In mid-October 2022 I enjoyed a rare run of five clear and mild nights in the Rocky Mountains for shooting nightscapes of the stars. Here’s a portfolio … and a behind-the-scenes look at its making.
Getting two perfectly clear nights in a row is unusual in the mountains. Being treated to five is a rare treat. Indeed, had I started my shooting run earlier in the week I could have enjoyed even more of the string of cloudless nights in October, though under a full Moon. But five was wonderful, allowing me to capture some of the scenes that had been on my shot list for the last few years.
Here is a portfolio of the results, from five marvelous nights in Banff and Jasper National Parks, in Alberta, Canada.
For the photographers, I also provide some behind-the-scenes looks at the planning and shooting techniques, and of my processing steps.
Night One — Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
Peyto Lake, named for pioneer settler and trail guide Bill Peyto who had a cabin by the lakeshore, is one of several iconic mountain lakes in Banff. Every tour bus heading along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper stops here. By day is it packed. By night I had the newly constructed viewpoint all to myself.
I shot the classic view north in deep twilight, with the stars of Ursa Major and the Big Dipper low over the lake, as they are in autumn. A show of Northern Lights would have been ideal, but I was happy to settle for just the stars.
The night was perfect, not just for the clarity of the sky but also the timing. The Moon was just past full, so was rising in late evening, leaving a window of time between the end of twilight and moonrise when the sky would be dark enough to capture the Milky Way. Then shortly after, the Moon would come up, lighting the peaks with golden moonlight — alpenglow, but from the Moon not Sun.
The above is blend of two panoramas, each of seven segments, the first for the sky taken when the sky was dark, using a star tracker to keep the stars pinpoints. The second for the ground I shot a few minutes later at moonrise with no tracking, to keep the ground sharp. I show below how I blended the two elements.
To plan such shots I use the apps The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and its companion app TPE 3D. The screen shot above at left shows the scene in map view for the night in question, with the Big Dipper indicated north over the lake and the line of dots for the Milky Way showing it to the southwest over Peyto Glacier. Tap or click on the images for full-screen versions.
Switch to TPE 3D and its view at right above simulates the scene you’ll actually see, with the Milky Way over the mountain skyline just as it really appeared. The app even faithfully replicates the lighting on the peaks from the rising Moon. It is an amazing planning tool.
On the drive back from Peyto Lake to Saskatchewan River Crossing I stopped at another iconic spot, the roadside viewpoint for Mt. Cephren at Waterfowl Lakes. By this time, the Moon was well up and fully illuminating the peak and the sky, but still leaving the foreground dark. The sky is blue as it is by day because it is lit by moonlight, which is just sunlight reflecting off a perfectly neutral grey rock, the Moon!
This is from a set of untracked camera-on-tripod shots using short 30-second exposures.
Night Two — Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park
By the next night I was up in Jasper, a destination I had been trying to revisit for some time. But poor weather prospects and forest fire smoke had kept me away in recent years.
The days and nights I was there coincided with the first weekend of the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I attended one of the events, the very enjoyable Aurora Chaser’s Retreat, with talks and presentations by some well-known chasers of the Northern Lights. Attendees had come from around North America.
On my first night in Jasper I headed up to Pyramid Lake, a favorite local spot for stargazing and night sky photography, particularly from the little island connected to the “mainland” by a wooden boardwalk. Lots of people were there quietly enjoying the night. I shared one campfire spot with several other photographers also shooting the Milky Way over the calm lake before moonrise.
A little later I moved to the north end of Pyramid Island for the view of the Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain, now fully lit by the rising waning Moon, and with some aspens still in their autumn colours. A bright meteor added to the scene.
Night Three — Athabasca River Viewpoint, Jasper National Park
For my second night in Jasper, I ventured back down the Icefields Parkway to the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint overlooking the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide.
As I did at Peyto Lake, I shot a panorama (this one in three sections) for the sky before moonrise with a tracker. I then immediately shot another three-section panorama, now untracked, for the ground while it was still lit just by starlight under a dark sky. I then waited an hour for moonrise and shot a third panorama to add in the golden alpenglow on the peaks. So this is a time-blend, bending reality a bit. See my comments below!
Night Four — Edith Lake, Jasper National Park
With a long drive back to Banff ahead of me the next day, for my last night in Jasper I stayed close to town for shots from the popular Edith Lake, just up the road from the posh Jasper Park Lodge. Unlike at Pyramid Lake, I had the lakeshore to myself.
