Stars over Waterton Lakes

One of my favourite places is Waterton Lakes National Park. Even now, in 2011, the little town seems like Banff was back in the 1960s, before huge developments, resort hotels and endless shopping malls. Even at peak season the town is quiet and laid back.

It’s been a while since I had visited Waterton but was determined to this summer. A couple of days here yielded one clear night and a couple of 4-hour time-lapse sequences of stars turning over Waterton’s landmark, the Prince of Wales Hotel.

The hotel is a wood chalet-like structure built in 1927 by the Great Northern Railway as one in a chain of grand railway hotels. It sits on a bluff overlooking Waterton Lakes and remains the elegant place to stay or dine while in Waterton.

For this shot I set up at the end of the marina dock, looking north toward Polaris, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. This is a single 30-second exposure taken in deep twilight at the beginning of the night with the 10-22mm lens and Canon 7D camera. It’s one of 400+ frames taken for a time-lapse sequence. While lights from the hotel interior are somewhat picturesque and inviting it’s a pity that national parks still employ unshielded sodium vapour lights on roads. The streetlights are so bright and glaring they actually illuminate the mountainsides.

— Alan, July 22, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer


Circling the Sky II

My encounter with the old farmstead near home continued the next night (after the shot featured in the previous blog), under another stunningly clear moonlit sky. Here I let the camera fire away for three and half hours, producing a rather neat juxtaposition of surreal starfield above an abandoned old farmhouse.

For this shot I stacked 660 17-second exposures that were taken in rapid succession at one second intervals. I used the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and Sigma 8mm lens  at f/4.5.

My workflow for an image like this is to…:

1. Use Adobe’s Photo Downloader to download all the images from the camera card into a folder on a local hard drive, then open Adobe Bridge to inspect them. Toss out any junk shots at the beginning and end of the set.

2. Open a representative image in the sequence using Adobe Camera Raw and process it for Colour Correction, Contrast, Noise Reduction, Vibrance, Fill Light (to bring out shadow detail) and Recovery (to recover details in highlights).

3. Then in Bridge, go under Edit: Develop Settings: Copy Camera Raw Settings.

4. Select all the images (Select All) and then Paste Camera Raw Settings. This applies that custom setting to all the images in the sequence in one fell swoop. 600+ images processed in seconds! Sometimes it can take a few iterations to get a good setting that works well through the whole set.

5. Then Select All again in Bridge and go under Tools: Photoshop: Image Processor. This open Photoshop itself and brings up a dialog box that allows you to convert those processed RAW files into other formats (JPGs, TIFFs, etc. in whatever size you want). For this type of single image I convert the RAWs into full resolution TIFFs. While I am at it, I’ll also convert each image into a smaller-sized (1080 pixels high) JPG. The folder of JPGs are for creating an HD-format time-lapse movie from the same set of images. Image Processor can create two sets of images simultaneously from the same RAW master. Very nice.

6. This will take a while as Image Processor dutifully opens up each image one by one and creates a TIFF (and a JPG, too, if you like) from each RAW file in another folder. Go for a very leisurely coffee!

7. Once a folder of finished TIFFs is there, I can use Chris Schur’s Photoshop Action to take each of those images and stack them one by one into a single image. That process can take hours with full-res TIFFs. Start it before you go to bed! Slow, yes, but it’s better than doing it all by hand.

8. The final image can still use touch-ups, to sharpen, alter the brightness and contrast of the sky (frames taken when the sky was still bright with twilight can make the scene look too bright).

It can take a day’s worth of computer crunching to get a final image. But the result is certainly unique.

— Alan, July 20, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Circling the Sky

It has been an incredible week for imaging. Clear skies and a bright Moon are the tickets to nightscape photography. And in the last week we’ve had clear moonlit nights in abundance.

