A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot.
My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark.
So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.
How Long Will the Comet be Visible?
The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.
But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night.
As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown.
But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July.
When is the Best Time to Shoot?
The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night.
Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn.
But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks.
Where Do I Look?
In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun.
What Exposures Do I Use?
There is no single best setting. It depends on …
— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).
— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.
— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.
However, here are guidelines:
— ISO 400 to 1600
— Aperture f/2 to f/4
— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds
Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.
As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.
As a rule you want to …
— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.
— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image.
— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens.
So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot.
— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left.
When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination.
If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site.
And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.
Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late!
What Lens Do I Use?
Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well.
Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.
A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots.
Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.
Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show.
Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?
Yes. Whatever you have, try it.
However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually.
In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes.
It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars.
But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot.
What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?
Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure.
What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).
On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.
On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it).
Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards.
Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.
All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod.
What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot?
Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot.
To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:
— First, where the comet will be in the sky,
— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location.
— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!
Planning Where the Comet Will Be
Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.
For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions.
The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.orgBe sure to allow it to access your location.
Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest).
With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction.
Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.
I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.
Planning for the Weather
All is for nought if the sky is cloudy.
For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies.
Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot.
But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.
On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.
Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in.
My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas.
2. Exposure Blending
If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually.
For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus.
To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images.
Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows).
But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them.
4. Tracking the Sky
If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller).
But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing.
The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well.
Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.
But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.
Panoramas featuring the arch of the Milky Way have become the icons of dark sky locations. “Panos” can be easy to shoot, but stitching them together can present challenges. Here are my tips and techniques.
My tutorial complements the much more extensive information I provide in my eBook, at right. Here, I’ll step through techniques for simple to more complex panoramas, dealing first with essential shooting methods, then reviewing the workflows I use for processing and stitching panoramas.
What software works best depends on the number of segments in your panorama, or even on the focal length of the lens you used.
PART 1 — SHOOTING
What Equipment Do You Need?
Nightscape panoramas don’t require any more equipment than what you likely already own for shooting the night sky. For Milky Way scenes you need a fast lens and a solid tripod, but any good DSLR or mirrorless camera will suffice.
The tripod head can be either a ball head or a three-axis head, but it should have a horizontal axis marked with a degree scale. This allows you to move the camera at a correct and consistent angle from segment to segment. I think that’s essential.
What you don’t need is a special, and often costly, panorama head. These rotate the camera around the so-called “nodal point” inside the lens, avoiding parallax shifts that can make it difficult to align and stitch adjacent frames. Parallax shift is certainly a concern when shooting interiors or any scenes with prominent content close to the camera. However, in most nightscapes our scene content is far enough away that parallax simply isn’t an issue.
Though not a necessity, I find a levelling base a huge convenience. As I show above, this specialized ball head goes under the usual tripod head and makes it easy to level the main head. It eliminates all the fussing with trial-and-error adjustments of the length of each tripod leg.
Then to level the camera itself, I use the electronic level now in most cameras. Or, if your camera lacks that feature, an accessory bubble level clipped into the camera’s hot shoe will work.
Having the camera level is critical. It can be tipped up, of course, but not tilted left-right. If it isn’t level the whole panorama will be off kilter, requiring excessive straightening and cropping in processing, or the horizon will wave up and down in the final stitch, perhaps causing parts of the scene to go missing.
NOTE: Click or tap on the panorama images to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
Shooting Horizon Panoramas
While panoramas spanning the entire sky might be what you are after, I suggest starting simpler, with panos that take in just a portion of the 360° horizon and only a part of the 180° of the sky. These “partial panos” are great for auroras (above) or noctilucent clouds, (below), or for capturing just the core of the Milky Way over a landscape.
The key to all panorama success is overlap. Segments should overlap by 30 to 50 percent, enabling the stitching software to align the segments using the content common to adjacent frames. Contrary to some users, I’ve never found an issue with having too much overlap, where the same content is present on several frames.
For a practical example, let’s say you shoot with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or a 16mm lens on a cropped-frame camera. Both combinations yield a field of view across the long dimension of the frame of roughly 80°, and across the short dimension of the frame of about 55°.
That means if you shoot with the camera in “landscape” orientation, panning the camera by 40° between segments would provide a generous 50 percent overlap. The left half of each segment will contain the same content as the right half of the previous segment, if you take your panos by turning from left to right.
TIP: My habit is to always shoot from left to right, as that puts the segments in the correct order adjacent to each other when I view them in browser programs such as Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, with images sorted in chronological order (from first to last images in a set) as I typically prefer. But the stitching will work no matter which direction you rotate the camera.
In the example of a 24mm lens and a camera in landscape orientation you could turn at a 45° or 50° spacing and yield enough overlap. However, turning the camera at multiples of 15° is usually the most convenient, as tripod heads are often graduated with markings at 5° increments, and labeled every 15° or 30°.
Some will have coarser and perhaps unlabeled markings. If so, determine what each increment represents, then take care to move the camera consistently by the amount that will provide adequate overlap.
To maximize the coverage of the sky while still framing a good amount of foreground, a common practice is to shoot panoramas with the camera in portrait orientation. That provides more vertical but less horizontal coverage for each frame. In that case, for adequate overlap with a 24mm lens and full-frame camera shoot at 30° spacings.
TIP: When shooting a partial panorama, for example just to the south for the Milky Way, or to the north for the aurora borealis, my practice is to always shoot a segment farther to the left and another to the right of the main scene. Shoot more than you need. Those end segments can get distorted when stitching, but if they don’t contain essential content, they can be cropped out with no loss, leaving your main scene clean and undistorted.
