Can the new version of ON1 Photo RAW match Photoshop for astrophotography?
The short TL;DR answer: No.
But … as always, it depends. So do read on.
Released in mid-November 2018, the latest version of ON1 Photo RAW greatly improves a non-destructive workflow. Combining Browsing, Cataloging, Raw Developing, with newly improved Layers capabilities, ON1 is out to compete with Adobe’s Creative Cloud photo suite – Lightroom, Camera Raw, Bridge, and Photoshop – for those looking for a non-subscription alternative.
Many reviewers love the new ON1 – for “normal” photography.
But can it replace Adobe for night sky photos? I put ON1 Photo RAW 2019 through its paces for the demanding tasks of processing nightscapes, time-lapses, and deep-sky astrophotos.
In my eBook “How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses” (linked to at right) I present dozens of processing tutorials, including several on how to use ON1 Photo RAW, but the 2018 edition. I was critical of many aspects of the old version, primarily of its destructive workflow when going from its Develop and Effects modules to the limited Layers module of the 2018 edition.
I’m glad to see many of the shortfalls have been addressed, with the 2019 edition offering a much better workflow allowing layering of raw images while maintaining access to all the original raw settings and adjustments. You no longer have to flatten and commit to image settings to layer them for composites. When working with Layers you are no longer locked out of key functions such as cropping.
I won’t detail all the changes to ON1 2019 but they are significant and welcome.
The question I had was: Are they enough for high-quality astrophotos in a non-destructive workflow, Adobe Photoshop’s forté.
While ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is much better, I concluded it still isn’t a full replacement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, as least not for astrophotography.
NOTE: All images can be downloaded as high-res versions for closer inspection.
ON1 2019 is Better, But for Astrophotography …
Functions in Layers are still limited. For example, there is no stacking and averaging for noise smoothing. Affinity Photo has those.
Filters, though abundant for artistic special effect “looks,” are limited in basic but essential functions. There is no Median filter, for one.
Despite a proliferation of contrast controls, for deep-sky images (nebulas and galaxies) I was still not able to achieve the quality of images I’ve been used to with Photoshop.
The lack of support for third-party plug-ins means ON1 cannot work with essential time-lapse programs such as Timelapse Workflow or LRTimelapse.
Nightscapes: ON1 Photo RAW 2019 works acceptably well for nightscape still images:
Its improved layering and excellent masking functions are great for blending separate ground and sky images, or for applying masked adjustments to selected areas.
Time-Lapses: ON1 works is just adequate for basic time-lapse processing:
Yes, you can develop one image and apply its settings to hundreds of images in a set, then export them for assembly into a movie. But there is no way to vary those settings over time, as you can by mating Lightroom to LRTimelapse.
As with the 2018 edition, you still cannot copy and paste masked local adjustments from image to image, limiting their use.
Exporting those images is slow.
Deep-Sky: ON1 is not a program I can recommend for deep-sky image processing:
Stars inevitably end up with unsightly sharpening haloes.
De-Bayering artifacts add blocky textures to the sky background.
And all the contrast controls still don’t provide the “snap” and quality I’m used to with Photoshop when working with low-contrast subjects.
Library / Browse Functions
ON1 is sold first and foremost as a replacement for Adobe Lightroom, and to that extent it can work well. Unlike Lightroom, ON1 allows browsing and working on images without having to import them formally into a catalog.
However, you can create a catalog if you wish, one that can be viewed even if the original images are not “on-line.” The mystery seems to be where ON1 puts its catalog file on your hard drive. I was not able to find it, to manually back it up. Other programs, such as Lightroom and Capture One, locate their catalogs out in the open in the Pictures folder.
For those really wanting a divorce from Adobe, ON1 now offers an intelligent AI-based function for importing Lightroom catalogs and transferring all your Lightroom settings you’ve applied to raw files to ON1’s equivalent controls.
However, while ON1 can read Photoshop PSD files, it will flatten them, so you would lose access to all the original image layers.
ON1’s Browse module is good, with many of the same functions as Lightroom, such as “smart collections.” Affinity Photo – perhaps ON1’s closest competitor as a Photoshop replacement – still lacks anything like it.
But I found ON1’s Browse module buggy, often taking a long while to allow access into a folder, presumably while it is rendering image previews.
There are no plug-ins or extensions for exporting directly to or synching to social media and photo sharing sites.
ON1 did a fairly good job. Some of its special effect filters, such a Dynamic Contrast, Glow, and Sunshine, can help bring out the Milky Way, though do add an artistic “look” to an image which you might or might not like.
Below, I compare Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to ON1. It was tough to get ON1’s image looking the same as ACR’s result, but then again, perhaps that’s not the point. Does it just look good? Yes, it does.
Compared to Adobe Camera Raw, which has a good array of basic settings, ON1 has most of those and more, in the form of many special Effects, with many combined as one-click Presets, as shown below.
A few presets and individual filters – the aforementioned Dynamic Contrast and Glow – are valuable. However, most of ON1’s filters and presets will not be useful for astrophotography, unless you are after highly artistic and unnatural effects.
Noise Reduction and Lens Correction
Critical to all astrophotography is excellent noise reduction. ON1 does a fine job here, with good smoothing of noise without harming details.
Lens Correction works OK. It detected the 20mm Sigma art lens and automatically applied distortion correction, but not any vignetting (light “fall-off”) correction, perhaps the most important correction in nightscape work. You have to dial this in manually by eye, a major deficiency.
By comparison, ACR applies both distortion and vignetting correction automatically. It also includes settings for many manual lenses that you can select and apply in a click. For example, ACR (and Lightroom) includes settings for popular Rokinon and Venus Optics manual lenses; ON1 does not.
Hot Pixel Removal
I shot the example image on a warm summer night and without using in-camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction (to keep the gap between exposures short when shooting sets of tracked and untracked exposures for later compositing).
However, the penalty for not using LENR to expedite the image taking is a ground filled with hot pixels. While Adobe Camera Raw does have some level of hot pixel removal working “under the hood,” many specks remained.
ON1 showed more hot pixels, until you clicked Remove Hot Pixels, found under Details. As shown at centre above, it did a decent job getting rid of the worst offenders.
But as I’ll show later, the penalty is that stars now look distorted and sometimes double, or you get the outright removal of stars. ON1 doesn’t do a good job distinguishing between true sharp-edged hot pixels and the softer images of stars. Indeed, it tends to over sharpen stars.
A competitor, Capture One 11, does a better job, with an adjustable Single Pixel removal slider, so you can at least select the level of star loss you are willing to tolerate to get rid of hot pixels.
Star Image Quality
Yes, we are pixel peeping here, but that’s what we do in astrophotography. A lot!
Stars in ON1 don’t look as good as in Camera Raw. Inevitably, as you add contrast enhancements, stars in ON1 start to exhibit dark and unsightly “sharpening haloes” not present in ACR, despite me applying similar levels of sharpening and contrast boosts to each version of the image.
Camera Raw has been accused of producing images that are not as sharp as with other programs such as Capture One and ON1.
There’s a reason. Other programs over-sharpen, and it shows here.
We can get away with it here in wide-field images, but not later with deep-sky close-ups. I don’t like it. And it is unavoidable. The haloes are there, albeit at a low level, even with no sharpening or contrast enhancements applied, and no matter what image profile is selected (I used ON1 Standard throughout).
You might have to download and closely inspect these images to see the effect, but ON1’s de-Bayering routine exhibits a cross-hatched blocky pattern at the pixel-peeping level. ACR does not.
I see this same effect with some other raw developers. For example, the free Raw Therapee shows it with many of its choices for de-Bayering algorithms, but not all. Of the more than a dozen raw developers I tested a year ago, ACR and DxO PhotoLab had (and still have) the most artifact-free de-Bayering and smoothest noise reduction
Again, we can get away with some pixel-level artifacts here, but not later, in deep-sky processing.
Nightscape Processing — Layering and Compositing
The 2018 version of ON1 forced you to destructively flatten images when bringing them into the Layers module.
The 2019 version of ON1 improves that. It is now possible to composite several raw files into one image and still retain all the original Develop and Effects settings for non-destructive work.
You can then use a range of masking tools to mask in or out the sky.
For the example above, I have stacked tracked and untracked exposures, and am starting to mask out the trailed stars from the untracked exposure layer.
To do this with Adobe, you would have to open the developed raw files in Photoshop (ideally using “smart objects” to retain the link back to the raw files). But with ON1 we stay within the same program, to retain access to non-destructive settings. Very nice!
To add masks, ON1 2019 does not have the equivalent of Photoshop’s excellent Quick Selection Tool for selecting the sky or ground. It does have a “Perfect Brush” option which uses the tonal value of the pixels below it, rather than detecting edges, to avoid “painting over the lines.”
While the Perfect Brush does a decent job, it still requires a lot of hand painting to create an accurate mask without holes and defects. There is no non-destructive “Select and Mask” refinement option as in Photoshop.
Yes, ON1’s Refine Brush and Chisel Mask tools can help clean up a mask edge but are destructive to the mask. That’s not acceptable to my non-destructive mindset!
The masking tools are also applicable to adding “Local Adjustments” to any image layer, to brighten or darken regions of an image for example.
These work well and I find them more intuitive than the “pins” ACR uses on raw files, or DxO PhotoLab’s quirky “U-Point” interface.
ON1’s Local Adjustments work more like Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers and are similarly non-destructive. Excellent.
A very powerful feature of ON1 is its built-in Luminosity masking.
Yes, Camera Raw now has Range Masks, and Photoshop can be used to create luminosity masks, but making Photoshop’s luminosity masks easily adjustable requires purchasing third-party extension panels.
ON1 can create an adjustable and non-destructive luminosity mask on any image or adjustment layer with a click.
While such masks, based on the brightness of areas, aren’t so useful for low-contrast images like the Milky Way scene above, they can be very powerful for merging high-contrast images (though ON1 also has an HDR function not tested here).
ON1 has the advantage here. Its Luminosity masks are a great feature for compositing exposures or for working on regions of bright and dark in an image.
Here again is the final result, above.
It is not just one image each for the sky and ground, but is instead a stack of four images for each half of the composite, to smooth noise. This form of stacking is somewhat unique to astrophotography, and is commonly used to reduce noise in nightscapes and in deep-sky images, as shown later.
Here I show how you have to stack images in ON1.
Unlike Photoshop and Affinity Photo, ON1 does not have the ability to merge images automatically into a stack and apply a mathematical averaging to the stack, usually a Mean or Median stack mode. The averaging of the image content is what reduces the random noise.
Instead, with ON1 you have perform an “old school” method of average stacking – by changing the opacity of the layers, so that Layer 2 = 50%, Layer 3 = 33%, Layer 4 = 25%, and so on. The result is identical to performing a Mean stack mode in Photoshop or Affinity.
Fine, except there is no way to perform a Median stack, which can be helpful for eliminating odd elements present in only one frame, perhaps an aircraft trail.
Copy and Paste Settings
Before we even get to the stacking stage, we have to develop and process all the images in a set. Unlike Lightroom or Camera Raw, ON1 can’t develop and synchronize settings to a set of images at once. You can work on only one image at a time.
So, you work on one image (one of the sky images here), then Copy and Paste its settings to the other images in the set. I show the Paste dialog box here.
This works OK, though I did find some bugs – the masks for some global Effects layers did not copy properly; they copied inverted, as black instead of white masks.
However, Luminosity masks did copy from image to image, which is surprising considering the next point.
The greater limitation is that no Local Adjustments (ones with masks to paint in a correction to a selected area) copy from one image to another … except ones with gradient masks. Why the restriction?
So as wonderful as ON1’s masking tools might be, they aren’t of any use if you want to copy their masked adjustments across several images, or, as shown next, to a large time-lapse set.
While Camera Raw’s and Lightroom’s Local Adjustment pins are more awkward to work with, they do copy across as many images as you like.
A few Adobe competitors, such as Affinity Photo (as of this writing) simply can’t do this.
By comparison, with the exception of Local Adjustments, ON1 does have good functions for Copying and Pasting Settings. These are essential for processing a set of hundreds of time-lapse frames.
Once all the images are processed – whether it be with ON1 or any other program – the frames have to exported out to an intermediate set of JPGs for assembly into a movie by third-party software. ON1 itself can’t assemble movies, but then again neither can Lightroom (as least not very well), though Photoshop can, through its video editing functions.
For my test set of 220 frames, each with several masked Effects layers, ON1 took 2 hours and 40 minutes to perform the export to 4K JPGs. Photoshop, through its Image Processor utility, took 1 hour and 30 minutes to export the same set, developed similarly and with several local adjustment pins.
ON1 did the job but was slow.
A greater limitation is that, unlike Lightroom, ON1 does not accept any third party plug-ins (it serves as a plug-in for other programs). That means ON1 is not compatible with what I feel are essential programs for advanced time-lapse processing: either Timelapse Workflow (from https://www.timelapseworkflow.com) or the industry-standard LRTimelapse (from https://lrtimelapse.com).
Both programs work with Lightroom to perform incremental adjustments to settings over a set of images, based on the settings of several keyframes.
Lacking the ability to work with these programs means ON1 is not a program for serious and professional time-lapse processing.
Wide-Angle Milky Way
Now we come to the most demanding task: processing long exposures of the deep-sky, such as wide-angle Milky Way shots and close-ups of nebulas and galaxies taken through telescopes. All require applying generous levels of contrast enhancement.
As the above example shows, try as I might, I could not get my test image of the Milky Way to look as good with ON1 as it did with Adobe Camera Raw. Despite the many ways to increase contrast in ON1 (Contrast, Midtones, Curves, Structure, Haze, Dynamic Contrast and more!), the result still looked flat and with more prominent sky gradients than with ACR.
And remember, with ACR that’s just the start of a processing workflow. You can then take the developed raw file into Photoshop for even more precise work.
With ON1, its effects and filters all you have to work with. Yes, that simplifies the workflow, but its choices are more limited than with Photoshop, despite ON1’s huge number of Presets.
Similarly, taking a popular deep-sky subject, the Andromeda Galaxy, aka M31, and processing the same original images with ON1 and ACR/Photoshop resulted in what I think is a better-looking result with Photoshop.