I’ve taken advantage of the run of great weather to shoot an old farmstead down the road from my house, on several nights. This is a shot from the first night out, on Thursday, July 14. It is a fish-eye lens shot taking in most of the sky, and looking north at the bottom of the frame. The star trails, taken over 2 hours, circle around the North Star (or close to it).

So why is the sky blue? The Full Moon, just out of the frame at top, is illuminating the landscape and sky — and light from the Full Moon is the same colour as light from the Sun (because that’s what moonlight is! — reflected sunlight). It’s just that moonlight is much dimmer. Expose long enough and you get a scene that looks like daylight but has the stars in it.

To create this image I took 400 18-second exposures, taken 1 second apart, using the Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800 and the Sigma 8mm lens at f/5. I stacked the images using an automated “action” for Photoshop developed  by astrophotographer Chris Schur. The original frames can also be strung together in sequence to create a time-lapse movie of the sky turning, suitable, in this case, for projection in a full-dome digital planetarium. I’ll post some of those shortly.

But after several nights of shooting till 3 and 4 a.m., and accumulating 100 gigabytes or more of RAW files, it’s time to take a night off and turn in early! At 1 a.m.!

— Alan, July 19, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Moon Over Banff Springs Hotel

A weekend in Banff National Park — but three cloudy nights foiled the array of starry time-lapse shots I had hoped to take. But on Sunday night, July 10, I did get a nice evening shot of the Moon over the most famous Banff landmark.

This is the Banff Springs Hotel, in the deepening twilight as the gibbous Moon shone over Sulphur Mountain behind the hotel. I shot this from the overlook across the Bow River on Tunnel Mountain Drive, a popular spot by day for tourists to disembark by the busload and get their requisite shot. But at this time of night, about 11 p.m., I was the only one there. That’s the beauty of nightscape photography — you have the scene to yourself! And the bears.

Banff Springs is the epitome of a grand hotel. Opened in 1888 but since reconstructed and added to several times, the hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as the focal point for the tourists it planned to bring into the new Rocky Mountain Park, to take “the waters” in the Park’s sulphur hot springs and enjoy mountain wilderness in genteel splendour. I had the pleasure of staying there one night, in an upper room, courtesy of the Hotel as part of an astronomy outreach program we did there for Earth Hour in 2010. It was truly splendid!

For this shot, I combined three different exposures (1/2 second, 1.3 seconds and 3.4 seconds) in a High Dynamic Range stack, to bring out dark foreground detail but retain the still bright sky, and prevent the Moon from becoming too overexposed. So some Photoshop trickery was involved. But unlike many picture postcard scenes of the Moon sitting above a landmark, this one is real and has not had the Moon pasted into place, usually in a spot and orientation that is astronomically impossible! We astronomers hate that!

— Alan, July 11, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer


In the southern hemisphere sky we are treated to the stunning sight of the centre of the Galaxy rising each night, as the starfields of Scorpius and Sagittarius come up over the eastern horizon. In this shot, taken last night (May 2/3), we see the Milky Way’s heart rising behind some of the robotic, remotely-controlled domes and telescopes at the Atacama Lodge in Chile. Only the centre dome is operating, taking images or data under the command of someone half a world away.

Amazing technology to be sure, but … that robotic observer misses the experience of standing under the Milky Way, watching its heart rise over the Andes and swing overhead through the night. The Milky Way is so bright it lights the ground, as you can see here.

Last night our little group of 7 Canadian observers had a fantastic time exploring the southern sky with several telescopes, including an 18-inch reflector set up for us by lodge owner Alain Maury. With the help of a couple of wide-angle eyepieces we saw wonderful views of the Vela Supernova Remnant, dark nebulas in the Milky Way, and showpiece targets like Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula – the list goes on! And will again tonight, as we compile another “hit-list” of targets to find tonight.

For this shot, I used the Canon 7D camera, a 15mm lens, and ISO 2500 for a 40 second exposure at f/2.8. This is one of about 500 frames taken for a time-lapse movie of “Galaxyrise.”

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer