR. Instead of Luminance and Color noise reduction, you get sliders labeled Smoothness and Color Distortion. You really need to read the extensive documentation to learn how to use this program.

I found sliders could be sticky and not easy to adjust precisely. The MacOS version was slow, often presenting long bouts of spinning beachballs while it performed some function. This is a program worth a try, and you might find you like it. But considering what the competition offers, I would not recommend it.


Topaz Studio (http://www.topazlabs.com)

Topaz Studio (Wide)
Topaz Studio at work on the test image

While Topaz Labs previously offered only plug-ins for Photoshop and other programs (their Topaz DeNoise 6 is very good), their Topaz Studio stand-alone program now offers full raw processing abilities.

It is for Mac and Windows. While it did a decent job developing my test Milky Way image (above), with good color and contrast adjustments, it cannot copy and paste settings from one image to a folder of images, only to one other image. Nor can it batch export a folder of images. Both deficiencies make it useless for time-lapse work.

In addition, while the base program is free, adding the “Pro Adjustments” modules I needed to process my test image (Noise Reduction, Dehaze, Precision Contrast, etc.) would cost $160 – each Adjustment is bought separately. Some users might like it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.


And … Adobe Photoshop Elements v18 (late 2017 release)

What about Adobe’s own Photoshop “Lite?” Elements is available for $99 as a boxed or downloadable one-time purchase, but with annual updates costing about $50. While it offers image and adjustment layers, it cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has very limited functions for developing raw files.

And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not have any copy-and-paste settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for time-lapse production.

19C-Photoshop Elements
Photoshop Elements v18 – Showing its Version of Camera Raw Lite

Elements is for processing photos for the snapshot family album. Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. But it can be pressed into service for raw editing and layering single images, especially by beginners.

However, a Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more than buying, then upgrading Elements outright, yet gets you far, far more in professional-level software.


And Yet More…!

In addition, for just developing raw files, you likely already have software to do the job – the program that came with your camera.

20-Canon DPP
Canon Digital Photo Professional v4

For Canon it’s Digital Photo Professional (shown above); for Nikon it’s Capture NX; for Pentax it’s Digital Camera Utility, etc.

These are all capable raw developers, but have no layering capabilities. And they read only the files from their camera brand. If theirs is the only software you have, try it. They are great for learning on.

But you’ll find that the programs from other companies offer more features and better image quality.


What Would I Buy?

Except for Capture One, which I tested as a trial copy, I did buy all the software in question, for testing for my Nightscapes eBook.

However, as I’ve described, none of the programs tick all the boxes. Each has strengths, but also weaknesses, if not outright deficiencies. I don’t feel any can fully replace Adobe products for features and image quality.

DxO to Affinity

A possible non-Adobe combination for the best image quality might be DxO PhotoLab for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, and Affinity Photo for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO and opened and layered with Affinity.

But that combo lacks any cataloging option. For that you’d have to add ACDSee or Aftershot for a budget option. It’s hardly a convenient workflow I’d want to use.

DxO vs ON1 Noise
ON1 De-Bayer Artifacts (Right) Compared to DxO PhotoLab (Left), at 400%

I’d love to recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly as a single solution, if only it had better raw processing results, and didn’t suffer from de-Bayering artifacts (shown in a 400% close-up above, compared to DxO PhotoLab). These add the star haloes and a subtle blocky pattern to the sky, most obvious at right.


To Adobe or Not to Adobe

I’m just not anxious, as others are, to “avoid Adobe.”

I’ve been a satisfied Creative Cloud subscriber for several years, and view the monthly fee as the cost of doing business. It’s much cheaper than the annual updates that boxed Photoshop versions used to cost. Nor am I worried about Adobe suddenly jacking up the fees or holding us hostage with demands.

21-LRTimelapse
LRTimelapse at Work on a Time-Lapse Sequence

For me, the need to use LRTimelapse (shown above) for about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great. Sold.

I feel Camera Raw/Lightroom produces results that others can only just match, if that.

Only DxO PhotoLab beat Adobe for its excellent contrast enhancements and PRIME noise reduction.

Yes, other programs certainly have some fine features I wish Camera Raw or Lightroom had, such as:

  • Hot and dead pixel removal
  • Dark frame subtraction and flat field division
  • Better options for contrast enhancement
  • And adding local adjustments to raw files via layers, with more precise masking tools
  • Among others!

But those aren’t “must haves.”

Using ACR or Lightroom makes it easy to export raw files for time-lapse assembly, or to open them into Photoshop for layering and compositing, usually as “smart objects” for non-destructive editing, as shown below.

21-Photoshop Final Image
Final Layered Photoshop Image

Above is the final layered image, consisting of:

  • A stack of 4 tracked exposures for the sky (the test image is one of those exposures)
  • And 4 untracked exposures for the ground.

The mean stacking smooths noise even more. The masking reveals just the sky on the tracked set. Every adjustment layer, mask, and “smart filter” is non-destructive and can be adjusted later.

I’ll work on recreating this same image with the three non-Adobe programs capable of doing so –  Affinity, Luminar, and ON1 Photo RAW – to see how well they do. But that’s the topic of a future blog.


Making the Switch?

The issue with switching from Adobe to any new program is compatibility.

While making a switch will be fine when working on all new images, reading the terabytes of old images I have processed with Adobe software (and being able to re-adjust their raw settings and layered adjustments) will always require that Adobe software.

If you let your Creative Cloud subscription lapse, as I understand it the only thing that will continue to work is Lightroom’s Library module, allowing you to review images only. You can’t do anything to them.

None of the contender programs will read Adobe’s XMP metadata files to display raw images with Adobe’s settings intact.

Conversely, nor can Adobe read the proprietary files and metadata other programs create.

ON1 Warning Dialog

With final layered Photoshop files, while some programs can read .PSD files, they usually open them just as flattened images, as ON1 warns it will do above. It flattened all of the non-destructive editing elements created in Photoshop. Luminar did the same.

23-Affinity Opening PSB File
A Layered Photoshop PSB File Opened in Affinity Photo

Only Affinity Photo (above) successfully read a complex and very large Photoshop .PSB file correctly, honouring at least its adjustment and image layers. So, if backwards compatibility with your legacy Photoshop images is important, choose Affinity Photo.

However, Affinity flattened Photoshop’s smart object image layers and their smart filters. Even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements doesn’t honor smart objects.

Lest you think that’s a “walled garden” created by “evil Adobe,” keep in mind that the same will be true of the image formats and catalogs that all the contender programs produce.

To read the adjustments, layers, and “live filters” you create using any another program, you will need to use that program.

Will Affinity, DxO, Luminar, ON1, etc. be around in ten years?

Yes, you can save out flattened TIFFs that any program can read in the future, but that rules out using those other programs to re-work any of the image’s original settings.


In Conclusion!

