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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Compare the simulation above to the real thing below, in a wide 180° panorama.
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.
I’m glad the weather and Moon finally cooperated at the right time to allow me to capture these magical moonlit panoramas.
Can the new version of ON1 Photo RAW match Photoshop for astrophotography?
The short TL;DR answer: No.
But … as always, it depends. So do read on.
Released in mid-November 2018, the latest version of ON1 Photo RAW greatly improves a non-destructive workflow. Combining Browsing, Cataloging, Raw Developing, with newly improved Layers capabilities, ON1 is out to compete with Adobe’s Creative Cloud photo suite – Lightroom, Camera Raw, Bridge, and Photoshop – for those looking for a non-subscription alternative.
Many reviewers love the new ON1 – for “normal” photography.
But can it replace Adobe for night sky photos? I put ON1 Photo RAW 2019 through its paces for the demanding tasks of processing nightscapes, time-lapses, and deep-sky astrophotos.
In my eBook “How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses” (linked to at right) I present dozens of processing tutorials, including several on how to use ON1 Photo RAW, but the 2018 edition. I was critical of many aspects of the old version, primarily of its destructive workflow when going from its Develop and Effects modules to the limited Layers module of the 2018 edition.
I’m glad to see many of the shortfalls have been addressed, with the 2019 edition offering a much better workflow allowing layering of raw images while maintaining access to all the original raw settings and adjustments. You no longer have to flatten and commit to image settings to layer them for composites. When working with Layers you are no longer locked out of key functions such as cropping.
I won’t detail all the changes to ON1 2019 but they are significant and welcome.
The question I had was: Are they enough for high-quality astrophotos in a non-destructive workflow, Adobe Photoshop’s forté.
While ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is much better, I concluded it still isn’t a full replacement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, as least not for astrophotography.
NOTE: All images can be downloaded as high-res versions for closer inspection.
ON1 2019 is Better, But for Astrophotography …
Functions in Layers are still limited. For example, there is no stacking and averaging for noise smoothing. Affinity Photo has those.
Filters, though abundant for artistic special effect “looks,” are limited in basic but essential functions. There is no Median filter, for one.
Despite a proliferation of contrast controls, for deep-sky images (nebulas and galaxies) I was still not able to achieve the quality of images I’ve been used to with Photoshop.
The lack of support for third-party plug-ins means ON1 cannot work with essential time-lapse programs such as Timelapse Workflow or LRTimelapse.
Nightscapes: ON1 Photo RAW 2019 works acceptably well for nightscape still images:
Its improved layering and excellent masking functions are great for blending separate ground and sky images, or for applying masked adjustments to selected areas.
Time-Lapses: ON1 works is just adequate for basic time-lapse processing:
Yes, you can develop one image and apply its settings to hundreds of images in a set, then export them for assembly into a movie. But there is no way to vary those settings over time, as you can by mating Lightroom to LRTimelapse.
As with the 2018 edition, you still cannot copy and paste masked local adjustments from image to image, limiting their use.
Exporting those images is slow.
Deep-Sky: ON1 is not a program I can recommend for deep-sky image processing:
Stars inevitably end up with unsightly sharpening haloes.
De-Bayering artifacts add blocky textures to the sky background.
And all the contrast controls still don’t provide the “snap” and quality I’m used to with Photoshop when working with low-contrast subjects.
Library / Browse Functions
ON1 is sold first and foremost as a replacement for Adobe Lightroom, and to that extent it can work well. Unlike Lightroom, ON1 allows browsing and working on images without having to import them formally into a catalog.
However, you can create a catalog if you wish, one that can be viewed even if the original images are not “on-line.” The mystery seems to be where ON1 puts its catalog file on your hard drive. I was not able to find it, to manually back it up. Other programs, such as Lightroom and Capture One, locate their catalogs out in the open in the Pictures folder.
For those really wanting a divorce from Adobe, ON1 now offers an intelligent AI-based function for importing Lightroom catalogs and transferring all your Lightroom settings you’ve applied to raw files to ON1’s equivalent controls.
However, while ON1 can read Photoshop PSD files, it will flatten them, so you would lose access to all the original image layers.
ON1’s Browse module is good, with many of the same functions as Lightroom, such as “smart collections.” Affinity Photo – perhaps ON1’s closest competitor as a Photoshop replacement – still lacks anything like it.
But I found ON1’s Browse module buggy, often taking a long while to allow access into a folder, presumably while it is rendering image previews.
There are no plug-ins or extensions for exporting directly to or synching to social media and photo sharing sites.
ON1 did a fairly good job. Some of its special effect filters, such a Dynamic Contrast, Glow, and Sunshine, can help bring out the Milky Way, though do add an artistic “look” to an image which you might or might not like.
Below, I compare Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to ON1. It was tough to get ON1’s image looking the same as ACR’s result, but then again, perhaps that’s not the point. Does it just look good? Yes, it does.
Compared to Adobe Camera Raw, which has a good array of basic settings, ON1 has most of those and more, in the form of many special Effects, with many combined as one-click Presets, as shown below.
A few presets and individual filters – the aforementioned Dynamic Contrast and Glow – are valuable. However, most of ON1’s filters and presets will not be useful for astrophotography, unless you are after highly artistic and unnatural effects.
Noise Reduction and Lens Correction
Critical to all astrophotography is excellent noise reduction. ON1 does a fine job here, with good smoothing of noise without harming details.
Lens Correction works OK. It detected the 20mm Sigma art lens and automatically applied distortion correction, but not any vignetting (light “fall-off”) correction, perhaps the most important correction in nightscape work. You have to dial this in manually by eye, a major deficiency.
By comparison, ACR applies both distortion and vignetting correction automatically. It also includes settings for many manual lenses that you can select and apply in a click. For example, ACR (and Lightroom) includes settings for popular Rokinon and Venus Optics manual lenses; ON1 does not.
Hot Pixel Removal
I shot the example image on a warm summer night and without using in-camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction (to keep the gap between exposures short when shooting sets of tracked and untracked exposures for later compositing).
However, the penalty for not using LENR to expedite the image taking is a ground filled with hot pixels. While Adobe Camera Raw does have some level of hot pixel removal working “under the hood,” many specks remained.
ON1 showed more hot pixels, until you clicked Remove Hot Pixels, found under Details. As shown at centre above, it did a decent job getting rid of the worst offenders.
But as I’ll show later, the penalty is that stars now look distorted and sometimes double, or you get the outright removal of stars. ON1 doesn’t do a good job distinguishing between true sharp-edged hot pixels and the softer images of stars. Indeed, it tends to over sharpen stars.
A competitor, Capture One 11, does a better job, with an adjustable Single Pixel removal slider, so you can at least select the level of star loss you are willing to tolerate to get rid of hot pixels.
Star Image Quality
Yes, we are pixel peeping here, but that’s what we do in astrophotography. A lot!
Stars in ON1 don’t look as good as in Camera Raw. Inevitably, as you add contrast enhancements, stars in ON1 start to exhibit dark and unsightly “sharpening haloes” not present in ACR, despite me applying similar levels of sharpening and contrast boosts to each version of the image.
Camera Raw has been accused of producing images that are not as sharp as with other programs such as Capture One and ON1.
There’s a reason. Other programs over-sharpen, and it shows here.
We can get away with it here in wide-field images, but not later with deep-sky close-ups. I don’t like it. And it is unavoidable. The haloes are there, albeit at a low level, even with no sharpening or contrast enhancements applied, and no matter what image profile is selected (I used ON1 Standard throughout).
You might have to download and closely inspect these images to see the effect, but ON1’s de-Bayering routine exhibits a cross-hatched blocky pattern at the pixel-peeping level. ACR does not.
I see this same effect with some other raw developers. For example, the free Raw Therapee shows it with many of its choices for de-Bayering algorithms, but not all. Of the more than a dozen raw developers I tested a year ago, ACR and DxO PhotoLab had (and still have) the most artifact-free de-Bayering and smoothest noise reduction
Again, we can get away with some pixel-level artifacts here, but not later, in deep-sky processing.
Nightscape Processing — Layering and Compositing
The 2018 version of ON1 forced you to destructively flatten images when bringing them into the Layers module.
The 2019 version of ON1 improves that. It is now possible to composite several raw files into one image and still retain all the original Develop and Effects settings for non-destructive work.
You can then use a range of masking tools to mask in or out the sky.
For the example above, I have stacked tracked and untracked exposures, and am starting to mask out the trailed stars from the untracked exposure layer.
To do this with Adobe, you would have to open the developed raw files in Photoshop (ideally using “smart objects” to retain the link back to the raw files). But with ON1 we stay within the same program, to retain access to non-destructive settings. Very nice!
To add masks, ON1 2019 does not have the equivalent of Photoshop’s excellent Quick Selection Tool for selecting the sky or ground. It does have a “Perfect Brush” option which uses the tonal value of the pixels below it, rather than detecting edges, to avoid “painting over the lines.”
While the Perfect Brush does a decent job, it still requires a lot of hand painting to create an accurate mask without holes and defects. There is no non-destructive “Select and Mask” refinement option as in Photoshop.
Yes, ON1’s Refine Brush and Chisel Mask tools can help clean up a mask edge but are destructive to the mask. That’s not acceptable to my non-destructive mindset!
The masking tools are also applicable to adding “Local Adjustments” to any image layer, to brighten or darken regions of an image for example.
These work well and I find them more intuitive than the “pins” ACR uses on raw files, or DxO PhotoLab’s quirky “U-Point” interface.
ON1’s Local Adjustments work more like Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers and are similarly non-destructive. Excellent.
A very powerful feature of ON1 is its built-in Luminosity masking.
Yes, Camera Raw now has Range Masks, and Photoshop can be used to create luminosity masks, but making Photoshop’s luminosity masks easily adjustable requires purchasing third-party extension panels.
ON1 can create an adjustable and non-destructive luminosity mask on any image or adjustment layer with a click.
While such masks, based on the brightness of areas, aren’t so useful for low-contrast images like the Milky Way scene above, they can be very powerful for merging high-contrast images (though ON1 also has an HDR function not tested here).
ON1 has the advantage here. Its Luminosity masks are a great feature for compositing exposures or for working on regions of bright and dark in an image.
Here again is the final result, above.
It is not just one image each for the sky and ground, but is instead a stack of four images for each half of the composite, to smooth noise. This form of stacking is somewhat unique to astrophotography, and is commonly used to reduce noise in nightscapes and in deep-sky images, as shown later.
Here I show how you have to stack images in ON1.
Unlike Photoshop and Affinity Photo, ON1 does not have the ability to merge images automatically into a stack and apply a mathematical averaging to the stack, usually a Mean or Median stack mode. The averaging of the image content is what reduces the random noise.
Instead, with ON1 you have perform an “old school” method of average stacking – by changing the opacity of the layers, so that Layer 2 = 50%, Layer 3 = 33%, Layer 4 = 25%, and so on. The result is identical to performing a Mean stack mode in Photoshop or Affinity.
Fine, except there is no way to perform a Median stack, which can be helpful for eliminating odd elements present in only one frame, perhaps an aircraft trail.
Copy and Paste Settings
Before we even get to the stacking stage, we have to develop and process all the images in a set. Unlike Lightroom or Camera Raw, ON1 can’t develop and synchronize settings to a set of images at once. You can work on only one image at a time.
So, you work on one image (one of the sky images here), then Copy and Paste its settings to the other images in the set. I show the Paste dialog box here.
This works OK, though I did find some bugs – the masks for some global Effects layers did not copy properly; they copied inverted, as black instead of white masks.
However, Luminosity masks did copy from image to image, which is surprising considering the next point.
The greater limitation is that no Local Adjustments (ones with masks to paint in a correction to a selected area) copy from one image to another … except ones with gradient masks. Why the restriction?
So as wonderful as ON1’s masking tools might be, they aren’t of any use if you want to copy their masked adjustments across several images, or, as shown next, to a large time-lapse set.
While Camera Raw’s and Lightroom’s Local Adjustment pins are more awkward to work with, they do copy across as many images as you like.
A few Adobe competitors, such as Affinity Photo (as of this writing) simply can’t do this.
By comparison, with the exception of Local Adjustments, ON1 does have good functions for Copying and Pasting Settings. These are essential for processing a set of hundreds of time-lapse frames.
Once all the images are processed – whether it be with ON1 or any other program – the frames have to exported out to an intermediate set of JPGs for assembly into a movie by third-party software. ON1 itself can’t assemble movies, but then again neither can Lightroom (as least not very well), though Photoshop can, through its video editing functions.
For my test set of 220 frames, each with several masked Effects layers, ON1 took 2 hours and 40 minutes to perform the export to 4K JPGs. Photoshop, through its Image Processor utility, took 1 hour and 30 minutes to export the same set, developed similarly and with several local adjustment pins.
ON1 did the job but was slow.
A greater limitation is that, unlike Lightroom, ON1 does not accept any third party plug-ins (it serves as a plug-in for other programs). That means ON1 is not compatible with what I feel are essential programs for advanced time-lapse processing: either Timelapse Workflow (from https://www.timelapseworkflow.com) or the industry-standard LRTimelapse (from https://lrtimelapse.com).
Both programs work with Lightroom to perform incremental adjustments to settings over a set of images, based on the settings of several keyframes.
Lacking the ability to work with these programs means ON1 is not a program for serious and professional time-lapse processing.
Wide-Angle Milky Way
Now we come to the most demanding task: processing long exposures of the deep-sky, such as wide-angle Milky Way shots and close-ups of nebulas and galaxies taken through telescopes. All require applying generous levels of contrast enhancement.
As the above example shows, try as I might, I could not get my test image of the Milky Way to look as good with ON1 as it did with Adobe Camera Raw. Despite the many ways to increase contrast in ON1 (Contrast, Midtones, Curves, Structure, Haze, Dynamic Contrast and more!), the result still looked flat and with more prominent sky gradients than with ACR.
And remember, with ACR that’s just the start of a processing workflow. You can then take the developed raw file into Photoshop for even more precise work.
With ON1, its effects and filters all you have to work with. Yes, that simplifies the workflow, but its choices are more limited than with Photoshop, despite ON1’s huge number of Presets.
Similarly, taking a popular deep-sky subject, the Andromeda Galaxy, aka M31, and processing the same original images with ON1 and ACR/Photoshop resulted in what I think is a better-looking result with Photoshop.
Of course, it’s possible to change the look of such highly processed images with the application of various Curves and masked adjustment layers. And I’m more expert with Photoshop than with ON1.
But … as with the Cygnus Milky Way image, I just couldn’t get Andromeda looking as good in ON1. It always looked a little flat.
Dynamic Contrast did help snap up the galaxy’s dark lanes, but at the cost of “crunchy” stars, as I show next. A luminosity “star mask” might help protect the stars, but I think the background sky will inevitably suffer from the de-Bayering artifacts.
Star and Background Sky Image Quality
As I showed with the nightscape image, stars in ON1 end up looking too “crunchy,” with dark halos from over sharpening, and also with the blocky de-Bayering artifacts now showing up in the sky.
I feel it is not possible to avoid dark star haloes, as any application of contrast enhancements, so essential for these types of objects, brings them out, even if you back off sharpening at the raw development stage, or apply star masks.
ON1 is applying too much sharpening “under the hood.” That might “wow” casual daytime photographers into thinking ON1 is making their photos look better, but it is detrimental to deep-sky images. Star haloes are a sign of poor processing.
Noise and Hot Pixels
ON1’s noise reduction is quite good, and by itself does little harm to image details.
But turn on the Remove Hot Pixel button and stars start to be eaten. Faint stars fade out and brighter stars get distorted into double shapes or have holes in them.
Hot pixel removal is a nice option to have, but for these types of images it does too much harm to be useful. Use LENR or take dark frames, best practices in any case.
