How to Shoot and Stitch Nightscape Panoramas


The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone

Panoramas featuring the arch of the Milky Way have become the icons of dark sky locations. “Panos” can be easy to shoot, but stitching them together can present challenges. Here are my tips and techniques.

My tutorial complements the much more extensive information I provide in my eBook, at right. Here, I’ll step through techniques for simple to more complex panoramas, dealing first with essential shooting methods, then reviewing the workflows I use for processing and stitching panoramas. 

What software works best depends on the number of segments in your panorama, or even on the focal length of the lens you used. 


PART 1 — SHOOTING 

What Equipment Do You Need?

Nightscape panoramas don’t require any more equipment than what you likely already own for shooting the night sky. For Milky Way scenes you need a fast lens and a solid tripod, but any good DSLR or mirrorless camera will suffice. 

1-Camera with Leveling Head and L-Bracket
Pano Gear
A tripod head with a scale marked in degrees is essential. Here it sits on a levelling head with its own bubble level that makes it easy to level the camera. An L-bracket allows the camera to rotate directly above the vertical axis, handy when shooting in portrait mode, as here with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens, one option for horizon-to-zenith panoramas. The tripod accessories here are by Acratech. 

The tripod head can be either a ball head or a three-axis head, but it should have a horizontal axis marked with a degree scale. This allows you to move the camera at a correct and consistent angle from segment to segment. I think that’s essential. 

What you don’t need is a special, and often costly, panorama head. These rotate the camera around the so-called “nodal point” inside the lens, avoiding parallax shifts that can make it difficult to align and stitch adjacent frames. Parallax shift is certainly a concern when shooting interiors or any scenes with prominent content close to the camera. However, in most nightscapes our scene content is far enough away that parallax simply isn’t an issue. 

Though not a necessity, I find a levelling base a huge convenience. As I show above, this specialized ball head goes under the usual tripod head and makes it easy to level the main head. It eliminates all the fussing with trial-and-error adjustments of the length of each tripod leg. 

Canon 6D Mk II Level
On the Level
Most cameras now have an electronic level built in that is handy for ensuring the panorama does not end up tilted. This is from a Canon 6D MkII.

Then to level the camera itself, I use the electronic level now in most cameras. Or, if your camera lacks that feature, an accessory bubble level clipped into the camera’s hot shoe will work.

Having the camera level is critical. It can be tipped up, of course, but not tilted left-right. If it isn’t level the whole panorama will be off kilter, requiring excessive straightening and cropping in processing, or the horizon will wave up and down in the final stitch, perhaps causing parts of the scene to go missing.

NOTE: Click or tap on the panorama images to open a high-res version for closer inspection.  

Panorama of the Northern Lights and Winter Stars
Aurora in the Winter Sky
To capture this panorama I used a Sigma 14mm lens on a Nikon D750, mounted in portrait orientation with the gear shown above, to shoot eight segments 45° apart, each 13 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200. Stitching was with Adobe Camera Raw. The aurora lies to the north at left, while Orion and the winter Milky Way are to the south at right. 

Shooting Horizon Panoramas

While panoramas spanning the entire sky might be what you are after, I suggest starting simpler, with panos that take in just a portion of the 360° horizon and only a part of the 180° of the sky. These “partial panos” are great for auroras (above) or noctilucent clouds, (below), or for capturing just the core of the Milky Way over a landscape. 

The key to all panorama success is overlap. Segments should overlap by 30 to 50 percent, enabling the stitching software to align the segments using the content common to adjacent frames. Contrary to some users, I’ve never found an issue with having too much overlap, where the same content is present on several frames. 

Noctilucent Cloud Panorama over OId Barns on June 19, 2019
Noctilucent Clouds in Summer
NLCs are good panorama subjects. I captured this display on June 19, 2019 using a Sony a7III camera at ISO 400, and a Sigma 50mm lens at f/2 for a set of six segments stitched with Adobe Camera Raw

For a practical example, let’s say you shoot with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 16mm lens on a cropped-frame camera. Both combinations yield a field of view across the long dimension of the frame of roughly 80°, and across the short dimension of the frame of about 55°. 

That means if you shoot with the camera in “landscape” orientation, panning the camera by 40° between segments would provide a generous 50 percent overlap. The left half of each segment will contain the same content as the right half of the previous segment, if you take your panos by turning from left to right. 

TIP: My habit is to always shoot from left to right, as that puts the segments in the correct order adjacent to each other when I view them in browser programs such as Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, with images sorted in chronological order (from first to last images in a set) as I typically prefer. But the stitching will work no matter which direction you rotate the camera. 

