In mid-October 2022 I enjoyed a rare run of five clear and mild nights in the Rocky Mountains for shooting nightscapes of the stars. Here’s a portfolio … and a behind-the-scenes look at its making.
Getting two perfectly clear nights in a row is unusual in the mountains. Being treated to five is a rare treat. Indeed, had I started my shooting run earlier in the week I could have enjoyed even more of the string of cloudless nights in October, though under a full Moon. But five was wonderful, allowing me to capture some of the scenes that had been on my shot list for the last few years.
Here is a portfolio of the results, from five marvelous nights in Banff and Jasper National Parks, in Alberta, Canada.
For the photographers, I also provide some behind-the-scenes looks at the planning and shooting techniques, and of my processing steps.
Night One — Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
Peyto Lake, named for pioneer settler and trail guide Bill Peyto who had a cabin by the lakeshore, is one of several iconic mountain lakes in Banff. Every tour bus heading along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper stops here. By day is it packed. By night I had the newly constructed viewpoint all to myself.
I shot the classic view north in deep twilight, with the stars of Ursa Major and the Big Dipper low over the lake, as they are in autumn. A show of Northern Lights would have been ideal, but I was happy to settle for just the stars.
The night was perfect, not just for the clarity of the sky but also the timing. The Moon was just past full, so was rising in late evening, leaving a window of time between the end of twilight and moonrise when the sky would be dark enough to capture the Milky Way. Then shortly after, the Moon would come up, lighting the peaks with golden moonlight — alpenglow, but from the Moon not Sun.
The above is blend of two panoramas, each of seven segments, the first for the sky taken when the sky was dark, using a star tracker to keep the stars pinpoints. The second for the ground I shot a few minutes later at moonrise with no tracking, to keep the ground sharp. I show below how I blended the two elements.
To plan such shots I use the apps The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and its companion app TPE 3D. The screen shot above at left shows the scene in map view for the night in question, with the Big Dipper indicated north over the lake and the line of dots for the Milky Way showing it to the southwest over Peyto Glacier. Tap or click on the images for full-screen versions.
Switch to TPE 3D and its view at right above simulates the scene you’ll actually see, with the Milky Way over the mountain skyline just as it really appeared. The app even faithfully replicates the lighting on the peaks from the rising Moon. It is an amazing planning tool.
On the drive back from Peyto Lake to Saskatchewan River Crossing I stopped at another iconic spot, the roadside viewpoint for Mt. Cephren at Waterfowl Lakes. By this time, the Moon was well up and fully illuminating the peak and the sky, but still leaving the foreground dark. The sky is blue as it is by day because it is lit by moonlight, which is just sunlight reflecting off a perfectly neutral grey rock, the Moon!
This is from a set of untracked camera-on-tripod shots using short 30-second exposures.
Night Two — Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park
By the next night I was up in Jasper, a destination I had been trying to revisit for some time. But poor weather prospects and forest fire smoke had kept me away in recent years.
The days and nights I was there coincided with the first weekend of the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I attended one of the events, the very enjoyable Aurora Chaser’s Retreat, with talks and presentations by some well-known chasers of the Northern Lights. Attendees had come from around North America.
On my first night in Jasper I headed up to Pyramid Lake, a favorite local spot for stargazing and night sky photography, particularly from the little island connected to the “mainland” by a wooden boardwalk. Lots of people were there quietly enjoying the night. I shared one campfire spot with several other photographers also shooting the Milky Way over the calm lake before moonrise.
A little later I moved to the north end of Pyramid Island for the view of the Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain, now fully lit by the rising waning Moon, and with some aspens still in their autumn colours. A bright meteor added to the scene.
Night Three — Athabasca River Viewpoint, Jasper National Park
For my second night in Jasper, I ventured back down the Icefields Parkway to the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint overlooking the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide.
As I did at Peyto Lake, I shot a panorama (this one in three sections) for the sky before moonrise with a tracker. I then immediately shot another three-section panorama, now untracked, for the ground while it was still lit just by starlight under a dark sky. I then waited an hour for moonrise and shot a third panorama to add in the golden alpenglow on the peaks. So this is a time-blend, bending reality a bit. See my comments below!
Night Four — Edith Lake, Jasper National Park
With a long drive back to Banff ahead of me the next day, for my last night in Jasper I stayed close to town for shots from the popular Edith Lake, just up the road from the posh Jasper Park Lodge. Unlike at Pyramid Lake, I had the lakeshore to myself.
This would be a fabulous place to catch the Northern Lights, but none were out this night. Instead, I was content to shoot scenes of the northern stars over the calm lake and Pyramid Mountain.
The Moon was now coming up late, so the shots above are both in darkness with only starlight providing the illumination. Well, and also some annoying light pollution from town utility sites off the highway. Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve, but a lot of the town’s street and utility lighting remains unshielded.
Night Five — Lake Louise, Banff National Park
On my last night I was at Lake Louise, as the placement of the Milky Way would be perfect.