Image Alignment and Registration
Before any processing of deep-sky images is possible, it is first necessary to stack and align them, to make up for slight shifts from image to image, usually due to the mount not being perfectly polar aligned. Such shifts can be both translational (left-right, up-down) and rotational (turning about the guide star).
New to ON1 2019 is an Auto-Align Layers function. It worked OK but not nearly as well as Photoshop’s routine. In my test images of M31, ON1 didn’t perform enough rotation.
Once stacked and aligned, and as I showed above, you then have to manually change the opacities of each layer to blend them for noise smoothing.
By comparison, Photoshop has a wonderful Statistics script (under File>Scripts) that will automatically stack, align, then mean or median average the images, and turn the result into a non-destructive smart object, all in one fell swoop. I use it all the time for deep-sky images. There’s no need for separate programs such as Deep-Sky Stacker.
In ON1, however, all that has to be done manually, step-by-step. ON1 does do the job, just not as well.
ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is a major improvement, primarily in providing a more seamless and less destructive workflow.
Think of it as Lightroom with Layers!
But it isn’t Photoshop.
True to ON1’s heritage as a special effect plug-in, it has some fine Effect filters, such as Dynamic Contrast above, ones I sometimes use from within Photoshop as plug-in smart filters.
Under Sharpen, ON1 does offer a High Pass option, a popular method for sharpening deep-sky objects.
Missing Filters and Adjustments
But for astrophoto use, ON1 is missing a lot of basic but essential filters for pixel-level touch-ups. Here’s a short list:
• Missing are Median, Dust & Scratches, Radial Blur, Shake Reduction, and Smart Sharpen, just to mention a handful of filters I find useful for astrophotography, among the dozens of others Photoshop has, but ON1 does not. But then again, neither does Lightroom, another example of how ON1 is more light Lightroom with layers and not Photoshop.
• While ON1 has many basic adjustments for color and contrast, its version of Photoshop’s Selective Color lacks Neutral or Black sliders, great for making fine changes to color balance in astrophotos.
• While there is a Curves panel, it has no equivalent to Photoshop’s “Targeted Adjustment Tool” for clicking on a region of an image to automatically add an inflection point at the right spot on the curve. This is immensely useful for deep-sky images.
• Also lacking is a basic Levels adjustment. I can live without it, but most astrophotographers would find this a deal-breaker.
• On the other hand, hard-core deep-sky photographers who do most of their processing in specialized programs such as PixInsight, using Photoshop or Lightroom only to perform final touch-ups, might find ON1 perfectly fine. Try it!
Saving and Exporting
ON1 saves its layered images as proprietary .onphoto files and does so automatically. There is no Save command, only a final Export command. As such it is possible to make changes you then decide you don’t like … but too late! The image has already been saved, writing over your earlier good version. Nor can you Save As … a file name of your choice. Annoying!
Opening a layered .onphoto file (even with ON1 itself already open) can take a minute or more for it to render and become editable.
Once you are happy with an image, you can Export the final .onphoto version as a layered .PSD file but the masks ON1 exports to the Photoshop layers may not match the ones you had back in ON1 for opacity. So the exported .PSD file doesn’t look like what you were working on. That’s a bug.
Only exporting a flattened TIFF file gets you a result that matches your ON1 file, but it is now flattened.
Bugs and Cost
I encountered a number of other bugs, ones bad enough to lock up ON1 now and then. I’ve even seen ON1’s own gurus encounter bugs with masking during their live tutorials. These will no doubt get fixed in 2019.x upgrades over the next few months.
But by late 2019 we will no doubt be offered ON1 Photo RAW 2020 for another $80 upgrade fee, over the original $100 to $120 purchase price. True, there’s no subscription, but ON1 still costs a modest annual fee, presuming you want the latest features.
Now, I have absolutely no problem with that, and ON1 2019 is a significant improvement.
However, I found that for astrophotography it still isn’t there yet as a complete replacement for Adobe.
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 put the new Sony a7III mirrorless camera through its paces for the features and functions we need to shoot the night sky.
Sony’s a7III camera has enjoyed rave reviews since its introduction earlier in 2018. Most tests focus on its superb auto exposure and auto focus capabilities that rival much more costly cameras, including Sony’s own a7rIII and a9.
For astrophotography, none of those auto functions are of any value. We shoot everything on manual. Indeed, the ease of manually focusing in Live View is a key function.
In my testing I compared the Sony a7III to two competitive DSLRs, the Canon 6D MkII and Nikon D750.
All three are “entry-level” full-frame cameras, with 24 to 26 megapixels and in a similar price league of $1,500 (Nikon) to 2,000 (Sony).
I tested a Sony a7III purchased locally. It was not supplied to me by Sony in return for an “influential” blog post.
I did this testing in preparation for the new third edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse eBook, which includes information on Sony mirrorless cameras, as well as many, many other updates and additions!
NOTE:Click or Tap on most images to bring them up full-frame for inspection.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
As with Sony’s other popular Alpha 7 and 9 series cameras, the new Alpha 7III is a full-frame mirrorless camera, a class of camera Canon and Nikon have yet to offer, though models are rumoured or promised.
In the meantime, Sony commands the full-frame mirrorless market.
As its name implies, a mirrorless camera lacks the reflex mirror of a digital single lens reflex camera that, in a DSLR, provides the light path for framing the scene though the optical viewfinder.
In a mirrorless, the camera remains in “live view” all the time, with the sensor always feeding a live image to either or both the rear LCD screen and electronic viewfinder (EVF). While you can look through and frame using the EVF as you would with a DSLR, you are looking at an electronic image from the sensor, not an optical image from the lens.
The advantage of purely electronic viewing is that the image you are previewing matches the image you’ll capture, at least for short exposures. The disadvantage is that full-time live view draws more power, with mirrorless cameras notorious for being battery hungry.
Other mirrorless advantages include:
Compact size and lighter weight, yet offering all the image quality of a full-frame DSLR.
The thinner body allows the use of lenses from any manufacturer, albeit requiring the right adapter, an additional expense.
Lenses developed natively for mirrorless models can be smaller and lighter. An example is the Laowa 15mm f/2 I used for some of the testing.
The design lends itself to video shooting, with many mirrorless cameras offering 4K as standard, while often in DSLRs only high-end models do.
More rapid-fire burst modes and quieter shutters are a plus for action and wedding photographers, though they are of limited value for astrophotography.
Points of Comparison
In testing the Sony a7III I ignored all the auto functions. Instead, I concentrated on those points I felt of most concern to astrophotographers, such as:
Effectiveness of Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR)
Quality of Raw files, such as sharpness of stars
Brightness of Live View for framing and focusing
Uniformity of sensor illumination
Compatibility for time-lapse imaging
Levels of luminance and chrominance noise were excellent and similar to – but surprisingly not better than – the Nikon D750.
The Star Eater is gone. Stars are not smoothed out in long exposures.
The Sony exhibited good – though not great – “ISO invariant” performance.
Dark frame subtraction using Long Exposure Noise Reduction removed most – but not all – hot pixels from thermal noise.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Live View was absolutely superb, though the outstanding Bright Monitoring function is as well-hidden as Sony could possibly make it.
Sensor Illumination Uniformity
The Sony showed some slight edge-of-frame shadowing from the mask in front of the sensor, as well as a weak purple amp glow.
• The a7III lacks any internal intervalometer or ability to add one via an app. But it is compatible with many external intervalometers and controllers.
• The a7III’s red sensitivity for recording H-Alpha-emitting nebulas was poor.
• It lacks the “light-frame” buffer offered by full-frame Canons that allows shooting several frames in quick succession even with LENR turned on.
The a7III offers 4K video and, at 24 frames-per-second, is full-frame. Shutter speeds can be as slow as 1/4-second, allowing real-time aurora shooting at reasonable ISO speeds.
Shooting typical 400-frame time-lapses used about 40% of the battery capacity, similar to the other DSLRs.
The Sony a7III is a superb camera for still and time-lapse nightscape shooting, and excellent for real-time aurora videos. It is good, though not great, for long-exposure deep-sky imaging.