In the example of a 24mm lens and a camera in landscape orientation you could turn at a 45° or 50° spacing and yield enough overlap. However, turning the camera at multiples of 15° is usually the most convenient, as tripod heads are often graduated with markings at 5° increments, and labeled every 15° or 30°. 

Some will have coarser and perhaps unlabeled markings. If so, determine what each increment represents, then take care to move the camera consistently by the amount that will provide adequate overlap. 

Harvest Moon Rising over the Red Deer River
Moonrise over the Red Deer River
Not all panoramas have to be of the Milky Way. This captures the sweeping arc of Earth’s blue shadow rising in the eastern sky as the Harvest Moon comes up amid the shadow. This is a 7-section single-tier panorama with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 100. It stitched fine with Adobe Camera Raw.

To maximize the coverage of the sky while still framing a good amount of foreground, a common practice is to shoot panoramas with the camera in portrait orientation. That provides more vertical but less horizontal coverage for each frame. In that case, for adequate overlap with a 24mm lens and full-frame camera shoot at 30° spacings.

TIP: When shooting a partial panorama, for example just to the south for the Milky Way, or to the north for the aurora borealis, my practice is to always shoot a segment farther to the left and another to the right of the main scene. Shoot more than you need. Those end segments can get distorted when stitching, but if they don’t contain essential content, they can be cropped out with no loss, leaving your main scene clean and undistorted.

Shooting with a longer lens, such as a 50mm (or 35mm on a cropped frame camera), will yield higher resolution in the final panorama, but you will have much less sky coverage, unless you shoot multiple tiers, as I describe below. You would also have to shoot more segments, at 15° to 20° spacings, taking longer to complete the shoot.

Night Train in the Moonlight at Morant's Curve
Morant’s Curve in the Moonlight
Not all panoramas have to be shot under dark skies, or encompass 360°. Moonlight illuminates the famous viewpoint called Morant’s Curve in Banff National Park, with Orion setting over the peaks of the Continental Divide, as a train speeds east through the March night. This is a panorama of 12 segments, each with a 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, stitched with PTGui. 

As the number of segments goes up shooting fast becomes more important, to minimize how much the sky moves from segment to segment, and during each exposure itself, to aid in stitching. Remember, the sky appears to be turning from east to west, but the ground isn’t. So a prolonged shoot can cause problems later as the stitching software tries to align on either the fixed ground or the moving stars. 

Panoramas on moonlit nights, as I show above, are relatively easy because exposures are short.

Milky Way over Dry Island Buffalo Jump
Milky Way over the Buffalo Jump
A moonless night in early May was perfect for a panorama of the Milky Way arching over the Badlands of Dry Island Buffalo Jump in Alberta. This is a multi-tier panorama of 3 tiers of 7 segments each, with exposures of 30 seconds at f/2 with a 20mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

Milky Way panoramas taken on dark, moonless nights are tougher. They require fast apertures (f/2 to f/2.8) and high ISOs (ISO 3200 to 6400), to keep individual exposures no more than 30 to 40 seconds long.

Histogram Example
Expose to the Right
Minimize noise in the shadows by exposing so the histogram is shifted to the right, and not slammed to the left. Underexposure is the most common cardinal sin of newbie nightscape photographers. 

Noise lives in the dark foregrounds, so I find it best to err on the side of overexposure, to ensure adequate exposure for the ground, even if it means the sky is bright and the stars slightly trailed. It’s the “Expose to the Right” philosophy I espouse at length in my eBook. 

Advanced users can try shooting in two passes: one at a low ISO and with a long exposure for the fixed ground, and another pass at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure for the moving sky. But assembling such a set will take some deft work in Photoshop to align and mask the two stitched panos. None of the examples here are “double exposures.”


Shooting 360° Panoramas

The Milky Way over Maskinonge Lake
Milky Way at Waterton Lakes
While covering 360° in azimuth, this panorama from July 2018 goes only partway up the sky, to capture the Milky Way core to the south and the solstice twilight glow to the north. This is a 10-segment panorama, with each segment 30 seconds at f/2 with a Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Adobe Camera Raw stitched this nicely.

More demanding than partial panoramas are full 360° panoramas, as above. Here I find it is best to start the sequence with the camera aimed toward the celestial pole (to the north in the northern hemisphere, or to the south in the southern hemisphere). That places the area of sky that moves the least over time at the two ends of the panorama, again making it easier for software to align segments, with the two ends taken farthest apart in time meeting up in space.

In our 24mm lens example, to cover the entire 360° scene shooting with a 45° spacing would require at least eight images (8 x 45 = 360). I used 10 above. Using that same lens with the camera in portrait orientation will require at least 12 segments to cover the entire 360° landscape. 


Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas

"Steve," the Strange Auroral Arc
Capturing STEVE This 360° panorama captures the infamous STEVE auroral arc across the south, with a normal auroral display to the north at right. This was from six segments, each 10 seconds at ISO 2500, with a Sigma 14mm lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation.

More demanding still are 360° panoramas that encompass the entire sky, from the ground below the horizon to the zenith overhead. Above is an example.

To do that with a single row of images requires shooting in portrait orientation with a very wide 14mm rectilinear lens on a full-frame camera. That combination has a field of view of about 100° across the long dimension of the sensor. 

That sounds generous, but reaching up to the zenith at an altitude of 90° means only a small portion of the landscape will be included along the bottom of the frame.

To provide an even wider field of view to take in more ground, I use full-frame fish-eye lenses on my full-frame cameras, such as Canon’s old 15mm lens (as shown at top) or Rokinon’s 12mm. Even a circular-format fish-eye will work, such as an 8mm on a full-frame camera or 4.5mm on a cropped-frame camera. 

All such fish-eye lenses produce curved horizons, but they take in a wide swath of sky, making it possible to include lots of foreground while reaching well past the zenith. Conventional panorama assembly programs won’t work with such wide and distorted segments, but the specialized programs described below will. 


Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas

Bow Lake by Night Panorama
Bow Lake by Night
The summer Milky Way arches over iconic Bow Lake in Banff on a perfect night in July 2018. This is a stitch, using PTGui, of three tiers of 7 segments each, with a 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750, with a Genie Mini automating the horizontal panning and shutter release, as shown above. Each frame was 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400. I used this same set to test the programs described below.

The alternative technique for “all-sky” panos is to shoot multiple tiers of images: first, a lower row covering the ground and partway up the sky, followed by an upper row completing the coverage of just the sky at top. 

The trick is to ensure adequate overlap both horizontally and vertically. With the camera in landscape orientation that will require a 20mm lens for full-frame cameras, or a 14mm lens for cropped-frame cameras. Either combination can cover the entire sky plus lots of foreground in two tiers, though I usually shoot three, just to be sure!.

Shooting with longer lenses provides incredible resolution for billboard-sized “gigapan” blow-ups, but will require shooting three, if not more, tiers, each with many segments. That starts to become a chore to do manually. Some motorized assistance really helps when shooting multi-tier panoramas. 


Automating the Pan Shooting

The dedicated pano shooter might want to look at a device such as the GigaPan Epic models or the iOptron iPano, (shown below), all about $800 to $1000. 

5A-iPano Aimed High
iPano Panorama Machine
The iOptron iPano automates all shooting and movement, making even the most complex panoramas easy to shoot. It can also be used for two-axis motion-control time-lapses. 

I’ve tested the latter and it works great. You program in the lens, overlap, and angular sweep desired. The iPano works out how many segments and tiers will be required, and automates the shooting, firing the shutter for the duration you program, then moving to the new position, firing again, and so on. I’ve shot four-tier panos effortlessly and with great success. 

5B-iPano Screen-Shooting Info
iPano Control
The iPano’s on-board screen provides all the menus and options for setting up a shoot. This screen shows that this multi-tier pano will take 6m37s to complete. 

However, these devices are generally bigger and heavier than I care to heft around in the field.

Instead, I use the original Genie Mini from SYRP, (below), a $250 device primarily for shooting motion control time-lapses. But the wireless app that programs the Genie also has a panorama function that automatically slews the camera horizontally between exposures, again based on the lens, overlap, and angular sweep you enter. The just-introduced Genie Mini II is similar, but with even more capabilities for camera control. 

6A--SYRP Genie Mini
The SYRP Genie Mini
A lower-cost option for automated shooting, the Genie Mini also provides time-lapse motion control. Here, I show it with a conventional 3-axis head on top, for shifting the camera up in altitude manually for multi-tier panos, while the Mini handles the horizontal motion and exposures. 

While combining two Genie Minis allows programming in a vertical motion as well, I’ve been using just a regular tripod head atop the Mini to manually move the camera vertically between each of the horizontal tiers. I don’t feel the one or two moves needed to go from tier to tier too arduous to do manually, and I like to keep my field gear compact and easy to use.

6B-Genie App
Wireless Control
The original Genie App (Apple iOS or Android) connects to the Genie via Bluetooth. This screen shows a 360° panorama programmed for a 20mm lens with 37% percent overlap, requiring eight segments. The shutter will fire after each move for 40 seconds.

The Genie Mini (now replaced by the Mini II) works great and I highly recommend it, even if panoramas are your only interest. But it is also one of the best, yet most affordable, single-axis motion control devices on the market for time-lapse work. 


When to Shoot the Milky Way

While the right gear and techniques are important, go out on the wrong night and you won’t be able to capture the Milky Way as the great sweeping arch you might have hoped for.

