Banff by Moonlight, a 25-Year Challenge


Selfie at Lake Louise in Moonlight

For two magical nights I was able to capture the Rockies by moonlight, with the brilliant stars of winter setting behind the mountains.

I’ve been waiting for nights like these for many years! I consider this my “25-Year Challenge!”

Back during my early years of shooting nightscapes I was able to capture the scene of Orion setting over Lake Louise and the peaks of the Continental Divide, with the landscape lit by the Moon.

Such a scene is possible only in late winter, before Orion sets out of sight and, in March, with a waxing gibbous Moon to the east to light the scene but not appear in the scene. There are only a few nights each year the photograph is possible. Most are clouded out!

Orion Over Lake Louise, 1995
Orion over Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta March 1995 at Full Moon 28mm lens at f/2.8 Ektachrome 400 slide film

Above is the scene in March 1995, in one of my favourite captures on film. What a night that was!

But it has taken 24 years for my schedule, the weather, and the Moon phase to all align to allow me to repeat the shoot in the digital age. Thus the Challenge.

Here’s the result.

Orion Setting over Victoria Glacier
Orion setting over the iconic Victoria Glacier at Lake Louise, with the scene lit by the light of the waxing Moon, on March 19, 2019. This is a panorama of 3 segments stitched with Adobe Camera Raw, each segment 8 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

Unlike with film, digital images make it so much easier to stitch multiple photos into a panorama.

In the film days I often shot long single exposures to produce star trails, though the correct exposure was an educated guess factoring in variables like film reciprocity failure and strength of the moonlight.

Below is an example from that same shoot in March 1995. Again, one of my favourite film images.

Orion Setting Over Mt Temple
Orion setting over Mount Temple, near Lake Louise, Banff National park, Alberta. March 1995. On Ektachrome 100 slide film, with a 28mm lens at f/8 for a roughly 20 minute exposure. Full moonlight provides the illumination

This year, time didn’t allow me to shoot enough images for a star trail. In the digital age, we generally shoot lots of short exposures to stack them for a trail.

Instead, I shot this single image of Orion setting over Mt. Temple.

Orion and Canis Major over Mt. Temple
The winter stars of Orion (centre), Canis Major (left) and Taurus (upper right) over Mt. Temple in Banff National Park. This is from the Morant’s Curve viewpoint on the Bow Valley Parkway, on March 19, 2019. Illumination is from moonlight from the waxing gibbous Moon off frame to the left. This is a single 8-second exposure at f/3.2 with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

Plus I shot the panorama below, both taken at Morant’s Curve, a viewpoint named for the famed CPR photographer Nicholas Morant who often shot from here with large format film cameras. Kevin Keefe of Trains magazine wrote a nice blog about Morant.

Night Train in the Moonlight at Morant's Curve
A panorama of Morant’s Curve, on the Bow River in Banff National Park, with an eastbound train on the CPR tracks under the stars of the winter sky. Illumination is from the 13-day gibbous Moon off frame at left. Each segment is 8 seconds at f/3.2 and ISO 800 with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation.

I was shooting multi-segment panoramas when a whistle in the distance to the west alerted me to the oncoming train. I started the panorama segment shooting at the left, and just by good luck the train was in front of me at centre when I hit the central segment. I continued to the right to catch the blurred rest of the train snaking around Morant’s Curve. I was very pleased with the result.

The night before I was at another favourite spot, Two Jack Lake near Banff, to again shoot panoramas of the moonlit scene below the bright stars of the winter sky.

Parks Canada Red Chairs under the Winter Sky at Two Jack Lake
These are the iconic red chairs of Parks Canada, here at frozen Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park, and under the moonlit winter sky. This was March 18, 2019, with the scene illuminated by the gibbous Moon just at the frame edge here. This is a panorama of 11-segments, each 10 seconds at f/4 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

A run up to the end of the Vermilion Lakes road at the end of that night allowed me to capture Orion and Siris reflected in the open water of the upper lake.

Orion Setting in the Moonlight at Vermilion Lakes
The winter stars setting at Vermilion Lakes in Banff National Park, on March 18, 2019. This is a panorama cropped from a set of 11 images, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens at f/3.2 for 10 seconds each and the Nikon D750 at ISO 800, in portrait orientation.

Unlike in the film days, today we also have some wonderful digital planning tools to help us pick the right sites and times to capture the scene as we envision it.