24-DxO UPoint Local
U-Point Local Adjustments in DxO PhotoLab

I can see using DxO PhotoLab (above) or Raw Therapee for some specific images that benefit from their unique features.

Or using ACDSee as a handy image browser.

28-Luminar as Plug-In
Luminar 2018 as a Plug-In Within Photoshop

And ON1 and Luminar have some lovely effects that can be applied by calling them up as plug-ins from within Photoshop, and applied as smart filters. Above, I show Luminar working as a plug-in, applying its “Soft & Airy” filter.

In the case of Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, their ability to save images back as raw DNG files (the only contender programs of the bunch that can), means that any raw processing program in the future should be able to read the raw image.

27-CaptureOne DNG Opened in ACR
DNG Raw File Created by Capture One Opened in ACR

However, only Capture One’s Export to DNG option produced a raw file readable and editable by Adobe Camera Raw with its settings from Capture One (mostly) intact (as shown above).

Even so, I won’t be switching away from Adobe any time soon.

But I hope my survey has given you useful information to judge whether you should make the switch. And if so, to what program.

Thanks! 

— Alan, December 6, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

Testing the Canon 6D Mark II for Deep-Sky


6D MkII on Cygnus

Following up on my earlier tests, I compare the new Canon 6D MkII camera to earlier Canon full-frame models in long, tracked exposures of the Milky Way.

A month ago I published tests of the new Canon 6D MkII camera for nightscape images, ones taken using a fixed tripod in which exposures usually have to be limited to no longer than 30 to 60 seconds, to prevent star trailing.

Despite these short exposures, we still like to extract details from the dark shadows of the scene, making nightscape images a severe test of any camera.

I refer you to my August 9, 2017 blog Testing the Canon 6D MkII for Nightscapes for the results. The 6D MkII did not fare well.

Here I test the 6D MkII for what, in many respects, is a less demanding task: shooting long exposures of deep-sky objects, the Milky Way in Cygnus in this case.

Why is this an easier task? The camera is now on a tracking mount (I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini) which is polar aligned to follow the rotation of the sky. As such, exposures can now be many minutes long if needed. We can give the camera sensor as much signal as the darkness of the night sky allows. More signal equals less noise in the final images.

In addition, there are no contrasty, dark shadows where noise lurks. Indeed, the subjects of deep-sky images are often so low in contrast, as here, they require aggressive contrast boosting later in processing to make a dramatic image.

While that post-processing can bring out artifacts and camera flaws, as a rule I never see the great increase in noise, banding, and magenta casts I sometimes encounter when processing short-exposure nightscape scenes.


6D MkII at Four ISOs
The Canon 6D MkII at four typical ISO speeds in tracked exposures.

6D at Four ISOs
The original Canon 6D at four typical ISO speeds in tracked exposures.

5D MkII at Four ISOs
A Canon 5D MkII that has been filter-modified at four typical ISO speeds in tracked exposures.
For this test, I shot the same region of sky with the same 35mm lens L-Series lens at f/2.2, using three cameras:

• Canon 6D MkII (2017)

• Canon 6D (2012)

• Canon 5D MkII (2008)

Note that the 5D MkII has been “filter-modified” to make its sensor more sensitive to the deep red wavelengths emitted by hydrogen gas, the main component of the nebulas along the Milky Way. You’ll see how it picks up the red North America Nebula much better than do the two off-the-shelf “stock” cameras. (Canon had their own factory-modified “a” models in years past: the 20Da and 60Da. Canon: How about a 6D MkIIa?)

I shot at four ISO speeds typical of deep-sky images: 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400.

Exposures were 4 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, and 30 seconds, respectively, to produce equally exposed frames with a histogram shifted well to the right, as it should be for a good signal-to-noise ratio.

Noisy deep-sky images with DSLR cameras are usually the result of the photographer underexposing needlessly, often in the mistaken belief that doing so will reduce noise when, in fact, it does just the opposite.

The above set of three images compares each of the three cameras at those four ISO speeds. In all cases I have applied very little processing to the images: only a lens correction, some sharpening, a slight contrast and clarity increase, and a slight color correction to neutralize the background sky.

However, I did not apply any luminance noise reduction. So all the images are noisier than what they would be in a final processed image.

Even so, all look very good. And with similar performance.

All frames were shot with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) on, for an automatic dark frame subtraction by the camera. I saw no artifacts from applying LENR vs. shots taken without it.

The 6D and 6D MkII perhaps show a little less noise than the old 5D MkII, as they should being newer cameras.

The 6D MkII also shows a little less pixelation on small stars, as it should being a 26 megapixel camera vs. 20 to 21 megapixels for the older cameras. However, you have to examine the images at pixel-peeping levels to see these differences. Nevertheless, having higher resolution without the penalty of higher noise is very welcome.


3 Canons at ISO 1600
The three cameras compared at ISO 1600. Note the histogram and region of the frame we are examining up close.

3 Canons at ISO 3200
The three cameras compared at ISO 3200. Note the histogram and region of the frame we are examining up close.

3 Canons at ISO 6400
The three cameras compared at ISO 6400. Note the histogram and region of the frame we are examining up close.
Above, I show images from the three cameras side by side at ISOs 1600, 3200, and 6400. It is tough to tell the difference in noise levels, the key characteristic for this type of astrophotography.

The new 6D MkII shows very similar levels of noise to the 6D, perhaps improving upon the older cameras a tad.

Because images are well-exposed (note the histogram at right), the 6D MkII is showing none of the flaws of its lower dynamic range reported elsewhere.

That’s the key. The 6D MkII needs a well-exposed image. Given that, it performs very well.


3 Canons Stacked & Processed
The three cameras in stacked and processed final images.
This version shows the same images but now with stacked frames and with a typical level of processing to make a more attractive and richer final image. Again, all look good, but with the modified camera showing richer nebulosity, as they do in deep-sky images.

The lead image at the very top is a final full-frame image with the Canon 6D MkII.


As such, based on my initial testing, I can recommend the Canon 6D MkII (and plan to use it myself) for deep-sky photography.

Indeed, I’ll likely have the camera filter-modified to replace my vintage yet faithful 5D MkII for most of my deep-sky shooting. The 6D MkII’s tilting LCD screen alone (a neck, back, and knee saver when attached to a telescope!) makes it a welcome upgrade from the earlier cameras.

The only drawback to the 6D MkII for deep-sky work is its limited dark frame buffer. As noted in my earlier review, it can shoot only three Raw files in rapid succession with Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on. The 5D MkII can shoot five; the 6D can shoot four. (A 6D MkIIa should have this buffer increased to at least 4, if not 8 images.)

I make use of this undocumented feature all the time to ensure cleaner images in long deep-sky exposures, as it produces and subtracts dark frames with far greater accuracy than any taken later and applied in post-processing.


I hope you’ve found this report of interest.

With the 6D MkII so new, and between smoky skies and the interference of the Moon, I’ve had only one night under dark skies to perform these tests. But the results are promising.