In the northern hemisphere the Milky Way arches directly overhead from late July to October for most of the night. That’s fine for spherical fish-eye panoramas, but in rectangular images when the Milky Way is overhead it gets stretched and distorted across the top of the final panorama. For example, in the Bow Lake by Night panorama above, I cropped out most of this distorted content.

The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone
Capturing the Arch
I captured this 360° pano of the summer Milky Way arching over the sandstone formations of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in early June 2018. At that time of year the Milky Way is still confined to the eastern sky. This is a 21-panel panorama, shot in three tiers of seven panels each, with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Genie Mini, with each segment 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400.

The prime season for Milky Way arches is therefore before the Milky Way climbs overhead, while it is still across the eastern sky, as above. That’s on moonless nights from March to early July, with May and June best for catching it in the evening, and not having to wait up until dawn, as is the case in early spring. 

8B-Starry Night Simulation
Simulating the Scene
I often use Starry Night™ (shown here) to simulate the sky for the place and date I want, to preview where and when the Milky Way will appear and how it will move. The red box shows the field of view of a rectilinear 14mm lens in portrait orientation, showing it covering from the zenith (at top) to just below the horizon.

TIP: The best way to figure out when and where the Milky Way will appear is to use a desktop planetarium program such as Starry Night or Sky Safari  or the free Stellarium. All can realistically depict the Milky Way for your location and date. You can then step through time to see how the Milky Way will move through the night, and how it will frame with your camera and lens combination using the “field of view” indicators the programs provide. 

Southern Sky Panorama at OzSky Star Party
The Great Southern Sky
A 360° panorama from April 2017 captures the arc of the southern Milky Way over the OzSky star party near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. This is 8 segments, each 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2.5 with a Rokinon 14mm lens on a Canon 6D in portrait orientation, and stitched with PTGui.

When shooting in the southern hemisphere I like the April to June period for catching the sweep of the southern Milky Way and the galactic core rising in late evening. By contrast, during mid austral winter in July and August the galactic centre shines directly overhead in the evening, a spectacular sight to be sure, but tough to capture in a panorama except in a spherical or fish-eye scene. 

Spring Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park
The Other Milky Way
This 360° panorama, shot in a single tier with a 14mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, captures the winter Milky Way arching across the western sky on an early spring night at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. Also in the pano is the sweep of the faint Zodiacal Light. This is a stitch, using PTGui, of 12 segments, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000.

That said, I always like to put in a good word for the often sadly neglected winter Milky Way (the summer Milky Way for those “down under”). While lacking the spectacle of the galactic core in Sagittarius, the “other” Milky Way has its attractions such as Orion and Taurus. The best months for a panorama with that Milky Way in an arch across a rectangular frame are January to March. The Zodiacal Light can be a bonus at that season, as it was above.

TIP: Always shoot raw files for the widest dynamic range and flexibility in recovering details in the highlights and shadows. Even so, each segment has to be well exposed and focused out in the field.

And unless you are doing a “two-pass” double exposure, always shoot each segment with identical exposure settings. This is especially critical for bright sky scenes such twilights or moonlit scenes. Vary the exposure and you might get unsightly banding at the seams.

There’s nothing worse than getting home only to find one or more segments was missed, or was out of focus or badly exposed, spoiling the set.


PART 2 — STITCHING

Developing Panorama Segments

Once you have your panorama segments, the next step is to develop and assemble them. For my workflow, the process of assembling a panorama from its constituent segments begins with developing each of those segments identically.

NOTE: Click or tap on the software screen shots to open a high-res version for closer inspection. 

11A-Adobe Camera Raw Before-After
Developing with Adobe Camera Raw
This shows one segment of the multi-tier example before (on the left) and after applying development settings in the Basic panel of Adobe Camera Raw. By selecting all the images, the Sync Settings command (at top left) will apply the settings of one image to the rest of the set.

I like to develop each segment’s raw file as fully as possible at this first stage in the workflow, applying noise reduction, colour correction, contrast adjustments, shadow and highlight recovery, and any special settings such as dehaze and clarity that can make the Milky Way pop. 

I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions. 

There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.

DxO Photo Lab Example
Developing with DxO
Among a host of programs competing with Adobe, DxO PhotoLab does a good job developing raw files, with the ability to copy and paste settings from one image to many. It has excellent noise reduction and shadow detail recovery. However, it cannot layer images.

The key is developing each raw file identically, usually by working on one segment, then copying and pasting its settings to all the others in a set. Not all raw developers have this “Copy Settings” function. For example, Affinity Photo does not. It works very well as a layer-based editor to replace Photoshop, but is crude in its raw developing “Persona” functions. 