There’s no more famous view than this one, with Victoria Glacier at the end of the blue-green glacial lake. Again, by day the site is thronged with people and the parking lot full by early morning.
By night, there were just a handful of other photographers on the lakeshore, and the parking lot was nearly empty. I could park right by the walkway up to the lake.
Again, TPE and TPE 3D told me when the Milky Way would be well-positioned over the lake and glacier, so I could complete the untracked ground shots first, to be ready to shoot the tracked sky segments by the time the Milky Way had turned into place over the glacier.
This image is also a panorama but a vertical one, made primarily of three untracked segments for the ground and seven tracked segments for the sky, panning up from the horizon to past the zenith overhead, taking in most of the summer and autumn Milky Way from Serpens up to Cassiopeia.
As readers always want to know what gear I used, I shot all images on all nights with the 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera and Canon RF15-35mm lens, with exposures of typically 1 to 3 minutes each at ISOs of 800 to 1600. I had other cameras and lenses with me but never used them.
The R5 works very well for nightscapes, despite its small pixels. See my review of it here on my blog, and of a holy trinity of Canon RF lenses including the RF15-35mm here.
For a tracker for such images, I used the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini, a compact and lightweight unit that is easy to pack and carry to shooting sites. See my review of it here at AstroGearToday.
I use the Mini with a V-Plate designed by nightscape photographer Alyn Wallace and sold by Move-Shoot-Move. It is an essential aid to taking tracked panoramas, as it allows me to turn the camera horizontally manually from one pan segment to the next while the camera is tracking the stars. It’s easy to switch the tracker on (for the sky) and off (for the ground). The Mini tracks quite accurately and reliably. Turn it on and you can be sure it is tracking.
For more tips on shooting panoramas, see my blog post from 2019.
For those who are interested, here’s a look at how I processed and assembled the images, using the Peyto Lake panorama as an example. This is not a thorough tutorial, but shows the main steps involved. Tap or click on an image to download a full-size version.
- I first develop all the raw files (seven here) in Adobe Camera Raw, applying identical settings to make them look best for what they are going to contribute to the final blend, in this case, for the tracked sky with pinpoint stars and the Milky Way.
- Camera Raw (as does Adobe’s Lightroom) has an excellent Merge to Panorama function which usually works very well on such scenes. This shows the stitched sky panorama, created with one click.
- I develop and stitch the untracked ground segments to look their best for revealing details in the landscape, overexposing the sky in the process. Stars are also trailed, from the long exposures needed for the dark ground. No matter – these will be masked out.
- This shows the stack of images now in Adobe Photoshop, but here revealing just the layer for the sky panorama and its associated adjustment layers to further tweak color and contrast. I often add noise reduction as a non-destructive “smart filter” applied to the “smart object” image layer. See my review of noise reduction programs here.
- This shows just the ground panorama layer, again with some adjustment and retouching layers dedicated to this portion of the image.
- The sky has to be masked out of the ground panorama, to reveal the sky below. The Select Sky command in Photoshop usually works well, or I just use the Quick Selection tool and then Select and Mask to refine the edge. That method can be more accurate.
- Aligning the two panoramas requires manually nudging the untracked ground, up in this case, to hide the blurred and dark horizon from the tracked sky panorama. Yes, we move the earth! The sky usually also requires some re-touching to clone out blurred horizon bits sticking up. Dealing with trees can be a bit messy!
The result is the scene above with both panorama layers and the masks turned on. While this now looks almost complete, we’re not done yet.
- Local adjustments like Dodge and Burn (using a neutral grey layer with a Soft Light blend mode) and some luminosity masks tweak the brightness of portions of the scene for subtle improvements, to emphasize some areas while darkening others. It’s what film photographers did in the darkroom by waving physical dodging and burning tools under the enlarger.
- I add finishing touches with some effect plug-ins: Radiant Photo added some pop to the ground, while Luminar Neo added a soft “Orton glow” effect to the sky and slightly to the ground.
All the adjustments, filters, and effects are non-destructive so they can be re-adjusted later, when upon further inspection with fresh eyes I realize something needs work.
Was It Photoshopped?
I hope my look behind the curtains was of interest. While these types of nightscapes taken with a tracker, and especially multi-segment panoramas, do produce dramatic images, they do require a lot of processing at the computer.
Was it “photoshopped?” Yes. Was it faked? No. The sky really was there over the scene you see in the image. However, the long exposures of the camera do reveal more details than the eye alone can see at night — that is the essence of astrophotography.
My one concession to warping reality is in the time-blending — the merging of panoramas taken 30 minutes to an hour apart. I’ll admit that does push my limits for preferring to record real scenes, and not fabricate them (i.e. “photoshop” them in common parlance).
But at this shoot on these marvelous nights, making use of the perfectly timed moonrises was hard to resist!
— Alan, November 17, 2022 / AmazingSky.com