This would be a fabulous place to catch the Northern Lights, but none were out this night. Instead, I was content to shoot scenes of the northern stars over the calm lake and Pyramid Mountain.
The Moon was now coming up late, so the shots above are both in darkness with only starlight providing the illumination. Well, and also some annoying light pollution from town utility sites off the highway. Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve, but a lot of the town’s street and utility lighting remains unshielded.
Night Five — Lake Louise, Banff National Park
On my last night I was at Lake Louise, as the placement of the Milky Way would be perfect.
There’s no more famous view than this one, with Victoria Glacier at the end of the blue-green glacial lake. Again, by day the site is thronged with people and the parking lot full by early morning.
By night, there were just a handful of other photographers on the lakeshore, and the parking lot was nearly empty. I could park right by the walkway up to the lake.
Again, TPE and TPE 3D told me when the Milky Way would be well-positioned over the lake and glacier, so I could complete the untracked ground shots first, to be ready to shoot the tracked sky segments by the time the Milky Way had turned into place over the glacier.
This image is also a panorama but a vertical one, made primarily of three untracked segments for the ground and seven tracked segments for the sky, panning up from the horizon to past the zenith overhead, taking in most of the summer and autumn Milky Way from Serpens up to Cassiopeia.
As readers always want to know what gear I used, I shot all images on all nights with the 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera and Canon RF15-35mm lens, with exposures of typically 1 to 3 minutes each at ISOs of 800 to 1600. I had other cameras and lenses with me but never used them.
I use the Mini with a V-Plate designed by nightscape photographer Alyn Wallace and sold by Move-Shoot-Move. It is an essential aid to taking tracked panoramas, as it allows me to turn the camera horizontally manually from one pan segment to the next while the camera is tracking the stars. It’s easy to switch the tracker on (for the sky) and off (for the ground). The Mini tracks quite accurately and reliably. Turn it on and you can be sure it is tracking.
For those who are interested, here’s a look at how I processed and assembled the images, using the Peyto Lake panorama as an example. This is not a thorough tutorial, but shows the main steps involved. Tap or click on an image to download a full-size version.
I first develop all the raw files (seven here) in Adobe Camera Raw, applying identical settings to make them look best for what they are going to contribute to the final blend, in this case, for the tracked sky with pinpoint stars and the Milky Way.
Camera Raw (as does Adobe’s Lightroom) has an excellent Merge to Panorama function which usually works very well on such scenes. This shows the stitched sky panorama, created with one click.
I develop and stitch the untracked ground segments to look their best for revealing details in the landscape, overexposing the sky in the process. Stars are also trailed, from the long exposures needed for the dark ground. No matter – these will be masked out.
This shows the stack of images now in Adobe Photoshop, but here revealing just the layer for the sky panorama and its associated adjustment layers to further tweak color and contrast. I often add noise reduction as a non-destructive “smart filter” applied to the “smart object” image layer. See my review of noise reduction programs here.
This shows just the ground panorama layer, again with some adjustment and retouching layers dedicated to this portion of the image.
The sky has to be masked out of the ground panorama, to reveal the sky below. The Select Sky command in Photoshop usually works well, or I just use the Quick Selection tool and then Select and Mask to refine the edge. That method can be more accurate.
Aligning the two panoramas requires manually nudging the untracked ground, up in this case, to hide the blurred and dark horizon from the tracked sky panorama. Yes, we move the earth! The sky usually also requires some re-touching to clone out blurred horizon bits sticking up. Dealing with trees can be a bit messy!
The result is the scene above with both panorama layers and the masks turned on. While this now looks almost complete, we’re not done yet.
Local adjustments like Dodge and Burn (using a neutral grey layer with a Soft Light blend mode) and some luminosity masks tweak the brightness of portions of the scene for subtle improvements, to emphasize some areas while darkening others. It’s what film photographers did in the darkroom by waving physical dodging and burning tools under the enlarger.
I add finishing touches with some effect plug-ins: Radiant Photo added some pop to the ground, while Luminar Neo added a soft “Orton glow” effect to the sky and slightly to the ground.
All the adjustments, filters, and effects are non-destructive so they can be re-adjusted later, when upon further inspection with fresh eyes I realize something needs work.
Was It Photoshopped?
I hope my look behind the curtains was of interest. While these types of nightscapes taken with a tracker, and especially multi-segment panoramas, do produce dramatic images, they do require a lot of processing at the computer.