Of course, it’s possible to change the look of such highly processed images with the application of various Curves and masked adjustment layers. And I’m more expert with Photoshop than with ON1.
But … as with the Cygnus Milky Way image, I just couldn’t get Andromeda looking as good in ON1. It always looked a little flat.
Dynamic Contrast did help snap up the galaxy’s dark lanes, but at the cost of “crunchy” stars, as I show next. A luminosity “star mask” might help protect the stars, but I think the background sky will inevitably suffer from the de-Bayering artifacts.
Star and Background Sky Image Quality
As I showed with the nightscape image, stars in ON1 end up looking too “crunchy,” with dark halos from over sharpening, and also with the blocky de-Bayering artifacts now showing up in the sky.
I feel it is not possible to avoid dark star haloes, as any application of contrast enhancements, so essential for these types of objects, brings them out, even if you back off sharpening at the raw development stage, or apply star masks.
ON1 is applying too much sharpening “under the hood.” That might “wow” casual daytime photographers into thinking ON1 is making their photos look better, but it is detrimental to deep-sky images. Star haloes are a sign of poor processing.
Noise and Hot Pixels
ON1’s noise reduction is quite good, and by itself does little harm to image details.
But turn on the Remove Hot Pixel button and stars start to be eaten. Faint stars fade out and brighter stars get distorted into double shapes or have holes in them.
Hot pixel removal is a nice option to have, but for these types of images it does too much harm to be useful. Use LENR or take dark frames, best practices in any case.
Image Alignment and Registration
Before any processing of deep-sky images is possible, it is first necessary to stack and align them, to make up for slight shifts from image to image, usually due to the mount not being perfectly polar aligned. Such shifts can be both translational (left-right, up-down) and rotational (turning about the guide star).
New to ON1 2019 is an Auto-Align Layers function. It worked OK but not nearly as well as Photoshop’s routine. In my test images of M31, ON1 didn’t perform enough rotation.
Once stacked and aligned, and as I showed above, you then have to manually change the opacities of each layer to blend them for noise smoothing.
By comparison, Photoshop has a wonderful Statistics script (under File>Scripts) that will automatically stack, align, then mean or median average the images, and turn the result into a non-destructive smart object, all in one fell swoop. I use it all the time for deep-sky images. There’s no need for separate programs such as Deep-Sky Stacker.
In ON1, however, all that has to be done manually, step-by-step. ON1 does do the job, just not as well.
ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is a major improvement, primarily in providing a more seamless and less destructive workflow.
Think of it as Lightroom with Layers!
But it isn’t Photoshop.
True to ON1’s heritage as a special effect plug-in, it has some fine Effect filters, such as Dynamic Contrast above, ones I sometimes use from within Photoshop as plug-in smart filters.
Under Sharpen, ON1 does offer a High Pass option, a popular method for sharpening deep-sky objects.
Missing Filters and Adjustments
But for astrophoto use, ON1 is missing a lot of basic but essential filters for pixel-level touch-ups. Here’s a short list:
• Missing are Median, Dust & Scratches, Radial Blur, Shake Reduction, and Smart Sharpen, just to mention a handful of filters I find useful for astrophotography, among the dozens of others Photoshop has, but ON1 does not. But then again, neither does Lightroom, another example of how ON1 is more light Lightroom with layers and not Photoshop.
• While ON1 has many basic adjustments for color and contrast, its version of Photoshop’s Selective Color lacks Neutral or Black sliders, great for making fine changes to color balance in astrophotos.
• While there is a Curves panel, it has no equivalent to Photoshop’s “Targeted Adjustment Tool” for clicking on a region of an image to automatically add an inflection point at the right spot on the curve. This is immensely useful for deep-sky images.
• Also lacking is a basic Levels adjustment. I can live without it, but most astrophotographers would find this a deal-breaker.
• On the other hand, hard-core deep-sky photographers who do most of their processing in specialized programs such as PixInsight, using Photoshop or Lightroom only to perform final touch-ups, might find ON1 perfectly fine. Try it!
Saving and Exporting
ON1 saves its layered images as proprietary .onphoto files and does so automatically. There is no Save command, only a final Export command. As such it is possible to make changes you then decide you don’t like … but too late! The image has already been saved, writing over your earlier good version. Nor can you Save As … a file name of your choice. Annoying!
Opening a layered .onphoto file (even with ON1 itself already open) can take a minute or more for it to render and become editable.
Once you are happy with an image, you can Export the final .onphoto version as a layered .PSD file but the masks ON1 exports to the Photoshop layers may not match the ones you had back in ON1 for opacity. So the exported .PSD file doesn’t look like what you were working on. That’s a bug.
Only exporting a flattened TIFF file gets you a result that matches your ON1 file, but it is now flattened.
Bugs and Cost
I encountered a number of other bugs, ones bad enough to lock up ON1 now and then. I’ve even seen ON1’s own gurus encounter bugs with masking during their live tutorials. These will no doubt get fixed in 2019.x upgrades over the next few months.
But by late 2019 we will no doubt be offered ON1 Photo RAW 2020 for another $80 upgrade fee, over the original $100 to $120 purchase price. True, there’s no subscription, but ON1 still costs a modest annual fee, presuming you want the latest features.
Now, I have absolutely no problem with that, and ON1 2019 is a significant improvement.
However, I found that for astrophotography it still isn’t there yet as a complete replacement for Adobe.
Here’s a short promo video, one that also opens the ebook as one of the embedded videos.
I originally published this ebook in 2014, then revised it in late 2016. Here’s what’s new in this 2018 Third Edition:
Updated equipment (cameras, lenses, filters, time-lapse gear) to reflect what’s current as of mid-2018. For example I added: the Revolve Camera slider; functions from the Canon 6D MkII; and information about the Sony a7III Mirrorless.
Updated the processing tutorials with current software: Photoshop CC2018, Lightroom Classic CC, Starry Landscape Stacker, TLDF, Timelapse Workflow, and LRTimelapse version 5.
Added tutorials on selected non-Adobe programs: DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, Affinity Photo, and the extensions Raya Pro 3 and Dr. Brown’s Services.
Added some 50 new topic pages, such as on memory cards and exposure blending.
In addition I’ve performed “housekeeping chores” such as:
Removing some embedded movies to reduce the file size and
Converting interactive diagrams into labeled images and
Flattening some of the interactive image galleries, all for facilitating conversion to PDFs for non-Apple platforms.
Improving the resolution of most tutorial screenshot images.
Improving many diagrams and updating many images.
Merging the chapter on Intervalometers into Chapter 1.
Plus I’ve added a section on lunar eclipses back in. Yay!
Here are screen shots of sample chapter content pages, to provide an idea of what the ebook contains and looks like.
All current owners of the older editions get the Third Edition update for free through the iBooks app (Mac or iPad, and also iPhone).
I hope you enjoy the new edition. Tell your friends! And do leave a rating or review at the iBooks sales page. Thanks!
And yes, for non-Apple people, a non-interactive PDF version for all other platforms (Windows and Android) is in production for later this year.
I put the new Sony a7III mirrorless camera through its paces for the features and functions we need to shoot the night sky.
Sony’s a7III camera has enjoyed rave reviews since its introduction earlier in 2018. Most tests focus on its superb auto exposure and auto focus capabilities that rival much more costly cameras, including Sony’s own a7rIII and a9.
For astrophotography, none of those auto functions are of any value. We shoot everything on manual. Indeed, the ease of manually focusing in Live View is a key function.
In my testing I compared the Sony a7III to two competitive DSLRs, the Canon 6D MkII and Nikon D750.
All three are “entry-level” full-frame cameras, with 24 to 26 megapixels and in a similar price league of $1,500 (Nikon) to 2,000 (Sony).
I tested a Sony a7III purchased locally. It was not supplied to me by Sony in return for an “influential” blog post.
I did this testing in preparation for the new third edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse eBook, which will include information on Sony mirrorless cameras, as well as many, many other updates and additions!
NOTE:Click or Tap on most images to bring them up full-frame for inspection.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
As with Sony’s other popular Alpha 7 and 9 series cameras, the new Alpha 7III is a full-frame mirrorless camera, a class of camera Canon and Nikon have yet to offer, though models are rumoured or promised.
In the meantime, Sony commands the full-frame mirrorless market.
As its name implies, a mirrorless camera lacks the reflex mirror of a digital single lens reflex camera that, in a DSLR, provides the light path for framing the scene though the optical viewfinder.
In a mirrorless, the camera remains in “live view” all the time, with the sensor always feeding a live image to either or both the rear LCD screen and electronic viewfinder (EVF). While you can look through and frame using the EVF as you would with a DSLR, you are looking at an electronic image from the sensor, not an optical image from the lens.
The advantage of purely electronic viewing is that the image you are previewing matches the image you’ll capture, at least for short exposures. The disadvantage is that full-time live view draws more power, with mirrorless cameras notorious for being battery hungry.
Other mirrorless advantages include:
Compact size and lighter weight, yet offering all the image quality of a full-frame DSLR.
The thinner body allows the use of lenses from any manufacturer, albeit requiring the right adapter, an additional expense.
Lenses developed natively for mirrorless models can be smaller and lighter. An example is the Laowa 15mm f/2 I used for some of the testing.
The design lends itself to video shooting, with many mirrorless cameras offering 4K as standard, while often in DSLRs only high-end models do.
More rapid-fire burst modes and quieter shutters are a plus for action and wedding photographers, though they are of limited value for astrophotography.
Points of Comparison
In testing the Sony a7III I ignored all the auto functions. Instead, I concentrated on those points I felt of most concern to astrophotographers, such as:
Effectiveness of Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR)
Quality of Raw files, such as sharpness of stars
Brightness of Live View for framing and focusing
Uniformity of sensor illumination
Compatibility for time-lapse imaging
Levels of luminance and chrominance noise were excellent and similar to – but surprisingly not better than – the Nikon D750.
The Star Eater is gone. Stars are not smoothed out in long exposures.
The Sony exhibited good – though not great – “ISO invariant” performance.
Dark frame subtraction using Long Exposure Noise Reduction removed most – but not all – hot pixels from thermal noise.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Live View was absolutely superb, though the outstanding Bright Monitoring function is as well-hidden as Sony could possibly make it.
Sensor Illumination Uniformity
The Sony showed some slight edge-of-frame shadowing from the mask in front of the sensor, as well as a weak purple amp glow.
• The a7III lacks any internal intervalometer or ability to add one via an app. But it is compatible with many external intervalometers and controllers.
• The a7III’s red sensitivity for recording H-Alpha-emitting nebulas was poor.
• It lacks the “light-frame” buffer offered by full-frame Canons that allows shooting several frames in quick succession even with LENR turned on.
The a7III offers 4K video and, at 24 frames-per-second, is full-frame. Shutter speeds can be as slow as 1/4-second, allowing real-time aurora shooting at reasonable ISO speeds.
Shooting typical 400-frame time-lapses used about 40% of the battery capacity, similar to the other DSLRs.
The Sony a7III is a superb camera for still and time-lapse nightscape shooting, and excellent for real-time aurora videos. It is good, though not great, for long-exposure deep-sky imaging.
The Sony a7III uses a sensor that is “Backside Illuminated,” a feature that promises to improve low-light performance and reduce noise.
I saw no great benefit from the BSI sensor. Noise at typical astrophoto ISO speeds – 800 to 6400 – were about equal to the four-year-old Nikon D750.
That was a bit surprising. I expected the new BSI-equipped Sony to better the Nikon by about a stop. It did not. This emphasizes just how good the Nikon D750 is.
Nevertheless, noise performance of the Sony a7III was still excellent, with both the Sony and Nikon handily outperforming the Canon 6D MkII, with its slightly smaller pixels, by about a stop in noise levels.
NOTE: I performed all Raw developing with Adobe Camera Raw v10.3. It is possible some of the artifacts I saw are due to ACR not handling the a7III’s .ARW files as well as it should. But to develop all the images from Sony, Nikon, and Canon equally for comparisons, ACR is the best choice.
Both the Sony and Nikon use sensor and signal path designs that are “ISO invariant.” As a result, images shot underexposed at slower ISOs, then boosted in exposure later in processing look identical to properly exposed high-ISO images. Well, almost.
The Sony still showed some discoloration artifacts and added noise when boosting images by +4 EV that the Nikon did not. Even with uncompressed Raws, the Sony was not quite as ISO invariant as the Nikon, though the difference shows up only under extreme push-processing of badly underexposed frames.
Plus, the Sony was far better than the Canon 6D MkII’s “ISO variant” sensor. Canon really needs to improve their sensors to keep in the game.
Compressed vs. Uncompressed
The Sony a7III offers a choice of shooting Uncompressed or Compressed Raw files. Uncompressed Raws are 47 Mb in size; Compressed Raws are 24 Mb.
In well-exposed images, I saw little difference in image quality.
But the dark shadows in underexposed nightscapes withstood shadow recovery better in the uncompressed files. Compressed files showed more noise and magenta discoloration in the shadows.
It is not clear if Sony’s compressed Raws are 12-bit vs. 14-bit for uncompressed files.
Nevertheless, for the demands of nightscape and deep-sky shooting and processing, I suggest shooting Uncompressed Raws. Use Compressed only if you plan to take lots of time-lapse frames and need to conserve memory card space on extended shoots.
Star Eater (Updated June 3, 2018)
Over the last year or so, firmware updates from Sony introduced a much-publicized penchant for Sony Alphas to “eat” stars even in Raw files, apparently due to an internal noise reduction or anti-aliasing routine users could not turn off. Stars were smoothed away along with the noise in exposures longer than 3.2 seconds in some Sony cameras (longer than 30 seconds in others).
I feel that in the a7III the Star Eater has been largely vanquished.
As the images below show, there is a very slight one-pixel-level softening that kicks in at 4 seconds and longer but it did not eat or wipe out stars. Stars are visible to the same limiting magnitude and close double stars are just as well resolved across all exposures. Indeed, at slower ISOs and longer exposures, more stars are visible.
I saw none of the extreme effects reported by others with other Sonys, where masses of faint stars disappeared or turned into multi-colored blotches.