Shooting with a longer lens, such as a 50mm (or 35mm on a cropped frame camera), will yield higher resolution in the final panorama, but you will have much less sky coverage, unless you shoot multiple tiers, as I describe below. You would also have to shoot more segments, at 15° to 20° spacings, taking longer to complete the shoot.
As the number of segments goes up shooting fast becomes more important, to minimize how much the sky moves from segment to segment, and during each exposure itself, to aid in stitching. Remember, the sky appears to be turning from east to west, but the ground isn’t. So a prolonged shoot can cause problems later as the stitching software tries to align on either the fixed ground or the moving stars.
Panoramas on moonlit nights, as I show above, are relatively easy because exposures are short.
Milky Way panoramas taken on dark, moonless nights are tougher. They require fast apertures (f/2 to f/2.8) and high ISOs (ISO 3200 to 6400), to keep individual exposures no more than 30 to 40 seconds long.
Noise lives in the dark foregrounds, so I find it best to err on the side of overexposure, to ensure adequate exposure for the ground, even if it means the sky is bright and the stars slightly trailed. It’s the “Expose to the Right” philosophy I espouse at length in my eBook.
Advanced users can try shooting in two passes: one at a low ISO and with a long exposure for the fixed ground, and another pass at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure for the moving sky. But assembling such a set will take some deft work in Photoshop to align and mask the two stitched panos. None of the examples here are “double exposures.”
Shooting 360° Panoramas
More demanding than partial panoramas are full 360° panoramas, as above. Here I find it is best to start the sequence with the camera aimed toward the celestial pole (to the north in the northern hemisphere, or to the south in the southern hemisphere). That places the area of sky that moves the least over time at the two ends of the panorama, again making it easier for software to align segments, with the two ends taken farthest apart in time meeting up in space.
In our 24mm lens example, to cover the entire 360° scene shooting with a 45° spacing would require at least eight images (8 x 45 = 360). I used 10 above. Using that same lens with the camera in portrait orientation will require at least 12 segments to cover the entire 360° landscape.
Shooting 360° by 180° Panoramas
More demanding still are 360° panoramas that encompass the entire sky, from the ground below the horizon to the zenith overhead. Above is an example.
To do that with a single row of images requires shooting in portrait orientation with a very wide 14mm rectilinear lens on a full-frame camera. That combination has a field of view of about 100° across the long dimension of the sensor.
That sounds generous, but reaching up to the zenith at an altitude of 90° means only a small portion of the landscape will be included along the bottom of the frame.
To provide an even wider field of view to take in more ground, I use full-frame fish-eye lenses on my full-frame cameras, such as Canon’s old 15mm lens (as shown at top) or Rokinon’s 12mm. Even a circular-format fish-eye will work, such as an 8mm on a full-frame camera or 4.5mm on a cropped-frame camera.
All such fish-eye lenses produce curved horizons, but they take in a wide swath of sky, making it possible to include lots of foreground while reaching well past the zenith. Conventional panorama assembly programs won’t work with such wide and distorted segments, but the specialized programs described below will.
Shooting Multi-Tier Panoramas
The alternative technique for “all-sky” panos is to shoot multiple tiers of images: first, a lower row covering the ground and partway up the sky, followed by an upper row completing the coverage of just the sky at top.
The trick is to ensure adequate overlap both horizontally and vertically. With the camera in landscape orientation that will require a 20mm lens for full-frame cameras, or a 14mm lens for cropped-frame cameras. Either combination can cover the entire sky plus lots of foreground in two tiers, though I usually shoot three, just to be sure!.
Shooting with longer lenses provides incredible resolution for billboard-sized “gigapan” blow-ups, but will require shooting three, if not more, tiers, each with many segments. That starts to become a chore to do manually. Some motorized assistance really helps when shooting multi-tier panoramas.
Automating the Pan Shooting
The dedicated pano shooter might want to look at a device such as the GigaPan Epic models or the iOptron iPano, (shown below), all about $800 to $1000.
I’ve tested the latter and it works great. You program in the lens, overlap, and angular sweep desired. The iPano works out how many segments and tiers will be required, and automates the shooting, firing the shutter for the duration you program, then moving to the new position, firing again, and so on. I’ve shot four-tier panos effortlessly and with great success.
However, these devices are generally bigger and heavier than I care to heft around in the field.
Instead, I use the original Genie Mini from SYRP, (below), a $250 device primarily for shooting motion control time-lapses. But the wireless app that programs the Genie also has a panorama function that automatically slews the camera horizontally between exposures, again based on the lens, overlap, and angular sweep you enter. The just-introduced Genie Mini II is similar, but with even more capabilities for camera control.
While combining two Genie Minis allows programming in a vertical motion as well, I’ve been using just a regular tripod head atop the Mini to manually move the camera vertically between each of the horizontal tiers. I don’t feel the one or two moves needed to go from tier to tier too arduous to do manually, and I like to keep my field gear compact and easy to use.
The Genie Mini (now replaced by the Mini II) works great and I highly recommend it, even if panoramas are your only interest. But it is also one of the best, yet most affordable, single-axis motion control devices on the market for time-lapse work.
When to Shoot the Milky Way
While the right gear and techniques are important, go out on the wrong night and you won’t be able to capture the Milky Way as the great sweeping arch you might have hoped for.