Was it “photoshopped?” Yes. Was it faked? No. The sky really was there over the scene you see in the image. However, the long exposures of the camera do reveal more details than the eye alone can see at night — that is the essence of astrophotography.
My one concession to warping reality is in the time-blending — the merging of panoramas taken 30 minutes to an hour apart. I’ll admit that does push my limits for preferring to record real scenes, and not fabricate them (i.e. “photoshop” them in common parlance).
But at this shoot on these marvelous nights, making use of the perfectly timed moonrises was hard to resist!
For once I was able to watch a total eclipse of the Moon under clear skies from home. Good thing, as a snowstorm would have made travel a challenge.
On November 8, 2022 the Full Moon once again passed through the umbral shadow of the Earth, as it has done at six-month intervals for the last two years. The Moon turned deep red for almost an hour and a half.
This was to be the last total eclipse of the Moon visible from anywhere in the world until March 14, 2025.
However, in the days leading up to the eclipse weather prospects looked poor. The worse snowstorm — indeed the first major snowstorm for my area — was forecast for the day before the eclipse, November 7. Of course!
For all the lunar eclipses in the last decade visible from my area, I have had to chase to find clear skies, perhaps a couple of hours away or a half day’s drive away. I documented those expeditions in previous posts, the latest of which is here for the May 15, 2022 total eclipse. In all cases I was successful.
However, just once it would be nice to be able to stay home. The last “TLE” I was able to watch from home was on December 21, 2010. It had been a long decade of lunar eclipse chasing!
But, it looked like another chase might be needed. Weather maps showed possible clear skies to the west and south of me on eclipse night. But cloud over me.
The problem was with six inches of new snow having fallen and temperatures forecast to be in the minus 20s Celsius, any drive to a remote site was going to be unwise, especially at 3 am for the start of the eclipse in my time zone in Alberta.
I decided to — indeed was more or less forced to — stay put at home and hope for the best. So this was the “snowbound eclipse!”
Luckily, as the snowstorm receded east, clear skies followed, providing better conditions than I had expected. What a pleasure it was watching this eclipse from the comfort of home. While operating camera gear at -25° C was still a challenge, at least I could retreat inside to warm up.
The view with the naked eye of the red Moon set in the winter sky was unforgettable. And the views though binoculars were, as always, the best for showing off the subtle colour gradations across the lunar disk.
As has been the tradition at the last few eclipses, I shot a souvenir selfie to show I was really there enjoying the eclipse.
A bonus was the appearance of some Northern Lights during totality. As the bright Moon dimmed during its passage into Earth’s umbral shadow, darkening the sky, the aurora began to appear to the north, opposite the eclipsed Moon.
Not a great display, but it was the first time I can recall seeing aurora during a lunar eclipse.
My parting view and photo was of the now partially eclipsed (and here overexposed) Moon emerging from the shadow and shining right down my rural snowbound driveway.
It was a perfect last look from home of a sight we won’t see again for two and half years.
In a detailed review, I test a “holy trinity” of premium Canon RF zoom lenses, with astrophotography the primary purpose.
In years past, zoom lenses were judged inferior to fixed-focal length “prime” lenses for the demands of astrophotography. Stars are the severest test of a lens, revealing optical aberrations that would go unnoticed in normal images, or even in photos of test charts. Many older zooms just didn’t cut it for discerning astrophotographers, myself included.
The new generation of premium zooms for mirrorless cameras, from Canon, Nikon and Sony, are dispelling the old wisdom that primes are better than zooms. The new zooms’ optical performance is proving to be as good, if not better than the older generation of prime lenses for DSLR cameras, models often designed decades ago.
The shorter lens-to-sensor “flange distance” offered by mirrorless cameras, along with new types of glass, provide lens designers more freedom to correct aberrations, particularly in wide-angle lenses.
While usually slower than top-of-the-line primes, the advantage of zoom lenses is their versatility for framing and composing subjects, great for nightscapes and constellation shots. It’s nice to have the flexibility of a zoom without sacrificing the optical quality and speed so important for astrophotography. Can we have it all? The new zooms come close to delivering.
A good thing, because with Canon we have little choice! For top-quality glass in wide-angle focal lengths at least, zooms are the only choice for their mirrorless R cameras. As of this writing in late 2022, Canon has yet to release any premium primes for their RF mount shorter than 50mm. Rumours are a 12mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm are coming! But when?
The three zooms I tested are all “L” lenses, designating them as premium-performance models. I have not tested any of Canon’s “economy” line of RF lenses, such as their 24mm and 35mm Macro STM primes. Tests I’ve seen suggest they don’t offer the sharpness I desire for most astrophotography.