The Sony a7III uses a sensor that is “Backside Illuminated,” a feature that promises to improve low-light performance and reduce noise.
I saw no great benefit from the BSI sensor. Noise at typical astrophoto ISO speeds – 800 to 6400 – were about equal to the four-year-old Nikon D750.
That was a bit surprising. I expected the new BSI-equipped Sony to better the Nikon by about a stop. It did not. This emphasizes just how good the Nikon D750 is.
Nevertheless, noise performance of the Sony a7III was still excellent, with both the Sony and Nikon handily outperforming the Canon 6D MkII, with its slightly smaller pixels, by about a stop in noise levels.
NOTE: I performed all Raw developing with Adobe Camera Raw v10.3. It is possible some of the artifacts I saw are due to ACR not handling the a7III’s .ARW files as well as it should. But to develop all the images from Sony, Nikon, and Canon equally for comparisons, ACR is the best choice.
Both the Sony and Nikon use sensor and signal path designs that are “ISO invariant.” As a result, images shot underexposed at slower ISOs, then boosted in exposure later in processing look identical to properly exposed high-ISO images. Well, almost.
The Sony still showed some discoloration artifacts and added noise when boosting images by +4 EV that the Nikon did not. Even with uncompressed Raws, the Sony was not quite as ISO invariant as the Nikon, though the difference shows up only under extreme push-processing of badly underexposed frames.
Plus, the Sony was far better than the Canon 6D MkII’s “ISO variant” sensor. Canon really needs to improve their sensors to keep in the game.
Compressed vs. Uncompressed
The Sony a7III offers a choice of shooting Uncompressed or Compressed Raw files. Uncompressed Raws are 47 Mb in size; Compressed Raws are 24 Mb.
In well-exposed images, I saw little difference in image quality.
But the dark shadows in underexposed nightscapes withstood shadow recovery better in the uncompressed files. Compressed files showed more noise and magenta discoloration in the shadows.
It is not clear if Sony’s compressed Raws are 12-bit vs. 14-bit for uncompressed files.
Nevertheless, for the demands of nightscape and deep-sky shooting and processing, I suggest shooting Uncompressed Raws. Use Compressed only if you plan to take lots of time-lapse frames and need to conserve memory card space on extended shoots.
Star Eater (Updated June 3, 2018)
Over the last year or so, firmware updates from Sony introduced a much-publicized penchant for Sony Alphas to “eat” stars even in Raw files, apparently due to an internal noise reduction or anti-aliasing routine users could not turn off. Stars were smoothed away along with the noise in exposures longer than 3.2 seconds in some Sony cameras (longer than 30 seconds in others).
I feel that in the a7III the Star Eater has been largely vanquished.
As the images below show, there is a very slight one-pixel-level softening that kicks in at 4 seconds and longer but it did not eat or wipe out stars. Stars are visible to the same limiting magnitude and close double stars are just as well resolved across all exposures. Indeed, at slower ISOs and longer exposures, more stars are visible.
I saw none of the extreme effects reported by others with other Sonys, where masses of faint stars disappeared or turned into multi-colored blotches.
I did not see any significant “star eating” in any long exposures even up to the 4 minutes I used for some deep-sky shots. In images taken at the same time with other cameras not accused of star eating, the Sony showed just as many faint stars as the competitors. Long exposures showed just as many stars as did short exposures.
This was true whether I was shooting compressed or uncompressed Raws, with or without Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Neither compression nor LENR invoked “star eating.”
LENR Dark frames
For elimination of hot pixels from thermal noise I prefer to use Long Exposure Noise Reduction when possible for nightscape and deep-sky images, especially on warm summer nights.
Exceptions are images taken for star trail stacking and for time-lapses, images that must be taken in quick succession, with minimal time gap between frames.
Turning on LENR did eliminate most hot pixels in long exposures, but not all. A few remained. Also, when boosting the exposure a lot in processing, the images taken with LENR on showed more shot and read noise than non-LENR frames.
The dark frame the camera was taking and subtracting was actually adding some noise, perhaps due to a temperature difference. The cause is not clear.
Sony advises that when using LENR Raw images are recorded with only 12-bit depth, not 14-bit. This might be a contributing factor. Yet frames taken with LENR on were the same 47 Mb size as normal uncompressed frames.
For those who think this is normal for LENR use, the Nikon D750 shows nothing like this – frames taken with LENR on are free of all hot pixels and do not show more shot or read noise, nor deterioration of shadow detail from lower bit depths.
However, I emphasize that the noise increase from using LENR with the Sony was visible only when severely boosting underexposed images in processing.
In most shooting situations, I found using LENR provided the overriding positive benefit of reducing hot pixels. It just needs to be better, Sony!
How evenly an image is illuminated is a common factor when testing lenses.
But astrophotography, which often requires extreme contrast boosts, reveals non-uniform illumination of the sensor itself, regardless of the optics, originating from hardware elements in front of the sensor casting shadows onto the sensor.
This is most noticeable – indeed usually only noticeable – when shooting deep-sky targets though telescopes.
With DSLRs it is the raised mirror which often casts a shadow, produced a dark vignetted band along the bottom of the frame. Its extent varies from camera model to model.
With a mirrorless camera the sensor is not set far back in a mirror box, as it is in a DSLR. As such, I would have expected a more uniformly illuminated sensor.
Instead, I saw a slight shadowing at the top and bottom edges but just at the corners. This is from a thin metal mask in front of the sensor. It intrudes into the light path ever so slightly. It shouldn’t.
This is an annoying flaw, though applying “flat fields” or ad hoc local adjustments should eliminate this. But that’s a nuisance to do, and should not be necessary with a mirrorless camera.
Worse is that long deep-sky exposures at high ISOs also exhibited a faint purple glow at the left edge, perhaps from heat from nearby electronics, a so-called “amp glow.” Or I’ve read where this is from an internal infrared source near the sensor.
Taking a dark frame with LENR did not eliminate this, and it should, demonstrating again that for whatever reason in the a7III LENR is not as effective as it should be.
I have not seen such “amp” glows in cameras (at least in the DSLRs I’ve used) for a number of years, so seeing it in the new Sony a7III was another surprise.
This would be much tougher to eliminate in deep-sky images where the extreme contrast boosts we typically apply to images of nebulas and galaxies will accentuate any odd glows.
One supplier of filter-modified cameras, Spencer’s Camera, also refuses to modify Sonys, because this glow renders them poor choices for filter modification, for those wanting cameras with deeper red sensitivity.
When shooting deep-sky objects, particularly red nebulas, we like a camera to have a less aggressive infrared cutoff filter, to pick up as much of the deep red Hydrogen-Alpha emission line as possible.
The Sony showed poor deep-red sensitivity, though not unlike other cameras. It was a little worse than the stock Canon 6D MkII.
This isn’t a huge detriment, as anyone who really wants to go after deep nebulosity must use a “filter-modified” camera anyway.
Canon and Nikon both offered factory modified cameras at one time, notably the Canon 60Da and Nikon D810a. Sony doesn’t have an “a” model mirrorless.
To get the most out of the Sony for deep-sky imaging you would have to have it modified by a third-party, though the amp glow described above makes it a poor choice for modification.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Up to now my report on the Sony a7III hasn’t shown as glowing a performance as all the YouTube reviews would have you believe.
But Live Focus is where the a7III really stands out. I love it!
In Live View it is possible to make the image so bright you can actually see the Milky Way live on screen! Wow! This makes it so easy to frame nightscapes and deep-sky fields.
But this special “Bright Monitoring” mode is as well hidden as Sony could make it. Unless you actually read the full-length 642-page PDF manual (you have to download it), you won’t know about it. Bright Monitoring does not appear in any of the in-camera menus you can scroll through, so you won’t stumble across it.
Instead, you have to go to the Camera Settings 2 page, then select Still Image–Custom Key. In the menu options that appear you can now scroll to one called Bright Monitoring. Surprise! Assign it to one of the hardware Custom C buttons. I put it on C2, making it easy to call up when needed.