In the northern hemisphere the Milky Way arches directly overhead from late July to October for most of the night. That’s fine for spherical fish-eye panoramas, but in rectangular images when the Milky Way is overhead it gets stretched and distorted across the top of the final panorama. For example, in the Bow Lake by Night panorama above, I cropped out most of this distorted content.
The prime season for Milky Way arches is therefore before the Milky Way climbs overhead, while it is still across the eastern sky, as above. That’s on moonless nights from March to early July, with May and June best for catching it in the evening, and not having to wait up until dawn, as is the case in early spring.
TIP: The best way to figure out when and where the Milky Way will appear is to use a desktop planetarium program such as Starry Night or Sky Safari or the free Stellarium. All can realistically depict the Milky Way for your location and date. You can then step through time to see how the Milky Way will move through the night, and how it will frame with your camera and lens combination using the “field of view” indicators the programs provide.
When shooting in the southern hemisphere I like the April to June period for catching the sweep of the southern Milky Way and the galactic core rising in late evening. By contrast, during mid austral winter in July and August the galactic centre shines directly overhead in the evening, a spectacular sight to be sure, but tough to capture in a panorama except in a spherical or fish-eye scene.
That said, I always like to put in a good word for the often sadly neglected winter Milky Way (the summer Milky Way for those “down under”). While lacking the spectacle of the galactic core in Sagittarius, the “other” Milky Way has its attractions such as Orion and Taurus. The best months for a panorama with that Milky Way in an arch across a rectangular frame are January to March. The Zodiacal Light can be a bonus at that season, as it was above.
TIP: Always shoot raw files for the widest dynamic range and flexibility in recovering details in the highlights and shadows. Even so, each segment has to be well exposed and focused out in the field.
And unless you are doing a “two-pass” double exposure, always shoot each segment with identical exposure settings. This is especially critical for bright sky scenes such twilights or moonlit scenes. Vary the exposure and you might get unsightly banding at the seams.
There’s nothing worse than getting home only to find one or more segments was missed, or was out of focus or badly exposed, spoiling the set.
PART 2 — STITCHING
Developing Panorama Segments
Once you have your panorama segments, the next step is to develop and assemble them. For my workflow, the process of assembling a panorama from its constituent segments begins with developing each of those segments identically.
NOTE: Click or tap on the software screen shots to open a high-res version for closer inspection.
I like to develop each segment’s raw file as fully as possible at this first stage in the workflow, applying noise reduction, colour correction, contrast adjustments, shadow and highlight recovery, and any special settings such as dehaze and clarity that can make the Milky Way pop.
I also apply lens corrections to each raw image. While some feel doing so produces problems with stitching later on, I’ve never found that. I prefer to have each frame with minimal vignetting and distortion when going into stitching. I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge, but Lightroom Classic has identical functions.
There are several other raw developers that can work well at this stage. In other tests I’ve conducted, Capture One and DxO PhotoLab stand out as producing good results on nightscapes. See my blog from 2017 for more on software choices.
The key is developing each raw file identically, usually by working on one segment, then copying and pasting its settings to all the others in a set. Not all raw developers have this “Copy Settings” function. For example, Affinity Photo does not. It works very well as a layer-based editor to replace Photoshop, but is crude in its raw developing “Persona” functions.
While panorama stitching software will apply corrections to smooth out image-to-image variations, I find it is best to ensure all the segments look as similar as possible at the raw stage for brightness, contrast, and colour correction.
Do be aware that among social media groups and chat rooms devoted to nightscape imaging a lot of myth and misinformation abounds about how to process and stitch panoramas, and why some don’t work. Someone having a problem with a particular pano will ask why, and get ten different answers from well-meaning helpers, most of them wrong!
Stitching Simple Panoramas
For example, if your segments don’t join well it likely isn’t because you needed to use a panorama head (one oft-heard bit of advice). I never do. The issue is usually a lack of sufficient overlap. Or perhaps the image content moved too much from frame to frame as the photographer took too long to shoot the set.
Or, even when quickly-shot segments do have lots of overlap, stitching software can still get confused if adjoining segments contain featureless content or content that changes, such as segments over rippling water with no identifiable “landmarks” for the software to latch onto.
The primary problems, however, arise from using software that just isn’t up to the task. Programs that work great on simple panoramas (as the next three examples show) will fail when trying to stitch a more demanding set of segments.
For example, for partial horizon panos shot with 20mm to 50mm lenses, I’ll use the panorama function now built into Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom Classic, and also in the mobile-friendly Lightroom app. As I show above, ACR can do a wonderful job, yielding a raw DNG file that can continue to be edited non-destructively. It’s by far the easiest and fastest option, and is my first choice.
Another choice, not shown here, is the Photomerge function from within Photoshop, which yields a layered and masked master file, and provides the option for “content-aware” filling of missing areas. It can sometimes work on panos that ACR balks at.
Two programs popular as Adobe alternatives, ON1 PhotoRAW (above) and the aforementioned Affinity Photo (below), also have very capable panorama stitching functions.
However, in testing both programs with the demanding Bow Lake multi-tier panorama I used below with other programs, ON1 2019.5 did an acceptable job, while Affinity 1.7 failed. It works best on simpler panoramas, like this partial scene with a 24mm lens.
Even if they succeed when stitching 360° panoramas, such general-purpose editing programs, Adobe’s included, provide no option for choosing how the final scene gets framed. You have no control over where the program puts the ends of the scene.
Or the program just fails, producing a result like this.
Far worse is that multi-tier panoramas or, as I show above, even single-tier panos shot with very wide lenses, will often completely befuddle your favourite editing software, with it either refusing to perform the stitch or producing bizarre results.