I did not see any significant “star eating” in any long exposures even up to the 4 minutes I used for some deep-sky shots. In images taken at the same time with other cameras not accused of star eating, the Sony showed just as many faint stars as the competitors. Long exposures showed just as many stars as did short exposures.
This was true whether I was shooting compressed or uncompressed Raws, with or without Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Neither compression nor LENR invoked “star eating.”
LENR Dark frames
For elimination of hot pixels from thermal noise I prefer to use Long Exposure Noise Reduction when possible for nightscape and deep-sky images, especially on warm summer nights.
Exceptions are images taken for star trail stacking and for time-lapses, images that must be taken in quick succession, with minimal time gap between frames.
Turning on LENR did eliminate most hot pixels in long exposures, but not all. A few remained. Also, when boosting the exposure a lot in processing, the images taken with LENR on showed more shot and read noise than non-LENR frames.
The dark frame the camera was taking and subtracting was actually adding some noise, perhaps due to a temperature difference. The cause is not clear.
Sony advises that when using LENR Raw images are recorded with only 12-bit depth, not 14-bit. This might be a contributing factor. Yet frames taken with LENR on were the same 47 Mb size as normal uncompressed frames.
For those who think this is normal for LENR use, the Nikon D750 shows nothing like this – frames taken with LENR on are free of all hot pixels and do not show more shot or read noise, nor deterioration of shadow detail from lower bit depths.
However, I emphasize that the noise increase from using LENR with the Sony was visible only when severely boosting underexposed images in processing.
In most shooting situations, I found using LENR provided the overriding positive benefit of reducing hot pixels. It just needs to be better, Sony!
How evenly an image is illuminated is a common factor when testing lenses.
But astrophotography, which often requires extreme contrast boosts, reveals non-uniform illumination of the sensor itself, regardless of the optics, originating from hardware elements in front of the sensor casting shadows onto the sensor.
This is most noticeable – indeed usually only noticeable – when shooting deep-sky targets though telescopes.
With DSLRs it is the raised mirror which often casts a shadow, produced a dark vignetted band along the bottom of the frame. Its extent varies from camera model to model.
With a mirrorless camera the sensor is not set far back in a mirror box, as it is in a DSLR. As such, I would have expected a more uniformly illuminated sensor.
Instead, I saw a slight shadowing at the top and bottom edges but just at the corners. This is from a thin metal mask in front of the sensor. It intrudes into the light path ever so slightly. It shouldn’t.
This isn’t a serious flaw, and applying “flat fields” or ad hoc local adjustments would eliminate this.
However, long deep-sky exposures also exhibited a faint purple glow at the left edge, probably from heat from nearby electronics, a so-called “amp glow.” Taking a dark frame with LENR did not eliminate this, and it should, demonstrating again that for whatever reason in the a7III LENR is not as effective as it should be.
I haven’t seen amp glows in cameras (at least in the DSLRs I’ve used) for a number of years, so seeing it in the new Sony a7III was another surprise.
This would be tougher to eliminate in deep-sky images where the extreme contrast boosts we typically apply to images of nebulas and galaxies will accentuate any odd glows.
When shooting deep-sky objects, particularly red nebulas, we like a camera to have a less aggressive infrared cutoff filter, to pick up as much of the deep red Hydrogen-Alpha emission line as possible.
The Sony showed poor deep-red sensitivity, though not unlike other cameras. It was a little worse than the stock Canon 6D MkII.
This isn’t a huge detriment, as anyone who really wants to go after deep nebulosity must use a “filter-modified” camera anyway.
Canon and Nikon both offered factory modified cameras at one time, notably the Canon 60Da and Nikon D810a. Sony doesn’t have an “a” model mirrorless.
To get the most out of the Sony for deep-sky imaging you would have to have it modified by a third-party, such as Hutech, Spencers, or LifePixel though, as of this writing, none list the Sony a7III as a model they can modify.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Up to now my report on the Sony a7III hasn’t shown as glowing a performance as all the YouTube reviews would have you believe.
But Live Focus is where the a7III really stands out. I love it!
In Live View it is possible to make the image so bright you can actually see the Milky Way live on screen! Wow! This makes it so easy to frame nightscapes and deep-sky fields.
But this special “Bright Monitoring” mode is as well hidden as Sony could make it. Unless you actually read the full-length 642-page PDF manual (you have to download it), you won’t know about it. Bright Monitoring does not appear in any of the in-camera menus you can scroll through, so you won’t stumble across it.
Instead, you have to go to the Camera Settings 2 page, then select Still Image–Custom Key. In the menu options that appear you can now scroll to one called Bright Monitoring. Surprise! Assign it to one of the hardware Custom C buttons. I put it on C2, making it easy to call up when needed.
The other Live View function that works well, but also needs assigning to a C button is the Camera Settings 1 > Focus Magnifier. I put this on C1. It magnifies the Live View by 5.9x or 11.7x, allowing for precise manual focusing on a star.
Two other functions are useful for Live View:
Camera Settings 2 > Live View Display > Setting Effect ON. This allows the Live View image to reflect the camera settings in use, better simulating the actual exposure, even without Bright Monitoring on.
Camera Settings 1 > Peaking Setting. Turning this ON superimposes a shimmering effect on parts of an image judged in focus. This might be an aid, or an annoyance. Try it.
In all, the Sony provides superb, if well-hidden, Live View options that make accurately framing and focusing a nightscape or time-lapse scene a joy.
Great Features for Astrophotography
Here are some other Sony a7III features I found of value for astrophotography, and for operating the camera at night.
Tilting LCD Screen
Like the Nikon D750, the Sony’s screen tilts vertically up and down, great for use when on a telescope, or on any tripod when aimed up at the sky. As photographers age, this becomes a more essential feature!
The four C buttons can be programmed for oft-used functions, making them easy to access at night. Standard functions such as ISO and Drive Mode are easy to get at on the thumb wheel, unlike the Nikon D750 where I am forever hunting for the ISO or Focus Zoom buttons, or the Canon 6D MkII which successfully hides the Focus Zoom and Playback buttons at night.
In new models, Sony now offers the option of a final “My Menu” page which you can populate with often-used functions from the other 35 pages of menu commands!
Adaptability to Many Lenses
Using the right lens adapter (I use one from Metabones), it is possible to use lenses with mounts made for Canon, Nikon, Sigma and others. Plus there are an increasing number of lenses from third parties offered with native Sony E-mounts. This is good news, as astrophotography requires fast, high-quality lenses, and the Sony allows more choices.
Lighter Weight / Smaller Size
The compact a7III body weighs a measured 750 grams, vs. 900 grams each for the Nikon D750 and Canon 6D MkII. The lower weight can be helpful for use on lightweight telescopes, on small motion control devices, and for simply keeping weight and bulk down when traveling.
Dual Card Slots
Not essential, but having two card slots is very helpful, for backup, for handling overflows from very long time-lapse shoots, or assigning them for stills vs. movies, or Raws vs. JPGs. Only Slot 1 will work with the fastest UHS II cards that are needed for recording the highest quality 4K video.
It is possible to power the camera though the USB port (indeed that’s how you charge the battery, as no separate battery charger is supplied as standard, a deficiency). This might be useful for long shoots, though likely as not that same USB port will be needed for an intervalometer or motion control device. But if the Sony had a built-in intervalometer…!
To reduce battery drain it is possible to turn off the EVF completely – I find I never use it at night – and to turn off the LCD display when shooting, though the latter is an option you have to activate to add to the Display button’s various modes.
The downside is that when shooting is underway you get no reassuring indication anything is happening, except for a brief LED flash when an image is written to a card.
Electronic Front Curtain Shutter
Most DSLRs do not offer this, but the Sony’s option of an electronic front curtain shutter and the additional Silent Shooting mode completely eliminates vibration, useful for some high-magnification shooting through telephotos and telescopes.
What’s Missing for Astrophotography
For all the Sony’s 35 pages of Menu functions, a built-in Intervalometer isn’t one of them. While it does have a 1 frame-per-second movie mode in its “Slow-and Quick” functions, that’s not sufficient for night time-lapses, plus S&Q mode only works with HD movies, not 4K.
A built-in intervalometer is not essential, since in time-lapse shooting we often use external controllers anyway. But I find I often do use the Canon and Nikon in-camera intervalometers for simple shoots, and for cold winter aurora shoots. How tough would it be to add it, Sony?
Bulb Timer or Long Exposures
While the Sony has a Bulb setting there is no Bulb Timer as there is with the Canon. The Bulb Timer would allow setting long Bulb exposures of any length in the camera.
Instead the Sony must be used with an external Intervalometer. I use a $50 Vello unit, and it works very well. It controls the Sony through the camera’s Multi USB port.
In-Camera Image Stacking
Also missing, and present on most new Canons, are Multiple Exposure modes for in-camera stacking of exposures in a Brighten mode (for star trails) or Averaging mode (for noise smoothing).
Yes, this can all be done later in processing, but having the camera do the stacking can often be convenient, and great for beginners, as long as they understand what those functions do, or even that they exist!
When using its internal intervalometer, the Nikon D750 has an excellent Exposure Smoothing option. This does a fine job smoothing frame-to-frame flickering in time-lapses, something the Canon cannot do. Nor the Sony, as it has no intervalometer at all.
Light Frame Buffer in LENR
This feature is little known and utilized, and only Canon full-frame cameras offer it. Turn on LENR and it is possible to shoot three (with the 6D MkII) or four (with the 6D) Raw images in quick succession even with LENR turned on. The Canon 5D series also has this.
The dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera only after the series of “light frames” are taken. This is wonderful for taking a set of noise-reduced deep-sky images for later stacking. Nikons don’t have this, not even the D810a, and not Sonys.
The Sony’s buttons are not illuminated. While these might add glows to long exposure images, if they could be designed not to do that (i.e. they turn off during exposures), lit buttons would be very handy at night.
Limited Touch Screen Functions
An alternative would be an LCD screen that was touch sensitive. The Sony a7III’s screen is, but only to select an area for auto focus or zooming up an image in playback. The Canon 6D MkII has a fully functional touch screen which can be, quite literally, handy at night.
Here’s another area where the new Sony a7III really shines.
It offers 4K (or more precisely UltraHD) video recording for videos of 3840 x 2160 pixels. (True 4K is actually 4096 x 2160 pixels.)
With a fast enough UHS-II Class card it can record 4K video up to 30 frames per second and at a bit rate of either 60 or 100 Mbps.
At 24 fps videos are full-frame with no cropping. Hurray! You can take full advantage of wide-angle lenses, great for auroras. At 30 fps, 4K videos are cropped with a 1.2x crop factor.
In Movie Mode ISO speeds go up to ISO 102,400, but are pretty noisy, if unusable at such speeds.
But when shooting aurora videos I found, to my surprise, I could “drag” the shutter speeds as slow as 1/4-second, fully 4 stops better than the Nikon’s slowest shutter speed of 1/60 second in Full HD, and 3 stops better than the Canon’s slowest movie shutter of 1/30 second.
Coupled with a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens, the slow shutter speed allows real-time aurora shooting at “only” ISO 6400 to 12,800, for quite acceptable levels of noise. I am very impressed!
Real-time video of auroras is not possible with anything like this quality with the Nikon (I’ve used it often), and absolutely not with the Canon. And neither are 4K.
Is the a7III as good for low-light video as the Sony a7s models, with their larger 8.5-micron pixels?
I would assume not, but not having an a7s (either Mark I or II) to test I can’t say for sure. But the a7III should do the job for bright auroras, the ones with rapid motion worth recording with video, plus offer 24 megapixels for high-quality stills of all sky subjects.
I think it’s a great camera for both astrophoto stills and video.
An example is in a 4K video I shot on May 6, 2018 of an usual aurora known as “STEVE.”
Steve Aurora – May 6, 2018 (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
For another example of using the Sony a7III for recording real-time video of the night sky see this example of the Space Station crossing the sky.
Lilac Passages of the ISS (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I found the a7III would use up about about 40% of the battery capacity in a typical 400-frame time-lapse on mild spring nights, with 30-second exposures. This is with the EVF and rear LCD Display OFF, and the camera in Airplane mode to turn off wireless functions to further conserve battery power. I was using the wired Vello intervalometer.
This is excellent performance on par with the DSLRs I use. At last, we have a mirrorless camera that not only doesn’t eat stars, it also does not eat batteries!
One battery can get you through a night of shooting, though performance will inevitably decline in winter, as with all cameras.
Lens and Telescope Compatibility
As versatile as a mirrorless camera is for lens choice, making use of that versatility requires buying the right lens adapter(s). They can cost anywhere from $100 to $400. The lowest cost units just adapt the lens mechanically; the more costly units also transfer lens data and allow auto focusing with varying degrees of compatibility.
For use on telescopes, the simple adapters will be sufficient, and necessary as many telescope-to-camera adapters and field flatteners are optimized for the longer lens flange-to-sensor distance of a DSLR. Even if you could get a mirrorless camera to focus without a lens adapter to add the extra spacing, the image quality across the field might be compromised on many telescopes.
I used the Metabones Canon-to-Sony adapter when attaching the Sony to my telescopes using my existing Canon telescope adapters. Image quality was just fine.
Time-Lapse Controller Compatibility
Due to limitations set by Sony, controlling one of their cameras with an external controller can be problematic.
Devices that trigger only the shutter should be fine. That includes simple intervalometers like the Vello, the Syrp Genie Mini panning unit, and the Dynamic Perception and Rhino sliders, to name devices I use. However, all will need the right camera control cable, available from suppliers like B&H.
And, as I found, the Sony might need to be placed into Continuous shooting mode to have the shutter fire with every trigger pulse from the motion controller. When used with the Genie Mini (below) the Sony fired at only every other pulse if it was in Single shot mode, an oddity of Sony’s firmware.
Some time-lapse controllers are able to connect to a camera through its USB port and then adjust the ISO and aperture as well, for ramped “holy grail” sunset-to-Milky Way sequences.
In conclusion, here’s my summary recommendations for the three competitive cameras, rating them from Poor, to Fair, to Good, to Excellent.