The other Live View function that works well, but also needs assigning to a C button is the Camera Settings 1 > Focus Magnifier. I put this on C1. It magnifies the Live View by 5.9x or 11.7x, allowing for precise manual focusing on a star.
Two other functions are useful for Live View:
Camera Settings 2 > Live View Display > Setting Effect ON. This allows the Live View image to reflect the camera settings in use, better simulating the actual exposure, even without Bright Monitoring on.
Camera Settings 1 > Peaking Setting. Turning this ON superimposes a shimmering effect on parts of an image judged in focus. This might be an aid, or an annoyance. Try it.
In all, the Sony provides superb, if well-hidden, Live View options that make accurately framing and focusing a nightscape or time-lapse scene a joy.
Great Features for Astrophotography
Here are some other Sony a7III features I found of value for astrophotography, and for operating the camera at night.
Tilting LCD Screen
Like the Nikon D750, the Sony’s screen tilts vertically up and down, great for use when on a telescope, or on any tripod when aimed up at the sky. As photographers age, this becomes a more essential feature!
The four C buttons can be programmed for oft-used functions, making them easy to access at night. Standard functions such as ISO and Drive Mode are easy to get at on the thumb wheel, unlike the Nikon D750 where I am forever hunting for the ISO or Focus Zoom buttons, or the Canon 6D MkII which successfully hides the Focus Zoom and Playback buttons at night.
In new models, Sony now offers the option of a final “My Menu” page which you can populate with often-used functions from the other 35 pages of menu commands!
Adaptability to Many Lenses
Using the right lens adapter (I use one from Metabones), it is possible to use lenses with mounts made for Canon, Nikon, Sigma and others. Plus there are an increasing number of lenses from third parties offered with native Sony E-mounts. This is good news, as astrophotography requires fast, high-quality lenses, and the Sony allows more choices.
Lighter Weight / Smaller Size
The compact a7III body weighs a measured 750 grams, vs. 900 grams each for the Nikon D750 and Canon 6D MkII. The lower weight can be helpful for use on lightweight telescopes, on small motion control devices, and for simply keeping weight and bulk down when traveling.
Dual Card Slots
Not essential, but having two card slots is very helpful, for backup, for handling overflows from very long time-lapse shoots, or assigning them for stills vs. movies, or Raws vs. JPGs. Only Slot 1 will work with the fastest UHS II cards that are needed for recording the highest quality 4K video.
It is possible to power the camera though the USB port (indeed that’s how you charge the battery, as no separate battery charger is supplied as standard, a deficiency). This might be useful for long shoots, though likely as not that same USB port will be needed for an intervalometer or motion control device. But if the Sony had a built-in intervalometer…!
To reduce battery drain it is possible to turn off the EVF completely – I find I never use it at night – and to turn off the LCD display when shooting, though the latter is an option you have to activate to add to the Display button’s various modes.
The downside is that when shooting is underway you get no reassuring indication anything is happening, except for a brief LED flash when an image is written to a card.
Electronic Front Curtain Shutter
Most DSLRs do not offer this, but the Sony’s option of an electronic front curtain shutter and the additional Silent Shooting mode completely eliminates vibration, useful for some high-magnification shooting through telephotos and telescopes.
What’s Missing for Astrophotography
Intervalometer UPDATE: In April 2019 Sony issued a v3 Firmware update for the a7III which added an internal intervalometer. I had originally remarked that this useful function was missing. But no more! Thank you Sony!
While a built-in intervalometer is not essential, I find I often do use the Canon and Nikon in-camera intervalometers for simple shoots. So it is great to have one available on the Sony. However, like other brands’ internal intervalometers Sony’s is good only for exposures up to 30 seconds long.
Bulb Timer or Long Exposures
However, while the Sony has a Bulb setting there is no Bulb Timer as there is with the Canon. The Bulb Timer would allow setting long Bulb exposures of any length in the camera.
Instead, for any exposures over 30 seconds long (or time-lapses with >30-second-long frames) the Sony must be used with an external Intervalometer. I use a $50 Vello unit, and it works very well. It controls the Sony through the camera’s Multi USB port.
In-Camera Image Stacking
Also missing, and present on most new Canons, are Multiple Exposure modes for in-camera stacking of exposures in a Brighten mode (for star trails) or Averaging mode (for noise smoothing).
Yes, this can all be done later in processing, but having the camera do the stacking can often be convenient, and great for beginners, as long as they understand what those functions do, or even that they exist!
When using its internal intervalometer, the Nikon D750 has an excellent Exposure Smoothing option. This does a fine job smoothing frame-to-frame flickering in time-lapses, something the Canon cannot do. Nor the Sony, as it has no intervalometer at all.
Light Frame Buffer in LENR
This feature is little known and utilized, and only Canon full-frame cameras offer it. Turn on LENR and it is possible to shoot three (with the 6D MkII) or four (with the 6D) Raw images in quick succession even with LENR turned on. The Canon 5D series also has this.
The dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera only after the series of “light frames” are taken. This is wonderful for taking a set of noise-reduced deep-sky images for later stacking. Nikons don’t have this, not even the D810a, and not Sonys.
The Sony’s buttons are not illuminated. While these might add glows to long exposure images, if they could be designed not to do that (i.e. they turn off during exposures), lit buttons would be very handy at night.
Limited Touch Screen Functions
An alternative would be an LCD screen that was touch sensitive. The Sony a7III’s screen is, but only to select an area for auto focus or zooming up an image in playback. The Canon 6D MkII has a fully functional touch screen which can be, quite literally, handy at night.
Here’s another area where the new Sony a7III really shines.
It offers 4K (or more precisely UltraHD) video recording for videos of 3840 x 2160 pixels. (True 4K is actually 4096 x 2160 pixels.)
With a fast enough UHS-II Class card it can record 4K video up to 30 frames per second and at a bit rate of either 60 or 100 Mbps.
At 24 fps videos are full-frame with no cropping. Hurray! You can take full advantage of wide-angle lenses, great for auroras. At 30 fps, 4K videos are cropped with a 1.2x crop factor.
In Movie Mode ISO speeds go up to ISO 102,400, but are pretty noisy, if unusable at such speeds.
But when shooting aurora videos I found, to my surprise, I could “drag” the shutter speeds as slow as 1/4-second, fully 4 stops better than the Nikon’s slowest shutter speed of 1/60 second in Full HD, and 3 stops better than the Canon’s slowest movie shutter of 1/30 second.
Coupled with a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens, the slow shutter speed allows real-time aurora shooting at “only” ISO 6400 to 12,800, for quite acceptable levels of noise. I am very impressed!
Real-time video of auroras is not possible with anything like this quality with the Nikon (I’ve used it often), and absolutely not with the Canon. And neither are 4K.
Is the a7III as good for low-light video as the Sony a7s models, with their larger 8.5-micron pixels?
I would assume not, but not having an a7s (either Mark I or II) to test I can’t say for sure. But the a7III should do the job for bright auroras, the ones with rapid motion worth recording with video, plus offer 24 megapixels for high-quality stills of all sky subjects.
I think it’s a great camera for both astrophoto stills and video.
An example is in a 4K video I shot on May 6, 2018 of an usual aurora known as “STEVE.”
Steve Aurora – May 6, 2018 (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
For another example of using the Sony a7III for recording real-time video of the night sky see this video of the aurora shot from Norway in March 2019.
The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I found the a7III would use up about about 40% of the battery capacity in a typical 400-frame time-lapse on mild spring nights, with 30-second exposures. This is with the EVF and rear LCD Display OFF, and the camera in Airplane mode to turn off wireless functions to further conserve battery power. I was using the wired Vello intervalometer.
This is excellent performance on par with the DSLRs I use. At last, we have a mirrorless camera that not only doesn’t eat stars, it also does not eat batteries!
One battery can get you through a night of shooting, though performance will inevitably decline in winter, as with all cameras.