Some photographers attempt to correct such wild distortions with lots of ad hoc adjustments with image-warping filters. But that’s completely unnecessary if you use the right software to begin with.
Stitching Complex Panoramas
When conventional software fails, I turn to the dedicated stitching program PTGui, $150 for MacOS or Windows. The name comes from “Panorama Tools – Graphical User Interface.”
While PTGui can read raw files from most cameras, it will not read any of the development adjustments you made to those files using Lightroom, Camera Raw, or any other raw developers.
So, my workflow is to develop all the raw segments, export them out as 16-bit TIFFs, then import those into PTGui. It can detect what lens was used to take the images, information PTGui needs to stitch accurately. If you used a manual lens you can enter the lens focal length and type (rectilinear or fish-eye) yourself.
I include a full tutorial on using PTGui in my eBook linked to above, but suffice to say that the program usually does a superb job first time and very quickly. You can drag the panorama around to frame the scene as you like, and change the projection at will to create rectangular or spherical format images, as above, and even so-called “little planet” projections that appear as if you were looking down at the scene from space.
Occasionally PTGui complains about some frames, requiring you to manually intervene to pick the same stars or horizon features in adjacent frames to provide enough matching alignment points until it is happy. Its interface also leaves something to be desired, with essential floating windows disappearing behind other mostly blank panels.
When exporting the finished panorama I usually choose to export it as a layered 16-bit Photoshop .PSD or, with big panos, as a Photoshop .PSB “big” document.
The reason is that in aligning the moving stars PTGui (indeed, all programs) can produce a few “fault lines” along the horizon, requiring a manual touch up to the masks to clean up mismatched horizon content, as I show above. Having a layered and masked master makes this easy to do non-destructively, though that’s best done in Photoshop.
However, Affinity Photo (above) can also read layered .PSD and .PSB Photoshop files, preserving the layers. By comparison, ON1 PhotoRAW flattens layered Photoshop files when it imports them, one deficiency that prevents this program from being a true Photoshop alternative.
Once a 360° panorama is in a program like Photoshop, some photographers like to “squish” the panorama horizontally to make it more square, for ease of printing and publication. I prefer not to do that, as it makes the Milky Way look overly tall, distorted, and in my opinion, ugly. But each to their own style.
You can test out a limited trial version of PTGui for free, but I think it is worth the cost as an essential tool for panorama devotees.
Other Stitching Options
However, Windows users can also try Image Composite Editor (ICE), free from Microsoft Research. As shown above in my test 3-tier pano, ICE works very well on complex panoramas, has a clean, user-friendly interface, offers a choice of geometric projections, and can export a master file with each segment on its own layer, if desired, for later editing.
The free, open source program HugIn is based on the same Panorama Tools root software that PTGui uses. However, I find HugIn’s operation clunky and overly technical. Its export process is arcane yet renders out only a flattened image.
In testing it with the same three-tier 21-segment pano that PTGui and ICE handled perfectly, HugIn failed to properly include one segment. However, it is free for MacOS and Windows, and so the price is right and is well worth a try.
With the superb tools now at our disposal, it is possible to create detailed panoramas of the night sky that convey the majesty of the Milky Way – and the night sky – as no single image can. Have fun!
On the evening of January 20 for North America, the Full Moon passes through the umbral shadow of the Earth, creating a total eclipse of the Moon.
No, this isn’t a “blood,” “super,” nor “wolf” Moon. All those terms are internet fabrications designed to bait clicks.
It is a totallunareclipse — an event that doesn’t need sensational adjectives to hype, because they are always wonderful sights! And yes, the Full Moon does turn red.
As such, on January 20 the evening and midnight event provides many opportunities for great photos of a reddened Moon in the winter sky.
Here’s my survey of tips and techniques for capturing the eclipsed Moon.
First … What is a Lunar Eclipse?
As the animation below shows (courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center), an eclipse of the Moon occurs when the Full Moon (and they can happen only when the Moon is exactly full) travels through the shadow of the Earth.
The Moon does so at least two times each year, though often not as a total eclipse, one where the entire disk of the Moon enters the central umbral shadow. Many lunar eclipses are of the imperceptible penumbral variety, or are only partial eclipses.
Total eclipses of the Moon can often be years apart. The last two were just last year, on January 31 and July 27, 2018. However, the next is not until May 26, 2021.
At any lunar eclipse we see an obvious darkening of the lunar disk only when the Moon begins to enter the umbra. That’s when the partial eclipse begins, and we see a dark bite appear on the left edge of the Moon.
While it looks as if Earth’s shadow sweeps across the Moon, it is really the Moon moving into, then out of, our planet’s umbra that causes the eclipse. We are seeing the Moon’s revolution in its orbit around Earth.
At this eclipse the partial phases last 67 minutes before and after totality.
Once the Moon is completely immersed in the umbra, totality begins and lasts 62 minutes at this eclipse, a generous length.
The Moon will appear darkest and reddest at mid-eclipse. During totality the lunar disk is illuminated only by red sunlight filtering through Earth’s atmosphere. It is the light of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around our planet.
And yes, it is perfectly safe to look at the eclipsed Moon with whatever optics you wish. Binoculars often provide the best view. Do have a pair handy!
At this eclipse because the Moon passes across the north half of the umbra, the top edge of the Moon will always remain bright, as it did above in 2010, looking like a polar cap on the reddened Moon.
Near the bright edge of the umbra look for subtle green and blue tints the eye can see and that the camera can capture.