Contributing to the lack of choice, top-quality third-party lenses from the likes of Sigma (such as their new 20mm and 24mm Art lenses made for mirrorless cameras) have yet to appear in Canon RF mount versions. Will they ever? In moves that evoked much disdain, Samyang and Viltrox were both ordered by Canon to cease production of their RF auto-focus lenses.
For their mirrorless R cameras, Canon has not authorized any third-party lens makers, forcing you to buy costly Canon L glass, or settle for their lower-grade STM lenses, or opt for reverse-engineered manual-focus lenses from makers such as TTArtisan and Laowa/Venus Optics. While they are good, they are not up to the optical standards of Canon’s L-series glass.
I know, as I own several RF-mount TTArtisan wide-angle lenses and the Laowa 15mm f/2 lens. You can find my tests of those lenses at AstroGearToday.com. Look under Reviews: Astrophotography Gear.
The trio of RF lenses tested here work on all Canon EOS R-series cameras, including their R7 and R10 cropped-frame cameras. However, they will not work on any Canon DSLRs.
Two of the lenses, the RF15-35mm F/2.8 and RF70-200mm F/4, are designs updated from older Canon DSLR lenses with similar specs. The RF28-70mm F/2 does not have an equivalent focal length range and speed in Canon’s DSLR lens line-up. Indeed, nobody else makes a lens this fast covering the “normal” zoom range.
Together, the three lenses cover focal lengths from 15mm to 200mm, with some overlap. A trio of zooms like this — a wide-angle, normal, and telephoto — is often called a “holy trinity” set, a popular combination all camera manufacturers offer to cover the majority of applications.
However, my interest was strictly for astrophotography, with stars the test subjects.
NOTE: CLICK or TAP on a test image to download a full-resolution image for closer inspection. The images, while low-compression JPGs, are large and numerous, and so will take time to fully load and display. Patience!
I tested the trio of lenses on same-night exposures of a starry but moonlit sky, using the 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera mounted on a motorized star tracker to follow the rotating sky. With one exception noted, any distortion of stars from perfect pinpoints is due to lens aberrations, not star trailing. The brighter moonlit sky helped reveal non-uniform illumination from lens vignetting.
I shot each lens wide-open at its maximum aperture, as well as one stop down from maximum, to see how aberrations and vignetting improved.
I did not test auto-focus performance, nor image stabilization (only the RF28-70mm lacks internal IS), nor other lens traits unimportant for astro work such as bokeh or close focus image quality.
I also compared the RF15-35mm on same-night dark-sky tests against a trio of prime lenses long in my stable: the Rokinon 14mm SP, and Canon’s older L-series 24mm and 35mm primes, all made for DSLRs.
Each of the Canon “holy trinity” of zoom performs superbly, though not without some residual lens aberrations such as corner astigmatism and, in the RF28-70mm, slight chromatic aberration at f/2.
However, what flaws they show are well below the level of many older prime lenses made for DSLR cameras.
The RF lenses’ major optical flaw is vignetting, which can be quite severe at some focal lengths, such as in the RF70-200mm at 200mm. But this flaw can be corrected in processing.
These are lenses that can replace fixed-focal length primes, though at considerable cost, in part justifiable in that they negate the need for a suite of many prime lenses.
The performance of these and other new lenses made for mirrorless cameras from all brands is one good reason to switch from DSLR to mirrorless cameras.
Lens Specs and Applications
Canon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L IS USM
The Canon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L is made primarily for urban photography and landscapes by day. My main application is using it to take landscapes by night, and auroras, where its relatively fast f/2.8 speed helps keeps exposure times short and ISO speeds reasonably low. However, the RF15-35mm can certainly be used for tracked wide-angle Milky Way and constellation portraits.
The lens weighs a moderate 885 grams (31 ounces or 1.9 pounds) with lens hood and end caps, and accepts 82mm filters, larger than the 72mm or 77mm filter threads of most astrophoto-friendly lenses. Square 100mm filters will work well on the lens, even at the 15mm focal length. There are choices, such as from KASE, for light pollution reduction and star diffusion filters in this size and format. I have reviews of these filters at AstroGearToday.com, both here for light pollution filters and here for starglow filters.
Canon offers a lower-cost alternative in this range, their RF14-35mm. But it is f/4, a little slow for nightscape, aurora, and Milky Way photography. I have not tested one.