SONY: I deducted marks from the Sony a7III for deep-sky imaging for its lack of a light frame buffer, poor red sensitivity, odd LENR performance, and amp glow not seen on the other cameras and that dark frames did not eliminate.
However, I did not consider “star eating” to be a negative factor, as the Sony showed just as many stars and as well-resolved as did the competitors, and what more could you ask for?
I rate the Sony excellent for nightscape imaging and for real-time aurora videos. I list it as just “good” for time-lapse work only because it will not be fully compatible with some motion controllers and rampers. So beware!
NIKON: I deducted points for real-time video of auroras – the D750 can do them but is pretty noisy with the high ISOs needed. Its red sensitivity is not bad, but its lack of a light frame buffer results a less productive imaging cycle when using LENR on deep-sky shooting.
I know … people shoot dark frames separately for subtracting later in processing. However, I’ve found these post-shoot darks rarely work well, as the dark frames are not at the same temperature as the light frames, and often add noise or dark holes.
CANON: The 6D MkII’s lack of an ISO invariant sensor rears its ugly head in underexposed shadows in dark-sky nightscapes. I like its image stacking options, which can help alleviate the noise and artifacts in still images, but aren’t practical for time-lapses. Thus my Good rating for nightscapes but Fair rating for time-lapses. (See my test at https://amazingsky.net/2017/08/09/testing-the-canon-6d-mark-ii-for-nightscapes/)
While the 6D MkII has HD video, it is incapable of any low-light video work.
And its light-frame buffer is great for minimizing shooting time for a series of deep-sky images with in-camera LENR dark frames, which I find are the best for minimizing thermal noise. Give me a Canon full-frame any day for prime-focus deep-sky shooting.
It’s just a pity the 6D MkII has only a 3-frame buffer when using LENR. Really Canon? The 2008-vintage 5D MkII had a 5-frame buffer! Your cameras are getting worse for astrophotography while Sony’s are getting better.
CANON 6D Mk II
Real-Time Video (Auroras)
Wide-field Deep Sky
Telescopic Deep Sky
I trust you’ll find the review of value. Thanks for reading!
ADDENDUM as of JUNE 6, 2018
Since publishing the first results a number of people commented with suggestions for further testing, to check claims that:
The Sony would perform better for noise under dark sky conditions, at high ISOs, rather than the moonlit scene above. OK, let’s try that.
The Sony would perform better in an ISO Invariancy “face-off” if its ISOs were kept above 640, to keep all the images within the Sony’s upper ISO range of its dual-gain sensor design, with two ranges (100 to 400, and 640 on up). Fair enough.
What little “star-eater” effect I saw might be mitigated by shooting on Continuous drive mode or by firing the shutter with an external timer. That’s worth a check, too.
For the additional tests, I shot all images within a 3-hour span on the night of June 5/6, using the Sony a7III, Nikon D750, and Canon 6D MkII, with the respective lenses: the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, the Sigma 14mm Art at f/2, and the Rokinon 14mm SP at f/2.5.
The cameras were on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker to keep stars pinpoints, though the ground blurred in the longer exposures.
DARK SKY NOISE TEST
I show only the Sony and Nikon compared here, shot at the common range of ISOs used for nightscape shooting, 800 to 12800. All images are equally well exposed. The inset image at right in Photoshop shows the scene, the Milky Way above dark trees in my backyard!
To the eye, the Sony and Nikon look very similar for noise levels, just as in the moonlit scene. Both are very good – indeed, among the best performing cameras for high-ISO noise levels. But the Sony, being four years newer than the Nikon, is not better.
BUT … what the Sony did exhibit was better details in the shadows than the Nikon.
And this was with equal processing and no application of Shadow Recovery. This is where the Sony’s Backside Illuminated sensor with presumably higher quantum efficiency in gathering photons might be providing the advantage. With its good shadow details, you have to apply less shadow recovery in post-processing, which does keep noise down. So points to Sony here.
I did put all the high ISO images through the classic noise reduction program Noise Ninja to measure total Luminance and Chrominance noise, and included the Canon 6D MkII’s images.
The resulting values and graph show the Sony actually measured worse for noise than the Nikon at each high ISO speed, 3200 to 12800, though with both performing much better than the Canon.
The higher noise of the Canon is visually obvious, but I’d say the Sony a7III and Nikon D750 are pretty equal visually for noise, despite the numbers.
DARK SKY ISO INVARIANCY
Again, here I show only the Sony and Nikon, the two “ISO invariant” cameras. The correct exposure for the scene was 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2. The images shown here were shot at lower ISOs to underexposure the dark scene by 2 to 4 stops or EV. Those underexposed images were then boosted later in processing (in Adobe Camera Raw) by the required Exposure Value to equalize the image brightness.
Contrary to expectations, the Sony did not show any great loss in image quality as it crossed the ISO 640 boundary into its lower ISO range. But the Nikon did show more image artifacts in the “odd-numbered” ISOs of 640 and 500. In this test, the Nikon did not perform as well as the Sony for ISO invariancy. Go figure!
Again, the differences are in images vastly underexposed. And both cameras performed much better than the ISO “variant” Canon in this test.
STAR EATER REVISITED
I shot images over a wide-range of exposures, from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, but show only the ones covering the 2-second to 4-second range, where the “star-eater” anti-aliasing or noise smoothing applied by Sony kicks in (above 3.2 seconds it seems).
I shot with the Sony a7III on Single shot drive mode, on Continuous Low drive mode (with the camera controlling the shutter speed in both cases), and a set with the Sony on Bulb and the shutter speed set by an external Vello intervalometer.
This is really pixel peeping at 400%. In Single drive mode, stars and noise soften ever so slightly at 4 seconds and higher. In Continuous mode, I think the effect is still there but maybe a little less. In shots on Bulb controlled by the External Timer, maybe the stars at 4 seconds are a little sharper still. But this is a tough call. To me, the star eater effect on the Sony a7III is a non-issue. It may be more serious on other Sony alphas.
DE-BAYERING STAR ARTIFACTS
An issue that, to me, has a more serious effect on star quality is the propensity of the Sony, and to some extent the Nikon, to render tiny stars as brightly colored points, unrealistically so. In particular, many stars look green, from the dominance of green-filtered photosites on Bayer-array sensors.
Here I compare all three cameras for this effect in two-minute tracked exposures taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (i.e. in-camera dark frame subtraction) off and on.
The Sony shows a lot of green stars with or without LENR. The Nikon seems to discolor stars only when LENR is applied. Why would that be? The Canon is free of any such issue – stars are naturally colored whether LENR dark frames are applied or not.
This is all with Raws developed with Adobe Camera Raw.
When opening the same Raws in other programs (ON1 Photo RAW, Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, and Raw Therapee) the results can be quite different, with stars often rendered with fringes of hot, colored pixels. Or rendered with little or no color at all. Raw Therapee offers a choice of de-Bayering, or “de-mosaic,” routines, and each produces different looking stars, and none look great! Certainly not as good as the Canon rendered with Camera Raw.
What’s going on here is a mystery – it’s a combination of the cameras’ unique Raw file formats and the de-Bayering routines of all the many Raw developers wrestling with the task of rendering stars that occupy only a few pixels. It’s unfair to blame just the hardware or the software.
But this test re-emphasized my thoughts that Canon DSLRs remain the best for long-exposure deep-sky imaging where you can give images as much exposure time as they need, while the ISO invariant Sony and Nikons exceed at nightscape shooting where exposures are often limited and plagued by dark shadows and noise.
To Adobe or not to Adobe. That is the question many photographers are asking with the spate of new image processing programs vying to “kill Photoshop.”
I tested more than ten contenders as alternatives to Adobe’s image processing software, evaluating them ONLY for the specialized task of editing demanding nightscape images taken under the Milky Way, both for single still images and for time-lapses of the moving sky. I did not test these programs for other more “normal” types of images.
Also, please keep in mind, I am a Mac user and tested only programs available for MacOS, though many are also available for Windows. I’ve indicated these.
But I did not test any Windows-only programs. So sorry, fans of Paintshop Pro (though see my note at the end), Photoline, Picture Window Pro, or Xara Photo & Graphic Designer. They’re not here. Even so, I think you will find there’s plenty to pick from!
If you are hoping there’s a clear winner in the battle against Adobe, one program I can say does it all and for less cost and commitment, I didn’t find one.
However, a number of contenders offer excellent features and might replace at least one member of Adobe’s image processing suite.
For example, only four of these programs can truly serve as a layer-based editing program replacing Photoshop.
The others are better described as Adobe Lightroom competitors – programs that can catalog image libraries and develop raw image files, with some offering adjustment layers for correcting color, contrast, etc. But as with Lightroom, layering of images – to stack, composite, and mask them – is beyond their ability.
For processing time-lapse sequences, however, we don’t need, nor can we use, the ability to layer and mask several images into one composite.
What we need for time-lapses is to:
Develop a single key raw file, then …
Copy its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie.
Even so, not all these contenders are up to the task.
Here are the image processing programs I looked at. Costs are in U.S. dollars. Most have free trial copies available.
The Champion from Adobe
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom, the standards to measure others by
Cost: $10 a month by subscription, includes ACR, Photoshop, Bridge, and Lightroom
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development plug-in that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application that accompanies Photoshop. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and raw processing software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results.
Photoshop and Lightroom complement each other and are now available together, but only by monthly subscription through Adobe’s Creative Cloud service, at $10/month. Though $120 for a year is not far off the cost of purchasing many of these other programs and perhaps upgrading them annually, many photographers prefer to purchase their software and not subscribe to it.
Thus the popularity of these alternative programs. Most offered major updates in late 2017.
My question is, how well do they work? Are any serious contenders to replace Photoshop or Lightroom?
Lightroom Contenders: Five Raw Developers
ACDSee Photo Studio (current as of late 2017)
Cost: $60 to $100, depending on version, upgrades $40 to $60.
I tested the single MacOS version. Windows users have a choice of either a Standard or Professional version. Only the Pro version offers the full suite of raw development features, in addition to cataloging functions. The MacOS version resembles the Windows Pro version.
Capture One v11 (late 2017 release)
Cost: $299, and $120 for major upgrades, or by subscription for $180/year
As of version 11 this powerful raw developer and cataloguing program offers “Layers.” But these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of an image. You cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one indeed.
The ELITE version of what DxO now calls “PhotoLab” offers DxO’s superb PRIME noise reduction and excellent ClearView contrast enhancement feature. While it has an image browser, PhotoLab does not create a catalog, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement, but it is a superb raw developer. DxO also recently acquired the excellent Nik Collection of image processing plug-ins, so we can expect some interesting additions and features.
This free open source program has been created and is supported by a loyal community of programmers. It offers a bewildering blizzard of panels and controls, among them the ability to apply dark frames and flat field images, features unique among any raw developer and aimed specifically at astrophotographers. Yes, it’s free, but the learning curve is precipitous.
Photoshop Contenders: Four Raw Developers with Layering/Compositing
These programs can not only develop at least single raw images, if not many, but also offer some degree of image layering, compositing, and masking like Photoshop.
However, only ON1 Photo RAW can do that and also catalog/browse images as Lightroom can. Neither Affinity, Luminar, or Pixelmator offer a library catalog like Lightroom, nor even a file browsing function such as Adobe Bridge, serious deficiencies I feel.
This is the lowest cost raw developer and layer-based program on offer here, and has some impressive features, such as stacking images, HDR blending, and panorama stitching. However, it lacks any library or cataloguing function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement, but it could replace Photoshop.
Macphun has changed their name to Skylum and now makes their fine Luminar program for both Mac and Windows. While adding special effects is its forte, Luminar does work well both as a raw developer and layer-based editor. But like Affinity, it has no cataloguing feature. It cannot replace Lightroom.
Of all the contenders tested here, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 has cataloguing, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In fact, ON1 allows you to migrate your Lightroom catalog into its format. However, ON1’s cost to buy and maintain is similar to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photo subscription plan. It’s just that ON1’s license is “perpetual.”
NOTE: Windows users might find Corel’s Paintshop Pro 2018 a good “do-it-all” solution – I tested only Corel’s raw developer program Aftershot Pro, which Paintshop Pro uses.
The “Pro” version of Pixelmator was introduced in November 2017. It has an innovative interface and many fine features, and it allows layering and masking of multiple images. However, it lacks some of the key functions (listed below) needed for nightscape and time-lapse work. Touted as a Photoshop replacement, it isn’t there yet.
This is the image I threw at all the programs, a 2-minute exposure of the Milky Way taken at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta in late July 2017.
NOTE: Click/tap on any of the screen shots to bring them up full screen so you can inspect and save them.
The lens was the Sigma 20mm Art lens at f/2 and the camera the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.
Thus the ground is blurred. Keep that in mind, as it will always look fuzzy in the comparison images. But it does show up noise well, including hot pixels. This image of the sky is designed to be composited with one taken without the tracker turning, to keep the ground sharp.
Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, HSL, Lens Corrections, and Effects tabs. Plus I added a “local adjustment” gradient to darken the sky at the top of the frame. I judged programs on how well they could match or beat this result.
Above is the same image developed in Adobe Lightroom, to demonstrate how it can achieve identical results to Camera Raw, because at heart it is Camera Raw.
I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files from the camera, not JPGs, for high-quality results.
And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, before it goes to Photoshop or some other bit-mapped editor. That’s an essential workflow for time-lapse shooting, if not still-image nightscapes.
However, I made no attempt to evaluate all these programs for a wide range of photo applications. That would be a monumental task!
Nor, in the few programs capable of the task, did I test image layering. My focus was on developing a raw image. As such, I did not test the popular free program GIMP, as it does not open raw files. GIMP users must turn to one of the raw developers here as a first stage.
If you are curious how a program might perform for your purposes and on your photos, then why not test drive a trial copy?
Instead, my focus was on these programs’ abilities to produce great looking results when processing one type of image: my typical Milky Way nightscape, below.
Such an image is a challenge because…
The subject is inherently low in contrast, with the sky often much brighter than the ground. The sky needs much more contrast applied, but without blocking up the shadows in the ground.
The sky is often plagued by off-color tints from artificial and natural sky glows.
The ground is dark, perhaps lit only by starlight. Bringing out landscape details requires excellent shadow recovery.