While panorama stitching software will apply corrections to smooth out image-to-image variations, I find it is best to ensure all the segments look as similar as possible at the raw stage for brightness, contrast, and colour correction. 

Do be aware that among social media groups and chat rooms devoted to nightscape imaging a lot of myth and misinformation abounds about how to process and stitch panoramas, and why some don’t work. Someone having a problem with a particular pano will ask why, and get ten different answers from well-meaning helpers, most of them wrong!


Stitching Simple Panoramas

For example, if your segments don’t join well it likely isn’t because you needed to use a panorama head (one oft-heard bit of advice). I never do. The issue is usually a lack of sufficient overlap. Or perhaps the image content moved too much from frame to frame as the photographer took too long to shoot the set. 

Or, even when quickly-shot segments do have lots of overlap, stitching software can still get confused if adjoining segments contain featureless content or content that changes, such as segments over rippling water with no identifiable “landmarks” for the software to latch onto. 

The primary problems, however, arise from using software that just isn’t up to the task. Programs that work great on simple panoramas (as the next three examples show) will fail when trying to stitch a more demanding set of segments.

11B-Adobe Camera Raw Panorama
Stitching with Adobe Camera Raw
The panorama function in all recent versions of Adobe Camera Raw (Lightroom Classic has the same feature) can do a superb job on simple panoramas, such as the moonlit Morant’s Curve pano, with the magical Boundary Warp option allowing you to fill the frame without cropping and losing content.

For example, for partial horizon panos shot with 20mm to 50mm lenses, I’ll use the panorama function now built into Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom Classic, and also in the mobile-friendly Lightroom app. As I show above, ACR can do a wonderful job, yielding a raw DNG file that can continue to be edited non-destructively. It’s by far the easiest and fastest option, and is my first choice.

Another choice, not shown here, is the Photomerge function from within Photoshop, which yields a layered and masked master file, and provides the option for “content-aware” filling of missing areas. It can sometimes work on panos that ACR balks at. 

12-ON1 PhotoRAW
Stitching with ON1 PhotoRAW
The Adobe competitor ON1 PhotoRAW also provides a good panorama stitching feature that can work with both simple and many multi-tier panos. It provides a flattened result, even when exporting as a .PSD Photoshop file.

Two programs popular as Adobe alternatives, ON1 PhotoRAW (above) and the aforementioned Affinity Photo (below), also have very capable panorama stitching functions.

However, in testing both programs with the demanding Bow Lake multi-tier panorama I used below with other programs, ON1 2019.5 did an acceptable job, while Affinity 1.7 failed. It works best on simpler panoramas, like this partial scene with a 24mm lens.

13-Affinity Photo
Stitching with Affinity Photo
Another program vying to unseat Adobe products is Affinity Photo. It, too, does a fine job on simple panos, but tends to fail on multi-tier panoramas. There is no choice of panorama projections or option to export a layered master.

Even if they succeed when stitching 360° panoramas, such general-purpose editing programs, Adobe’s included, provide no option for choosing how the final scene gets framed. You have no control over where the program puts the ends of the scene.

Or the program just fails, producing a result like this.

14A-Camera Raw Multi-Tier Fail
When Stitching Goes Awry
Throw a multi-tier pano at Adobe Camera Raw and you might end up with this type of unsalvageable result. Here’s where you have to turn to specialized panorama software
14B-Adobe Camera Raw 14mm Fail
Warp Factor
Even single-tier panos but shot with 14mm rectilinear (in this case) or fish-eye lenses will create warped results with ACR, only partly correctable with Boundary Warp.

Far worse is that multi-tier panoramas or, as I show above, even single-tier panos shot with very wide lenses, will often completely befuddle your favourite editing software, with it either refusing to perform the stitch or producing bizarre results.

Some photographers attempt to correct such wild distortions with lots of ad hoc adjustments with image-warping filters. But that’s completely unnecessary if you use the right software to begin with. 


Stitching Complex Panoramas

When conventional software fails, I turn to the dedicated stitching program PTGui, $150 for MacOS or Windows. The name comes from “Panorama Tools – Graphical User Interface.” 

15-PTGui-Rectangular
Stitching with PTGui
PTGui handles whatever complexity of panorama you can throw at it, either single or multi-tier (in this example), offering an accurate preview, a choice of projection modes (this is “equirectangular”), and the ability to quickly move the pano around to frame it as you like before exporting either a flattened or a layered master.

While PTGui can read raw files from most cameras, it will not read any of the development adjustments you made to those files using Lightroom, Camera Raw, or any other raw developers. 

So, my workflow is to develop all the raw segments, export them out as 16-bit TIFFs, then import those into PTGui. It can detect what lens was used to take the images, information PTGui needs to stitch accurately. If you used a manual lens you can enter the lens focal length and type (rectilinear or fish-eye) yourself. 

