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.
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.
Mars and the Milky Way over the tipis at Two Trees area in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan on August 6, 2018. Some light cloud added the haze and glows to the planets and stars. Illumination is by starlight. No light painting was employed here. This is a stack of 8 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and a single untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400 with LENR on.
Mars (at left) and the Milky Way (at right) over a single tipi (with another under construction at back) at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. I placed a low-level warm LED light inside the tipi for the illumination. This is a stack of 6 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
The Big Dipper and Arcturus (at left) over a single tipi at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. This is a stack of 10 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Light cloud passing through added the natural star glows, enlarging the stars and making the pattern stand out. No soft focus filter was employed, and illumination is from starlight. No light painting was employed. Some airglow and aurora colour the sky. A Glow filter from ON1 Photo Raw applied to the sky to further soften the sky.
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.
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.
The Perseid meteor shower over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, on August 10, 2018, with an aurora as a bonus. The view is looking north with Polaris at top centre, and the Big Dipper at lower left. The radiant point in Perseus is at upper right. The sky also has bands of green airglow, which was more prominent in images taken earlier before the short-lived aurora kicked up. The aurora was not obvious to the naked eye. However, the northern sky was bright all night with the airglow and faint aurora. This is a composite of 10 images, one for the base sky with the aurora and two faint Perseids, and 9 other images, each with Perseids taken over a 3.3 hour period, being the best 9 frames with meteors out of 360. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 4000. I rotated all the additional meteor image frames around Polaris to align the frames to the base sky image, so that the added meteors appear in the sky in the correct place with respect to the background stars, retaining the proper perspective of the radiant point.
A Perseid meteor streaks down the Milky Way over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan, at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a Dark Sky Preserve. The Milky Way shines to the south. About 350 stargazers attend the SSSP every year. Observers enjoy their views of the sky at left while an astrophotographer attends to his camera control computer at right. This is a single exposure, 25 seconds, with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III camera at ISO 3200.
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.
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!
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.
If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.
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.
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.
This was the view later with the Milky Way and Mars over Bow Valley and Storm Mountain.
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.
This is a rare appearance of the unusual STEVE auroral arc on the night of July 16-17, 2018, with a relatively low Kp Index of only 2 to 3. While the auroral arc was visible the ISS made a bright pass heading east. This is a blend of a single 15-second exposure for the sky and ground, with seven 15-second exposures for the ISS, but masked to reveal just the ISS trail and its reflection in the water. The ISS shots were taken at 3-second intervals, thus the gaps. All with the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Taken from Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta.
The unusual STEVE auroral arc across the northern sky at Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta on the night of July 16-17, 2018. The more normal green auroral arc is lower across the northern horizon. But STEVE here appears more pink. The STEVE aurora was colourless to the eye but did show faint fast-moving rays, here blurred by the long exposure. They were moving east to west. The Big Dipper is at left. The lights are from Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This is a single exposure for the sky and a mean-stacked blend of 3 exposures for the ground to smooth noise. All 15 seconds at f/2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
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.
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.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the peaks of the Continental Divide at Herbert Lake near Lake Louise, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at left is Mount Temple. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of the small Lake Herbert this night on July 17, 2018. This is a stack of 100 images for the star trails, stacked with the Long Streak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Clouds moving in added the odd dark patches in the Milky Way that look like out of place dark nebulas. The reflected star trails are really there in the water and have not be copied, pasted and inverted from the sky image. They look irregular because of rippling in the water.
A blend of images to show the stars of the southern sky moving from east to west (left to right) over the Rocky Mountains at Bow Lake, in Banff, Alberta. The main peak at centre is Bow Peak. Crowfoot Glacier is at far left; Bow Glacier is at right below the Milky Way. A single static image shows the Milky Way and stars at the end of the motion sequence. The star trails and Milky Way reflect in the calm waters of Bow Lake this night on July 16, 2018, though they appear large and out of focus. This is a stack of 300 images for the star trails, stacked with the Ultrastreak function of Advanced Stacker Plus actions, plus a single exposure taken a minute or so after the last star trail image. The star trail stack is dropped back a lot in brightness, plus they are blurred slightly, so as to not overwhelm the fixed sky image. The sky images are blended with a stack of 8 images for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise in the ground. All are 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laowa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. All were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Bands of airglow add the green streaks to the sky.
The stars trailing as they move east to west (left to right), ending with the Milky Way and Galactic Centre (right) over Storm Mountain and the Vermilion Pass area of the Continental Divide in Banff National Park, Alberta. Mars is the bright trail at left. Saturn is amid the Milky Way at right. This was July 15, 2018. The lights at left are from the Castle Mountain interchange at Highways 1 and 93. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, plus 200 exposures for the star trails, and one exposure, untracked, for the fixed sky taken about a minute after the last star trail image. All 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 24mm Sigma lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The frames were taken as part of a time-lapse sequence. Dynamic Contrast filter from ON1 applied to the ground, and Soft and Airy filter from Luminar applied to the sky for a soft Orton effect.