Key to success is superb noise reduction. Images are shot at high ISOs and are rife with noise in the shadows. We need to reduce noise without losing stars or sharpness in the landscape.
I focused on being able to make one image look as good as possible as a raw file, before bringing it into Photoshop or a layer-based editor – though that’s where it will usually end up, for stacking and compositing, as per the final result shown at the end.
I then looked at each program’s ability to transfer that one key image’s settings over to what could be hundreds of other images taken that night, either for stacking into star trails or for assembling into a time-lapse movie.
None of the programs I tested ticked all the boxes in providing all the functions and image quality of the Adobe products.
But here’s a summary of my recommendations:
For Advanced Time-Lapse
None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing. LRTimelapse works with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge to gradually shift processing settings over a sequence, and smooth annoying image flickering.
If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will work. Period. Subscribe to Creative Cloud. And buy LRTimelapse.
For Basic Time-Lapse
However, for less-demanding time-lapse shooting, when the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, then I feel the best non-Adobe choices are, in alphabetical order:
Corel Aftershot Pro
ON1 Photo RAW
… With, in my opinion, DxO and Capture One having the edge for image quality and features. But all five have a Library or Browser mode with easy-to-use Copy & Paste and Batch Export functions needed for time-lapse preparation.
Also worth a try is PhotoDirector9 (MacOS and Windows), a good Lightroom replacement. Scroll to the end for more details and a link.
For Still Image Nightscapes
If you are processing just individual still images, perhaps needing only to stack or composite a few exposures, and want to do all the raw development and subsequent layering of images within one non-Adobe program, then look at (again alphabetically):
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
… With Affinity Photo having the edge in offering a readily-available function off its File menu for stacking images, either for noise smoothing (Mean) or creating star trails (Maximum).
However, I found its raw development module did not produce as good a result as most competitors due to Affinity’s poorer noise reduction and less effective shadow and highlight controls. Using Affinity’s “Develop Persona” module, I could not make my test image look as good as with other programs.
Luminar 2018 has better noise reduction but it demands more manual work to stack and blend images.
While ON1 Photo Raw has some fine features and good masking tools, it exhibits odd de-Bayering artifacts, giving images a cross-hatched appearance at the pixel-peeping level. Sky backgrounds just aren’t smooth, even after noise reduction.
To go into more detail, these are the key factors I used to compare programs.
Absolutely essential is effective noise reduction, of luminance noise and chrominance color speckles and splotches.
Ideally, programs should also have a function for suppressing bright “hot” pixels and dark “dead” pixels.
Here’s what I consider to be the “gold standard” for noise reduction, Adobe Camera Raw’s result using the latest processing engine in ACR v10/Photoshop CC 2018.
I judged other programs on their ability to produce results as good as this, if not better, using their noise reduction sliders. Some programs did better than others in providing smooth, noiseless skies and ground, while retaining detail.
For example, one of the best was DxO PhotoLab, above. It has excellent options for reducing noise without being overwhelming in its choices, the case with a couple of other programs. For example, DxO has a mostly effective dead/hot pixel removal slider.
ACR does apply such a hot pixel removal “under the hood” as a default, but often still leaves many glaring hot specks that must be fixed later in Photoshop.
Comparing Noise Reduction
Above are 8 of the contender programs compared to Camera Raw for noise reduction.
Missing from this group is the brand new Pixelmator Pro, for MacOS only. It does not yet have any noise reduction in its v1 release, a serious deficiency in imaging software marketed as “Pro.” For that reason alone, I cannot recommend it. I describe its other deficiencies below.
The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Having software that can automatically detect the lens used and apply bespoke corrections is wonderful.
Only a few programs, such as Capture One (above), have a library of camera and lens data to draw upon to apply accurate corrections with one click. With others you have to dial in corrections manually by eye, which is crude and inaccurate.
Shadows and Highlights
All programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, but the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows (the dark ground) while preventing the sky from becoming overly bright, yet while still applying good contrast to the sky.
Of the contenders, I liked DxO PhotoLab best (shown above), not only for its good shadow and highlight recovery, but also excellent “Smart Lighting” and “ClearView” functions which served as effective clarity and dehaze controls to snap up the otherwise low-contrast sky. With most other programs it was tough to boost the shadows without also flattening the contrast.
On the other hand, Capture One’s excellent layering and local adjustments did make it easier to brush in adjustments just to the sky or ground.
However, any local adjustments like those will be feasible only for still images or time-lapses where the camera does not move. In any motion control sequences the horizon will be shifting from frame to frame, making precise masking impractical over a sequence of hundreds of images.
Therefore, I didn’t place too much weight on the presence of good local adjustments. But they are nice to have. Capture One, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 win here.
Selective Color Adjustments
All programs allow tweaking the white balance and overall tint.
But it’s beneficial to also adjust individual colors selectively, to enhance red nebulas, enhance or suppress green airglow, bring out green grass, or suppress yellow or orange light pollution.
Some programs have an HSL panel (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) or an equalizer-style control for boosting or dialing back specific colors.
Capture One (above) has the most control over color correction, with an impressive array of color wheels and sliders that can be set to tweak a broad or narrow range of colors.
And yet, despite this, I was still unable to make my test image look quite the way I wanted for color balance. ACR and DxO PhotoLab still won out for the best looking final result.
Copy and Paste Settings
Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later. It’s desirable to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good.
Some programs (Affinity Photo, Luminar, Pixelmator Pro) lack any library function for viewing or browsing a folder of thumbnail images. Yes, you can export a bunch of images with your settings applied as a user preset, but that’s not nearly as good as actually seeing those images displayed in a Browser mode.
What’s ideal is a function such as ON1 Photo RAW displays here, and that some other programs have: the ability to inspect a folder of images, work on one, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in the set.
This is absolutely essential for time-lapse work, and nice to have even when working on a small set to be stacked into a still image.
Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy and Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files.
This step is to create an intermediate set of JPGs to assemble into a movie. Or perhaps to stack into a star trail composite using third party software such as StarStaX, or to work on the images in another layer-based program of your choice.
As ON1 Photo RAW shows above, this is best done using a Library or Browser mode to visually select the images, then call up an Export panel or menu to choose the image size, format, quality, and location for the exports.
Click Export and go for coffee – or a leisurely dinner – while the program works through your folder. All programs took an hour or more to export hundreds of images.
Those functions were the key features I looked for when evaluating the programs for nightscape and time-lapse work.
Every program had other attractive features, often ones I wished were in Adobe Camera Raw. But if the program lacked any of the above features, I judged it unsuitable.
Yes, the new contenders to the Photoshop crown have the benefit of starting from a blank slate for interface design.
Many, such as Luminar 2018 above, have a clean, attractive design, with less reliance on menus than Photoshop.
Photoshop has grown haphazardly over 25 years, resulting in complex menus. Just finding key functions can take many tutorial courses!
But Adobe dares to “improve” Photoshop’s design and menu structure at its peril, as Photoshop fans would scream if any menus they know and love were to be reorganized!
The new mobile-oriented Lightroom CC is Adobe’s chance to start afresh with a new interface.
Summary Table of Key Features
Fair = Feature is present but doesn’t work as easily or produce as good a result
Partial = Program has lens correction but failed to fully apply settings automatically / DxO has a Browse function but not Cataloging
Manual = Program has only a manually-applied lens correction
– = Program is missing that feature altogether
I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of screen shots of all the programs, showing both the whole image, and a close-up to show the all-important noise reduction.
ACDSee Photo Studio
PROS: This capable cataloging program has good selective color and highlight/shadow recovery, and pretty smooth noise reduction. It can copy and paste settings and batch export images, for time-lapses. It is certainly affordable, making it a low-cost Lightroom contender.
CONS: It lacks any gradient or local adjustments, or even spot removal brushes. Lens corrections are just manual. There is no dehaze control, which can be useful for snapping up even clear night skies. You cannot layer images to create composites or image stacks. This is not a Photoshop replacement.
PROS: Affinity supports image layers, masking with precise selection tools, non-destructive “live” filters (like Photoshop’s Smart Filters), and many other Photoshop-like functions. It has a command for image stacking with a choice of stack modes for averaging and adding images.
It’s a very powerful but low cost alternative to Photoshop, but not Lightroom. It works fine when restricted to working on just a handful of images.
CONS: Affinity has no lens correction database, and I found it hard to snap up contrast in the sky and ground without washing them out, or having them block up. Raw noise reduction was acceptable but not up to the best for smoothness. It produced a blocky appearance. There are no selective color adjustments.
Nor is there any library or browse function. You can batch export images, but only through an unfriendly dialog box that lists images only by file name – you cannot see them. Nor can you copy and paste settings visually, but only apply a user-defined “macro” to develop images en masse upon export.
This is not a program for time-lapse work.
Capture One 11
PROS: With version 11 Capture One became one of the most powerful raw developers, using multiple layers to allow brushing in local adjustments, a far better method than Adobe Camera Raw’s local adjustment “pins.” It can create a catalog from imported images, or images can be opened directly for quick editing. Its noise reduction was good, with hot pixel removal lacking in Camera Raw.
Its color correction options were many!
It can batch export images. And it can export files in the raw DNG format, though in tests only Adobe Camera Raw was able to read the DNG file with settings more or less intact.
CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Creative Cloud to subscribe to. Despite all its options I could never quite get as good looking an image using Capture One, compared to DxO PhotoLab for example.
It is just a Lightroom replacement; it can’t layer images.
Corel Aftershot Pro 3
PROS: This low-cost option has good noise reduction using Athentech’s Perfectly Clear process, with good hot pixel or “impulse” noise removal. It has good selective color and offers adjustment layers for brushing in local corrections. And its library mode can be used to copy and paste settings and batch export images.
Again, it’s solely a Lightroom alternative.
CONS: While it has a database of lenses, and identified my lens, it failed to apply any automatic corrections. Its shadow and highlight recovery never produced a satisfactory image with good contrast. Its local adjustment brush is very basic, with no edge detection.
PROS: I found DxO produced the best looking image, better perhaps than Camera Raw, because of its DxO ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, with its PRIME option producing by far the best results of all the programs, better perhaps than Camera Raw, plus with hot pixel suppression.
DxO has good selective color adjustments, and its copy and paste and batch export work fine.
CONS: There are no adjustment layers as such. Local adjustments and repairing are done through the unique U-Point interface which works something like ACR’s “pins,” but isn’t as visually intuitive as masks and layers. Plus, DxO is just a raw developer; there is no image layering or compositing. Nor does it create a catalog as such.
So it is not a full replacement for either Lightroom or Photoshop. But it does produce great looking raw files for export (even as raw DNGs) to other programs.
PROS: Luminar has good selective color adjustments, a dehaze control, and good contrast adjustments for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Adjustments can be added in layers, making them easier to edit. Noise reduction was smooth and artifact-free, but adjustments were basic. Many filters can be painted on locally with a brush, or with a radial or gradient mask.
CONS: It has no lens correction database; all adjustments are manual. The preview was slow to refresh and display results when adjusting filters. The interface is clean but always requires adding filters to the filter panel to use them when creating new layers. Its batch export is crude, with only a dialog box and no visual browser to inspect or select images.
Settings are applied as a user preset on export, not through a visual copy-and-paste function. I don’t consider that method practical for time-lapses.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018
PROS: ON1 is the only program of the bunch that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It is fast to render previews in its “Fast” mode, but in its “Accurate” mode ON1 is no faster than Lightroom. It has good layering and masking functions, both in its Develop mode and in its Photoshop-like Layers mode.
Selective color and contrast adjustments were good, as was noise reduction. Developing, then exporting a time-lapse set worked very well, but still took as long as with Lightroom or Photoshop.
CONS: Despite promising automatic lens detection and correction, ON1 failed to apply any vignetting correction for my 20mm Sigma lens. Stars exhibited dark haloes, even with no sharpening, dehaze, or noise reduction applied. Its de-Bayering algorithm produced a cross-hatched pattern at the pixel level, an effect not seen on other programs.
Noise reduction did not smooth this. Thus, image quality simply wasn’t as good.
PROS: It is low cost. And it has an attractive interface.
CONS: As of version 1 released in November 2017 Pixelmator Pro lacks: any noise reduction (it’s on their list to add!), any library mode or copy and paste function, nor even the ability to open several images at once displayed together.
It is simply not a contender for “Photoshop killer” for any photo application, despite what click-bait “reviews” promise, ones that only re-write press releases and don’t actually test the product.
Raw Therapee v5.3
PROS: It’s free! It offers an immense number of controls and sliders. You can even change the debayering method. It detects and applies lens corrections (though in my case only distortion, not vignetting). It has good selective color with equalizer-style sliders. It has acceptable (sort of!) noise reduction and sharpening with a choice of methods, and with hot and dead pixel removal.
It can load and apply dark frames and flat fields, the only raw developer software that can. This is immensely useful for deep-sky photography.
CONS: It offers an immense number of controls and sliders! Too many! It is open source software by committee, with no one in charge of design or user friendliness. Yes, there is documentation, but it, too, is a lot to wade through to understand, especially with its broken English translations. This is software for digital signal processing geeks.
But worst of all, as shown above, its noise reduction left lots of noisy patches in shadows, no matter what combination of settings I applied. Despite all its hundreds of sliders, results just didn’t look as good.
What About …? (updated December 28)
No matter how many programs I found to test, someone always asks, “What about …?” In some cases such comments pointed me to programs I wasn’t even aware of, but subsequently tried out. So here are even more to pick from…
Billed as having “everything you need in an image editor,” this low-cost ($30) MacOS-only program is anything but. Its raw developer module is crude and lacks any of the sophisticated range of adjustments offered by all the other programs on offer here. It might be useful as a layer-based editor of images developed by another program.
Available for Mac and Windows for $150, this Lightroom competitor offers a good browser function, with the ability to “copy-from-one and paste-to-many” images (unlike some of the programs below), and a good batch export function for time-lapse work. It has good selective color controls and very good noise reduction providing a smooth background without artifacts like blockiness or haloes. Local adjustments, either through brushed-on adjustments or through gradients, are applied via handy and easy to understand (I think!) layers.