Canon RF28-70mm F/2 L USM
The big Canon RF28-70mm F/2 is aimed at wedding and portrait photographers, though the lens is suitable for landscape work. While I do use it for nightscapes, my primary use is for tracked Milky Way and constellation images, where its range of fields of view nicely frames most constellations, from big to small.
I justified its high cost by deciding it replaces (more or less!) prime lenses in the common 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm focal lengths. Its f/2 speed does bring it into fast prime lens territory. It’s handy to have just one lens to cover the range.
Canon offers a lower-cost alternative here, too, their RF24-70mm. But it is f/2.8. While this is certainly excellent speed, I like having the option of shooting at f/2. An example is when using narrowband nebula filters such as red hydrogen-alpha filters, where shooting at f/2 keeps exposures shorter and/or ISOs lower when using such dense filters. I use this lens with an Astronomik 12-nanometre H-α clip-in filter. An example is in one of the galleries below.
While a clip-in filter shifts the infinity focus point inward (to as close as the 2-metre mark with the RF28-70mm at 28mm, and to 6 metres at 70mm), I did not find that shift adversely affected the lens’s optical performance. That’s not true of all lenses.
Make no mistake, the RF28-70mm is one hefty lens, weighing 1530 grams (54 ounces or 3.4 pounds). Its front-heavy mass demands a solid tripod head. Its large front lens accepts big 95mm filters, a rare size with few options available. I found one broadband light pollution filter in this size, from URTH. Otherwise, you need to use in-body clip-in filters. Astronomik makes a selection for Canon EOS R cameras.
Canon RF70-200mm F/4 L IS USM
The Canon RF70-200mm F/4 is another portrait or landscape lens. I use it primarily for bright twilight planet conjunctions and moonrise scenes, where its slower f/4 speed is not a detriment. However, as my tests show, it can be used for tracked deep-sky images, where it is still faster than most short focal length telescopes.
The RF70-200mm lens weighs 810 grams (28 ounces, or 1.75 pounds) with lens hood and caps, so is light for a 70-to-200mm zoom. It is also compact. At just 140mm long when set to 70mm, it is actually the shortest lens of the trio. However, the barrel extends to 195mm long when zoomed out to 200mm focal length.
Canon offers the more costly and, at 1200 grams, heavier RF70-200mm F/2.8 lens which might be a better choice for deep-sky imaging where the extra stop of speed can be useful. But in this case, I chose the slower, more affordable – though still not cheap – f/4 version. It accepts common 77mm filters, as does the f/2.8 version.
Canon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L IS USM
Like the other two zoom lenses tested, the RF15-35mm is very sharp on axis. Even wide open, there’s no evidence of softness and star bloat from spherical aberration, the bane of cheaper lenses.
Coloured haloes from longitudinal chromatic aberration are absent, except at 28mm and 35mm (shown here) when wide open at f/2.8, where bright stars show a little bit of blue haloing. At f/4, this minor level of aberration disappears.
Canon RF28-70mm F/2 L USM
The big RF28-70mm is also very sharp on-axis but is prone to more chromatic aberration at f/2, showing slight magenta haloes on bright stars at the shorter focal lengths and pale cyan haloes at 70mm in my test shots. Such false colour haloes can be very sensitive to precise focus, though with refractive optics the point of least colour is often not the point of sharpest focus.
At f/2, stars are a little softer at 70mm than at 28mm. Stopping down to f/2.8 eliminates this slight softness and most of the longitudinal chromatic aberration.
Canon RF70-200mm F/4 L IS USM
Unlike prime telephotos I’ve used, the RF70-200mm shows negligible chromatic aberration on-axis at all focal lengths, even at f/4. Stars are a little softer at the longest focal length at f/4, perhaps from slight spherical aberration, though my 200mm test shots are also affected by a little mistracking, trailing the stars slightly.
Stopping down to f/5.6 sharpens stars just that much more at 200mm.
The corners are where we typically separate great lenses from the merely good. And it is where zoom lenses have traditionally performed badly. For example, my original Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8 lens was so bad off-axis I found it mostly unusable for astro work. Not so the new RF15-35mm, which is the RF replacement for Canon’s older EF16-35mm.
To be clear – in these test shots you might think the level of aberrations are surprising for premium lenses. But keep in mind, to show them at all I am having to pixel-peep by enlarging all the test images by 400 percent, cropping down to just the extreme corners.
Check the examples in the Compared to DSLR Lenses section and in the Finished ImagesGalleries for another look at lens performance in broader context.