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.
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!
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.
To Adobe or not to Adobe. That is the question many photographers are asking with the spate of new image processing programs vying to “kill Photoshop.”
I tested more than ten contenders as alternatives to Adobe’s image processing software, evaluating them ONLY for the specialized task of editing demanding nightscape images taken under the Milky Way, both for single still images and for time-lapses of the moving sky. I did not test these programs for other more “normal” types of images.
Also, please keep in mind, I am a Mac user and tested only programs available for MacOS, though many are also available for Windows. I’ve indicated these.
But I did not test any Windows-only programs. So sorry, fans of Paintshop Pro (though see my note at the end), Photoline, Picture Window Pro, or Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. They’re not here. Even so, I think you will find there’s plenty to pick from!
If you are hoping there’s a clear winner in the battle against Adobe, one program I can say does it all and for less cost and commitment, I didn’t find one.
However, a number of contenders offer excellent features and might replace at least one member of Adobe’s image processing suite.
For example, only four of these programs can truly serve as a layer-based editing program replacing Photoshop.
The others are better described as Adobe Lightroom competitors – programs that can catalog image libraries and develop raw image files, with some offering adjustment layers for correcting color, contrast, etc. But as with Lightroom, layering of images – to stack, composite, and mask them – is beyond their ability.
For processing time-lapse sequences, however, we don’t need, nor can we use, the ability to layer and mask several images into one composite.
What we need for time-lapses is to:
Develop a single key raw file, then …
Copy its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie.
Even so, not all these contenders are up to the task.
Here are the image processing programs I looked at. Costs are in U.S. dollars. Most have free trial copies available.
The Champion from Adobe
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom, the standards to measure others by
Cost: $10 a month by subscription, includes ACR, Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development plug-in that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application that accompanies Photoshop. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and raw processing software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results.
Photoshop and Lightroom complement each other and are now available together, but only by monthly subscription through Adobe’s Creative Cloud service, at $10/month. Though $120 for a year is not far off the cost of purchasing many of these other programs and perhaps upgrading them annually, many photographers prefer to purchase their software and not subscribe to it.
Thus the popularity of these alternative programs. Most offered major updates in late 2017.
My question is, how well do they work? Are any serious contenders to replace Photoshop or Lightroom?
Lightroom Contenders: Five Raw Developers
ACDSee Photo Studio (current as of late 2017)
Cost: $60 to $100, depending on version, upgrades $40 to $60.
I tested the single MacOS version. Windows users have a choice of either a Standard or Professional version. Only the Pro version offers the full suite of raw development features, in addition to cataloging functions. The MacOS version resembles the Windows Pro version.
Capture One v11 (late 2017 release)
Cost: $299, and $120 for major upgrades, or by subscription for $180/year
As of version 11 this powerful raw developer and cataloguing program offers “Layers.” But these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of an image. You cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one indeed.
The ELITE version of what DxO now calls “PhotoLab” offers DxO’s superb PRIME noise reduction and excellent ClearView contrast enhancement feature. While it has an image browser, PhotoLab does not create a catalog, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement, but it is a superb raw developer. DxO also recently acquired the excellent Nik Collection of image processing plug-ins, so we can expect some interesting additions and features.
This free open source program has been created and is supported by a loyal community of programmers. It offers a bewildering blizzard of panels and controls, among them the ability to apply dark frames and flat field images, features unique among any raw developer and aimed specifically at astrophotographers. Yes, it’s free, but the learning curve is precipitous.
Photoshop Contenders: Four Raw Developers with Layering/Compositing
These programs can not only develop at least single raw images, if not many, but also offer some degree of image layering, compositing, and masking like Photoshop.
However, only ON1 Photo RAW can do that and also catalog/browse images as Lightroom can. Neither Affinity, Luminar, or Pixelmator offer a library catalog like Lightroom, nor even a file browsing function such as Adobe Bridge, serious deficiencies I feel.
This is the lowest cost raw developer and layer-based program on offer here, and has some impressive features, such as stacking images, HDR blending, and panorama stitching. However, it lacks any library or cataloguing function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement, but it could replace Photoshop.
Macphun has changed their name to Skylum and now makes their fine Luminar program for both Mac and Windows. While adding special effects is its forte, Luminar does work well both as a raw developer and layer-based editor. But like Affinity, it has no cataloguing feature. It cannot replace Lightroom.
Of all the contenders tested here, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 has cataloguing, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In fact, ON1 allows you to migrate your Lightroom catalog into its format. However, ON1’s cost to buy and maintain is similar to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photo subscription plan. It’s just that ON1’s license is “perpetual.”