Lens and Telescope Compatibility
As versatile as a mirrorless camera is for lens choice, making use of that versatility requires buying the right lens adapter(s). They can cost anywhere from $100 to $400. The lowest cost units just adapt the lens mechanically; the more costly units also transfer lens data and allow auto focusing with varying degrees of compatibility.
For use on telescopes, the simple adapters will be sufficient, and necessary as many telescope-to-camera adapters and field flatteners are optimized for the longer lens flange-to-sensor distance of a DSLR. Even if you could get a mirrorless camera to focus without a lens adapter to add the extra spacing, the image quality across the field might be compromised on many telescopes.
I used the Metabones Canon-to-Sony adapter when attaching the Sony to my telescopes using my existing Canon telescope adapters. Image quality was just fine.
Time-Lapse Controller Compatibility
Due to limitations set by Sony, controlling one of their cameras with an external controller can be problematic.
Devices that trigger only the shutter should be fine. That includes simple intervalometers like the Vello, the Syrp Genie Mini panning unit, and the Dynamic Perception and Rhino sliders, to name devices I use. However, all will need the right camera control cable, available from suppliers like B&H.
And, as I found, the Sony might need to be placed into Continuous shooting mode to have the shutter fire with every trigger pulse from the motion controller. When used with the Genie Mini (below) the Sony fired at only every other pulse if it was in Single shot mode, an oddity of Sony’s firmware.
Some time-lapse controllers are able to connect to a camera through its USB port and then adjust the ISO and aperture as well, for ramped “holy grail” sunset-to-Milky Way sequences.
In conclusion, here’s my summary recommendations for the three competitive cameras, rating them from Poor, to Fair, to Good, to Excellent.
SONY: I deducted marks from the Sony a7III for deep-sky imaging for its lack of a light frame buffer, poor red sensitivity, odd LENR performance, and purple amp glow not seen on the other cameras and that dark frames did not eliminate.
However, I did not consider “star eating” to be a negative factor, as the Sony showed just as many stars and as well-resolved as did the competitors, and what more could you ask for?
I rate the Sony excellent for nightscape imaging and for real-time aurora videos. I list it as just “good” for time-lapse work only because it will not be fully compatible with some motion controllers and rampers. So beware!
NIKON: I deducted points for real-time video of auroras – the D750 can do them but is pretty noisy with the high ISOs needed. Its red sensitivity is not bad, but its lack of a light frame buffer results a less productive imaging cycle when using LENR on deep-sky shooting.
I know … people shoot dark frames separately for subtracting later in processing. However, I’ve found these post-shoot darks rarely work well, as the dark frames are not at the same temperature as the light frames, and often add noise or dark holes.
CANON: The 6D MkII’s lack of an ISO invariant sensor rears its ugly head in underexposed shadows in dark-sky nightscapes. I like its image stacking options, which can help alleviate the noise and artifacts in still images, but aren’t practical for time-lapses. Thus my Good rating for nightscapes but Fair rating for time-lapses. (See my test at https://amazingsky.net/2017/08/09/testing-the-canon-6d-mark-ii-for-nightscapes/)
While the 6D MkII has HD video, it is incapable of any low-light video work.
And its light-frame buffer is great for minimizing shooting time for a series of deep-sky images with in-camera LENR dark frames, which I find are the best for minimizing thermal noise. Give me a Canon full-frame any day for prime-focus deep-sky shooting.
It’s just a pity the 6D MkII has only a 3-frame buffer when using LENR. Really Canon? The 2008-vintage 5D MkII had a 5-frame buffer! Your cameras are getting worse for astrophotography while Sony’s are getting better.
CANON 6D Mk II
Real-Time Video (Auroras)
Wide-field Deep Sky
Telescopic Deep Sky
I trust you’ll find the review of value. Thanks for reading!
ADDENDUM as of JUNE 6, 2018
Since publishing the first results a number of people commented with suggestions for further testing, to check claims that:
The Sony would perform better for noise under dark sky conditions, at high ISOs, rather than the moonlit scene above. OK, let’s try that.
The Sony would perform better in an ISO Invariancy “face-off” if its ISOs were kept above 640, to keep all the images within the Sony’s upper ISO range of its dual-gain sensor design, with two ranges (100 to 400, and 640 on up). Fair enough.
What little “star-eater” effect I saw might be mitigated by shooting on Continuous drive mode or by firing the shutter with an external timer. That’s worth a check, too.
For the additional tests, I shot all images within a 3-hour span on the night of June 5/6, using the Sony a7III, Nikon D750, and Canon 6D MkII, with the respective lenses: the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, the Sigma 14mm Art at f/2, and the Rokinon 14mm SP at f/2.5.
The cameras were on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker to keep stars pinpoints, though the ground blurred in the longer exposures.
DARK SKY NOISE TEST
I show only the Sony and Nikon compared here, shot at the common range of ISOs used for nightscape shooting, 800 to 12800. All images are equally well exposed. The inset image at right in Photoshop shows the scene, the Milky Way above dark trees in my backyard!
To the eye, the Sony and Nikon look very similar for noise levels, just as in the moonlit scene. Both are very good – indeed, among the best performing cameras for high-ISO noise levels. But the Sony, being four years newer than the Nikon, is not better.
BUT … what the Sony did exhibit was better details in the shadows than the Nikon.
And this was with equal processing and no application of Shadow Recovery. This is where the Sony’s Backside Illuminated sensor with presumably higher quantum efficiency in gathering photons might be providing the advantage. With its good shadow details, you have to apply less shadow recovery in post-processing, which does keep noise down. So points to Sony here.
I did put all the high ISO images through the classic noise reduction program Noise Ninja to measure total Luminance and Chrominance noise, and included the Canon 6D MkII’s images.
The resulting values and graph show the Sony actually measured worse for noise than the Nikon at each high ISO speed, 3200 to 12800, though with both performing much better than the Canon.
The higher noise of the Canon is visually obvious, but I’d say the Sony a7III and Nikon D750 are pretty equal visually for noise, despite the numbers.
DARK SKY ISO INVARIANCY
Again, here I show only the Sony and Nikon, the two “ISO invariant” cameras. The correct exposure for the scene was 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2. The images shown here were shot at lower ISOs to underexposure the dark scene by 2 to 4 stops or EV. Those underexposed images were then boosted later in processing (in Adobe Camera Raw) by the required Exposure Value to equalize the image brightness.
Contrary to expectations, the Sony did not show any great loss in image quality as it crossed the ISO 640 boundary into its lower ISO range. But the Nikon did show more image artifacts in the “odd-numbered” ISOs of 640 and 500. In this test, the Nikon did not perform as well as the Sony for ISO invariancy. Go figure!
Again, the differences are in images vastly underexposed. And both cameras performed much better than the ISO “variant” Canon in this test.
STAR EATER REVISITED
I shot images over a wide-range of exposures, from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, but show only the ones covering the 2-second to 4-second range, where the “star-eater” anti-aliasing or noise smoothing applied by Sony kicks in (above 3.2 seconds it seems).
I shot with the Sony a7III on Single shot drive mode, on Continuous Low drive mode (with the camera controlling the shutter speed in both cases), and a set with the Sony on Bulb and the shutter speed set by an external Vello intervalometer.
This is really pixel peeping at 400%. In Single drive mode, stars and noise soften ever so slightly at 4 seconds and higher. In Continuous mode, I think the effect is still there but maybe a little less. In shots on Bulb controlled by the External Timer, maybe the stars at 4 seconds are a little sharper still. But this is a tough call. To me, the star eater effect on the Sony a7III is a non-issue. It may be more serious on other Sony alphas.
DE-BAYERING STAR ARTIFACTS
An issue that, to me, has a more serious effect on star quality is the propensity of the Sony, and to some extent the Nikon, to render tiny stars as brightly colored points, unrealistically so. In particular, many stars look green, from the dominance of green-filtered photosites on Bayer-array sensors.
Here I compare all three cameras for this effect in two-minute tracked exposures taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (i.e. in-camera dark frame subtraction) off and on.