Where is the Eclipse?
As the chart below shows, all of the Americas can see the entire eclipse, with the Moon high in the evening or late-night sky. For the record, the Moon will be overhead at mid-eclipse at local midnight from Cuba!
I live in Alberta, Canada, at a latitude of 50 degrees North. And so, the sky charts I provide here are for my area, where the Moon enters the umbral shadow at 8:35 p.m. MST with the Moon high in the east. By the end of totality at 10:44 p.m. MST the Moon shines high in the southeast. This sample chart is for mid-eclipse at my site.
I offer them as examples of the kinds of planning you can do to ensure great photos. I can’t provide charts good for all the continent because exactly where the Moon will be during totality, and the path it will take across your sky will vary with your location.
In general, the farther east and south you live in North America the higher the Moon will appear. But from all sites in North America the Moon will always appear high and generally to the south.
The latter two apps present the sightlines toward the Moon overlaid on a map of your location, to help you plan where to be to shoot the eclipsed Moon above a suitable foreground, if that’s your photographic goal.
When is the Eclipse?
While where the Moon is in your sky depends on your site, the various eclipse events happen at the same time for everyone, with differences in hour due only to the time zone you are in.
While all of North America can see the entirety of the partial and total phases of this eclipse (lasting 3 hours and 16 minutes from start to finish), the farther east you live the later the eclipse occurs, making for a long, late night for viewers on the east coast.
Those in western North America can enjoy all of totality and be in bed at or before midnight.
Here are the times for the start and end of the partial and total phases. Because the penumbral phases produce an almost imperceptible darkening, I don’t list the times below for the start and end of the penumbral eclipse.
PM times are on the evening of January 20.
AM times are after midnight on January 21.
Note that while some sources list this eclipse as occurring on January 21, that is true for Universal Time (Greenwich Time) and for sites in Europe where the eclipse occurs at dawn near moonset.
For North America, if you go out on the evening of January 21 expecting to see the eclipse you’ll be a day late and disappointed!
Picking a Photo Technique
Lunar eclipses lend themselves to a wide range of techniques, from a simple camera on a tripod, to a telescope on a tracking mount following the sky.
If this is your first lunar eclipse I suggest keeping it simple! Select just one technique, to focus your attention on only one camera on a cold and late winter night.
Then during the hour of totality take the time to enjoy the view through binoculars and with the unaided eye. No photo quite captures the glowing quality of an eclipsed Moon. But here’s how to try it.
Option 1: Simple — Camera-on-Tripod
The easiest method is to take single shots using a very wide-angle lens (assuming you also want to include the landscape below) with the camera on a fixed tripod. No fancy sky trackers are needed here.
During totality, with the Moon now dimmed and in a dark sky, use a good DSLR or mirrorless camera in Manual (M) mode (not an automatic exposure mode) for settings of 2 to 20 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 at ISO 400 to 1600.
That’s a wide range, to be sure, but it will vary a lot depending on how bright the sky is at your site. Shoot at lots of different settings, as blending multiple exposures later in processing is often the best way to reproduce the scene as your eyes saw it.
Shoot at a high ISO if you must to prevent blurring from sky motion. However, lower ISOs, if you can use them by choosing a slower shutter speed or wider lens aperture, will yield less digital noise.
Focus carefully on a bright star, as per the advice below for telephoto lenses. Don’t just set the lens focus to infinity, as that might not produce the sharpest stars.
One scene to go for at this eclipse is similar to the above photo, with the reddened Moon above a winter landscape and shining east of Orion and the winter Milky Way. But that will require shooting from a dark site away from urban lights. But when the Moon is totally eclipsed, the sky will be dark enough for the Milky Way to appear.
The high altitude of the Moon at mid-eclipse from North America (with it 40 to 70 degrees above the horizon) will also demand a lens as wide as 10mm to 24mm, depending whether you use portrait or landscape orientation, and if your camera uses a cropped frame or full frame sensor. The latter have the advantage in this category of wide-angle nightscape.
Alternatively, using a longer 14mm to 35mm lens allows you to frame the Moon beside Orion and the winter Milky Way, as above, but without the landscape. Again, this will require a dark rural site.
If you take this type of image with a camera on a fixed tripod, use high ISOs to keep exposures below 10 to 20 seconds to avoid star trailing. You have an hour of totality to shoot lots of exposures to make sure some will work best.
If you have a sky tracker to follow the stars, as I did above, exposures can be much longer — perhaps a minute to pick up the Milky Way really well — and ISOs can be lower to avoid noise.
Option 1 Variation — Urban Eclipses
Unfortunately, point-and-shoot cameras and so-called “bridge” cameras, ones with non-interchangeable lenses, likely won’t have lenses wide enough to capture the whole scene, landscape and all. Plus their sensors will be noisy when used at high ISOs. Those cameras might be best used to capture moderate telephoto closeups at bright urban sites.
With any camera, at urban sites look for scenic opportunities to capture the eclipsed Moon above a skyline or behind a notable landmark. By looking up from below you might be able to frame the Moon beside a church spire, iconic building, or a famous statue using a normal or short telephoto lens, making this a good project for those without ultra-wide lenses.
Whatever your lens or subject, at urban sites expose as best you can for the foreground, trying to avoid any bright and bare lights in the frame that will flood the image with lens flares in long exposures.
Capturing such a scene during the deep partial phases might produce a brighter Moon that stands out better in an urban sky than will a photo taken at mid-totality when the Moon is darkest.
TIP: Practice, Practice, Practice!