While it has auto lens corrections, its database seemed limited — it did not have my Sigma 20mm lens despite it being on the market for 18 months. Manual vignetting correction produced a poor result with just a washed out look.
The main issue was that its shadow, highlight, and clarity adjustments just did not produce the snap and contrast I was looking for, but that other programs could add to raw files. Still, it looks promising, and is worth a try with the trial copy. You might find you like it. I did not. For similar cost, other programs did a better job, notably DxO PhotoLab.
In the same ilk as Raw Therapee, I also tested out another free, open-source raw developer, one simply called “darktable,” with v2.2.5 shown below. While it has some nice functions and produced a decent result, it took a lot of time and work to use.
The MacOS version I tried (on a brand new 5K iMac) ran so sluggishly, taking so long to re-render screen previews, that I judged it impractical to use. Sliders were slow to move and when I made any adjustments often many seconds would pass before I would see the result. Pretty frustrating, even for free.
A similar crowd-developed raw processing program, Iridient Developer (above), sells for $99 US. I tested a trial copy of v3.2. While it worked OK, I was never able to produce a great looking image with it. It had no redeeming features over the competition that made its price worthwhile.
Using Parallels running Windows 10 on my Mac, I did try out this popular Windows-only program from Corel. By itself, Paintshop Pro’s raw developer module (shown above) is basic, crude and hardly up to the tax of processing demanding raw files. You are prompted to purchase Corel’s Aftershot Pro for more capable raw development, and I would agree – Aftershot would be an essential addition. However …
As I showed above, I did test the MacOS version of Aftershot Pro on my raw sample image, and found it did the poorest job of making my raw test image look good. Keep in mind that it is the ability of all these programs to develop this typical raw nightscape image that I am primarily testing.
That said, given a well-developed raw file, Paintshop Pro can do much more with it, such as further layering of images and applying non-destructive and masked adjustment layers, as per Photoshop. Indeed, it is sold as a low-cost (~ $60) Photoshop replacement. As such, many Windows users find Paintshop’s features very attractive. However, Paintshop lacks the non-destructive “smart” filters, and the more advanced selection and masking options offered by Photoshop, Affinity Photo, and ON1 Photo Raw. If you have never used these, you likely don’t realize what you are missing.
If it’s an Adobe alternative you are after, I would suggest Windows users would be better served by other options. Why not test drive Affinity and ON1?
This was a surprising find. Little known, certainly to me, this Windows and MacOS program from the Taiwanese company Cyberlink, is best described as a Lightroom substitute, but it’s a good one. Its regular list price is $170. I bought it on sale for $60.
Like Lightroom, working on any images with PhotoDirector requires importing them into a catalog. You cannot just browse to the images. Fine. But one thing some people complain about with Lightroom is the need to always import images.
I was impressed with how good a job PhotoDirector did on my raw test image. PhotoDirector has excellent controls for shadow and highlight recovery, HSL selective color, copying-and-pasting settings, and batch exporting. So it will work well for basic time-lapse processing.
Noise reduction was very good and artifact-free. While it does have automatic lens corrections, its database did not include the 2-year old Sigma 20mm Art lens I used. So it appears its lens data is not updated frequently.
PhotoDirector has good local adjustments and gradients using “pins” rather than layers, similar to Camera Raw and Lightroom.
After performing raw image “Adjustments,” you can take an image into an Edit module (for adding special effects), then into a Layers module for further work. However, doing so destructively “flattens” the image to apply the raw adjustments you made. You cannot go back and tweak the raw settings in the Adjustment module, as you can when opening a raw file as a “smart object” in Adobe Photoshop.
While PhotoDirector does allow you to layer in other images to make basic composites (such as adding type or logos), there is no masking function nor any non-destructive adjustment layers. So this is most assuredly not a Photoshop substitute, despite what the advertising might suggest. But if it’s a Lightroom replacement you are after, do check it out in a trial copy.
This little-known MacOS-only program (only $40 on sale) for developing raw images looks very attractive, with good selective color, lots of local adjustments, and good masking tools, the features promoted on the website. It does have a browse function and can batch export a set of developed files.
However … its noise reduction was poor, introducing glowing haloes around stars when turned up to any useful level. Its shadows, highlights, and contrast adjustments were also poor – it was tough to make the test image look good without flattening contrast or blocking up shadows. Boosting clarity even a little added awful dark haloes to stars, making this a useless function. It has no lens correction, either automatic or manual. Like Topaz Studio, below, it cannot copy and paste settings to a batch of images, only to one image at a time, so it isn’t useful for time-lapse processing.
I cannot recommend this program, no matter how affordable it might be.
Popular among some camera manufacturers as their included raw developer, Silky Pix can be purchased separately ($80 list price for the standard version, $250 list price for the Pro version) with support for many cameras’ image files. It is available for MacOS and Windows. I tried the lower-cost “non-Pro” version 8. It did produce a good-looking end result, with good shadow and highlight recovery, and excellent color controls. Also on the plus side, Silky Pix has very good copy-and-paste functions for development settings, and good batch export functions, so it can be used to work on a folder of time-lapse frames.
On the down side, noise reduction, while acceptable, left an odd mottled pattern, hardly “silky.” The added “Neat” noise reduction option only smoothed out detail and was of little value except perhaps for very noisy images. Noise reduction did nothing to remove hot pixels, leaving lots of colored specks across the image. The program uses unorthodox controls whose purposes are not obvious. Instead of Highlights and Shadows you get Exposure Bias and HDR. Instead of Luminance and Color noise reduction, you get sliders labeled Smoothness and Color Distortion. You really need to read the extensive documentation to learn how to use this program.
I found sliders could be sticky and not easy to adjust precisely. The MacOS version was slow, often presenting long bouts of spinning beachballs while it performed some function. This is a program worth a try, and you might find you like it. But considering what the competition offers, I would not recommend it.
While Topaz Labs previously offered only plug-ins for Photoshop and other programs (their Topaz DeNoise 6 is very good), their Topaz Studio stand-alone program now offers full raw processing abilities.
It is for Mac and Windows. While it did a decent job developing my test Milky Way image (above), with good color and contrast adjustments, it cannot copy and paste settings from one image to a folder of images, only to one other image. Nor can it batch export a folder of images. Both deficiencies make it useless for time-lapse work.
In addition, while the base program is free, adding the “Pro Adjustments” modules I needed to process my test image (Noise Reduction, Dehaze, Precision Contrast, etc.) would cost $160 – each Adjustment is bought separately. Some users might like it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
And … Adobe Photoshop Elements v18 (late 2017 release)
What about Adobe’s own Photoshop “Lite?” Elements is available for $99 as a boxed or downloadable one-time purchase, but with annual updates costing about $50. While it offers image and adjustment layers, it cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has very limited functions for developing raw files.
And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not have any copy-and-paste settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for time-lapse production.
Elements is for processing photos for the snapshot family album. Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. But it can be pressed into service for raw editing and layering single images, especially by beginners.
However, a Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more than buying, then upgrading Elements outright, yet gets you far, far more in professional-level software.
And Yet More…!
In addition, for just developing raw files, you likely already have software to do the job – the program that came with your camera.
For Canon it’s Digital Photo Professional (shown above); for Nikon it’s Capture NX; for Pentax it’s Digital Camera Utility, etc.
These are all capable raw developers, but have no layering capabilities. And they read only the files from their camera brand. If theirs is the only software you have, try it. They are great for learning on.
But you’ll find that the programs from other companies offer more features and better image quality.
What Would I Buy?
Except for Capture One, which I tested as a trial copy, I did buy all the software in question, for testing for my Nightscapes eBook.
However, as I’ve described, none of the programs tick all the boxes. Each has strengths, but also weaknesses, if not outright deficiencies. I don’t feel any can fully replace Adobe products for features and image quality.
A possible non-Adobe combination for the best image quality might be DxO PhotoLab for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, and Affinity Photo for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO and opened and layered with Affinity.
But that combo lacks any cataloging option. For that you’d have to add ACDSee or Aftershot for a budget option. It’s hardly a convenient workflow I’d want to use.
I’d love to recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly as a single solution, if only it had better raw processing results, and didn’t suffer from de-Bayering artifacts (shown in a 400% close-up above, compared to DxO PhotoLab). These add the star haloes and a subtle blocky pattern to the sky, most obvious at right.
To Adobe or Not to Adobe
I’m just not anxious, as others are, to “avoid Adobe.”
I’ve been a satisfied Creative Cloud subscriber for several years, and view the monthly fee as the cost of doing business. It’s much cheaper than the annual updates that boxed Photoshop versions used to cost. Nor am I worried about Adobe suddenly jacking up the fees or holding us hostage with demands.
For me, the need to use LRTimelapse (shown above) for about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great. Sold.
I feel Camera Raw/Lightroom produces results that others can only just match, if that.
Only DxO PhotoLab beat Adobe for its excellent contrast enhancements and PRIME noise reduction.
Yes, other programs certainly have some fine features I wish Camera Raw or Lightroom had, such as:
Hot and dead pixel removal
Dark frame subtraction and flat field division
Better options for contrast enhancement
And adding local adjustments to raw files via layers, with more precise masking tools
But those aren’t “must haves.”
Using ACR or Lightroom makes it easy to export raw files for time-lapse assembly, or to open them into Photoshop for layering and compositing, usually as “smart objects” for non-destructive editing, as shown below.
Above is the final layered image, consisting of:
A stack of 4 tracked exposures for the sky (the test image is one of those exposures)
And 4 untracked exposures for the ground.
The mean stacking smooths noise even more. The masking reveals just the sky on the tracked set. Every adjustment layer, mask, and “smart filter” is non-destructive and can be adjusted later.
I’ll work on recreating this same image with the three non-Adobe programs capable of doing so – Affinity, Luminar, and ON1 Photo RAW – to see how well they do. But that’s the topic of a future blog.
Making the Switch?
The issue with switching from Adobe to any new program is compatibility.
While making a switch will be fine when working on all new images, reading the terabytes of old images I have processed with Adobe software (and being able to re-adjust their raw settings and layered adjustments) will always require that Adobe software.
If you let your Creative Cloud subscription lapse, as I understand it the only thing that will continue to work is Lightroom’s Library module, allowing you to review images only. You can’t do anything to them.
None of the contender programs will read Adobe’s XMP metadata files to display raw images with Adobe’s settings intact.
Conversely, nor can Adobe read the proprietary files and metadata other programs create.
With final layered Photoshop files, while some programs can read .PSD files, they usually open them just as flattened images, as ON1 warns it will do above. It flattened all of the non-destructive editing elements created in Photoshop. Luminar did the same.
Only Affinity Photo (above) successfully read a complex and very large Photoshop .PSB file correctly, honouring at least its adjustment and image layers. So, if backwards compatibility with your legacy Photoshop images is important, choose Affinity Photo.
However, Affinity flattened Photoshop’s smart object image layers and their smart filters. Even Adobe’s own Photoshop Elements doesn’t honor smart objects.
Lest you think that’s a “walled garden” created by “evil Adobe,” keep in mind that the same will be true of the image formats and catalogs that all the contender programs produce.
To read the adjustments, layers, and “live filters” you create using any another program, you will need to use that program.
Will Affinity, DxO, Luminar, ON1, etc. be around in ten years?
Yes, you can save out flattened TIFFs that any program can read in the future, but that rules out using those other programs to re-work any of the image’s original settings.
I can see using DxO PhotoLab (above) or Raw Therapee for some specific images that benefit from their unique features.
Or using ACDSee as a handy image browser.
And ON1 and Luminar have some lovely effects that can be applied by calling them up as plug-ins from within Photoshop, and applied as smart filters. Above, I show Luminar working as a plug-in, applying its “Soft & Airy” filter.
In the case of Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, their ability to save images back as raw DNG files (the only contender programs of the bunch that can), means that any raw processing program in the future should be able to read the raw image.
However, only Capture One’s Export to DNG option produced a raw file readable and editable by Adobe Camera Raw with its settings from Capture One (mostly) intact (as shown above).
Even so, I won’t be switching away from Adobe any time soon.
But I hope my survey has given you useful information to judge whether you should make the switch. And if so, to what program.
I put two new fast 14mm lenses to the test: the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art vs. the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP.
Much to the delight of nightscape and astrophotographers everywhere we have a great selection of new and fast wide-angle lenses to pick from.
Introduced in 2017 are two fast ultra-wide 14mm lenses, from Sigma and from Rokinon/Samyang. Both are rectilinear, not fish-eye, lenses.
I tested the Nikon version of the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens vs. the Canon version of the Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP. I used a Nikon D750 and Canon 6D MkII camera.
I also tested the new faster Rokinon SP against the older and still available Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, long a popular lens among nightscape photographers.
The Sigma 14mm is a fully automatic lens with auto focus. It is the latest in their highly regarded Art series of premium lenses. I have their 20mm and 24mm Art lenses and love them.
The Rokinon 14mm SP (also sold under the Samyang brand) is a manual focus lens, but with an AE chip so that it communicates with the camera. Adjusting the aperture is done on the camera, not by turning a manual aperture ring, as is the case with many of Rokinon’s lower cost series of manual lenses. The lens aperture is then recorded in each image’s EXIF metadata, an aid to later processing. It is part of Rokinon’s premium “Special Performance” SP series which includes an 85mm f/1.2 lens.
All units I tested were items purchased from stock, and were not supplied by manufacturers as samples for testing. I own these!
For those with no time to read the full review, here are the key points:
• The Sigma f/1.8 Art exhibits slightly more off-axis aberrations than the Rokinon 14mm SP, even at the same aperture. But aberrations are very well controlled.
• As its key selling point, the Sigma offers another full stop of aperture over the Rokinon SP (f/1.8 vs. f/2.4), making many types of images much more feasible, such as high-cadence aurora time-lapses and fixed-camera stills and time-lapses of a deeper, richer Milky Way.
• The Sigma also has lower levels of vignetting (darkening of the frame corners) than the Rokinon 14mm SP, even at the same apertures.
• Both the Sigma Art and Rokinon SP lenses showed very sharp star images at the centre of the frame.