Canon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L IS USM
Surprisingly, this RF’s best performance off-axis is actually at its shortest focal length. At 15mm it exhibits only some slight tangential astigmatism, elongating stars away from the frame centre. At 24mm aberrations appear slightly worse than at the other focal lengths, showing some flaring from sagittal astigmatism and perhaps coma as well, aberrations seen to a lesser degree at 28mm and 35mm, making stars look like little three-pointed triangles.
The aberrations reduce when stopped down to f/4, but are still present, especially at 24mm, this lens’s weakest focal length, though only just.
While the RF15-35mm isn’t perfect, it outperforms other prime lenses I have, and that I suspect most users will own or have used in the past with DSLRs. Only new wide-angle premium primes for the RF mount, if and when we see them, will provide better performance.
Canon RF28-70mm F/2 L USM
The RF28-70mm’s fast f/2 speed, unusual for any zoom lens, was surely a challenge to design for. Off-axis when wide open at f/2 it does show astigmatism at the extreme corners at all focal lengths, but the least at 50mm, and the worst at 28mm where a little lateral chromatic aberration is also visible, adding slight colour fringing.
Sharpness off-axis improves markedly when stopped down one stop to f/2.8, where at 50mm stars are now nearly perfect to the corners. Indeed, performance is so good at 50mm, I think there would be little need to buy the Canon RF50mm prime, unless its f/1.2 speed is deemed essential.
With the RF28-70mm at f/2.8, stars still show some residual astigmatism at 28mm and 35mm, but only at the extreme corners.
Canon RF70-200mm F/4 L IS USM
The RF70-200mm telephoto zoom shows some astigmatism and coma at the corners when wide open at f/4, with it worse at the shorter focal lengths. While lens corrections have been applied here, the 200mm image still shows a darker corner from the vignetting described below.
Stopping down to f/5.6 eliminates most of the off-axis aberrations at 135mm and 200mm focal lengths but some remain at 70mm and to a lesser degree at 100mm.
This is a lens that can be used at f/4 even for the demands of deep-sky imaging, though perfectionists will want to stop it down. At f/5.6 it is similar in speed to many astrographic refractors, though most of those start at about 250mm focal length.
In the previous test images, I applied lens corrections (but no other adjustments) to each of the raw files in Adobe Camera Raw, using the settings ACR automatically selects from its lens database. These corrections brightened the corners.
In this next set I show the lenses’ weakest point, their high level of vignetting. This light falloff darkens the corners by a surprising amount. In the new generation of lenses for mirrorless cameras, it seems lens designers are choosing to sacrifice uniform frame illumination in order to maximize aberration corrections. The latter can’t be corrected entirely, if at all, by software.
However, corrections applied either in-camera or at the computer can brighten corners, “flattening” the field. I show that improvement in the section that follows this one.
Canon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L IS USM
In the wide-angle zoom, vignetting darkens just the corners at 15mm, but widens to affect progressively more of the frame at the longer focal lengths. The examples show the entire right side of the frame. I show the effect just at f/2.8.
Though I don’t show examples with the two wider zooms, with all lenses vignetting decreases dramatically when each lens is stopped down by even one stop. The fields become much more evenly illuminated, though some darkening at the very corners remains one stop down.
Canon RF28-70mm F/2 L USM
In this “normal” zoom, vignetting performance is similar at all focal lengths, though it affects a bit more of the field at 70mm than at 28mm. Again, while I’m not presenting an example, vignetting decreases a lot when this lens is stopped down to f/2.8. While the extra stop of speed is certainly nice to have at times, I usually shoot the RF28-70mm at f/2.8.
Canon RF70-200mm F/4 L IS USM
In this telephoto zoom, vignetting is fairly mild at the shorter focal lengths but becomes severe at 200mm, affecting much of the field. It is far worse than I see with my older Canon EF200mm f/2.8 prime, a lens that is not as sharp at f/4 as the RF zoom.
The faster RF70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which I had the chance to test one night last year, showed as much, if not more, vignetting than the f/4 version. See my test here at AstroGearToday.com. I thought the f/4 version would be better for vignetting, but it is not.
In this case, as the vignetting is so prominent at 200mm, I show above how much it improves when stopped down to f/5.6, in a comparison with the lens at f/4, both with no lens corrections applied in processing. The major improvement comes from the smaller aperture alone. For twilight scenes, I’d suggest stopping this lens down to better ensure a uniform sky background.