For more tips on deep-sky imaging and processing see my pages on my website:

Ten Tips for Deep-Sky Images

Ten Steps to Deep-Sky Processing

Thanks and clear skies!

— Alan, September 7, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

The Night-Shadowed Prairie


The Night Shadowed Prairie

“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873

In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.

The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.

The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.

Big Sky Sunset at Red Rock Coulee

This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.

Waxing Crescent Moon at Red Rock Coulee

The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.

The Milky Way at Red Rock Coulee

This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.

I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.

— Alan, July 27, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Rivers of Earth and Sky


Shooting at Orkney Viewpoint

The arch of the Milky Way mirrors the sweep of the Red Deer River on a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.

Images of the Milky Way arching across the sky are now iconic. They are almost always assembled from individual frames stitched together to make a seamless panorama.

From the northern hemisphere, spring is the best season to shoot such a panorama as the Milky Way then remains confined to the eastern sky.

Later in summer, when the Milky Way passes directly overhead, panoramas are still possible, but the Milky Way looks distorted. The process of mapping a round sky onto a rectangular image, as I show here, inevitably stretches out the Milky Way near the zenith.

Last Saturday, in search of the Milky Way during prime panorama season, I set up for the night at Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River in the Alberta Badlands north of Drumheller. There, the river performs a grand curve through the valley below.

Above, the Milky Way, often described as a river of stars, sweeps in mirror-image fashion above the earthly river.

Rivers of Earth and Sky
This is a stitch of 8 segments with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, in portrait mode, and Nikon D750. Each 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. Taken on a mild and moonless night, May 20, 2017.

The panorama above contains the reflection of stars – of the constellation of Delphinus in particular – in the smooth water on a windless night.

To the north at left, the Northern Lights put on a subtle show. While never spectacular to the eye, the camera records the aurora’s colour and forms that often elude the naked eye.

Aurora over Red Deer River
This is a stack of 4 x 15-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise, and one 15-second exposure for the sky, all with the 20mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. They were part of a 250-frame time-lapse.

The display was brightest early in the evening – that’s 11 p.m. now in May at my latitude.

The display then faded in intensity before I shot the two panoramas about 1 a.m., but the last few frames of the time-lapse show a final burst of colour from a lone curtain reflected in the river.

Lone Curtain of Aurora over Red Deer River
This is a stack of 84 x 15-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise, and one 15-second exposure for the sky, all with the 20mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. They were part of a 250-frame time-lapse.

This was a magical night indeed. And a rare one this spring with clouds more often the norm at night.

The next dark of the Moon coincides with summer solstice. So while the moonlight won’t interfere, critical for shooting the Milky Way, the glow of perpetual twilight at my latitude will. The Milky Way will be set in a deep blue sky.

By July’s dark of the Moon the Milky Way will be high overhead, making panorama arches tough to assemble. It looks like this might have been my one best night to capture such a scene this year. But it was a good one.

— Alan, May 24, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

The Amazing Austral Sky


Panorama of the Milky Way Overhead

The latitude of 30° South is the magic latitude on Earth for seeing the Milky Way.

From that region of the world – southern Australia, central South America, southern Africa – the centre of the Galaxy passes overhead, and you see the view at top.

You see the galactic core glowing brightly at the zenith, and the arms of the Milky Way stretching off to the horizon on either side of the core – to Aquila at left, for the northern half of the Galaxy, and to Carina at right, for the southern half of the Galaxy. That area of the Galaxy is always below the horizon for viewers at northern latitudes.

The image below focuses in on just the southern portion of the Milky Way, framing what in Australia is called the “Dark Emu,” a constellation made of the dark lanes along the Milky Way, from his head at right in Crux, to his tail at left in Scutum.

The Dark Emu Overhead

This is the most amazing region of the Milky Way, and is worth the trip south of the equator just to see, by lying back and looking up. You can easily see we live in a vast Galaxy, and not in the centre, but off to one side looking back at the core glowing overhead.

I would say there are three sky sights that top the list for spectacle:

• A bright all-sky aurora

• A total solar eclipse

• and the naked eye view of the Galaxy with its centre overhead and its arms across the sky from horizon to horizon.

I’ve checked off two this year! One more to go in August!

— Alan, May 2, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Farewell Winter Sky


Panorama of the Winter Sky in March

As we celebrate the official arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we bid adieu to the stars of winter.

This was the scene last night from my backyard, of Orion and the surrounding constellations of the winter sky setting into the southwest in the early evening. Each night they will set sooner and sooner, even as the nights continue to grow shorter and the Sun sets later.

By late April Orion will be gone from our Northern Hemisphere sky — he hangs around until well into May for sites south of the equator.

Panorama of the Winter Sky in March (with Labels)
A horizon-to-zenith panorama of the winter consellations on a March evening as they set into the southwest. Taken from home March 19, 2017. This is a panorama of 5 panels, each with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2, and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200, for 25 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

In this version I’ve labeled the main characters in this winter hunting scene – including some of the deep-sky “Messier”  objects like M45, the Pleiades; M44, the Beehive star cluster; and M42, the Orion Nebula.

At the same time this year, we also say goodbye to Venus which has shone so brightly these last few months as an evening star. By this weekend, it will be lost from sight as it passes between Earth and the Sun.

Mercury Rising and Venus Descending (with Labels)
Mercury (left) and Venus (right and bright) shinng low in the evening twilight, on March 19, 2017. Mercury was then 2 weeks before greatest elongation while Venus was a week before inferior conjunction. So Mercury was rising into the evening sky while Venus was rapidly descending. This is a 7-image HDR stack of exposures from 2.5 seconds to 1.6-second at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D and with the Sigma 50mm lens at f/4.

Meanwhile, Mercury is rising into view in the evening twilight, in its best evening showing of the year from northern latitudes. The view below is also from March 19, with Mercury to the left of brighter Venus.

Over the next two weeks, look low in the west for a bright star amid the twilight. Mercury appears farthest from the Sun on April 1, the date of its “greatest elongation.”

Having Mercury in our evening sky is a sure sign of spring.

Leo and the Spring Stars Rising
Leo rising in the east along with the northern hemisphere spring stars. Numerous satellite trails are visible. I didn’t clone them out. This is a vertical panorama of 4 frames, with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2 and 25 seconds at ISO 3200 with the Nikon D750. Stitched with PTGui using Transverse Equirectangular projection.

Another sign of spring is Leo the lion.

While Orion sets in the west, the stars of spring are rising in the east. The panorama above depicts the scene in the eastern sky these nights, as Leo rises below the Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper is at upper left, with its handle pointing down to Arcturus at bottom left. The Bowl of the Dipper points down to the right to Regulus and the stars of Leo.

Above Leo is the star cluster M44, the Beehive, in Cancer. Below Leo at centre is the star cluster Mel 111, the Coma Berenices star cluster near the North Galactic Pole.

Happy Equinox! 