This is a screen shot of the PhotoPills app in its “augmented reality” mode, taken by day during a scouting session at Two Jack, but showing where the Milky Way will be later that night in relation to the real “live” scene shot with the phone’s camera.

PhotoPills
PhotoPills

The app I like for planning before the trip is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This is a shot of the plan for the Lake Louise shoot. The yellow lines are the sunrise and sunset points. The thin blue line at lower right is the angle toward the gibbous Moon at about 10 p.m. on March 19.

TPE
The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Even better than TPE is its companion program TPE 3D, which allows you to preview the scene with the mountain peaks, sky, and illumination all accurately simulated for your chosen location. I am impressed!

TPE 3D
TPE 3D

Compare the simulation above to the real thing below, in a wide 180° panorama.

Lake Louise Panorama by Winter Moonlight
A panorama of Lake Louise in winter, in Banff National Park, Alberta, taken under the light of the waxing gibbous Moon, off frame here to the left. This was March 19, 2019. This is a crop from the original 16-segment panorama, each segment with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750, oriented “portrait.” Each segment was 8 seconds at f/3.2 and ISO 800.

These sort of moonlit nightscapes are what I started with 25 years ago, as they were what film could do well.

These days, everyone chases after dark sky scenes with the Milky Way, and they do look wonderful, beyond anything film could do. I shoot many myself. And I include an entire chapter in my ebook above about shooting the Milky Way.

But … there’s still a beauty in a contrasty moonlit scene with a deep blue sky from moonlight, especially with the winter sky and its population of bright stars and constellations.

Parks Canada Red Chairs under the Winter Stars at Mount Rundle
These are the iconic red chairs of Parks Canada, here on the Tunnel Mountain Drive viewpoint overlooking the Bow River and Mount Rundle, in Banff National Park, and under the moonlit winter sky. This is a panorama cropped from the original 12-segments, each 15 seconds at f/4 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

I’m glad the weather and Moon finally cooperated at the right time to allow me to capture these magical moonlit panoramas.

— Alan, March 26, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Moonlight in the Badlands


Stars over Sedimentary Layers

Clear nights and a waxing Moon made for great opportunities to shoot the Badlands under moonlight.

This has not been a great spring. Only now is the last of the snow melting here in Alberta.

But some mild and clear nights this week with the waxing gibbous Moon allowed me to head to the Red Deer River valley near where I live in Alberta for some moonlit nightscapes.

 

Big Dipper over the Badlands

Here’s the Big Dipper high overhead as it is in spring pointing down to Polaris.

I shot this and some other images in this gallery with the new Sony a7III mirrorless camera. A full test of its astrophoto abilities is in the works.

Jupiter Rising over Red Deer River Badlands

This is Jupiter rising, with the Moon lighting the sky, and illuminating the landscape. Moonlight is the same colour as sunlight, just much fainter. So while this might look like a daytime scene, it isn’t.

Venus in Twilight at the Hoodoos

This is Venus setting in the evening twilight at the Hoodoos on Highway 10 near Drumheller. The winter stars are setting into the west, to disappear for a few months.

Venus, Pleiades and Hyades in Twilight

Here’s Venus in closeup, passing between the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters in Taurus, low in the twilight over the scenic Horsethief Canyon area of the Red Deer River.

While Venus is climbing higher into our evening sky this spring, the Pleiades, Hyades and all the winter stars are fast disappearing from view.

We say goodbye to winter, and not a moment too soon!

— Alan, April 28, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Winter Stars over the Badlands


Orion Rising Star Trails at Dinosaur Park

The clouds cleared to present a magical night under the Moon in the Badlands of southern Alberta.

At last, a break in the incessant clouds of November, to provide me with a fine night of photography at one of my favourite places, Dinosaur Provincial Park, declared a U.N. World Heritage Site for its deposits of late Cretaceous fossils.

I go there to shoot the night sky over the iconic hoodoos and bentonite clay hills.

November is a great time to capture the equally iconic constellation of Orion rising in the east in the early evening. The scene is even better if there’s a Moon to light the landscape.

November 27 presented the ideal combination of circumstances: clear skies (at least later at night), and a first quarter Moon to provide enough light without washing out the sky too much and positioned to the south and west away from the target of interest – Orion and the winter sky rising in the east.

Below is a slide show of some of the still images I shot, all with the Canon 6D MkII camera and fine Rokinon 14mm f/2.5 lens, used wide open. Most are 15-second exposures, untracked.