• Comparing the new premium Rokinon 14mm SP against the older Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 revealed that the new SP model has reduced off-axis aberrations and lower levels of vignetting than the lower-cost f/2.8 model. However, so it should for double the price or more of the original f/2.8 lens.
• The Rokinon 14mm SP is a great choice for deep-sky imaging where optical quality is paramount. The Sigma 14mm Art’s extra speed will be superb for time-lapse imaging where the f/1.8 aperture provides more freedom to use shorter shutter speeds or lower ISO settings.
•Though exhibiting the lowest image quality of the three lenses, the original Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 remains a superb value, at its typical price of $350 to $500. For nightscapers on a budget, it’s an excellent choice.
For all these tests I placed the camera and lens on a tracking mount, the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini shown below. This allowed the camera to follow the sky, preventing any star trailing. Any distortions you see are due to the lens, not sky motion.
As I stopped down the aperture, I lengthened the exposure time to compensate, so all images were equally well exposed.
In developing the Raw files in Adobe Camera Raw, I applied a standard level of Contrast (25) and Clarity (50) boost, and a modest colour correction to neutralize the background sky colour. I also applied a standard level of noise reduction and sharpening.
However, I did not apply any lens corrections that, if applied, would reduce lateral chromatic aberrations and compensate for lens vignetting.
So what you see here is what the lens produced out of the camera, with no corrections. Keep in mind that the vignetting you see can be largely compensated for in Raw development, with the provisos noted below. But I wanted to show how much vignetting each lens exhibited.
Stars are the severest test of any lens. Not test charts, not day shots of city skylines. Stars.
The first concern with any fast lens is how sharp the stars are not only in the centre of the frame, but also across the frame to the corners. Every lens design requires manufacturers to make compromises on what lens aberrations they are going to suppress at the expense of other lens characteristics. You can never have it all!
However, for astrophotography we do look for stars to be as pinpoint as possible to the corners, with little coma and astigmatism splaying stars into seagull and comet shapes. Stars should also not become rainbow-coloured blobs from lateral chromatic aberration.
SIGMA 14mm ART
These images show 200% blowups of the two upper corners of the Sigma 14mm Art lens, each at five apertures, from wide open at f/1.8, then stopped down at 1/3rd stop increments to f/2.8. As you would expect, performance improves as you stop down the lens, though some astigmatism and coma are still present at f/2.8.
But even wide open at f/1.8, off-axis aberrations are very well controlled and minimal. You have to zoom up this much to see them.
There was no detectable lateral chromatic aberration.
Aberrations were also equal at each corner, showing good lens centering and tight assembly tolerances.
ROKINON 14mm SP
Similarly, these images show 200% blow-ups of the upper corners of the Rokinon SP, at its three widest apertures: f/2.4, f/2.8 and f/3.2.
Star images look tighter and less aberrated in the Rokinon, even when compared at the same apertures.
But images look better on the left side of the frame than on the right, indicating a slight lens de-centering or variation in lens position or figuring, a flaw noted by other users in testing Rokinon lenses. The difference is not great and takes pixel-peeping to see. Nevertheless, it is there, and may vary from unit to unit. This should not be the case with any “premium” lens.
SIGMA vs. ROKINON
This image shows both lenses in one frame, at the same apertures, for a more direct comparison. The Rokinon SP is better, but of course, doesn’t go to f/1.8 as does the Sigma.
We don’t want good performance at the corners if it means sacrificing sharp images at the centre of the frame, where other aberrations such as spherical aberration can take their toll and blur images.
These images compare the two lenses in 200% blow-ups of an area in the Cygnus Milky Way that includes the Coathanger star cluster. Both lenses look equally as sharp.
SIGMA 14mm ART
Even when wide open at f/1.8 the Sigma Art shows very sharp star images, with little improvement when stopped down. Excellent!
ROKINON 14mm SP
The same can be said for the Rokinon SP. It performs very well when wide open at f/2.4, with star images as sharp as when stopped down 2/3rds of an f-stop to f/3.2
SIGMA vs. ROKINON
This image shows both lenses in one frame, but with the Sigma wide open at f/1.8 and stopped down to f/2.8, vs. the Rokinon wide open at f/2.4 and stopped to f/2.8. All look superb.
The bane of wide-angle lenses is the light fall-off that is inevitable as lens focal lengths decrease. We’d like this vignetting to be minimal. While it can be corrected for later when developing the Raw files, doing so can raise the visibility of noise and discolouration, such as magenta casts. The less vignetting we have to deal with the better.
As with off-axis aberrations, vignetting decreases as lenses are stopped down. Images become more uniformly illuminated across the frame, with less of a “hot spot” in the centre.
SIGMA 14mm ART
This set compares the left edge of the frame in the Sigma SP at five apertures, from f/1.8 to f/2.8. You can see how the image gets brighter and more uniform as the lens is stopped down. (The inset image at upper right show what part of the frame I am zooming into.)
ROKINON 14mm SP
This similar set compares the frame’s left edge in the Rokinon SP at its three widest apertures, from f/2.4 to f/3.2. Again, vignetting improves but is still present at f/3.2.
SIGMA vs. ROKINON
This compares both lenses at similar apertures side by side for a direct comparison. The Sigma is better than the Rokinon with a much more uniform illumination across the frame.
In these two images, above, of the entire frame at their respectively widest apertures, I’d say the Sigma exhibits less vignetting than the Rokinon, even when wide open at f/1.8. The cost for this performance, other than in dollars, is that the Sigma is a large, heavy lens with a massive front lens element.
ROKINON 14mm f/2.4 SP vs. ROKINON 14mm f/2.8 Standard
Even the Rokinon 14mm SP, though a manual lens, carries a premium price, at $800 to $1000 U.S., depending on the lens mount.
For those looking for a low-cost, ultra-wide lens, the original Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8 (shown above) is still available and popular. It is a fully manual lens, though versions are available with a AE chip to communicate lens aperture information to the camera.
I happily used this f/2.8 lens for several years. Before I sold it earlier in 2017 (before I acquired the Sigma 14mm), I tested it against Rokinon’s premium SP version.
The older f/2.8 lens exhibited worse off-axis and on-axis aberrations and vignetting than the SP, even with the SP lens set to the same f/2.8 aperture. But image quality of the original lens is still very good, and the price is attractive, at half the price or less, than the 14mm SP Rokinon.
TWO 14mm ROKINONS: OFF-AXIS ABERRATIONS
Here, in closeups of the upper corners, I show the difference between the two Rokinons, the older standard lens on the left, and the new SP on the right.
The SP, as it should, shows lower aberrations and tighter star images, though with the improvement most marked on the left corner; not so much on the right corner. The original f/2.8 lens holds its own quite well.
TWO 14mm ROKINONS: ON-AXIS ABERRATIONS
At the centre of the frame, the difference is more apparent, with the SP lens exhibiting sharper star images than the old 14mm with its generally softer, larger star images. The latter likely has more spherical aberration.
TWO 14mm ROKINONS: VIGNETTING
The new SP lens clearly has the advantage here, with less vignetting and brighter corners even when wide open at f/2.4 than the older lens does at its widest aperture of f/2.8. This is another reason to go for the new SP if image quality is paramount
The new Sigma 14mm Art lens is costly, at $1600 U.S., though with a price commensurate with its focal length and aperture. Other premium lenses in this focal length range, either prime or zoom, from Nikon and Canon sell for much more, and have only an f/2.8 maximum aperture. So in that sense, the Sigma Art is a bargain.
The new Rokinon 14mm SP sells for $800 to $1000, still a premium price for a manual focus lens. But its optical quality competes with the best.
The older Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 is a fantastic value at $350 to $500, depending on lens mount and AE chip. For anyone getting into nightscape and Milky Way photography, it is a great choice.
With such a huge range in price, what should you buy?
A 14mm is a superb lens for nightscape shooting – for sky-filling auroras, for panoramas along the Milky Way, or of the entire sky. But the lens needs to be fast. All three lenses on offer here satisfy that requirement.
SIGMA 14mm f/1.8 ART
If you want sheer speed, this is the lens. It offers a full stop gain over the already fast Rokinon f/2.5, allowing exposures to be half the length, or shooting at half the ISO speed for less noise.
Its fast speed comes into its own for rapid cadence aurora time-lapses, to freeze auroral motion as much as possible in exposures as short as 1 to 2 seconds at a high ISO. The fast speed might also make real-time movies of the aurora possible on cameras sensitive and noiseless enough to allow video shooting at ISO 25,000 and higher, such as the Sony a7s models.
The Sigma’s fast speed also allows grabbing rich images of the Milky Way in exposures short enough to avoid star trailing, either in still images or in time-lapses of the Milky Way in motion.
While the Sigma does exhibit some edge aberrations, they are very well controlled (much less than I see with some 24mm and 35mm lenses I have) and are a reasonable tradeoff for the speed and low level of vignetting, which results in less noisy corners.
Photographers obsess over corner aberrations when, for fixed-camera nightscape shooting, a low level of vignetting is probably more critical. Correcting excessive vignetting introduces noise, while the corner aberrations may well be masked by star trailing. Only in tracked images do corner aberrations become more visible, as in the test images here.
I’d suggest the Sigma is the best choice for nightscape and time-lapse shooting, with its speed allowing for kinds of shots not possible otherwise.
The Sigma also appears to be the best coated of all the lenses, as you can see in the reflections in the lenses in the opening image, and below. However, I did not test the lenses for flares and ghosting.
As a footnote, none of the lenses allow front-mounted filters, and none have filter drawers.
ROKINON 14mm f/2.4 SP
For less money you get excellent optical quality, though with perhaps some worrisome variation in how well the lens elements are figured or assembled, as evidenced by the inconsistent level of aberration from corner to corner.
Nevertheless, stars are tight on- and off-axis, and vignetting is quite low, for corners that will be less noisy when the shadows are recovered in processing.
I’d suggest the Rokinon SP is a great choice if tracked deep-sky images are your prime interest, where off-axis performance is most visible. However, the SP’s inconsistent aberrations from corner to corner are evidence of lower manufacturing tolerances than Sigma’s, so your unit may not perform like mine.
For nightscape work, the SP’s f/2.4 aperture might seem a minor gain over Rokinon’s lower-cost f/2.8 lens. But it is 1/3 of an f-stop. That means, for example, untracked Milky Way exposures could be 30 seconds instead of 40 seconds, short enough to avoid obvious star trailing. At night, every fraction of an f-stop gain is welcome and significant.
ROKINON 14mm f/2.8 Standard
You might never see the difference in quality between this lens and its premium SP brother in images intended for time-lapse movies, even at 4K resolution.
But those intending to do long-exposure deep-sky imaging, as these test images are, will want the sharpest stars possible across the frame. In which case, consider the 14mm SP.
But if price is a prime consideration, the original f/2.8 Rokinon is a fine choice. You’ll need to apply a fair amount of lens correction in processing, but the lens exists in the Camera Raw/Lightroom database, so correction is just a click away.
That was a lengthy report, I know! But there’s no point in providing recommendations without the evidence to back them up.
All images, other than the opening “beauty shot,” can be clicked/tapped on to download a full-resolution original JPG for closer inspection.
As I’ve just received the Sigma Art lens I’ve not had a chance to shoot any “real” nightscape images with it yet, just these test shots. But for a real life deep-sky image of the Milky Way shot with the Rokinon SP, see this image from Australia. https://flic.kr/p/SSQm7G
I hope you found the test of value in helping you choose a lens.
Following up on my earlier tests, I compare the new Canon 6D MkII camera to earlier Canon full-frame models in long, tracked exposures of the Milky Way.
A month ago I published tests of the new Canon 6D MkII camera for nightscape images, ones taken using a fixed tripod in which exposures usually have to be limited to no longer than 30 to 60 seconds, to prevent star trailing.
Despite these short exposures, we still like to extract details from the dark shadows of the scene, making nightscape images a severe test of any camera.
Here I test the 6D MkII for what, in many respects, is a less demanding task: shooting long exposures of deep-sky objects, the Milky Way in Cygnus in this case.
Why is this an easier task? The camera is now on a tracking mount (I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini) which is polar aligned to follow the rotation of the sky. As such, exposures can now be many minutes long if needed. We can give the camera sensor as much signal as the darkness of the night sky allows. More signal equals less noise in the final images.
In addition, there are no contrasty, dark shadows where noise lurks. Indeed, the subjects of deep-sky images are often so low in contrast, as here, they require aggressive contrast boosting later in processing to make a dramatic image.
While that post-processing can bring out artifacts and camera flaws, as a rule I never see the great increase in noise, banding, and magenta casts I sometimes encounter when processing short-exposure nightscape scenes.
For this test, I shot the same region of sky with the same 35mm lens L-Series lens at f/2.2, using three cameras:
• Canon 6D MkII (2017)
• Canon 6D (2012)
• Canon 5D MkII (2008)
Note that the 5D MkII has been “filter-modified” to make its sensor more sensitive to the deep red wavelengths emitted by hydrogen gas, the main component of the nebulas along the Milky Way. You’ll see how it picks up the red North America Nebula much better than do the two off-the-shelf “stock” cameras. (Canon had their own factory-modified “a” models in years past: the 20Da and 60Da. Canon: How about a 6D MkIIa?)
I shot at four ISO speeds typical of deep-sky images: 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400.
Exposures were 4 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, and 30 seconds, respectively, to produce equally exposed frames with a histogram shifted well to the right, as it should be for a good signal-to-noise ratio.
Noisy deep-sky images with DSLR cameras are usually the result of the photographer underexposing needlessly, often in the mistaken belief that doing so will reduce noise when, in fact, it does just the opposite.
The above set of three images compares each of the three cameras at those four ISO speeds. In all cases I have applied very little processing to the images: only a lens correction, some sharpening, a slight contrast and clarity increase, and a slight color correction to neutralize the background sky.
However, I did not apply any luminance noise reduction. So all the images are noisier than what they would be in a final processed image.
Even so, all look very good. And with similar performance.
All frames were shot with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) on, for an automatic dark frame subtraction by the camera. I saw no artifacts from applying LENR vs. shots taken without it.
The 6D and 6D MkII perhaps show a little less noise than the old 5D MkII, as they should being newer cameras.