— Alan, March 20, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

 

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Northern Spring Sky Panorama

It takes a dark spring night to see it well, but now lurking near Jupiter is a ghostly sky glow called Gegenschein. 

This diffuse glow lies directly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the outer solar system. They reflect light more effectively at the anti-Sun point where each dust particle is fully lit by the Sun.

Like the Sun, the Gegenschein moves around the sky along the ecliptic, moving about a degree from west to east from night to night. March and April provide good nights for seeing the Gegenschein as it then lies in an area of sky far from the Milky Way.

Even so, it is very subtle to the unaided eye. Look south at about 1 a.m. local daylight time.

However, this year, in early April the Gegenschein will be more difficult as it will then lie right on top of Jupiter, as that planet reaches its point opposite the Sun on April 7. Jupiter will then be superimposed on the Gegenschein.

The main image at top is a 7-image vertical panorama of the spring sky, from Corvus and Virgo above the horizon, up past Leo, into Ursa Major and the Big Dipper overhead. Spica lies below bright Jupiter, Arcturus in Böotes is at left, while Regulus in Leo is at right. The grouping of stars near centre is the Coma Berenices star cluster.

Orion over the Old Barn

Earlier in the night, I shot the sky’s other main glow – the Milky Way, as the winter portion of the Milky Way around Orion set into the southwest.

But over in the west, at the right edge of the frame, is the Zodiacal Light, caused by the same dust particles that create the Gegenschein, but that are located in the inner solar system between us and the Sun.

The Zodiacal Light is better depicted in images in my previous post from Dinosaur Park

We bid adieu to the winter Milky Way now. As it departs we are left with an evening sky without the Milky Way visible at all. As seen from northern latitudes it lies along the horizon.

But later in spring, late at night, we’ll see the summer Milky Way rising, beginning its seasons of prominence until late autumn.

— Alan, March 19, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

A Starry Night in the Badlands


Winter Milky Way Arch and Zodiacal Light

In a winter of cloud, the skies cleared for a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.

Two weeks ago, on February 28, I took advantage of a rare and pristine night to head to one of my favourite spots in Dinosaur Provincial Park, to shoot nightscapes of the winter sky over the Badlands.

A spate of warm weather had melted most of the snow, so the landscape doesn’t look too wintery. But the stars definitely belong to winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

The main image above shows the winter Milky Way arching across the sky from southeast (at left) to northwest (at right). The tower of light in the west is the Zodiacal Light, caused by sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the inner solar system. It is an interplanetary, not atmospheric, effect.

Winter Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park (Fish-Eye View)
This is a stitch of 6 segments with the 12mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 30 seconds each, with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, mounted portrait. Stitched with PTGui.

Above, this 360° version of the scene records the entire sky, with the winter Milky Way from horizon to horizon. With a little averted imagination you can also trace the Zodiacal Light from west (right) over to the eastern sky (left), where it brightens in the diffuse glow of the Gegenschein, where dust opposite the Sun in the outer solar system reflects light back to us.

Winter Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park (with Labels)
This is a stitch of 6 segments taken with the 12mm full-fame fish-eye Rokinon lens at f/2.8, all 30-second exposures with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The camera was aimed portrait with the segments at 60° spacings. Stitched with PTGui using equirectangular projection with the zeith pulled down slightly.

A rectangular version of the panorama wraps the sky around from east (left), with Leo rising, to northeast (right), with the Big Dipper standing on its handle. I’ve added the labels in Photoshop of course.

Winter Stars over Dinosaur Park
This is a stack of 8 x 30-second exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, plus one 30-second exposure for the sky. All at f/2.2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

Here, in a single-frame shot, Orion is at centre, Canis Major (with Sirius) is below left, and Taurus (with Aldebaran) is at upper right. The Milky Way runs down to the south. The clusters M35, M41, M46 and M47 are visible as diffuse spots, as is the Orion Nebula, M42, below Orion’s Belt.

Evening Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
The late winter evening Zodiacal Light, from at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, February 28, 2017. This is a stack of 7 x 30-second exposures for the ground, mean combined for lower noise, plus one 30-second exposure for the sky, all at f/2 with the 20mm Sigma Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

This is certainly my best shot of the evening Zodiacal Light from my area in Alberta. It is obvious at this time of year on moonless nights, but requires a site with little urban skyglow to the west.

It is best visible in the evening from northern latitudes in late winter and spring.

Here, Venus is just setting above the badlands landscape. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right, the Pleiades at left. The Milky Way runs across the frame at top.

There is a common belief among nightscape photographers that the Milky Way can be seen only in summer. Not so.

What they mean is that the brightest part of the Milky Way, the galactic centre, is best seen in summer. But the Milky Way can be seen in all seasons, with the exception of spring when it is largely absent from the early evening sky, but rises late at night.

— Alan, March 14, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Jasper by Starlight


Taurus Rising over Mount Kerkeslin

The annual Dark Sky Festival in Jasper National Park ended with the best finale – dark skies, on a beautiful star-filled night. 

On Saturday night, October 22, I left the final set of science talks in the Big Tent at the heart of the Festival and headed out down the Icefields Parkway for a night of shooting Jasper by starlight.

The lead image is of the winter stars, including the Pleiades, rising above Mt. Kerkeslin at Athabasca Falls.

Pleiades and Taurus over Athabasca Falls
The Pleiades star cluster and the other stars of Taurus rising above Mount Kerkeslin at Athabasca Falls, in Jasper National Park, Alberta, October 22, 2016. The sky is brightening with the rising waning Moon off frame at left. Some cloud adds star glows and hazy patches to the sky. This is a stack of 15 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground and one exposure for the sky. All are 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

I shot the image above moments later, from the usual viewpoint overlooking the Falls, reduced to a trickle in late autumn. Illumination is solely by starlight – no artificial and glaring light painting here.

Perseus and Cassiopeia over Mt Kerkeslin
The autumn constellations of Perseus, Cassiopeia and Andromeda over Mount Kerkeslin at the Athabasca River Viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Andromeda Galaxy is at upper right. The Pleiades are just clearing the mountain top at lower right. Thin clouds add the natural glows around the stars. Illumination is from starlight. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

Earlier in the night, I stopped at the Athabasca River Viewpoint and shot the autumn stars of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Perseus above Mt. Kerkeslin. The Pleiades are just appearing above the mountain ridge.

Stars over Athabasca River
The autumn stars of the watery constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Piscis Austrinus, and Cetus over the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide, from the Athabasca River Viewpoint (the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint) on the Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park, Alberta. Thin cloud provides the natural glows around the stars. This is a stack of 8 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

From that viewpoint I shot a scene looking south over the river and with the stars of Capricornus and Aquarius above the Divide.

Milky Way over Athabasca Pass
The Milky Way over the region of Athabasca Pass, as seen from the highway viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway, in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Oct 22, 2016. The Milky Way here is the section through Aquila, with Altair at top and Mars bright above the peaks of the Continental Divide. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and Nkion D750 at ISO 6400.