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I kept another camera, the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens, busy all night shooting 1200 frames for a time-lapse of Orion rising, with clouds drifting through, then clearing.

Below is the resulting video, presented in two versions: first with the original but processed frames assembled into a movie, followed by a version where the movie frames show accumulating star trails to provide a better sense of sky motion.

To create the frames for this version I used the Photoshop actions Advanced Stacker Plus, from StarCircleAcademy. They can stack images then export a new set of frames each with the tapering trails, which you then assemble into a movie. I also used it to produce the lead image at top.

The techniques and steps are all outlined in my eBook, highlighted at top right.

The HD movie is just embedded here, and is not published on Vimeo or YouTube. Expand to fill your screen.

To help plan the shoot I used the astronomy software Starry Night, and the photo planning software The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. With it, you can place yourself at the exact spot to see how the Sun, Moon and stars will appear in sightlines to the horizon.

Here’s the example screen shot. The spheres across the sky represent the Milky Way.

IMG_3517

Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.

Clear skies!

— Alan, November 29, 2017 / © 2017 AmazingSky.com

 

Arc of the Low Summer Moon


Arc of the Summer MoonThe summer Full Moon arcs low across the southern sky, mimicking the path of the winter Sun.

This is a project I had in mind for the last month, and hoped to capture at the July Full Moon. A clear, dry, and cooperative night provide the chance.

The still images are composites of 40 images of the Moon traveling across the sky from dusk to dawn, taken at 10-minute intervals. They are layered onto a blend of background images of the 10 p.m. dusk sky (left), 2 a.m. middle-of-the-night sky (middle), and 5 a.m dawn sky (right).

As a bonus, the 10 p.m. sky shows some dark crepuscular rays in the twilight, while at 2 a.m. the Moon was in light cloud and surrounded by iridescent colours. By 5 a.m. denser clouds were moving in to obscure the Moon.

Arc of the Summer Moon

I shot the still image composite (above) and time-lapse movie (below) to illustrate the low arc of a summer Full Moon. In summer (June or July) the Full Moon sits at a similar place near the ecliptic as does the Sun in winter near the December solstice.

From the northern hemisphere the low position of the winter Sun gives us the short, cold days of winter. In summer, the similar low position of the Full Moon simply gives us a low Full Moon! But it is one that can be impressive and photogenic.

The time-lapse movie uses all 400 frames of the moving Moon superimposed onto the same background sky images, but now dissolving from one to the other.

 

The movie is 4K in resolution, though can be viewed at a smaller resolution to speed up playback if needed.


For the technically minded:

The Moon disks in the time-lapse and still composite come from a series of short 1/15-second exposures, short enough to record just the disks of the bright Moon set against a dark, underexposed sky.

I took these shots every minute, for 400 in total. They are blended into the bright background sky images using a Lighten blend mode, both in Photoshop for the still image, and in Final Cut for the movie.

The background sky images are longer exposures to record the sky colours, and stars (in the case of the 2 a.m. image). They are blended with gradient masks for the still image, but dissolved from one to the other in the time-lapse movie.

I shot the frames with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D, with the camera not moved during the 7-hour shoot.

— Alan, July 12, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

Harvest Aurora


Harvest Moon Aurora

With the harvest in full swing, the aurora and Moon lit the fields on a clear September evening.

This night, September 19, showed prospects for a good display of Northern Lights, and sure enough as it got dark a bright, well-defined arc of Lights danced to the north.

I headed off to some photogenic spots near home, on the prairies of southern Alberta. By the time I got in place, the aurora had already faded.

However, the arc still photographed well and provided a great backdrop to these rural scenes. The rising Moon, then 3 days past full, lit the foreground. In the lead image, lights from combines and trucks working the field behind the bins are at left.

Aurora and Harvest Moon at the Old Barn
A diffuse arc of aurora and the rising waning gibbous Moon light the sky over the old barn near home at harvest time, September 19, 2016. The glows from Strathmore and Calgary light the clouds to the west at far left. The Big Dipper shines over the barn, with Capella and the stars of Perseus at right. The Pleiades are rising to the left of the Moon. This is a panorama of 5 segments, with the 20mm lens and Nikon D750. Stitched with ACR.

The image above was from later in the night, just down the road at a favourite and photogenic grand old barn.