With any camera, especially beginner point-and-shoots, ensure success on eclipse night by practicing shooting the Moon before the eclipse, during the two weeks of the waxing Moon leading up to Full Moon night and the eclipse.
The crescent Moon with Earthshine on the dark side of the Moon is a good stand-in for the eclipsed Moon. Set aside the nights of January 8 to 11 to shoot the crescent Moon. Check for exposure and focus. Can you record the faint Earthshine? It’s similar in brightness to the shadowed side of the eclipsed Full Moon.
The next week, on the nights of January 18 and 19, the waxing gibbous Moon will be closer to its position for eclipse night and almost as bright as the uneclipsed Full Moon, allowing some rehearsals for shooting it near a landmark.
Option 2: Advanced — Multiple Exposures
An advanced method is to compose the scene so the lens frames the entire path of the Moon for the 3 hours and 16 minutes from the start to the end of the partial eclipse.
As shown above, including the landscape will require at least a 20mm lens on a full frame camera, or 12mm lens on a cropped frame camera. However, these charts are for my site in western Canada. From sites to the east and south where the Moon is higher an even wider lens might be needed, making this a tough sequence to take.
With wide lenses, the Moon will appear quite small. The high altitude of the Moon and midnight timing won’t lend itself to this type of multiple image composite as well as it does for eclipses that happen near moonrise or moonset, as per the example below.
A still-image composite with the lunar disks well separated will need shots only every 5 minutes, as I did above for the September 27, 2015 eclipse.
Exposures for any lunar eclipse are tricky, whether you are shooting close-ups or wide-angles, because the Moon and sky change so much in brightness.
As I did for the image below, for a still-image composite, you can expose just for the bright lunar disk and let the sky go dark.
Exposures for just the Moon will range from very short (about 1/500th second at f/8 and ISO 100) for the partials, to 1/2 to 2 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 and ISO 400 for the totals, then shorter again (back to 1/500 at ISO 100) for the end shots when the Full Moon has returned to its normal brilliance.
That’ll take constant monitoring and adjusting throughout the shoot, stepping the shutter speed gradually longer thorough the initial partial phase, then shorter again during the post-totality partial phase.
You’d then composite and layer (using a Lighten blend mode) the well-exposed disks (surrounded by mostly black sky) into another background image exposed longer for 10 to 30 seconds at ISO 800 to 1600 for the sky and stars, shot at mid-totality.
To maintain the correct relative locations of the lunar disks and foreground, the camera cannot move.
That technique works best if it’s just a still image you are after, such as above. This image is such a composite, of the April 4, 2015 total lunar eclipse from Monument Valley, Utah.
This type of composite takes good planning and proper exposures to pull off, but will be true to the scene, with the lunar disk and its motion shown to the correct scale and position as it was in the sky. It might be a composite, but it will be accurate.
That’s in stark contrast to the flurry of ugly “faked” composites that will appear on the web by the end of the day on January 21, ones with huge telephoto Moons pasted willy-nilly onto a wide-angle sky.
Rather than look artistic, most such attempts look comically cut-and-pasted. They are amateurish. Don’t do it!
Option 3: Advanced — Wide-Angle Time-Lapses
If it’s a time-lapse movie you want (see the video below), take exposures every 10 to 30 seconds, to ensure a final movie with smooth motion.
Unlike shooting for a still-image composite, for a time lapse each frame will have to be exposed well enough to show the Moon, sky, and landscape.
That will require exposures long enough to show the sky and foreground during the partial phases — likely about 1 to 4 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 400. In this case, the disk of the partially-eclipsed Moon will greatly overexpose, as it does toward the end of the above time-lapse from September 27, 2015..
But the Moon will darken and become better exposed during the late stages of the partial eclipse and during totality when a long exposure — perhaps now 10 to 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 800 to 1600 — will record the bright red Moon amid the stars and winter Milky Way.
Maintaining a steady cadence during the entire sequence requires using an interval long enough throughout to accommodate the expected length of the longest exposure at mid-totality, with similar camera settings to what you’ve used for other Milky Way nightscapes. If you’ve never taken those before, then don’t attempt this complex sequence.
After totality, as the Moon and sky re-brighten, exposures will have to shorten again, andsymmetrically in reverse fashion for the final partial phases.
Such a time-lapse requires consistently and incrementally adjusting the camera over the three or more hours of the eclipse on a cold winter night. The high altitude of the Moon and its small size on the required wide angle lenses will make any final time lapse less impressive than at eclipses that occur when the Moon is rising or setting.
But … the darkening of the sky and “turning on” of the Milky Way during totality will make for an interesting time-lapse effect. The sky and scene will be going from a bright fully moonlit night to effectively a dark moonless night, then back to moonlit. It’s a form of “holy grail” time lapse, requiring advanced processing with LRTimelapse software.
Again, do not move the camera. Choose your lens and frame your camera to include the entire path of the Moon for as long as you plan to shoot.
Even if the final movie looks flawed, individual frames should still produce good still images, or a composite built from a subset of the frames.
Option 4: Simple — Telephoto Close-Ups
The first thought of many photographers is to shoot the eclipse with as long a telephoto lens as possible. That can work, but …
The harsh reality is that the Moon is surprisingly small (only 1/2-degree across) and needs a lot of focal length to do it justice, if you want a lunar close-up.
You’ll need a 300mm to 800mm lens. Unfortunately, the Moon and sky are moving and any exposures over 1/4 to 2 seconds (required during totality) will blur the Moon badly if its disk is large on the frame and all you are using is a fixed tripod.