In this next set I show how well applying lens corrections improves the vignetting at the focal lengths where each of the lenses is at its worse, and with each at its widest aperture.
I show this with Adobe Camera Raw but Lightroom would provide identical results. I did not test lens corrections with other programs such as CaptureOne, DxO PhotoLab, or ON1 Photo Raw, which all have automatic lens corrections as well.
Canon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L IS USM
Applying lens corrections in Adobe Camera Raw certainly brightened the corners and edges, though still left some darkening at the very corners that can be corrected by hand in the Manual tab.
Canon RF28-70mm F/2 L USM
ACR’s lens corrections helped but did not completely eliminate the vignetting here. Corner darkening remained. Manually increasing the vignetting slider can provide that extra level of correction needed.
Canon RF70-200mm F/4 L IS USM
The high level of vignetting with this lens at 200mm largely disappeared with lens corrections, though not entirely. For deep-sky imaging, users might prefer to shoot and apply flat-field frames. I prefer to apply automatic and manual corrections to the raw files, to stay within a raw workflow as much as possible.
Same Focal Length Comparisons
With the trio of lenses offering some of the same focal lengths, here I show how they compare at three of those shared focal lengths. I zoom into the upper right corners here, as with the Corner Aberrations comparisons above.
RF15-35mm vs. RF28-70mm at 28mm
With both lenses at 28mm and at the same f/2.8 aperture (though the RF28-70mm is now stopped down one stop), it’s a toss up. Both show corner aberrations, though of a different mix, distorting stars a little differently. The RF28-70mm shows some lateral chromatic aberration, but the RF15-35mm shows a bit more flaring from astigmatism.
RF15-35mm vs. RF28-70mm at 35mm
The story is similar with each lens at 35mm. Stars seem a bit sharper in the RF15-35mm though are elongated more by astigmatism at the very corners. Lens corrections have been applied here and with the other two-lens comparison pairs.
RF28-70mm vs. RF70-200mm at 70mm
Here I show the RF28-70mm at f/2.8 and the RF70-200mm wide open at f/4, with both set to 70mm focal length. The telephoto lens shows a little more softening and star bloating from corner aberrations, though both perform well.
Compared to DSLR Lenses
Here I try to demonstrate just how much better at least one of the zooms on test here is compared to older prime lenses made for DSLRs. The Canon lenses are labeled EF, for Canon’s EF lens mount used for decades on their DSLRs and EOS film cameras. Both are premium L lenses.
I shot this set on a different night than the previous examples, with some light cloud present which added various amounts of glows around stars. But the test shots still show corner sharpness and aberrations well, in this case of the upper left corners of all frames.
Canon RF15-35mm at 35mm vs. Canon EF35mm L
The Canon EF35mm is the original Mark I version, which Canon replaced a few years ago with an improved Mark II model. So I’m sure if you were to buy an EF35mm lens now (or if that’s the model you own) it will perform better than what I show here.
Both lenses are at f/2.8, wide open for the RF lens, but stopped down two stops for the f/1.4 EF lens.
The zoom lens is much sharper to the corners, with far less astigmatism and none of the lateral chromatic aberration and field curvature (softening stars at the very corner) of the old EF35mm prime. I thought the EF35mm was a superb lens, and used it a lot over the last 15 years for Milky Way panoramas. I would not use it now!
Canon RF15-35mm at 24mm vs. Canon EF24mm L
Bought in the early years of DSLRs, the EF24mm tested here is also an original Mark I model, since replaced by an improved Mark II 24mm. The old 24mm is good, but shows more astigmatism than the RF lens, and some field curvature and purple chromatic aberration not present at all in the RF lens.
And this is comparing it to the RF lens at its weakest focal length, 24mm. It still handily outperforms the old EF24mm prime.
Canon RF15-35mm at 15mm vs. Rokinon 14mm SP
Canon once made an EF14mm f/2.8 L prime, but I’ve never used it. For a lens in this focal length, one popular with nightscape photographers, I’ve used the ubiquitous Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 manual lens. While a bargain at about $300, I always found it soft and aberrated at the corners. See my test of 14mm ultra-wides here.
A few years ago I upgraded to the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 lens in their premium SP series (about $800 for the EF-mount version). While a manual lens, it does have electrical contacts to communicate lens metadata to the camera. Like all EF-mount lenses from any brand, it can be adapted to Canon R cameras using Canon’s $100 EF-EOS R lens adapter.