At the start of the night I stopped at the viewpoint for Athabasca Pass far in the distance. The summer Milky Way was setting over the pass. This historic pass was used by David Thompson in the late 1700s and early 1800s as his route into B.C. to extend the fur trade across the Divide. Thompson writes in his Journal about one particularly clear night on the pass:

“My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the Stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”

The night ended with a display of Northern Lights over the Athabasca River. What a superb night under the stars in Jasper!

Aurora over Athabasca River
The Northern Lights over the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, on October 22/23 at about 1:30 am. I shot this from an access point to the Athabasca River by the bridge on Highway 93 on the Icefields Parkway. Pyramid Mountain is at left near the town of Jasper. Vega is the bright star at left; the Big Dipper is at right. The image is a stack of 10 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise and to smooth the water, and one exposure for the sky and aurora. All 15 seconds at ISO 1600 at f2 with the Sigma 20mm lens and Nikon D750.

As a finale, here’s a music video collecting together still images and time-lapse movies shot this night, and on two other nights during the Dark Sky Festival, including at the big Lake Annette “Beyond the Stars” star party I spoke at.

Enjoy!

As usual, enlarge to full screen and go to HD for the best view.

Thanks!

— Alan, October 24, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

A Night at Police Outpost


Milky Way in Twilight at Police Outpost Park

It was a perfect night at a dark site in southern Alberta. The Milky Way shone to the south and aurora danced to the north.

I had scouted out this location in June and marked it on my calendar to return in the fall when the centre of the Milky Way would be well-placed to the southwest.

The site is Police Outpost Provincial Park, named for the North West Mounted Police fort that once occupied the site, guarding Canada’s sovereignty in the late 1800s.

One result from the night of shooting is the opening image, the first frame from a time-lapse taken while deep blue twilight still coloured the sky. The main peak is Chief Mountain in Montana.

Twilight Aurora at Police Outpost
A fairly mild dispay of aurora in the darkening deep blue twilight over the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with the stars of Perseus rising, and with Capella low in the northeast at centre. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the dark ground and water to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 2000. 

To the north an aurora display kicked up over the lake. While it never got very bright, it still provided a photogenic show over the still waters.

Aurora over Police Outpost Lake
A fairly mild dispay of aurora over the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with the stars of Auriga and Taurus rising, including the Pleiades at upper right. The Hyades in Taurus are the most prominent stellar reflections at lower right, in the still water this evening. Capella is the bright star above centre; Aldebaran is at right. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the dark ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky and water, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. 

The waters were calm on this windless night (rare for southern Alberta), and so reflected the stars and Northern Lights beautifully.

Big Dipper Reflection
The Big Dipper reflected in the still waters of the lake at Police Outpost Provincial Park, in southern Alberta, on September 26, 2016, with an aurora to the north at right. Only in autumn can one shoot the Dipper reflected in the water in the evening sky, as it is then riding low along the northern horizon. This is from a latitude of 49° N where the Dipper is circumpolar. This is a stack of 4 x 25 second exposures for the dark ground to smooth noise and one 25-second exposure for the sky and water, all with the 25mm Canon lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. 

Here, the Big Dipper reflects in the lake as we look north to the Lights. The movie below compiles still images and two time-lapse sequences, of the Lights and Milky Way. The sounds are the natural sounds I recorded on site, as flocks of geese were getting ready to migrate and the owls hooted.

Enjoy! — As always, for the best view, enlarge to full screen or click through to Vimeo with the V button.

— Alan, October 6, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

A Night at Moraine Lake


Aurora over Desolation Valley PanoramaWhat a night this was – perfect skies over an iconic location in the Rockies. And an aurora to top it off!

On August 31 I took advantage of a rare clear night in the forecast and headed to Banff and Moraine Lake for a night of shooting. The goal was to shoot a time-lapse and stills of the Milky Way over the lake.

The handy planning app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, showed me (as below) that the Milky Way and galactic centre (the large circles) would be ideally placed over the end of the lake as astronomical twilight ended at 10:30 p.m. I began the shoot at 10 p.m. as the sky still had some twilight blue in it.

Moraine Lake TPE

I planned to shoot 600 frames for a time-lapse. From those I would extract select frames to create a still image. The result is below.

Milky Way over Moraine Lake
This is looking southwest with the images taken about 11:15 pm on August 31, 2016.The ground is illuminated by a mix of starlight, lights from the Moraine Lake Lodge, and from a display of aurora brightening behind the camera to the north. The starclouds of Scutum and Sagittarius are just above the peaks of the Valley of Ten Peaks. This is a stack of 16 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, untracked, all 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames are part of a 450-frame time-lapse.

As the caption explains, the still is a composite of one exposure for the sky and 16 in succession for the ground, averaged together in a technique to smooth noise. The camera wasn’t tracking the sky, so stacking sky images isn’t feasible, as much as I might like to have the lower noise there, too. (There are programs that attempt to align and stack the moving sky but I’ve never found they work well.)

About midnight, the Valley of Ten Peaks around the lake began to light up. An aurora was getting active in the opposite direction, to the north. With 450 frames shot, I stopped the Milky Way time-lapse and turned the camera the other way. (I was lazy and hadn’t hefted a second camera and tripod up the steep hill to the viewpoint.)

The lead-image panorama is the first result, showing the sweeping arc of Northern Lights over Desolation Valley.

Aurora over Desolation Valley #2
The Northern Lights in a fine Level 4 to 5 display over Desolation Valley at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, on the night of August 31/Sept 1. This is one frame from a 450-frame time-lapse with the aurora at its best. This is a 2-second exposure at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000.

Still images shot, I began a time-lapse of the Lights, grabbing another 450 frames, this time using just 2-second exposures at f/1.6 for a rapid cadence time-lapse to help freeze the motion of the curtains.

The final movies and stills are in a music video here:

 

I ended the night with a parting shot of the Pleiades and the winter stars rising behind the Tower of Babel formation. I last photographed that scene with those same stars in the 1980s using 6×7 film.

Aurora and Winter Stars Rising over Tower of Babel
The early winter stars rising behind the Tower of Babel formation at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, with a bright aurora to the north at left. Visible are the Pleiades at centre, and Capella and the stars of Auriga at left. Just above the mountain are the Hyades and Taurus rising. At top are the stars of Perseus. Aries is just above the peak of Babel. The aurora in part lights the landscape green. This is a stack of 16 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and 1 image for the sky, untracked, all for 15 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All with LENR turned on.

In a summer of clouds and storms, this was a night to make up for it.

— Alan, September 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Member of The World at Night photo group

TWAN-black

 

The Cadence of the Moving Sky


Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way over the Bow River

Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way appeared in the twilight over the Bow River.

I shot this scene on August 24 from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, overlooking the Bow River. Mars appears between Saturn above and Antares below, in a line of objects west of the Milky Way.