If you don’t have a tracking mount, one solution is to keep the Moon’s disk small (using no more than a fast f/2 or f/2.8 135mm to 200mm lens) and exposures short by using a high ISO speed of 1600 to 3200. Frame the Moon beside the Beehive star cluster as I show below.
Take a range of exposures. But … be sure to focus!
TIP: Focus! And Focus Again!
Take care to focus precisely on a bright star using Live View. That’s true of any lens but especially telephotos and telescopes.
Focus not just at the start of the night, but also more than once again later at night. Falling temperatures on a winter night will cause long lenses and telescopes to shift focus. What was sharp at the start of the eclipse won’t be by mid totality.
The catch is that if you are shooting for a time-lapse or composite you likely won’t be able to re-point the optics to re-focus on a star in mid-eclipse. In that case, be sure to set up the gear well before you want to start shooing to let it cool to ambient air temperature. Now focus on a star, then frame the scene. Then hope the lens doesn’t shift off focus. You might be able to focus on the bright limb of the Moon but it’s risky.
Fuzzy images, not bad exposures, are the ruin of most attempts to capture a lunar eclipse, especially with a telephoto lens. And the Moon itself, especially during totality, is not a good target to focus on. Use a bright star. The winter sky has lots!
Option 5: Advanced — Tracked Telescopic Close-Ups
If you have a mount that can be polar aligned to track the sky, then many more options are open to you.
You can use a telescope mount or one of the compact and portable trackers, such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (I show the Mini model above) or iOptron Sky Tracker units. While these latter units work great, you are best to keep the payload weight down and your lens size well under 300mm.
That’s just fine for this eclipse, as you really don’t need a frame-filling Moon. The reason is that the Moon will appear about 6 degrees west of the bright star cluster called the Beehive, or Messier 44, in Cancer.
As shown above, a 135mm to 200mm lens will frame this unique pairing well. For me, that will be the signature photo of this eclipse. The pairing can happen only at lunar eclipses that occur in late January, and there won’t be any more of those until 2037!
That’s the characteristic that makes this eclipse rare and unique, not that it’s a “super-duper, bloody, wolf Moon!” But it doesn’t make for a catchy headline.
Exposures to show the star cluster properly might have to be long enough (30 to 120 seconds) that the Moon overexposes, even at mid-totality. If so, take different exposures for the Moon and stars, then composite them later, as I did above for the December 20, 2010 eclipse near the Messier 35 star cluster in Gemini.
If really you want to shoot with even more focal length for framing just the Moon, a monster telephoto lens will work, but a small telescope such as an 80mm aperture f/6 to f/7 refractor will provide enough focal length and image size at much lower cost and lighter weight, and be easier to attach to a telescope mount.
But even with a 500mm to 800mm focal length telescope the Moon fills only a small portion of the frame, though cropped frame cameras have the advantage here. Use one if it’s a big Moon you’re after!
No matter the camera, the lens or telescope should be mounted on a solid equatorial telescope mount that you must polar align earlier in the night to track the sky.
Alternatively, a motorized Go To telescope on an alt-azimuth mount will work, but only for single shots. The rotation of the field with alt-az mounts will make a mess of any attempts to shoot multiple-exposure composites or time-lapses, described below.
Whatever the mount, for the sharpest lunar disks during totality, use the Lunar tracking rate for the motor.
Assuming an f-ratio of f/6 to f/8, exposures will vary from as short as 1/250th second at ISO 100 to 200 for the barely eclipsed Moon, to 4 to 20 seconds at ISO 400 to 1600 for the Moon at mid-totality.
It’s difficult to provide a precise exposure recommendation for totality because the brightness of the Moon within the umbra can vary by several stops from eclipse to eclipse, depending on how much red sunlight manages to make it through Earth’s atmospheric filter to light the Moon.
TIP: Shoot for HDR
As I did above, during the deep partial phases an option is to shoot both long, multi-second exposures for the red umbra and short, split-second exposures for the bright part of the Moon not yet in the umbra.
Take 5 to 7 shots in rapid succession, covering the range needed, perhaps at 1-stop increments. Merge those later with High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques and software, or with luminosity masks.
Even if you’re not sure how to do HDR processing now, shoot all the required exposures anyway so you’ll have them when your processing skills improve.
Option 6: Advanced — Close-Up Composites and Time-Lapses
With a tracking telescope on an equatorial mount you could fire shots every 10 to 30 seconds, and then assemble them into a time-lapse movie, as below.
But as with wide-angle time-lapses, that will demand constant attention to gradually and smoothly shift exposures, ideally by 1/3rd-stop increments every few shots during the partial and total phases. Make lots of small adjustments, rather than fewer large ones.
If you track at the lunar rate, as I did above, the Moon should stay more or less centred while it drifts though the stars, assuming your mount is accurately polar aligned, an absolutely essential prerequisite here.
Conversely, track at the sidereal rate and the stars will stay more or less fixed while the Moon drifts through the frame from right to left (west to east) as I show above in a composite of the October 27, 2004 eclipse.
But such a sequence takes even more careful planning to position the Moon correctly at the start of the sequence so it remains “in frame” for the duration of the eclipse, and ends up where you want at the end.
In the chart below, north toward Polaris is at the top of the frame. Position the Moon at the start of the eclipse so it ends up just above the centre of the frame at mid-eclipse. Tricky!
As I show above, for this type of “Moon-thru-shadow” sequence a focal length of about 400mm is ideal on a full frame camera, or 300mm on a cropped frame camera.