The Rokinon SP is the only prime I found that beat the RF zoom. It provided sharper images to the corners than the RF15-35mm at 15mm. The Rokinon also offers the slightly faster maximum aperture of f/2.4 (which Canon cameras register as f/2.5). Vignetting is severe, but like the RF lenses can be corrected – Camera Raw has this lens in its database. What is not so easy to correct is some slight colour shift at the corners.
Another disadvantage, as with many other 14mm lenses, is that the SP lens cannot accept front-mounted filters. The RF15-35mm can.
Nevertheless, until Canon comes out with a 12mm to 14mm RF prime, or allows Sigma to, an adapted Rokinon 14mm SP is a good affordable alternative to the RF15-35mm.
All the RF lens bodies are built of weight-saving engineered plastic incorporating thorough weather sealing. There is nothing cheap about their fit, finish or handling. Each lens has textured grip rings for the zoom, focus and a control ring that can be programmed to adjust either aperture, ISO, exposure compensation or other settings of your choosing.
As with all modern auto-focus lenses, the manual focus ring on each lens does not mechanically move glass. It controls a motor that in turn focuses the lens, so-called “focus-by-wire.” However, I found that focus could be dialled in accurately. But if the camera is turned off, then on again, the lens will not return to its previous focus position. You have to refocus to infinity each time the camera is powered up, a nuisance.
Unlike some Nikon, Sony, Samyang, and Sigma lenses, none of the Canon lenses have a focus lock button, or any way of presetting an infinity focus point, or simply having the lens remember where it was last set. I would hope Canon could address that deficiency in a firmware update.
With all the zooms, I did not find any issue with “zoom creep.” The telescoping barrels remained in place during long exposures and did not slowly retract when aimed up. While the RF28-70mm and RF70-200mm each have a zoom lock switch, it locks the lens only at its shortest focal length.
Each lens is parfocal within its zoom range. Focus at one zoom position, and it will be in focus for all the focal lengths. I usually focus at the longest focal length where it is easiest to judge focus by eye, then zoom out to frame the scene.
FINISHED IMAGES GALLERIES
Here I present a selection of final, processed images (four for each lens), so you can better see how each performs on real-world celestial subjects. To speed download, the images are downsized to 2048 pixels wide.
As per my comments at top, the RF15-35mm is my primary nightscape lens, the RF28-70mm my lens for wide-field constellation and Milky Way shots, while the RF70-200mm is for conjunctions and Moon scenes. It would also be good for eclipses.
Image Gallery withCanon RF15-35mm F/2.8 L IS USM
Image Gallery withCanon RF28-70mm F/2 L USM
Image Gallery withCanon RF70-200mm F/4 L IS USM
CONCLUSIONs and recommendations
If you are a Canon user switching from your aging but faithful DSLR to one of their mirrorless R cameras, each of these lenses will perform superbly for astrophotography. At a price! Each is costly. But the cost of older EF lenses has also increased in recent months.
The other native RF L-series lenses in this focal length range, Canon’s RF50mm and RF85mm f/1.2 primes, are stunning … but also expensive. As I’m sure any coming RF wide-angle L primes will be, if and when they ever appear!
The cheaper alternative – not the least because you might already own them! – is using adapted EF-mount lenses made for DSLRs, either from Canon or other brands. But in many cases, as I’ve shown, the new RF glass is sharper, especially when on a high-resolution camera such as the Canon R5 I used for all the testing.
And there’s the harsh reality that Canon is discontinuing many EF lenses. You can now buy some only used. For example, the EF135mm f/2 L and EF200mm f/2.8 L are both gone.
Until Canon licenses other companies to issue approved lenses for their RF mount – if that happens at all – our choices for native RF lenses are limited. However, the quality of Canon’s L lenses is superb. I now use these zooms almost exclusively, and financed most of their considerable cost by selling off a ream of older cameras and lenses.
If there’s one lens to buy for most astrophotography, it might be the big RF28-70mm F/2, a zoom lens that comes close to offering it all: flexibility, optical quality and speed. The RF24-70mm F/2.8 is a more affordable choice, though I have not tested one.
If nightscapes are the priority, the RF15-35mm F/2.8 would see a lot of use, as perhaps the only lens you’d need.
Of the trio, the RF70-200mm was the lowest priority on my wish list. But it has proven to be very useful for framing horizon scenes.
The superb optics of these and other new lenses made for mirrorless cameras is one good reason to upgrade from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, in whatever brand you prefer.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
TIP 9 — DO: Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
But what about lenses for the Sony? Here’s one ideal for astrophotography.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.