18A-PTGui-Spherical
Spherical Scene with PTGui
PTGui makes it easy to re-project the same set of images into other map projections, in this case as a circular fish-eye scene which can be rotated as desired.

I include a full tutorial on using PTGui in my eBook linked to above, but suffice to say that the program usually does a superb job first time and very quickly. You can drag the panorama around to frame the scene as you like, and change the projection at will to create rectangular or spherical format images, as above, and even so-called “little planet” projections that appear as if you were looking down at the scene from space. 

Occasionally PTGui complains about some frames, requiring you to manually intervene to pick the same stars or horizon features in adjacent frames to provide enough matching alignment points until it is happy. Its interface also leaves something to be desired, with essential floating windows disappearing behind other mostly blank panels. 

15B-Layered Photoshop
Adjusting Layers
The layered output from PTGui produces a massive image but one that allows fine adjustments to the masks (by using a white paint brush) to correct mismatches like we see see here along the mountain peak.

When exporting the finished panorama I usually choose to export it as a layered 16-bit Photoshop .PSD or, with big panos, as a Photoshop .PSB “big” document. 

The reason is that in aligning the moving stars PTGui (indeed, all programs) can produce a few “fault lines” along the horizon, requiring a manual touch up to the masks to clean up mismatched horizon content, as I show above. Having a layered and masked master makes this easy to do non-destructively, though that’s best done in Photoshop. 

Affinity Photo Layers
Opening with Affinity
Affinity Photo is one of the few non-Adobe programs that can open large Photoshop .PSB files, and honour the layers, keeping them and the masks that PTGui exports intact.

However, Affinity Photo (above) can also read layered .PSD and .PSB Photoshop files, preserving the layers. By comparison, ON1 PhotoRAW flattens layered Photoshop files when it imports them, one deficiency that prevents this program from being a true Photoshop alternative. 

The Milky Way over Writing-on-Stone
Compressing the Milky Way
A common final step is to compress the long dimension of the image to change its aspect ratio to one better suited to publication. But doing so highly distorts the grand sweep of the Milky Way.

Once a 360° panorama is in a program like Photoshop, some photographers like to “squish” the panorama horizontally to make it more square, for ease of printing and publication. I prefer not to do that, as it makes the Milky Way look overly tall, distorted, and in my opinion, ugly. But each to their own style.

You can test out a limited trial version of PTGui for free, but I think it is worth the cost as an essential tool for panorama devotees. 


Other Stitching Options

16-Microsoft ICE
Stitching with Microsoft ICE
Image Composite Editor, for Windows only but free from Microsoft Research, also does a superb job on all panoramas (as it did with this test case), with accurate stitching and preview, a choice of projections, cropping, and the option for a layered output.

However, Windows users can also try Image Composite Editor (ICE), free from Microsoft Research. As shown above in my test 3-tier pano, ICE works very well on complex panoramas, has a clean, user-friendly interface, offers a choice of geometric projections, and can export a master file with each segment on its own layer, if desired, for later editing. 

17A-HugIn Software
Stitching with HugIn
The open-source program HugIn is free, but suffers from an inaccurate preview, complex interface and workflow, and technical displays and functions only a programmer will love.

The free, open source program HugIn is based on the same Panorama Tools root software that PTGui uses. However, I find HugIn’s operation clunky and overly technical. Its export process is arcane yet renders out only a flattened image.

17B-Bow Lake from Hugin
HugIn Fail
The export of the same multi-tier pano that worked fine with PTGui and ICE failed with HugIn, with missing content and numerous mis-aligned areas of the landscape, tough to fix in the flattened output. 

In testing it with the same three-tier 21-segment pano that PTGui and ICE handled perfectly, HugIn failed to properly include one segment. However, it is free for MacOS and Windows, and so the price is right and is well worth a try. 

Bow Lake by Night Panorama (Spherical)
Fish-Eye Milky Way
In summer with the Milky Way overhead, a spherical projection is often best for presenting the Milky Way as your eye saw it, as a majestic band of light from horizon to horizon across the sky passing through the zenith.

With the superb tools now at our disposal, it is possible to create detailed panoramas of the night sky that convey the majesty of the Milky Way – and the night sky – as no single image can. Have fun!

— Alan, June 25, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com  

Dinosaur Park in the Dark


Winter Sky Setting in Twilight at Dinosaur Park

There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. 

Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!

I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.

I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.

Winter Sky Setting at Dinosaur Park Panorama
This is a 240° panorama stitched from 17 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, each segment 20 seconds at f/1.4 and ISO 3200. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.

The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.

Spring Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park
A 360° panorama of the spring sky over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. This is a panorama of 12 segments taken with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, all for 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Taken at 30° spacings. Stitched with PTGui.

Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.

Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.

The Winter Stars and Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
This is a panorama stitched from 3 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750, for 20 seconds at f/2.2 and ISO 4000. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.

It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!

Spring Sky RIsing at Dinosaur Park Panorama
A 180° panorama of the spring sky and constellations rising in the east over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta on March 29, 2019. This is a stitch of 6 segments, each with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait mode, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Stitched with PTGui.

A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”

Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.

Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.

The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.

I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!

Clear skies!

— Alan, April 1, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Testing ON1 Photo RAW for Astrophotography


ON1 Testing Title

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.


The Conclusions

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 …

  1. Functions in Layers are still limited. For example, there is no stacking and averaging for noise smoothing. Affinity Photo has those.
  2. Filters, though abundant for artistic special effect “looks,” are limited in basic but essential functions. There is no Median filter, for one.
  3. 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.
  4. The lack of support for third-party plug-ins means ON1 cannot work with essential time-lapse programs such as Timelapse Workflow or LRTimelapse.
ON1 Final Composite
A finished nightscape composite, with stacked exposures for the ground and stacked and tracked exposures for the sky, layered and blended in ON1.

Recommendations

Nightscapes: ON1 Photo RAW 2019 works acceptably well for nightscape still images:

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. As with the 2018 edition, you still cannot copy and paste masked local adjustments from image to image, limiting their use.
  3. Exporting those images is slow.

Deep-Sky: ON1 is not a program I can recommend for deep-sky image processing:

  1. Stars inevitably end up with unsightly sharpening haloes.
  2. De-Bayering artifacts add blocky textures to the sky background.
  3. 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 Browse Module
ON1 cannot catalog or display movie files or Photoshop’s PSB files (but then again with PSBs neither can Lightroom!).

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.


Nightscape Processing – Developing Raw Images

ON1 Before and After Processing
On the left, a raw image as it came out of the camera. On the right, after developing (with Develop and Effects module settings applied) in ON1.

For this test I used the same nightscape image I threw at Adobe competitors a year ago, in a test of a dozen or more raw developers. It is a 2-minute tracked exposure with a Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.

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.

ON1 & ACR Raw Image Comparison
On the left, a single raw image developed with Adobe Camera Raw. On the right, the same image with ON1 and its basic Develop and more advanced Effects settings.

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.

ON1 Presets
ON1 offers a huge array of Presets that apply combinations of its filters with one click from the Browse module.

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

ON1 Noise Reduction
On the left, an image in ON1 without any Noise Reduction. On the right, with noise reduction and sharpening (under Details) applied with the settings shown.

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

Hot Pixel Removal Comparison
On the left, ACR with noise reduction applied (it offers no user-selectable Hot Pixel Removal tool). In the middle, ON1 with Remove Hot Pixels turned on; on the right, with it turned off – showing more hot pixels than ACR does.

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

ON1 & ACR Star Image Comparison
On the left, a 700% blow-up of the stars in Adobe Camera Raw. On the right, the same image processed in ON1 and exported out as a PSD.

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).

De-Bayering Artifacts

ON1-Debayer
ON1, with contrast boosts applied but with no sharpening or noise reduction, shows star haloes, while the sky shows a blocky pattern at the pixel level in high ISO shots.
ACR-Debayer
Adobe Camera Raw, with similar settings but also no sharpening or noise reduction, shows a smooth and uniform sky background.

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

ON1 Perfect Brush
ON1’s adjustable “Perfect Brush” option for precise masking around edges and objects isn’t quite as effective as Photoshop’s Quick Selection Tool.

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!

Local Adjustments 

ON1 Masking Adjustments
Local Adjustments can be painted in or out with classic and easy-to-adjust and view masks and layers, rather than adjustment pins used by many raw developers such as ACR.

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.

Luminosity Masks

ON1 Luminosity Masking
ON1 has one-click Luminosity masking, an excellent feature.

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).

Glow Effect
ON1’s handy Orton-style Glow effect, here with a Luminosity mask applied. The mask can be adjusted with the Levels and Window sliders, and applied to a range of colors as well.

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.

Final Composite

ON1 Final Composite
A finished nightscape composite, with stacked exposures for the ground and stacked and tracked exposures for the sky, layered and blended in ON1.

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.

Stacking

ON1-Layer Opacities
This shows an intermediate step in creating the final composite shown above: Four sky layers are stacked, with opacities as shown, which has the effect of smoothing noise. But to continue working on the image requires making a single “New Stamped Layer” out of the group of four – in this case, the sky layers. The same can be done for the four ground layers.

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

ON1 Pasting Settings
ON1 allows easy copying and pasting of settings from one raw image to others, with the annoying exception of Local Adjustments and their masks.