NOTE: Windows users might find Corel’s Paintshop Pro 2018 a good “do-it-all” solution – I tested only Corel’s raw developer program Aftershot Pro, which Paintshop Pro uses.
The “Pro” version of Pixelmator was introduced in November 2017. It has an innovative interface and many fine features, and it allows layering and masking of multiple images. However, it lacks some of the key functions (listed below) needed for nightscape and time-lapse work. Touted as a Photoshop replacement, it isn’t there yet.
This is the image I threw at all the programs, a 2-minute exposure of the Milky Way taken at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in late July 2017.
NOTE: Click/tap on any of the screen shots to bring them up full screen so you can inspect and save them.
The lens was the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and the camera the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.
Thus the ground is blurred. Keep that in mind, as it will always look fuzzy in the comparison images. But it does show up noise well, including hot pixels. This image of the sky is designed to be composited with one taken without the tracker turning, to keep the ground sharp.
Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, HSL, Lens Corrections, and Effects tabs. Plus I added a “local adjustment” gradient to darken the sky at the top of the frame. I judged programs on how well they could match or beat this result.
Above is the same image developed in Adobe Lightroom, to demonstrate how it can achieve identical results to Camera Raw, because at heart it is Camera Raw.
I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files from the camera, not JPGs, for high-quality results.
And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, before it goes to Photoshop or some other bit-mapped editor. That’s an essential workflow for time-lapse shooting, if not still-image nightscapes.
However, I made no attempt to evaluate all these programs for a wide range of photo applications. That would be a monumental task!
Nor, in the few programs capable of the task, did I test image layering. My focus was on developing a raw image. As such, I did not test the popular free program GIMP, as it does not open raw files. GIMP users must turn to one of the raw developers here as a first stage.
If you are curious how a program might perform for your purposes and on your photos, then why not test drive a trial copy?
Instead, my focus was on these programs’ abilities to produce great looking results when processing one type of image: my typical Milky Way nightscape, below.
Such an image is a challenge because…
The subject is inherently low in contrast, with the sky often much brighter than the ground. The sky needs much more contrast applied, but without blocking up the shadows in the ground.
The sky is often plagued by off-color tints from artificial and natural sky glows.
The ground is dark, perhaps lit only by starlight. Bringing out landscape details requires excellent shadow recovery.
Key to success is superb noise reduction. Images are shot at high ISOs and are rife with noise in the shadows. We need to reduce noise without losing stars or sharpness in the landscape.
I focused on being able to make one image look as good as possible as a raw file, before bringing it into Photoshop or a layer-based editor – though that’s where it will usually end up, for stacking and compositing, as per the final result shown at the end.
I then looked at each program’s ability to transfer that one key image’s settings over to what could be hundreds of other images taken that night, either for stacking into star trails or for assembling into a time-lapse movie.
None of the programs I tested ticked all the boxes in providing all the functions and image quality of the Adobe products.
But here’s a summary of my recommendations:
For Advanced Time-Lapse
None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing. LRTimelapse works with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge to gradually shift processing settings over a sequence, and smooth annoying image flickering.
If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will work. Period. Subscribe to Creative Cloud. And buy LRTimelapse.
For Basic Time-Lapse
However, for less-demanding time-lapse shooting, when the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, then I feel the best non-Adobe choices are, in alphabetical order:
Corel Aftershot Pro
ON1 Photo RAW
… With, in my opinion, DxO and Capture One having the edge for image quality and features. But all five have a Library or Browser mode with easy-to-use Copy & Paste and Batch Export functions needed for time-lapse preparation.
Also worth a try is PhotoDirector9 (MacOS and Windows), a good Lightroom replacement. Scroll to the end for more details and a link.
For Still Image Nightscapes
If you are processing just individual still images, perhaps needing only to stack or composite a few exposures, and want to do all the raw development and subsequent layering of images within one non-Adobe program, then look at (again alphabetically):
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
… With Affinity Photo having the edge in offering a readily-available function off its File menu for stacking images, either for noise smoothing (Mean) or creating star trails (Maximum).
However, I found its raw development module did not produce as good a result as most competitors due to Affinity’s poorer noise reduction and less effective shadow and highlight controls. Using Affinity’s “Develop Persona” module, I could not make my test image look as good as with other programs.
Luminar 2018 has better noise reduction but it demands more manual work to stack and blend images.
While ON1 Photo Raw has some fine features and good masking tools, it exhibits odd de-Bayering artifacts, giving images a cross-hatched appearance at the pixel-peeping level. Sky backgrounds just aren’t smooth, even after noise reduction.
To go into more detail, these are the key factors I used to compare programs.
Absolutely essential is effective noise reduction, of luminance noise and chrominance color speckles and splotches.
Ideally, programs should also have a function for suppressing bright “hot” pixels and dark “dead” pixels.
Here’s what I consider to be the “gold standard” for noise reduction, Adobe Camera Raw’s result using the latest processing engine in ACR v10/Photoshop CC 2018.
I judged other programs on their ability to produce results as good as this, if not better, using their noise reduction sliders. Some programs did better than others in providing smooth, noiseless skies and ground, while retaining detail.
For example, one of the best was DxO PhotoLab, above. It has excellent options for reducing noise without being overwhelming in its choices, the case with a couple of other programs. For example, DxO has a mostly effective dead/hot pixel removal slider.
ACR does apply such a hot pixel removal “under the hood” as a default, but often still leaves many glaring hot specks that must be fixed later in Photoshop.
Comparing Noise Reduction
Above are 8 of the contender programs compared to Camera Raw for noise reduction.
Missing from this group is the brand new Pixelmator Pro, for MacOS only. It does not yet have any noise reduction in its v1 release, a serious deficiency in imaging software marketed as “Pro.” For that reason alone, I cannot recommend it. I describe its other deficiencies below.
The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Having software that can automatically detect the lens used and apply bespoke corrections is wonderful.
Only a few programs, such as Capture One (above), have a library of camera and lens data to draw upon to apply accurate corrections with one click. With others you have to dial in corrections manually by eye, which is crude and inaccurate.
Shadows and Highlights
All programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, but the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows (the dark ground) while preventing the sky from becoming overly bright, yet while still applying good contrast to the sky.
Of the contenders, I liked DxO PhotoLab best (shown above), not only for its good shadow and highlight recovery, but also excellent “Smart Lighting” and “ClearView” functions which served as effective clarity and dehaze controls to snap up the otherwise low-contrast sky. With most other programs it was tough to boost the shadows without also flattening the contrast.
On the other hand, Capture One’s excellent layering and local adjustments did make it easier to brush in adjustments just to the sky or ground.
However, any local adjustments like those will be feasible only for still images or time-lapses where the camera does not move. In any motion control sequences the horizon will be shifting from frame to frame, making precise masking impractical over a sequence of hundreds of images.
Therefore, I didn’t place too much weight on the presence of good local adjustments. But they are nice to have. Capture One, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 win here.
Selective Color Adjustments
All programs allow tweaking the white balance and overall tint.
But it’s beneficial to also adjust individual colors selectively, to enhance red nebulas, enhance or suppress green airglow, bring out green grass, or suppress yellow or orange light pollution.
Some programs have an HSL panel (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) or an equalizer-style control for boosting or dialing back specific colors.
Capture One (above) has the most control over color correction, with an impressive array of color wheels and sliders that can be set to tweak a broad or narrow range of colors.
And yet, despite this, I was still unable to make my test image look quite the way I wanted for color balance. ACR and DxO PhotoLab still won out for the best looking final result.
Copy and Paste Settings
Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later. It’s desirable to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good.
Some programs (Affinity Photo, Luminar, Pixelmator Pro) lack any library function for viewing or browsing a folder of thumbnail images. Yes, you can export a bunch of images with your settings applied as a user preset, but that’s not nearly as good as actually seeing those images displayed in a Browser mode.
What’s ideal is a function such as ON1 Photo RAW displays here, and that some other programs have: the ability to inspect a folder of images, work on one, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in the set.
This is absolutely essential for time-lapse work, and nice to have even when working on a small set to be stacked into a still image.
Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy and Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files.
This step is to create an intermediate set of JPGs to assemble into a movie. Or perhaps to stack into a star trail composite using third party software such as StarStaX, or to work on the images in another layer-based program of your choice.
As ON1 Photo RAW shows above, this is best done using a Library or Browser mode to visually select the images, then call up an Export panel or menu to choose the image size, format, quality, and location for the exports.
Click Export and go for coffee – or a leisurely dinner – while the program works through your folder. All programs took an hour or more to export hundreds of images.
Those functions were the key features I looked for when evaluating the programs for nightscape and time-lapse work.
Every program had other attractive features, often ones I wished were in Adobe Camera Raw. But if the program lacked any of the above features, I judged it unsuitable.
Yes, the new contenders to the Photoshop crown have the benefit of starting from a blank slate for interface design.
Many, such as Luminar 2018 above, have a clean, attractive design, with less reliance on menus than Photoshop.
Photoshop has grown haphazardly over 25 years, resulting in complex menus. Just finding key functions can take many tutorial courses!
But Adobe dares to “improve” Photoshop’s design and menu structure at its peril, as Photoshop fans would scream if any menus they know and love were to be reorganized!
The new mobile-oriented Lightroom CC is Adobe’s chance to start afresh with a new interface.
Summary Table of Key Features
Fair = Feature is present but doesn’t work as easily or produce as good a result
Partial = Program has lens correction but failed to fully apply settings automatically / DxO has a Browse function but not Cataloging
Manual = Program has only a manually-applied lens correction
– = Program is missing that feature altogether
I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of screen shots of all the programs, showing both the whole image, and a close-up to show the all-important noise reduction.
ACDSee Photo Studio
PROS: This capable cataloging program has good selective color and highlight/shadow recovery, and pretty smooth noise reduction. It can copy and paste settings and batch export images, for time-lapses. It is certainly affordable, making it a low-cost Lightroom contender.
CONS: It lacks any gradient or local adjustments, or even spot removal brushes. Lens corrections are just manual. There is no dehaze control, which can be useful for snapping up even clear night skies. You cannot layer images to create composites or image stacks. This is not a Photoshop replacement.
PROS: Affinity supports image layers, masking with precise selection tools, non-destructive “live” filters (like Photoshop’s Smart Filters), and many other Photoshop-like functions. It has a command for image stacking with a choice of stack modes for averaging and adding images.
It’s a very powerful but low cost alternative to Photoshop, but not Lightroom. It works fine when restricted to working on just a handful of images.
CONS: Affinity has no lens correction database, and I found it hard to snap up contrast in the sky and ground without washing them out, or having them block up. Raw noise reduction was acceptable but not up to the best for smoothness. It produced a blocky appearance. There are no selective color adjustments.
Nor is there any library or browse function. You can batch export images, but only through an unfriendly dialog box that lists images only by file name – you cannot see them. Nor can you copy and paste settings visually, but only apply a user-defined “macro” to develop images en masse upon export.
This is not a program for time-lapse work.
Capture One 11
PROS: With version 11 Capture One became one of the most powerful raw developers, using multiple layers to allow brushing in local adjustments, a far better method than Adobe Camera Raw’s local adjustment “pins.” It can create a catalog from imported images, or images can be opened directly for quick editing. Its noise reduction was good, with hot pixel removal lacking in Camera Raw.
Its color correction options were many!
It can batch export images. And it can export files in the raw DNG format, though in tests only Adobe Camera Raw was able to read the DNG file with settings more or less intact.
CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Creative Cloud to subscribe to. Despite all its options I could never quite get as good looking an image using Capture One, compared to DxO PhotoLab for example.
It is just a Lightroom replacement; it can’t layer images.
Corel Aftershot Pro 3
PROS: This low-cost option has good noise reduction using Athentech’s Perfectly Clear process, with good hot pixel or “impulse” noise removal. It has good selective color and offers adjustment layers for brushing in local corrections. And its library mode can be used to copy and paste settings and batch export images.
Again, it’s solely a Lightroom alternative.
CONS: While it has a database of lenses, and identified my lens, it failed to apply any automatic corrections. Its shadow and highlight recovery never produced a satisfactory image with good contrast. Its local adjustment brush is very basic, with no edge detection.
PROS: I found DxO produced the best looking image, better perhaps than Camera Raw, because of its DxO ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, with its PRIME option producing by far the best results of all the programs, better perhaps than Camera Raw, plus with hot pixel suppression.
DxO has good selective color adjustments, and its copy and paste and batch export work fine.
CONS: There are no adjustment layers as such. Local adjustments and repairing are done through the unique U-Point interface which works something like ACR’s “pins,” but isn’t as visually intuitive as masks and layers. Plus, DxO is just a raw developer; there is no image layering or compositing. Nor does it create a catalog as such.
So it is not a full replacement for either Lightroom or Photoshop. But it does produce great looking raw files for export (even as raw DNGs) to other programs.
PROS: Luminar has good selective color adjustments, a dehaze control, and good contrast adjustments for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Adjustments can be added in layers, making them easier to edit. Noise reduction was smooth and artifact-free, but adjustments were basic. Many filters can be painted on locally with a brush, or with a radial or gradient mask.
CONS: It has no lens correction database; all adjustments are manual. The preview was slow to refresh and display results when adjusting filters. The interface is clean but always requires adding filters to the filter panel to use them when creating new layers. Its batch export is crude, with only a dialog box and no visual browser to inspect or select images.
Settings are applied as a user preset on export, not through a visual copy-and-paste function. I don’t consider that method practical for time-lapses.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
PROS: ON1 is the only program of the bunch that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It is fast to render previews in its “Fast” mode, but in its “Accurate” mode ON1 is no faster than Lightroom. It has good layering and masking functions, both in its Develop mode and in its Photoshop-like Layers mode.
Selective color and contrast adjustments were good, as was noise reduction. Developing, then exporting a time-lapse set worked very well, but still took as long as with Lightroom or Photoshop.
CONS: Despite promising automatic lens detection and correction, ON1 failed to apply any vignetting correction for my 20mm Sigma lens. Stars exhibited dark haloes, even with no sharpening, dehaze, or noise reduction applied. Its de-Bayering algorithm produced a cross-hatched pattern at the pixel level, an effect not seen on other programs.
Noise reduction did not smooth this. Thus, image quality simply wasn’t as good.