The valley below is the traditional meeting place of the Blackfoot Nation, and the site of the signing of Treaty Seven between Chief Crowfoot and Colonel MacLeod of the North West Mounted Police in 1877.

The image is a panorama of two images, each 20-second exposures at f/2 and ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens. I shot them just prior to shooting time-lapses of the moving sky, using two cameras to create a comparison pair of videos, to illustrate the choices in setting the cadence when shooting time-lapses.

The movies, embedded here, will be in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse ebook, with the current version linked to below. The text explains what the videos are showing.

 

Choose Your Style

When shooting frames destined for a time-lapse movie we have a choice:

  • Shoot fewer but longer exposures at slower ISOs and/or smaller apertures.

OR …

  • Shoot lots of short exposures at high ISOs and/or wide apertures.

 

The former yields greater depth of field; the latter produces more noise. But with time-lapses, the variations also affect the mood of a movie in playback.

This comparison shows a pair of movies, both rendered at 30 frames per second:

Clip #1 was taken over 2 hours using 20-second exposures, all at ISO 2000 and f/2 with 1-second intervals. The result was 300 frames.

Clip #2 was taken over 1 hour using 5-second exposures also at f/2 and 1-second intervals, but at ISO 8000. The result was 600 frames: twice as many frames in half the time.

Clip #1 shows fast sky motion. Clip #2 shows slow motion.

Clip #2 exhibits enough noise that I couldn’t bring out the dark foreground as well as in Clip #1. Clip 2 exhibits a slower, more graceful motion. And it better “time-resolves” fast-moving content such as cars and aircraft.

Which is better? It depends …

Long = Fast

The movie taken at a longer, slower cadence (using longer exposures) and requiring 2 hours to capture 300 frames resulted in fast, dramatic sky motion when played back. Two hours of sky motion are being compressed into 10 seconds of playback at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a dramatic, high-energy feel.

Short = Slow

By comparison, the movie that packed 600 frames into just an hour of shooting (by using short exposures taken at fast apertures or fast ISOs) produced a movie where the sky moves very slowly during its 10 seconds of playback, also at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a slow, peaceful mood to your movies.

So, if you want your movie to have a slow, quiet feel, shoot lots of short exposures. But, if you want your movie to have a fast, high-energy feel, shoot long exposures.

As an aside – all purchasers of the current edition of my ebook will get the updated version free of charge via the iBooks Store once it is published later this year. 

— Alan, August 26, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Moving Stars of the Northern Hemisphere


Arizona Star Trails - Circumpolar Looking North

I present a montage of time-lapses illustrating the motion of the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Any stargazer should be familiar with how the sky moves, with stars rising in the east and setting in the west.

From the northern hemisphere, when we look north we see the sky rotating counter-clockwise around the North Celestial Pole, near Polaris. As you’ll see in the video, even Polaris moves, though not much over the night. The stars that never set, but just move across the northern horizon, are the circumpolar stars.

When we look south we see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set, and change over the seasons.

I shot the images for these sequences from southern Arizona, in early December 2015.

So the night starts with the summer stars setting in the west and the autumn stars dominating the sky. But then Orion and the winter stars rise and march across the sky over the night, setting before dawn, as the spring stars rise.

The south-looking movie is a dusk-to-dawn sequence. Note the Zodiacal Light in the west at right in the early evening, then reappearing in the east at left before dawn brightens the sky, and as Venus and the Moon rises.

Also note the moving bands of red and green airglow, a natural phenomenon of the upper atmosphere.

 

I posted a matching set of movies in my previous blog post, shot from the Southern Hemisphere. But here’s the link to the movie.

 

Both sets of movies were shot from nearly identical latitudes – about 31°, but 31° N for Portal, Arizona and 31° S for Coonabarabran, Australia.

As such the Celestial Poles appear at equal altitudes above the horizon. And the angles that the stars rise and set at in relation to the horizon are the same.

But the direction they move is opposite. When looking 180° away from the Pole, the seasonal stars move from left to right in the Northern Hemisphere, but from right to left in the Southern Hemisphere.

Visitors from one hemisphere to the other are bound to get turned around!

— Alan, August 25, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Mars and the Milky Way at Emerald Lake


The Milky Way over Emerald Lake, Yoho

The nights were short and never fully dark, but early June provided a run of clear nights in the Rockies to enjoy Mars and the Milky Way.

Weather prospects looked good for a run of five nights last week so I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot nightscapes from Banff and, as shown here, in Yoho National Park across the Continental Divide in B.C.

The lead image above is a sweeping panorama at Emerald Lake, one of the jewels of the Rockies. Though taken at 1:30 a.m., the sky still isn’t dark, but has a glow to the north that lasts all night near summer solstice. Even so, the sky was dark enough to reveal the Milky Way arching across the sky.

The mountain at centre is Mt. Burgess, home of the famous Burgess Shale Fossils, an incredible collection of fossilized creatures from the Cambrian explosion.

The image is a panoramic stitch of 24 segments but cropped in quite a bit from the original, and all shot with an iPano motorized panning unit. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. One short exposure of the lodge was blended in to reduce its light glare. The original, stitched with PTGui software, is 15,000 x 9,000 pixels.

The Milky Way at Emerald Lake, Yoho
The Milky Way over the side pond at Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, BC., from the bridge to the Lodge. This is a stack of 8 x 25-second exposures for the foreground (mean combined to smooth noise), and one untracked exposure for the sky (to minimize trailing), all at f/2.8 with the Rokinon 14mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

The view above, a single frame image, shows the view to the south as the Milky Way and galactic centre descend toward the horizon over the south end of the lake. Lights from the Lodge illuminate the trees.

Reflections of Mars at Emerald Lake
Mars, at right, reflected in Emerald Lake at twilight in Yoho National Park, BC, June 7, 2016. This is a single 6-second exposure at f/3.2 with the Sigma 20mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 100.

The next night (above) I was at the same spot to shoot Mars in the deepening twilight, and reflected in the calm waters of Emerald Lake, with Cathedral Peak at left.

Reflections of Cassiopeia at Emerald Lake
This is a vertical panorama of 4 segments, taken with the iPano unit, and with each segment a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

Another multi-frame panorama, this time sweeping up from the horizon, captures Cassiopeia (the “W”) and the rising autumn constellations reflected in the lake waters.

Vega is at top, Deneb below it, while the stars of Perseus and Pegasus are just rising.

It was a magical two nights in Yoho, a name that means “wonderful!” Both by day and by night.

— Alan, June 9, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Glows and Streaks in the Spring Sky


The Spring Sky over the Pioneer Farmstead

How many sources of skyglow can you pick out here?

There are at least five:

• the Milky Way (at left),

• green airglow (below the Milky Way),

• all too prevalent light pollution (especially reflected off the clouds coming in from the west at right),

• lingering blue twilight across the north (at left and right), common in May and June from my northern latitude,

• and even a touch of aurora right at the northern horizon at far left.