The Sony shows a lot of green stars with or without LENR. The Nikon seems to discolor stars only when LENR is applied. Why would that be? The Canon is free of any such issue – stars are naturally colored whether LENR dark frames are applied or not.
This is all with Raws developed with Adobe Camera Raw.
When opening the same Raws in other programs (ON1 Photo RAW, Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, and Raw Therapee) the results can be quite different, with stars often rendered with fringes of hot, colored pixels. Or rendered with little or no color at all. Raw Therapee offers a choice of de-Bayering, or “de-mosaic,” routines, and each produces different looking stars, and none look great! Certainly not as good as the Canon rendered with Camera Raw.
What’s going on here is a mystery – it’s a combination of the cameras’ unique Raw file formats, anti-alias filter in front of the sensor (or lack thereof in the Sony), and the de-Bayering routines of all the many Raw developers wrestling with the task of rendering stars that occupy only a few pixels. It’s unfair to blame just the hardware or the software.
But this test re-emphasized my thoughts that Canon DSLRs remain the best for long-exposure deep-sky imaging where you can give images as much exposure time as they need, while the ISO invariant Sony and Nikons exceed at nightscape shooting where exposures are often limited and plagued by dark shadows and noise.
In a technical blog I compare the new Canon 6D Mark II camera with its predecessor, the Canon 6D, with the focus on performance for nightscape astrophotography.
No pretty pictures in this blog I’m afraid! This is a blog for gear geeks.
The long-awaited Canon 6D Mark II camera is out, replacing the original 6D after that camera’s popular 5-year reign as a prime choice among astrophotographers for all kinds of sky images, including nightscapes and time-lapses.
As all new cameras do, the 6D Mark II is currently fetching a full list price of $2000 U.S. Eventually it will sell for less. The original 6D, introduced in 2012 at that same list price, might still be available from many outlets, but for less, likely below $1500 US.
Shown on the left, above, the 6D Mark II is similar in size and weight to the original 6D.
However, the new Mark II offers 6240 x 4160 pixels for 26 megapixels, a bump up in resolution over the 5472 x 3648 20-megapixel 6D. The pixel pitch of the Mark II sensor is 5.7 microns vs. 6.6 microns for the 6D.
One difference is that the port for a remote release is now on the front, but using the same solid 3-pin N3 connector as the 6D and other full-frame Canons. That makes it compatible with all external controllers for time-lapse shooting.
TESTING FOR THE NIGHT
My interest is in a camera’s performance for long-exposure astrophotography, with images taken at high ISO settings. I have no interest in auto-focus performance (we shoot at night with focus set manually), nor how well a camera works for high-speed sports shooting.
To test the Mark II against the original 6D I took test shots at the same time of a high-contrast moonlit scene in the backyard, using a range of ISO speeds typical of nightscape scenes.
The comparisons show close-ups of a scene shown in full in the smaller inset screen.
The key characteristic of interest for night work is noise. How well does the camera suppress the noise inherent in digital images when the signal is boosted to the high ISO settings we typically use?
This set shows the 6D MkII at five ISOs, from ISO 1600 all the way up to the seldom-used ISO 25,600, all shot in Raw, not JPG. In all cases, no noise reduction was applied in later processing, so the results do look worse than what processed images would.
Click or tap on all images to expand each image to full screen for closer inspection.
This set shows the same range of ISOs with the original 6D. All were taken at the same aperture, f/2.8, with a 35mm lens. Exposures were halved for each successive bump up in ISO speed, to ensure equally exposed images.
Comparing the sets, the 6D MkII shows a much greater tendency to exhibit a magenta cast in the shadows at very high ISOs, plus a lower contrast in the shadows at increasing ISOs, and slightly more luminance noise than the 6D.
How much more noise the 6D MkII exhibits is demonstrated here.
To me, visually, the MkII presents about 1/2 stop, or EV, worse noise than the 6D.
In this example, the MkII exhibits a noise level at ISO 3200 (a common nightscape setting) similar to what the 6D does if set between ISO 4000 and 5000 – about 1/2 stop worse noise.
Frankly, this is surprising.
Yes, the MkII has a higher pixel count and therefore smaller pixels (5.7 microns in this case) that are always more prone to noise. But in the past, advances to the in-camera signal processing has prevented noise from becoming worse, despite increasing pixel count, or has even produced an improvement in noise.
For example, the 2012-vintage 6D is better for noise than Canon’s earlier 2008-era 5D MkII model by about half a stop, or EV.
After five years of camera development I would have expected a similar improvement in the 6D MkII. After all, the 6D MkII has Canon’s latest DIGIC 7 processor, vs. the older 6D’s DIGIC 5+.
Instead, not only is there no noise improvement, the performance is worse.
That said, noise performance in the 6D MkII is still very good, and better than you’ll get with today’s 24 megapixel cropped-frame cameras with their even smaller 4 micron pixels. But the full frame 6D MkII doesn’t offer quite as much an improvement over cropped-frame cameras as does the five-year-old 6D.
In the previous sets all the images were well-exposed, as best they could be for such a contrasty scene captured with a single exposure.
What happens when Raw images are underexposed, then boosted later in exposure value in processing?
This is not an academic question, as that’s often the reality for nightscape images where the foreground remains dark. Bringing out detail in the shadows later requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure. How well will the image withstand that work on the shadows?
To test this, I shot a set of images at the same shutter speed, but at successively slower ISOs, from a well-exposed ISO 3200, to a severely underexposed ISO 100. I then boosted the Exposure setting later in Raw processing by an amount that compensated for the level of underexposure in the camera, from a setting of 0 EV at ISO 3200, to a +5 EV boost for the dark ISO 100 shots.
This tests for a camera’s “ISO Invariancy.” If a camera has a sensor and signal processing design that is ISO invariant, a boosted underexposed image at a slow ISO should look similar to a normally exposed image at a high ISO.
You’re just doing later in processing what a camera does on its own in-camera when bumping up the ISO.
But cameras that use ISO “variant” designs suffer from increased noise and artifacts when severely underexposed images are boosted later in Raw processing.
The Canon 6D and 6D MkII are such cameras.
This set above shows the results from the 6D Mark II. Boosting underexposed shadows reveals a lot of noise and a severe magenta cast.
These are all processed with Adobe Camera Raw, identical to the development engine in Adobe Lightroom.
This set above shows the results from the 6D. The older camera, which was never great for its lack of ISO Invariancy performance, is still much better than the new Mark II.
Effectively, this is the lack of dynamic range that others are reporting when testing the 6D MkII on more normal daytime images. It really rears its ugly head in nightscapes.
The lesson here is that the Mark II needs to be properly exposed as much as possible.
Don’t depend on being able to extract details later from the shadows. The adage “Expose to the Right,” which I explain at length in my Nightscapes eBook, applies in spades to the 6D MkII.
LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION
All the above images were taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) off. This is the function that, when turned on, forces the camera to take and internally subtract a dark frame – an image of just the noise – reducing thermal noise and discolouration in the shadows.
Here is the 6D Mark II in a pair of underexposed images at identical settings with LENR on and off. Not only did it not reduce noise and the magenta cast, using LENR made it worse.
This is so completely contrary to expectation that I wonder if the Mark II does not have a serious firmware issue in need of a fix in an upgrade.
DARK FRAME BUFFER
A unique feature of Canon full-frame cameras is that when LENR is on you can take several exposures in quick succession before the dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera. This is extremely useful for deep-sky shooting.
The single dark frame then gets applied to the buffered “light frames.”
The 6D Mark II, when in either Raw or in Raw+JPG can take 3 shots in succession. This is a downgrade from the 6D which can take 4 shots when in Raw+JPG. Pity.
ADOBE CAMERA RAW vs. DIGITAL PHOTO PROFESSIONAL
My next thought was that Adobe Camera Raw, while it was reading the Mark II files fine, might not have been de-Bayering or developing them properly. So I developed the same image with both Raw developers, Adobe’s and Canon’s latest version of their own Digital Photo Professional (DPP).