PROS: It is low cost. And it has an attractive interface.
CONS: As of version 1 released in November 2017 Pixelmator Pro lacks: any noise reduction (it’s on their list to add!), any library mode or copy and paste function, nor even the ability to open several images at once displayed together.
It is simply not a contender for “Photoshop killer” for any photo application, despite what click-bait “reviews” promise, ones that only re-write press releases and don’t actually test the product.
Raw Therapee v5.3
PROS: It’s free! It offers an immense number of controls and sliders. You can even change the debayering method. It detects and applies lens corrections (though in my case only distortion, not vignetting). It has good selective color with equalizer-style sliders. It has acceptable (sort of!) noise reduction and sharpening with a choice of methods, and with hot and dead pixel removal.
It can load and apply dark frames and flat fields, the only raw developer software that can. This is immensely useful for deep-sky photography.
CONS: It offers an immense number of controls and sliders! Too many! It is open source software by committee, with no one in charge of design or user friendliness. Yes, there is documentation, but it, too, is a lot to wade through to understand, especially with its broken English translations. This is software for digital signal processing geeks.
But worst of all, as shown above, its noise reduction left lots of noisy patches in shadows, no matter what combination of settings I applied. Despite all its hundreds of sliders, results just didn’t look as good.
What About …? (updated December 28)
No matter how many programs I found to test, someone always asks, “What about …?” In some cases such comments pointed me to programs I wasn’t even aware of, but subsequently tried out. So here are even more to pick from…
Billed as having “everything you need in an image editor,” this low-cost ($30) MacOS-only program is anything but. Its raw developer module is crude and lacks any of the sophisticated range of adjustments offered by all the other programs on offer here. It might be useful as a layer-based editor of images developed by another program.
Available for Mac and Windows for $150, this Lightroom competitor offers a good browser function, with the ability to “copy-from-one and paste-to-many” images (unlike some of the programs below), and a good batch export function for time-lapse work. It has good selective color controls and very good noise reduction providing a smooth background without artifacts like blockiness or haloes. Local adjustments, either through brushed-on adjustments or through gradients, are applied via handy and easy to understand (I think!) layers.
While it has auto lens corrections, its database seemed limited — it did not have my Sigma 20mm lens despite it being on the market for 18 months. Manual vignetting correction produced a poor result with just a washed out look.
The main issue was that its shadow, highlight, and clarity adjustments just did not produce the snap and contrast I was looking for, but that other programs could add to raw files. Still, it looks promising, and is worth a try with the trial copy. You might find you like it. I did not. For similar cost, other programs did a better job, notably DxO PhotoLab.
In the same ilk as Raw Therapee, I also tested out another free, open-source raw developer, one simply called “darktable,” with v2.2.5 shown below. While it has some nice functions and produced a decent result, it took a lot of time and work to use.
The MacOS version I tried (on a brand new 5K iMac) ran so sluggishly, taking so long to re-render screen previews, that I judged it impractical to use. Sliders were slow to move and when I made any adjustments often many seconds would pass before I would see the result. Pretty frustrating, even for free.
A similar crowd-developed raw processing program, Iridient Developer (above), sells for $99 US. I tested a trial copy of v3.2. While it worked OK, I was never able to produce a great looking image with it. It had no redeeming features over the competition that made its price worthwhile.
Using Parallels running Windows 10 on my Mac, I did try out this popular Windows-only program from Corel. By itself, Paintshop Pro’s raw developer module (shown above) is basic, crude and hardly up to the tax of processing demanding raw files. You are prompted to purchase Corel’s Aftershot Pro for more capable raw development, and I would agree – Aftershot would be an essential addition. However …
As I showed above, I did test the MacOS version of Aftershot Pro on my raw sample image, and found it did the poorest job of making my raw test image look good. Keep in mind that it is the ability of all these programs to develop this typical raw nightscape image that I am primarily testing.
That said, given a well-developed raw file, Paintshop Pro can do much more with it, such as further layering of images and applying non-destructive and masked adjustment layers, as per Photoshop. Indeed, it is sold as a low-cost (~ $60) Photoshop replacement. As such, many Windows users find Paintshop’s features very attractive. However, Paintshop lacks the non-destructive “smart” filters, and the more advanced selection and masking options offered by Photoshop, Affinity Photo, and ON1 Photo Raw. If you have never used these, you likely don’t realize what you are missing.
If it’s an Adobe alternative you are after, I would suggest Windows users would be better served by other options. Why not test drive Affinity and ON1?
This was a surprising find. Little known, certainly to me, this Windows and MacOS program from the Taiwanese company Cyberlink, is best described as a Lightroom substitute, but it’s a good one. Its regular list price is $170. I bought it on sale for $60.
Like Lightroom, working on any images with PhotoDirector requires importing them into a catalog. You cannot just browse to the images. Fine. But one thing some people complain about with Lightroom is the need to always import images.