In this scene from May 28, the Milky Way arches over an abandoned pioneer farmstead from the 1930s and 40s near my home in southern Alberta.

Mars (very bright and in some clouds) and Saturn shine at lower centre, while Jupiter is the bright object in clouds at right just above the old house.

Arcturus is the brightest star here at upper right of centre, made more obvious here by shining through the clouds. The Big Dipper, distorted by the map projection used in the this panorama, is at upper right.

Technical: This is a 360° horizon to zenith panorama taken with the iPano motorized panning unit, using the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, for a stitch of 28 panels, in 4 tiers of 7 segments each. Stitched with PTGui. South is at centre, north to either end. The original is 25,700 x 7,700 pixels.

Just after I shot the panorama I captured the International Space Station passing directly overhead in one of several passes this night.

ISS Pass #2 (May 28/29, 2016)
The second Space Station pass of May 28/29, 2016, at 1:40 a.m., with cloud moving in adding the glows to all the stars. Taken with the 8mm fish-eye lens from home. The Big Dipper is high in the west at right. Mars is bright at bottom, to the south. Several other satellites are in the sky as well. This is a stack of 3 exposures, each 2.5-minutes with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracker.

At this time of year the ISS is lit all night by the Sun that never sets for the astronauts. We see the ISS cross the sky not once but several times in a night at 90-minute intervals.

While the sky near solstice is never dark at my latitude, it does have its compensations and attractions.

— Alan, May 29, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Spectacular Skies at a Lighthouse


Lighthouse Beams by the Southern Cross

The sky and sea present an ever-changing panorama of light and colour from the view point of an Australian lighthouse.

Last week I spent a wonderful four nights at the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, in Hat Head National Park, on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. I was after panoramas of seascapes and cloudscapes, and the skies didn’t disappoint.

At sunset, as below, the sky to the east glowed with twilight colours, with the bright clouds providing a beautiful contrast against the darkening sky. The kangaroo at far right was an added bonus as he hopped into frame just at the right time.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse at Twilight Panorama
A 270° or so panorama of the Smoky Cape Lighthouse near South West Rocks on Trial Bay, NSW, Australia, and in Hat Head National Park. This is a stitch of 12 segments, each a single 1.6-second exposure at f/8 with the 35mm lens in landscape orientation. Stitching with Adobe Camera Raw.

At sunrise, the Sun came up over the ocean to the east, providing a stunning scene to begin the day.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse Sunrise Panorama
I shot this at dawn on April 28, 2016. This is a 7-section panorama with each section being a 5-exposure HDR stack, all stacked and stitched in Adobe Camera Raw.

The Smoky Cape Lighthouse was lit up for the first time in 1891. It was staffed for decades by three keepers and their families who lived in the cottages visible in the panoramas above. They tended to the kerosene lamps, to cleaning the lenses, and to winding the weight-driven clockwork mechanism that needed resetting every two hours to keep the reflector and lens assembly turning. By day, they would draw the curtains across to keep the Sun from heating up the optics.

Lighthouse Lenses

The huge optical assembly uses a set of nine lenses, each a massive fresnel lens, to shot focused beams out to sea. The optics produce a trio of beams, in three sets.

Each night you could see the nine beams sweeping across the sky and out to sea, producing a series of three quick flashes followed by a pause, then another three flashes, the characteristic pattern of the Smoky Bay Light. Each lighthouse has its own flashing pattern.

Lighthouse Beams by the Southern Cross
Beams from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse in the twilight sky, beaming out beside the stars of the Southern Cross and the Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) below, rising into the southeast sky in the deepening blue twilight. This is a single 0.6-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

The lead photo, repeated above, shows the beams in the twilight, with the stars of the Southern Cross as a backdrop. Three beams are aimed toward the camera while the other two sets of beam trios are shooting away out to sea.

The image below shows the beam trio shining out over the water toward one of the dangerous rocks off shore.

Lighthouse Beams over the Starry Sea
The trio of beams from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse scanning across the sea and sky in an exposure shot as short as possible to freeze the beams. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/1.4 and ISO 12800, wide and fasrt to keep the beams from blurring too much.

The Lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1962, when staff was reduced. Then in the 1980s all lighthouses were automated and staff were no longer needed.

While we might romanticize the life of a lighthouse keeper, it was a lonely and hard life. Keepers were usually married, perhaps with children. While that may have lessened the isolation, it was still a difficult life for all.

Today, some of the cottages have been converted into rentable rooms. I stayed in the former house of the main light keeper, filled with memorabilia from the glory days of staffed lighthouses.

Southern Cross and Pointers from Smoky Cape
The Southern Cross, Crux, and the Pointer Stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri, above in the moonlight of the waning gibbous Moon before dawn, from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse looking southwest, on the coast of New South Wales, Australia. The Cape was named by James Cook in 1770 for the fires he saw on shore here. This is a single 5-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 1000.

The image above takes in the Southern Cross over the moonlit beach in the dawn twilight.

The last image below is my final astrophoto taken on my current trip to Australia, a 360° panorama of the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light from the back garden of the Lighthouse overlooking the beach at Hat Head National Park.

Milky Way over Smoky Cape Panorama
A 360° panorama and from horizon to zenith of the southern sky and Milky Way from Smoky Cape and the grounds of the Lighthouse and Cottages. The panorama is a stitch of 9 segments, each shot with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens in portrait orientation, and at f/2.8 with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200. All exposures 1 minute, untracked on a tripod. Stitched in PTGui using equirectangular projection.

It’s been a superb trip, with over half a terabyte of images shots and processed! The last few blogs have featured some of the best, but many more are on the drives for future posts.

Now, back to Canada and spring!

— Alan, May 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

 

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


Toward the Centre of the Galaxy

From southern latitudes the most amazing region of the sky shines overhead late on austral autumn nights. 

There is no more spectacular part of the Milky Way than the regions around its galactic centre. Or at least in the direction of the galaxy’s core.

We can’t see the actual centre of the Galaxy, at least not with the cameras and telescopes at the disposal of amateur photographers such as myself.

It takes large observatory telescopes equipped with infrared cameras to see the stars orbiting the actual centre of the Milky Way. Doing so over many years reveals stars whipping around an invisible object with an estimated 4 million solar masses packed into the volume no larger than the solar system. It’s a black hole.

By comparison, looking in that direction with our eyes and everyday cameras, we see a mass of stars in glowing clouds intersected by lanes of dark interstellar dust.

The top image shows a wide view of the Milky Way toward the galactic centre, taking in most of Sagittarius and Scorpius and their incredible array of nebulas, star clusters and rivers of dark dust, all located in the dense spiral arms between us and the galactic core.

Starclouds and Stardust – Mosaic of the Galactic Centre
This is a mosaic of 6 segments, each segment being a stack of 4 x 3-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the 135mm Canon L-Series

Zooming into that scene reveals a panoramic close-up of the Milky Way around the galactic centre, from the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, at left, to the Cat’s Paw Nebula in Scorpius, at right.