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.


Time-Lapse Processing

ON1 Copy & Paste
ON1 does allow developing one image in a set, then copying and pasting its settings to perhaps hundreds of other images in a time-lapse set.

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.

ON1 Export
This is ON1’s Export dialog box, set up here to export the developed raw files into another “intermediate” set of 4K-sized JPGs for movie assembly.

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.


Deep-Sky Processing

ON1-Tracked Milky Way
A tracked 2-minute exposure of the Cygnus Milky Way, with a Sony a7III camera at ISO 800 and Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, developed in ON1.
ACR-Tracked Milky Way
The same Milky Way image developed in Adobe Camera Raw. It looks better!

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.

Deep-Sky Close-Ups

ON1 Processed M31
The Andromeda Galaxy, in a stack of six tracked and auto-guided 8-minute exposures with a stock Canon 6D MkII through an 80mm f/6 refractor.
Photoshop Processed M31
The same set of six exposures, stacked and processed with ACR and Photoshop, with multiple masked adjustment layers as at right. The result looks better.

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

ON1 Processed M31-Close-Up
A 400% close-up of the final Andromeda Galaxy image. It shows haloed stars and a textured and noisy sky background.
Photoshop Processed M31-Close-Up
The same area blown up 400% of the Photoshop version of the Andromeda Galaxy image. Stars and sky look smoother and more natural.

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 Processed M31-With & Without
On the left, the image before any processing applied; on the right, after the level of processing needed for such deep-sky images. What starts out looking OK, turns messy.

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 With & Without NR and Hot Pixels
With and without noise reduction and hot pixel removal shows stars becoming lost and misshapen with the Remove Hot Pixel option.

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

ON1 Auto-Alignment
The six Andromeda images stacked then “Auto-Aligned” in ON1, with just the top (first) and bottom (last) images turned on here. with the top image switched to Difference blend mode to show any mis-alignment.
Photoshop Auto-Alignment
The same set stacked and “Auto-Aligned” in Photoshop, with the same first and last images turned on and blended with Difference. PS’s alignment is much better, indicated by the image “blacking out” as the two registered frames cancel out.

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.


Wrap-Up

M31 from ON1
The final M31, Andromeda Galaxy image processed with ON1.

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.

Dynamic Contrast
ON1’s useful Dynamic Contrast filter. A little goes a long way.

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.

ON1 Color Adjustment
ON1’s selective Color Adjustment. OK, but where’s the Black and Neutrals?

• 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.

But don’t take my word for it. Download the trial copy and test it for yourself.

— Alan, November 22, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

 

Testing the Canon 6D Mark II for Nightscapes


Canon 6DMkII vs 6D Front

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.

COMPARING NOISE

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?

6D MkII Noise at 5 ISOs 6D Mark II noise at 5 ISO speeds

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. 

6D Noise at 5 ISOs 6D noise at 5 ISO speeds

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.

6D MkII Noise at ISO 3200 6D MkII noise at ISO 3200 compared to 6D

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.

ISO INVARIANCY

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.

6D MkII ISO Variancy 6D Mark II ISO Invariancy

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.

6D ISO Variancy 6D ISO Invariancy

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. 

Underexposed shadows show less noise and discolouration in the 6D. For a comparison of the Canon 6D with the ISO Invariant Nikon D750, see my earlier Nikon vs. Canon blog from 2015. The Nikon performs much better than the 6D.

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. 

DARK FRAME BUFFER

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.

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).

ACR vs DPP-withNR ACR vs. 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.

IMAGE AVERAGING

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.

Multiple Exposure Menu 6D Mark II Multiple Exposure screen

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.

6D MkII Averaging 6D Mark II Averaging results

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.

OTHER FEATURES

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!

Canon 6DMkII vs 6D Rear 6D Mark II (left) and 6D rear views

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.

INTERVAL TIMER

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.

Interval Timer Menu 6D Mark II Interval Timer screen

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.

BULB TIMER

As with many other new Canons, the Mark II has a Bulb Timer function.

Bulb Timer Menu 6D Mark II Bulb Timer screen

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.

PLAYBACK SCREEN

A new feature I like is the greatly expanded information when reviewing an image.

Playback Menu-LENR Status 6D Mark II Playback screen

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Eclipse Rig The 6D Mark II as part of the rig for shooting the total solar eclipse. The articulated screen will be very nice!

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.

 

You can find a thorough review of the Mark II’s performance for normal photography at DPReview at https://www.dpreview.com/reviews/canon-eos-6d-mark-ii-review

However, I hope this review aimed specifically at nightscape shooters will be of value. I have yet to test the 6D Mark II for very long-exposure tracked deep-sky images.

— Alan, August 9, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com