Here I did apply a modest and approximately similar level of noise reduction to both images:
In ACR: Color at 25, Luminosity at 40, with Sharpness at 25
In DPP: Chrominance at 8, Luminosity at 8, with Sharpness at 2
Yes, DPP did do a better job at eliminating the ugly magenta cast, but did a much worse job at reducing overall noise. DPP shows a lot of blockiness, detail loss, and artifacts left by the noise reduction.
Adobe Camera Raw and/or Lightroom remain among the best of many Raw developers.
A new feature the 6D Mark II offers is the ability to shoot and stack images in-camera. It can either “Add” the exposure values, or, most usefully, “Average” them, as shown here.
Other newer Canon DSLRs also offer this feature, notably the 7D MkII, the 5D MkIV, the 5Ds, and even the entry-level 80D. So the 6D MkII is not unique. But the feature was not on the 6D.
Here’s the benefit.
The left image is a single exposure; the middle is an average stack of 4 exposures stacked in camera; the right image an average stack of 9 exposures, the maximum allowed.
Noise smooths out a lot, with less noise the more images you stack. The result is a single Raw file, not a JPG. Excellent!
While this kind of stacking can be done later in processing in Photoshop, or in any layer-based program, many people might find this in-camera function handy.
Except, as you can see, the sky will exhibit star trails, and not as well defined as you would get from stacking them with a “Lighten” blend mode, as all star trail stacking routines use.
So this averaging method is NOT the way to do star trails. The Mark II does not offer the Brighten mode some other new Canons have that does allow for in-camera star trail stacking. Again, a pity in a camera many will choose for astrophotography.
Nevertheless, the Average mode is a handy way to create foreground landscapes with less noise, which then have to be composited later with a sky image or images.
On the left, below, the Mark II has a nearly identical layout of buttons and controls to the 6D on the right. So owners of the older model will feel right at home with the Mark II. That’s handy, as we astrophotographers work in the dark by feel!
Of course the big new feature, a first for Canon in a full-frame camera, is the Mark II’s fully articulated screen. It flips out, tilts, and even flips around to face forward. This is super-great for all astrophotography, especially when conducted by aging photographers with aching backs!
And the screen, as with the entry-level cropped-frame Canons, is a touch screen. For someone who hasn’t used one before – me! – that’ll take some getting used to, if only in just remembering to use it.
And it remains to be seen how well it will work in the cold. But it’s great to have.
Like other late-model Canon DSLRs, the 6D MkII has a built-in intervalometer. It works fine but is useable only on exposures with internally set shutter speeds up to 30 seconds.
However, setting the Interval so it fires the shutter with a minimal gap of 1 second between shots (our usual requirement for night time-lapses) is tricky: You have to set the interval to a value not 1 second, but 2 to 3 seconds longer than the shutter speed. i.e. an exposure of 30 seconds requires an interval of 33 seconds, as shown above. Anything less and the camera misses exposures.
Why? Well, when set to 30 seconds the camera actually takes a 32-second exposure. Surprise!
Other cameras I’ve used and tested with internal intervalometers (Nikon and Pentax) behave the same way. It’s confusing, but once you are used to it, the intervalometer works fine.
Except … the manual suggests the only way to turn it off and stop a sequence is to turn off the camera. That’s crude. A reader pointed out that it is also possible to stop a time-lapse sequence by hitting the Live View Start/Stop button. However, that trick doesn’t work on sequences programmed with only a second between frames, as described above. So stopping a night time-lapse is inelegant to say the least. With Nikons you can hold down the OK button to stop a sequence, with the option then of restarting it if desired.
Also, the internal Intervalometer cannot be used for exposures longer than 30 seconds. Again, that’s the case with all in-camera intervalometers in other models and brands.
As with many other new Canons, the Mark II has a Bulb Timer function.
When on Bulb you can program in exposure times of any length. That’s a nice feature that, again, might mean an external intervalometer is not needed for many situations.
A new feature I like is the greatly expanded information when reviewing an image.
One of the several screens you can scroll to shows whether you have shot that image with Long Exposure Noise Reduction on or not.
Excellent! I have long wanted to see that information recorded in the metadata. Digital Photo Professional also displays that status, but not Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom.
While this has been a long report, this is an important camera for us astrophotographers.
I wish the news were better, but the 6D Mark II is somewhat of a disappointment for its image quality. It isn’t bad. It’s just that it isn’t any better than than the older 6D, and in some aspects is worse.
Canon has clearly made certain compromise decisions in their sensor design. Perhaps adding in the Dual-Pixel Autofocus for rapid focusing in Movie Mode has compromised the signal-to-noise ratio. That’s something only Canon can explain.
But the bottom-line recommendations I can offer are:
If you are a Canon user looking to upgrade to your first full-frame camera, the 6D Mark II will provide a noticeable and welcome improvement in noise and performance over a cropped-frame model. But an old 6D, bought new while they last in stock, or bought used, will be much cheaper and offer slightly less noise. But the Mark II’s flip-out screen is very nice!
If you are a current 6D owner, upgrading to a Mark II will not get you better image quality, apart from the slightly better resolution. Noise is actually worse. But it does get you the flip-out screen. I do like that!
If you are not wedded to Canon, but want a full-frame camera for the benefits of its lower noise, I would recommend the Nikon D750. I have one and love it. I have coupled it with the Sigma Art series lenses. I have not used any of the Sony a7-series Mirrorless cameras, so cannot comment on their performance, but they are popular to be sure.
After a year of work, the new edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse ebook is on the e-shelves at the Apple iBooks Store.
In the two years since I first published this ebook, the field of nightscape shooting has enjoyed many changes, to equipment, software and techniques. Not to mention I’ve learned a lot!
All those changes are reflected in this new and expanded edition. It is 100 pages bigger – 500 pages now – than the first edition. It contains:
• 60 step-by-step image processing tutorials, all with current late-2016 software
• a dozen galleries of comparison “before-and-after” images
• 40 HD videos of time-lapse examples
• reviews of current equipment
• reviews of software, some very new – like this week! – to use in place of Adobe
• information on Nikon and Pentax cameras, as well as Canons
• In addition, many images can be tapped on to zoom up. And most text can now be enlarged in a Scrolling View for use on small-screen devices.
The previous 2014 edition garnered rave reviews, with readers calling it:
“Incredibly well put together and visually stunning.”
“Simply amazing! From hardware to software, it’s all covered. Alan Dyer got it right!”
and “It is a must-have resource for anyone doing nightscape and time-lapse photography.”
As with the first edition, I’ve designed the ebook to appeal to both amateur astronomers and landscape photographers by providing what I feel is the most comprehensive information available in any ebook on the hugely popular field of nightscape and time-lapse photography.
This isn’t a simple 50-page PDF pamphlet, as so many ebooks are. This is an extensive and detailed tutorial, with loads of interactive and multi-media content.
The size and media content of the ebook make it impossible to publish on Kindle/Amazon or Google Play/Android.
How to Photograph & Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses is available worldwide exclusively through the Apple iBooks Store, for the iBooks app on Apple Macs, iPads and iPhones.
Learn the basics of shooting nightscape and time-lapse images with my three new video tutorials.
In these comprehensive and free tutorials I take you from “field to final,” to illustrate tips and techniques for shooting the sky at night.
At sites in southern Alberta I first explain how to shoot the images. Then back at the computer I step you through how to process non-destructively, using images I shot that night in the field.
Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights
This 24-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at a lakeside site in southern Alberta on a night with a fine aurora display, through to the steps to processing a still image and assembling a time-lapse movie.
Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes
This 28-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at Waterton Lakes National Park on a bright moonlit night, to the steps for processing nightscapes using Camera Raw and Photoshop, with smart filters, adjustment layers and masks.
Tutorial #3 – Star Trails
This 35-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at summer solstice at Dinosaur Provincial Park, then through the steps for stacking star trail stills and assembling star trail time-lapse movies, using specialized programs such as StarStaX and the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop.
As always, enlarge to full screen for the HD versions. These are also viewable at my Vimeo channel.