I was impressed with how good a job PhotoDirector did on my raw test image. PhotoDirector has excellent controls for shadow and highlight recovery, HSL selective color, copying-and-pasting settings, and batch exporting. So it will work well for basic time-lapse processing.
Noise reduction was very good and artifact-free. While it does have automatic lens corrections, its database did not include the 2-year old Sigma 20mm Art lens I used. So it appears its lens data is not updated frequently.
PhotoDirector has good local adjustments and gradients using “pins” rather than layers, similar to Camera Raw and Lightroom.
After performing raw image “Adjustments,” you can take an image into an Edit module (for adding special effects), then into a Layers module for further work. However, doing so destructively “flattens” the image to apply the raw adjustments you made. You cannot go back and tweak the raw settings in the Adjustment module, as you can when opening a raw file as a “smart object” in Adobe Photoshop.
While PhotoDirector does allow you to layer in other images to make basic composites (such as adding type or logos), there is no masking function nor any non-destructive adjustment layers. So this is most assuredly not a Photoshop substitute, despite what the advertising might suggest. But if it’s a Lightroom replacement you are after, do check it out in a trial copy.
This little-known MacOS-only program (only $40 on sale) for developing raw images looks very attractive, with good selective color, lots of local adjustments, and good masking tools, the features promoted on the website. It does have a browse function and can batch export a set of developed files.
However … its noise reduction was poor, introducing glowing haloes around stars when turned up to any useful level. Its shadows, highlights, and contrast adjustments were also poor – it was tough to make the test image look good without flattening contrast or blocking up shadows. Boosting clarity even a little added awful dark haloes to stars, making this a useless function. It has no lens correction, either automatic or manual. Like Topaz Studio, below, it cannot copy and paste settings to a batch of images, only to one image at a time, so it isn’t useful for time-lapse processing.
I cannot recommend this program, no matter how affordable it might be.
Popular among some camera manufacturers as their included raw developer, Silky Pix can be purchased separately ($80 list price for the standard version, $250 list price for the Pro version) with support for many cameras’ image files. It is available for MacOS and Windows. I tried the lower-cost “non-Pro” version 8. It did produce a good-looking end result, with good shadow and highlight recovery, and excellent color controls. Also on the plus side, Silky Pix has very good copy-and-paste functions for development settings, and good batch export functions, so it can be used to work on a folder of time-lapse frames.
On the down side, noise reduction, while acceptable, left an odd mottled pattern, hardly “silky.” The added “Neat” noise reduction option only smoothed out detail and was of little value except perhaps for very noisy images. Noise reduction did nothing to remove hot pixels, leaving lots of colored specks across the image. The program uses unorthodox controls whose purposes are not obvious. Instead of Highlights and Shadows you get Exposure Bias and HDR. Instead of Luminance and Color noise reduction, you get sliders labeled Smoothness and Color Distortion. You really need to read the extensive documentation to learn how to use this program.
I found sliders could be sticky and not easy to adjust precisely. The MacOS version was slow, often presenting long bouts of spinning beachballs while it performed some function. This is a program worth a try, and you might find you like it. But considering what the competition offers, I would not recommend it.
While Topaz Labs previously offered only plug-ins for Photoshop and other programs (their Topaz DeNoise 6 is very good), their Topaz Studio stand-alone program now offers full raw processing abilities.
It is for Mac and Windows. While it did a decent job developing my test Milky Way image (above), with good color and contrast adjustments, it cannot copy and paste settings from one image to a folder of images, only to one other image. Nor can it batch export a folder of images. Both deficiencies make it useless for time-lapse work.
In addition, while the base program is free, adding the “Pro Adjustments” modules I needed to process my test image (Noise Reduction, Dehaze, Precision Contrast, etc.) would cost $160 – each Adjustment is bought separately. Some users might like it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
And … Adobe Photoshop Elements v18 (late 2017 release)
What about Adobe’s own Photoshop “Lite?” Elements is available for $99 as a boxed or downloadable one-time purchase, but with annual updates costing about $50. While it offers image and adjustment layers, it cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has very limited functions for developing raw files.
And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not have any copy-and-paste settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for time-lapse production.
Elements is for processing photos for the snapshot family album. Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. But it can be pressed into service for raw editing and layering single images, especially by beginners.
However, a Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more than buying, then upgrading Elements outright, yet gets you far, far more in professional-level software.
And Yet More…!
In addition, for just developing raw files, you likely already have software to do the job – the program that came with your camera.
For Canon it’s Digital Photo Professional (shown above); for Nikon it’s Capture NX; for Pentax it’s Digital Camera Utility, etc.
These are all capable raw developers, but have no layering capabilities. And they read only the files from their camera brand. If theirs is the only software you have, try it. They are great for learning on.
But you’ll find that the programs from other companies offer more features and better image quality.