This is the richest hunting ground for stargazers looking for deep-sky wonders. It’s all here, with field after field of telescopic and binocular sights in an area of sky just a few binocular fields wide.

The actual galactic core area is just right of the centre of the frame, above the bright Sagittarius StarCloud.

Centre of the Galaxy Area
This is a stack of 5 x 5 minute exposures with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, taken from Tibuc Cottage near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia.

Zooming in again shows just that region of sky in an even closer view. The contrast between the bright star fields at left and the dark intervening dust at right is striking even in binoculars – perhaps especially in binoculars.

The visual impression is of looking into dark canyons of space plunging off bright plateaus of stars.

In fact, it is just the opposite. The dark areas are created by dust much closer to us, hiding more distant stars. It is where the stars are most abundant, in the dust-free starclouds, that we see farthest into the galaxy.

In the image above the galactic centre is at right, just above the small diffuse red nebula. In that direction, some 28,000 light years away, lurks the Milky Way’s monster black hole.

Milky Way Overhead Through Trees
This is a stack of 5 x 6-minute tracked exposures with the 15mm fish-eye lens at f/4 and Canon 5D MKII at ISO 1600. The trees appear to be swirling around the South Celestial Pole at lower right above the Cottage.

To conclude my tour of the galactic centre, I back out all the way to see the entire sky and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, with the galactic centre nearly overhead in this view from 3 a.m. earlier this week.

Only from a latitude of about 30° South can you get this impressive view, what I consider one of the top “bucket-list” sights the sky has to offer.

– Alan, April 17, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Scenes from a Southern Star Party


Panorama of a Southern Hemisphere Star Party

Last week, northerners marvelled at the splendours of the southern hemisphere sky from a dark site in Australia.

I’ve attended the OzSky Sky Safari several times and have always come away with memories of fantastic views of deep-sky wonders visible only from the southern hemisphere.

This year was no exception, as skies stayed mostly clear for the seven nights of the annual star party near Coonabarabran, New South Wales.

About 35 people from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. attended, to take in views through large telescopes supplied by the Australian branch of the Texas-based Three Rivers Foundation. The telescopes come with the best accessory of all: knowledgeable Aussies who know the southern sky and are delighted to present its splendours to us visiting sky tourists.

Here are a few of the night scenes from last week.

The lead image above shows a 360° panorama of the observing field and sky from early in the evening, as Orion sets in the west to the right, while Scorpius rises in the east to the left. The Large Magellanic Cloud is at centre, while the Southern Cross shines to the upper left in the Milky Way.

Southern Sky Panorama #2 (Spherical)
This is a stitch of 8 panels, each with the 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 and mounted vertical in portrait orientation. Each exposure was 2.5 minutes at ISO 3200 with the Canon 5D MkII, with the camera tracking the sky on the iOptron Sky Tracker. Stitched with PTGui software with spherical projection.

This panorama, presented here looking south in a fish-eye scene, is from later in the night as the galactic core rises in the east. Bright Jupiter and the faint glow of the Gegenschein are visible at top to the north.

Each night observers used the big telescopes to gaze at familiar sights seen better than ever under Australian skies, and new objects never seen before.

Dark Emu Rising over OzSky Star Party
This is a stack of 4 x 5 minute exposures with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, all tracked on the iOptron Sky Tracker, plus one 5-minute exposure untracked of the ground to prevent it from blurring. The trees are blurred at the boundary of the two images, tracked and untracked.

The Dark Emu of aboriginal sky lore rises above some of the 3RF telescopes.

Observer Looking at Orion from Australia
This is a single untracked 13-second exposure with the 35mm lens at f/2 and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

Carole Benoit from Calgary looks at the Orion Nebula as an upside-down Orion sets into the west.

Observer Looking at Southern Milky Way
This is a single untracked 10-second exposure with the 35mm lens at f/2 and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

John Bambury hunts down an open cluster in the rich southern Milky Way near Carina and Crux.

Observer Looking at the Southern Sky #2
 This is a single 13-second untracked exposure with the 35mm lens at f/2 and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

David Batagol peers at a faint galaxy below the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way.

Check here for details on the OzSky Star Safari.

— Alan, April 11, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Under the Southern Cross


Southern Milky Way Over OzSky Star Party

The Southern Cross, the iconic constellation of the southern sky, shines high in the south on austral autumn nights.

I’m in one of my favourite places, Australia, in particular at its self-proclaimed “astronomy capital,” Coonabarabran in New South Wales. Down the road from me is the Siding Spring Observatory.

But for 3 weeks I’m using my own telescope gear to observe and photograph the fabulous southern skies.

For part of my time here I’m attending the annual OzSky Star Party, a small and rather exclusive event for observers from around the world who come here to revel in celestial wonders visible only from southern latitudes.

The lead image at top is a 7-panel panorama of the star party in action, on the grounds of the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, with a dozen or more large and premium telescopes set up for our use.

Overhead is the arch of the southern Milky Way, with the Southern Cross here at its highest about local midnight now in early April at the start of autumn. Below the Milky Way is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way, itself a superb target for telescopes.

To the far right in the Milky Way is Sirius amid the gum trees, and the stars of Canis Major diving into the west. To the far left are the bright star clouds of Scorpius and Sagittarius rising in the east, bringing the glowing core of our Galaxy high into the austral sky. Bright Mars and Saturn shine in and around Scorpius.

This is a view of the Milky Way everyone should see – it is should be one of the top items on any amateur astronomer’s bucket list.

Star Trails over the OzSky Star Party
Circumpolar star trails over the OzSky star party near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia, on April 3, 2016. This is a stack of 49 frames, each 45 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm fish-eye lens on the Canon 6D at ISO 4000. The ground comes from three frames in the sequence. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Plus actions using Streaks mode.

Here, above, I’ve stacked images from a time-lapse to create a star trail scene with the stars of the southern sky rotating about the blank South Celestial Pole. Again, the Southern Cross is at top.

Southern Milky Way from Alpha Cen to False Cross
The deep south Milky Way from Alpha and Beta Centauri (at left) to the False Cross in Vela and Carina (at right). This is a stack of 5 x 4 minute exposures at f/2.8 with the 35mm Canon L-series lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1000, with an additional similar exposure layered in taken through the Kenko Softon A filter to provide the star glows. Tracked on the iOptron Sky Tracker. 

This view, above, focuses on the Milky Way of the deep south, from Vela to Centaurus, passing through Carina and Crux, with the bright Carina Nebula, the Southern Cross, and the dark Coal Sack front and centre.

Mosaic of Crux, the Southern Cross
A 3-panel mosaic of the Southern Cross, Crux, shot April 5, 2016 from Tibuc Cottage, Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. This is a moasic of 3 panels, each a stack of 4 x 4-minute exposures with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600. Stacked and stitched in Photoshop.

Here I zo