The 6D MkII also shows a little less pixelation on small stars, as it should being a 26 megapixel camera vs. 20 to 21 megapixels for the older cameras. However, you have to examine the images at pixel-peeping levels to see these differences. Nevertheless, having higher resolution without the penalty of higher noise is very welcome.
Above, I show images from the three cameras side by side at ISOs 1600, 3200, and 6400. It is tough to tell the difference in noise levels, the key characteristic for this type of astrophotography.
The new 6D MkII shows very similar levels of noise to the 6D, perhaps improving upon the older cameras a tad.
Because images are well-exposed (note the histogram at right), the 6D MkII is showing none of the flaws of its lower dynamic range reported elsewhere.
That’s the key. The 6D MkII needs a well-exposed image. Given that, it performs very well.
This version shows the same images but now with stacked frames and with a typical level of processing to make a more attractive and richer final image. Again, all look good, but with the modified camera showing richer nebulosity, as they do in deep-sky images.
The lead image at the very top is a final full-frame image with the Canon 6D MkII.
As such, based on my initial testing, I can recommend the Canon 6D MkII (and plan to use it myself) for deep-sky photography.
Indeed, I’ll likely have the camera filter-modified to replace my vintage yet faithful 5D MkII for most of my deep-sky shooting. The 6D MkII’s tilting LCD screen alone (a neck, back, and knee saver when attached to a telescope!) makes it a welcome upgrade from the earlier cameras.
The only drawback to the 6D MkII for deep-sky work is its limited dark frame buffer. As noted in my earlier review, it can shoot only three Raw files in rapid succession with Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on. The 5D MkII can shoot five; the 6D can shoot four. (A 6D MkIIa should have this buffer increased to at least 4, if not 8 images.)
I make use of this undocumented feature all the time to ensure cleaner images in long deep-sky exposures, as it produces and subtracts dark frames with far greater accuracy than any taken later and applied in post-processing.
I hope you’ve found this report of interest.
With the 6D MkII so new, and between smoky skies and the interference of the Moon, I’ve had only one night under dark skies to perform these tests. But the results are promising.
For more tips on deep-sky imaging and processing see my pages on my website:
In a technical blog I compare the new Canon 6D Mark II camera with its predecessor, the Canon 6D, with the focus on performance for nightscape astrophotography.
No pretty pictures in this blog I’m afraid! This is a blog for gear geeks.
The long-awaited Canon 6D Mark II camera is out, replacing the original 6D after that camera’s popular 5-year reign as a prime choice among astrophotographers for all kinds of sky images, including nightscapes and time-lapses.
As all new cameras do, the 6D Mark II is currently fetching a full list price of $2000 U.S. Eventually it will sell for less. The original 6D, introduced in 2012 at that same list price, might still be available from many outlets, but for less, likely below $1500 US.
Shown on the left, above, the 6D Mark II is similar in size and weight to the original 6D.
However, the new Mark II offers 6240 x 4160 pixels for 26 megapixels, a bump up in resolution over the 5472 x 3648 20-megapixel 6D. The pixel pitch of the Mark II sensor is 5.7 microns vs. 6.6 microns for the 6D.
One difference is that the port for a remote release is now on the front, but using the same solid 3-pin N3 connector as the 6D and other full-frame Canons. That makes it compatible with all external controllers for time-lapse shooting.
TESTING FOR THE NIGHT
My interest is in a camera’s performance for long-exposure astrophotography, with images taken at high ISO settings. I have no interest in auto-focus performance (we shoot at night with focus set manually), nor how well a camera works for high-speed sports shooting.
To test the Mark II against the original 6D I took test shots at the same time of a high-contrast moonlit scene in the backyard, using a range of ISO speeds typical of nightscape scenes.
The comparisons show close-ups of a scene shown in full in the smaller inset screen.
The key characteristic of interest for night work is noise. How well does the camera suppress the noise inherent in digital images when the signal is boosted to the high ISO settings we typically use?
This set shows the 6D MkII at five ISOs, from ISO 1600 all the way up to the seldom-used ISO 25,600, all shot in Raw, not JPG. In all cases, no noise reduction was applied in later processing, so the results do look worse than what processed images would.
Click or tap on all images to expand each image to full screen for closer inspection.
This set shows the same range of ISOs with the original 6D. All were taken at the same aperture, f/2.8, with a 35mm lens. Exposures were halved for each successive bump up in ISO speed, to ensure equally exposed images.
Comparing the sets, the 6D MkII shows a much greater tendency to exhibit a magenta cast in the shadows at very high ISOs, plus a lower contrast in the shadows at increasing ISOs, and slightly more luminance noise than the 6D.
How much more noise the 6D MkII exhibits is demonstrated here.
To me, visually, the MkII presents about 1/2 stop, or EV, worse noise than the 6D.
In this example, the MkII exhibits a noise level at ISO 3200 (a common nightscape setting) similar to what the 6D does if set between ISO 4000 and 5000 – about 1/2 stop worse noise.
Frankly, this is surprising.
Yes, the MkII has a higher pixel count and therefore smaller pixels (5.7 microns in this case) that are always more prone to noise. But in the past, advances to the in-camera signal processing has prevented noise from becoming worse, despite increasing pixel count, or has even produced an improvement in noise.
For example, the 2012-vintage 6D is better for noise than Canon’s earlier 2008-era 5D MkII model by about half a stop, or EV.
After five years of camera development I would have expected a similar improvement in the 6D MkII. After all, the 6D MkII has Canon’s latest DIGIC 7 processor, vs. the older 6D’s DIGIC 5+.
Instead, not only is there no noise improvement, the performance is worse.
That said, noise performance in the 6D MkII is still very good, and better than you’ll get with today’s 24 megapixel cropped-frame cameras with their even smaller 4 micron pixels. But the full frame 6D MkII doesn’t offer quite as much an improvement over cropped-frame cameras as does the five-year-old 6D.
In the previous sets all the images were well-exposed, as best they could be for such a contrasty scene captured with a single exposure.
What happens when Raw images are underexposed, then boosted later in exposure value in processing?
This is not an academic question, as that’s often the reality for nightscape images where the foreground remains dark. Bringing out detail in the shadows later requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure. How well will the image withstand that work on the shadows?
To test this, I shot a set of images at the same shutter speed, but at successively slower ISOs, from a well-exposed ISO 3200, to a severely underexposed ISO 100. I then boosted the Exposure setting later in Raw processing by an amount that compensated for the level of underexposure in the camera, from a setting of 0 EV at ISO 3200, to a +5 EV boost for the dark ISO 100 shots.
This tests for a camera’s “ISO Invariancy.” If a camera has a sensor and signal processing design that is ISO invariant, a boosted underexposed image at a slow ISO should look similar to a normally exposed image at a high ISO.
You’re just doing later in processing what a camera does on its own in-camera when bumping up the ISO.
But cameras that use ISO “variant” designs suffer from increased noise and artifacts when severely underexposed images are boosted later in Raw processing.
The Canon 6D and 6D MkII are such cameras.
This set above shows the results from the 6D Mark II. Boosting underexposed shadows reveals a lot of noise and a severe magenta cast.
These are all processed with Adobe Camera Raw, identical to the development engine in Adobe Lightroom.
This set above shows the results from the 6D. The older camera, which was never great for its lack of ISO Invariancy performance, is still much better than the new Mark II.
Effectively, this is the lack of dynamic range that others are reporting when testing the 6D MkII on more normal daytime images. It really rears its ugly head in nightscapes.
The lesson here is that the Mark II needs to be properly exposed as much as possible.
Don’t depend on being able to extract details later from the shadows. The adage “Expose to the Right,” which I explain at length in my Nightscapes eBook, applies in spades to the 6D MkII.
LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION
All the above images were taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) off. This is the function that, when turned on, forces the camera to take and internally subtract a dark frame – an image of just the noise – reducing thermal noise and discolouration in the shadows.
Here is the 6D Mark II in a pair of underexposed images at identical settings with LENR on and off. Not only did it not reduce noise and the magenta cast, using LENR made it worse.
This is so completely contrary to expectation that I wonder if the Mark II does not have a serious firmware issue in need of a fix in an upgrade.
DARK FRAME BUFFER
A unique feature of Canon full-frame cameras is that when LENR is on you can take several exposures in quick succession before the dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera. This is extremely useful for deep-sky shooting.
The single dark frame then gets applied to the buffered “light frames.”
The 6D Mark II, when in either Raw or in Raw+JPG can take 3 shots in succession. This is a downgrade from the 6D which can take 4 shots when in Raw+JPG. Pity.
ADOBE CAMERA RAW vs. DIGITAL PHOTO PROFESSIONAL
My next thought was that Adobe Camera Raw, while it was reading the Mark II files fine, might not have been de-Bayering or developing them properly. So I developed the same image with both Raw developers, Adobe’s and Canon’s latest version of their own Digital Photo Professional (DPP).
Here I did apply a modest and approximately similar level of noise reduction to both images:
In ACR: Color at 25, Luminosity at 40, with Sharpness at 25
In DPP: Chrominance at 8, Luminosity at 8, with Sharpness at 2
Yes, DPP did do a better job at eliminating the ugly magenta cast, but did a much worse job at reducing overall noise. DPP shows a lot of blockiness, detail loss, and artifacts left by the noise reduction.
Adobe Camera Raw and/or Lightroom remain among the best of many Raw developers.
A new feature the 6D Mark II offers is the ability to shoot and stack images in-camera. It can either “Add” the exposure values, or, most usefully, “Average” them, as shown here.
Other newer Canon DSLRs also offer this feature, notably the 7D MkII, the 5D MkIV, the 5Ds, and even the entry-level 80D. So the 6D MkII is not unique. But the feature was not on the 6D.
Here’s the benefit.
The left image is a single exposure; the middle is an average stack of 4 exposures stacked in camera; the right image an average stack of 9 exposures, the maximum allowed.
Noise smooths out a lot, with less noise the more images you stack. The result is a single Raw file, not a JPG. Excellent!
While this kind of stacking can be done later in processing in Photoshop, or in any layer-based program, many people might find this in-camera function handy.
Except, as you can see, the sky will exhibit star trails, and not as well defined as you would get from stacking them with a “Lighten” blend mode, as all star trail stacking routines use.
So this averaging method is NOT the way to do star trails. The Mark II does not offer the Brighten mode some other new Canons have that does allow for in-camera star trail stacking. Again, a pity in a camera many will choose for astrophotography.
Nevertheless, the Average mode is a handy way to create foreground landscapes with less noise, which then have to be composited later with a sky image or images.
On the left, below, the Mark II has a nearly identical layout of buttons and controls to the 6D on the right. So owners of the older model will feel right at home with the Mark II. That’s handy, as we astrophotographers work in the dark by feel!
Of course the big new feature, a first for Canon in a full-frame camera, is the Mark II’s fully articulated screen. It flips out, tilts, and even flips around to face forward. This is super-great for all astrophotography, especially when conducted by aging photographers with aching backs!
And the screen, as with the entry-level cropped-frame Canons, is a touch screen. For someone who hasn’t used one before – me! – that’ll take some getting used to, if only in just remembering to use it.
And it remains to be seen how well it will work in the cold. But it’s great to have.
Like other late-model Canon DSLRs, the 6D MkII has a built-in intervalometer. It works fine but is useable only on exposures with internally set shutter speeds up to 30 seconds.
However, setting the Interval so it fires the shutter with a minimal gap of 1 second between shots (our usual requirement for night time-lapses) is tricky: You have to set the interval to a value not 1 second, but 2 to 3 seconds longer than the shutter speed. i.e. an exposure of 30 seconds requires an interval of 33 seconds, as shown above. Anything less and the camera misses exposures.
Why? Well, when set to 30 seconds the camera actually takes a 32-second exposure. Surprise!
Other cameras I’ve used and tested with internal intervalometers (Nikon and Pentax) behave the same way. It’s confusing, but once you are used to it, the intervalometer works fine.
Except … the manual suggests the only way to turn it off and stop a sequence is to turn off the camera. That’s crude. A reader pointed out that it is also possible to stop a time-lapse sequence by hitting the Live View Start/Stop button. However, that trick doesn’t work on sequences programmed with only a second between frames, as described above. So stopping a night time-lapse is inelegant to say the least. With Nikons you can hold down the OK button to stop a sequence, with the option then of restarting it if desired.
Also, the internal Intervalometer cannot be used for exposures longer than 30 seconds. Again, that’s the case with all in-camera intervalometers in other models and brands.
As with many other new Canons, the Mark II has a Bulb Timer function.
When on Bulb you can program in exposure times of any length. That’s a nice feature that, again, might mean an external intervalometer is not needed for many situations.
A new feature I like is the greatly expanded information when reviewing an image.
One of the several screens you can scroll to shows whether you have shot that image with Long Exposure Noise Reduction on or not.
Excellent! I have long wanted to see that information recorded in the metadata. Digital Photo Professional also displays that status, but not Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom.
While this has been a long report, this is an important camera for us astrophotographers.
I wish the news were better, but the 6D Mark II is somewhat of a disappointment for its image quality. It isn’t bad. It’s just that it isn’t any better than than the older 6D, and in some aspects is worse.
Canon has clearly made certain compromise decisions in their sensor design. Perhaps adding in the Dual-Pixel Autofocus for rapid focusing in Movie Mode has compromised the signal-to-noise ratio. That’s something only Canon can explain.
But the bottom-line recommendations I can offer are:
If you are a Canon user looking to upgrade to your first full-frame camera, the 6D Mark II will provide a noticeable and welcome improvement in noise and performance over a cropped-frame model. But an old 6D, bought new while they last in stock, or bought used, will be much cheaper and offer slightly less noise. But the Mark II’s flip-out screen is very nice!
If you are a current 6D owner, upgrading to a Mark II will not get you better image quality, apart from the slightly better resolution. Noise is actually worse. But it does get you the flip-out screen. I do like that!
If you are not wedded to Canon, but want a full-frame camera for the benefits of its lower noise, I would recommend the Nikon D750. I have one and love it. I have coupled it with the Sigma Art series lenses. I have not used any of the Sony a7-series Mirrorless cameras, so cannot comment on their performance, but they are popular to be sure.