What Would I Buy?
Except for Capture One, which I tested as a trial copy, I did buy all the software in question, for testing for my Nightscapes eBook.
However, as I’ve described, none of the programs tick all the boxes. Each has strengths, but also weaknesses, if not outright deficiencies. I don’t feel any can fully replace Adobe products for features and image quality.
A possible non-Adobe combination for the best image quality might be DxO PhotoLab for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, and Affinity Photo for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO and opened and layered with Affinity.
But that combo lacks any cataloging option. For that you’d have to add ACDSee or Aftershot for a budget option. It’s hardly a convenient workflow I’d want to use.
I’d love to recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly as a single solution, if only it had better raw processing results, and didn’t suffer from de-Bayering artifacts (shown in a 400% close-up above, compared to DxO PhotoLab). These add the star haloes and a subtle blocky pattern to the sky, most obvious at right.
To Adobe or Not to Adobe
I’m just not anxious, as others are, to “avoid Adobe.”
I’ve been a satisfied Creative Cloud subscriber for several years, and view the monthly fee as the cost of doing business. It’s much cheaper than the annual updates that boxed Photoshop versions used to cost. Nor am I worried about Adobe suddenly jacking up the fees or holding us hostage with demands.
For me, the need to use LRTimelapse (shown above) for about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great. Sold.
I feel Camera Raw/Lightroom produces results that others can only just match, if that.
Only DxO PhotoLab beat Adobe for its excellent contrast enhancements and PRIME noise reduction.
Yes, other programs certainly have some fine features I wish Camera Raw or Lightroom had, such as:
Hot and dead pixel removal
Dark frame subtraction and flat field division
Better options for contrast enhancement
And adding local adjustments to raw files via layers, with more precise masking tools
But those aren’t “must haves.”
Using ACR or Lightroom makes it easy to export raw files for time-lapse assembly, or to open them into Photoshop for layering and compositing, usually as “smart objects” for non-destructive editing, as shown below.
Above is the final layered image, consisting of:
A stack of 4 tracked exposures for the sky (the test image is one of those exposures)
And 4 untracked exposures for the ground.
The mean stacking smooths noise even more. The masking reveals just the sky on the tracked set. Every adjustment layer, mask, and “smart filter” is non-destructive and can be adjusted later.
I’ll work on recreating this same image with the three non-Adobe programs capable of doing so – Affinity, Luminar, and ON1 Photo RAW – to see how well they do. But that’s the topic of a future blog.
Making the Switch?
The issue with switching from Adobe to any new program is compatibility.
While making a switch will be fine when working on all new images, reading the terabytes of old images I have processed with Adobe software (and being able to re-adjust their raw settings and layered adjustments) will always require that Adobe software.
If you let your Creative Cloud subscription lapse, as I understand it the only thing that will continue to work is Lightroom’s Library module, allowing you to review images only. You can’t do anything to them.
None of the contender programs will read Adobe’s XMP metadata files to display raw images with Adobe’s settings intact.
Conversely, nor can Adobe read the proprietary files and metadata other programs create.
With final layered Photoshop files, while some programs can read .PSD files, they usually open them just as flattened images, as ON1 warns it will do above. It flattened all of the non-destructive editing elements created in Photoshop. Luminar did the same.
Only Affinity Photo (above) successfully read a complex and very large Photoshop .PSB file correctly, honouring at least its adjustment and image layers. So, if backwards compatibility with your legacy Photoshop images is important, choose Affinity Photo.
However, Affinity flattened Photoshop’s smart object image layers and their smart filters. Even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements doesn’t honor smart objects.
Lest you think that’s a “walled garden” created by “evil Adobe,” keep in mind that the same will be true of the image formats and catalogs that all the contender programs produce.
To read the adjustments, layers, and “live filters” you create using any another program, you will need to use that program.
Will Affinity, DxO, Luminar, ON1, etc. be around in ten years?
Yes, you can save out flattened TIFFs that any program can read in the future, but that rules out using those other programs to re-work any of the image’s original settings.
I can see using DxO PhotoLab (above) or Raw Therapee for some specific images that benefit from their unique features.
Or using ACDSee as a handy image browser.
And ON1 and Luminar have some lovely effects that can be applied by calling them up as plug-ins from within Photoshop, and applied as smart filters. Above, I show Luminar working as a plug-in, applying its “Soft & Airy” filter.
In the case of Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, their ability to save images back as raw DNG files (the only contender programs of the bunch that can), means that any raw processing program in the future should be able to read the raw image.
However, only Capture One’s Export to DNG option produced a raw file readable and editable by Adobe Camera Raw with its settings from Capture One (mostly) intact (as shown above).
Even so, I won’t be switching away from Adobe any time soon.
But I hope my survey has given you useful information to judge whether you should make the switch. And if so, to what program.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.