Big Dipper and Aurora over Old Barn #1
The Big Dipper and a diffuse aurora over the old barn near home, in southern Alberta, on September 16, 2016. The waning gibbous Moon off camera at right provides the illumination. This is a stack of 4 exposures, averaged, for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky to keep the stars untrailed. All 13 seconds at f/2.8 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and ISO 1600 with the Nikon D750. Diffraction spikes on stars added with Noel Carboni’s Astronomy Tools actions.

Note the Big Dipper above the barn. A waning and rising Moon like this is great for providing warm illumination.

The time around equinox is usually good for auroras, as the interplanetary and terrestrial magnetic fields line up better to let in the electrons from the Sun. So perhaps we’ll see more Lights, with the Moon now gradually departing the evening sky.

— Alan, September 20, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

TWAN-black

 

The Perseids Perform


Radiant of the Perseid Meteor Shower (2016)

It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.

For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!

This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.

It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.

Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.

Lone Perseid in the Moonlight
A lone Perseid meteor streaking down below the radiant point in Perseus, with the sky and landscape lit by the waxing gibbous Moon, August 11, 2016. Perseus is rising in the northeast, Andromeda is at right, with the Andromeda Galaxy right of centre. Cassiopeia is at top. Taken from the 70 Mile Butte trailhead in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.

Perseid Meteor Shower Looking North (2016)
The 2016 Perseid meteor shower, in a view looking north to the Big Dipper and with the radiant point in Perseus at upper right, the point where the meteors appear to be streaking from. This is a stack of 10 frames, shot over one hour from 1:38 a.m. to 2:37 a.m. CST. The camera was on the Star Adventurer tracker so all the sky frames aligned. The ground is from a stack of four frames, mean combined to smooth noise, and taken with the tracker motor off to minimize ground blurring, and taken at the start of the sequence. All exposures 40 seconds at f/3.2 with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.

It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.

But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.

Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!

TECHNICAL:

Meteor Composite Screen ShotThe lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.

This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.

Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.

It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.

The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.

— Alan, August 13, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Halo Around the Moon


Halo Around the Solstice Moon

On the night before the solstice Full Moon, the sky added a coloured halo around the Moon.

On June 19 I was at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta to teach a workshop on night photography, as one of the programs of the Park’s annual Wildflower Festival. The night proved hazy, but that added the attraction of an ice crystal halo around the Moon.

The lead image above is from Driftwood Beach, looking south across Middle Waterton Lake. Note Mars shining above the mountains at right.

Earlier in the night, at Red Rock Canyon, we watched the Moon rise in the twilight, then climb up the side of Mt. Blakiston. Here (below) it shines above the summit, surrounded by its hazy halo.

Lunar Halo over Mt. Blakiston
Lunar halo in a hazy sky at Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, with the Full Moon over Mt. Blakiston. This is a high-dynamic range stack of 6 exposures, to avoid the area around the Moon from blowing out too much while recorded detail in the dark foreground. All with the 20mm lens and Nikon D750.

The workshop participants made the best of the night, shooting the moonlit scene down the canyon, toward the north and Cassiopeia.

Photographer Shooting at Red Rock Canyon
Nightscape photographer at a workshop I was presenting, shooting Red Rock Canyon in the moonlight at Waterton Lakes National Park, June 19, 2016. Cassiopeia is in the sky to the north. This is a single exposure for 13 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 800 with the 20mm lens and Nikon D750.

And as here, shooting from the canyon footbridge, toward the very photogenic Anderson Peak, with Jupiter just above the peak.

Night Photographers at Red Rock Canyon
A workshop group of photographers at Red Rock Canyon at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, during the 2016 Wildflower Festival, June 19, 2016. Taken by the light of the Full Moon at solstice. Jupiter is the bright object behind Anderson Peak.

In keeping with the wildflower theme, I shot wild roses, Alberta’s provincial flower, in the moonlight, with Anderson Peak and stars in the distance.

Wild Roses in the Mountain Moonlight
Alberta wild roses in the moonlight with Anderson Peak in the background, at Red Rock Canyon, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. Taken on Full Moon night June 19, 2016, at a workshop on nightscape imaging I was teaching as part of the Waterton Wildflower Festival. This is a single exposure at f/8 for 20 seconds at ISO 3200 with the 20mm lens and Nikon D750.

While we might like dark skies when going to places like Waterton, there are many magical options for photography when the Moon is shining.

— Alan, June 23, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com