From such a time-lapse set you could also use several frames selected from key stages of the eclipse, as I did in 2004, to make up a multiple-image composite showing the Moon moving through the Earth’s shadow.
Again, planetarium software such as Starry Night I used above, which can be set to display the field of view of the camera and lens of your choice, is essential to plan the shoot. Don’t attempt it without the right software to plan the framing.
I would consider the telescopic time-lapse method the most challenging of techniques. Considering the hour of the night and the likely cold temperatures, your best plan might be to keep it simple.
It’s what I plan to do.
I’ll be happy to get a tracked telephoto close-up of the Moon and Beehive cluster as my prime goal, with a wide-angle scene of the eclipsed Moon beside Orion and the Milky Way as a bonus. A few telescope close-ups will be even more of a bonus.
However, just finding clear skies might be the biggest challenge!
Try the Astrospheric app for astronomy-oriented weather predictions. The Environment Canada data it uses has led me to clear skies for several recent eclipses that other observers in my area missed.
It’ll be worth the effort to chase!
The next total eclipse of the Moon anywhere on Earth doesn’t occur until May 26, 2021 in an event visible at dawn from Western North America. The next total lunar eclipse visible from all of North America comes a lunar year later, on May 15, 2022.
Total Lunar Eclipse from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I leave you with a music video of the lunar eclipse of September 27, 2015 that incorporates still and time-lapse sequences shot using all of the above methods.
I’m pleased to announce that my “Nightscapes and Time-Lapses” eBook is now available for all devices as a “universal” PDF!
First published in 2014, and revised several times since then, my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses eBook had been available only for Apple devices through the Apple iBooks Store. Not any more!
Over the years, many people have inquired about an edition for other devices, notably Android and Windows tablets. The only format that I can be sure the wide array of other devices can read and display as I intend it is PDF.
To convert the interactive Apple iBook into a PDF required splitting the content into two volumes:
Volume 1 deals just with Photography in 425 pages.
Volume 2 deals just with Processing, also in 425 pages.
Volume 2 includes all the same step-by-step tutorials as the Apple edition, but spread over many more pages. That’s because the Apple Edition allows “stacking” many processing steps into a one-page interactive gallery.
In the PDF version, however, those same steps are shown over several pages. And there are about 50 processing tutorials, including for selected non-Adobe programs such as Affinity Photo, ON1 Photo RAW, and DxO PhotoLab.
The other main difference is that, unlike the Apple version, I cannot embed videos. So all the videos are provided by links to Vimeo feeds, many “private” so only my ebook owners have access to those videos.
Otherwise, the combined content of the two PDFs is the same as the Apple iBooks edition.
I’ve also updated the Apple iBooks version (to v3.1) to revise the content, and add a few new pages: on Luminosity Mask panel extensions, southern hemisphere Milky Way and Moon charts, and even the new Nikon Z6 camera. It is now 580 pages.
Owners of the previous Apple iBooks edition can get the updated version for free. In iBooks, check under Purchased>Updates.
Both Apple and PDF editions are now in sync and identical in content. I think you’ll find them the most comprehensive works on the subject in print and in digital.
I put the new Sony a7III mirrorless camera through its paces for the features and functions we need to shoot the night sky.
Sony’s a7III camera has enjoyed rave reviews since its introduction earlier in 2018. Most tests focus on its superb auto exposure and auto focus capabilities that rival much more costly cameras, including Sony’s own a7rIII and a9.
For astrophotography, none of those auto functions are of any value. We shoot everything on manual. Indeed, the ease of manually focusing in Live View is a key function.
In my testing I compared the Sony a7III to two competitive DSLRs, the Canon 6D MkII and Nikon D750.
All three are “entry-level” full-frame cameras, with 24 to 26 megapixels and in a similar price league of $1,500 (Nikon) to 2,000 (Sony).
I tested a Sony a7III purchased locally. It was not supplied to me by Sony in return for an “influential” blog post.
I did this testing in preparation for the new third edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse eBook, which includes information on Sony mirrorless cameras, as well as many, many other updates and additions!
NOTE:Click or Tap on most images to bring them up full-frame for inspection.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR
As with Sony’s other popular Alpha 7 and 9 series cameras, the new Alpha 7III is a full-frame mirrorless camera, a class of camera Canon and Nikon have yet to offer, though models are rumoured or promised.
In the meantime, Sony commands the full-frame mirrorless market.
As its name implies, a mirrorless camera lacks the reflex mirror of a digital single lens reflex camera that, in a DSLR, provides the light path for framing the scene though the optical viewfinder.
In a mirrorless, the camera remains in “live view” all the time, with the sensor always feeding a live image to either or both the rear LCD screen and electronic viewfinder (EVF). While you can look through and frame using the EVF as you would with a DSLR, you are looking at an electronic image from the sensor, not an optical image from the lens.
The advantage of purely electronic viewing is that the image you are previewing matches the image you’ll capture, at least for short exposures. The disadvantage is that full-time live view draws more power, with mirrorless cameras notorious for being battery hungry.
Other mirrorless advantages include:
Compact size and lighter weight, yet offering all the image quality of a full-frame DSLR.
The thinner body allows the use of lenses from any manufacturer, albeit requiring the right adapter, an additional expense.
Lenses developed natively for mirrorless models can be smaller and lighter. An example is the Laowa 15mm f/2 I used for some of the testing.
The design lends itself to video shooting, with many mirrorless cameras offering 4K as standard, while often in DSLRs only high-end models do.
More rapid-fire burst modes and quieter shutters are a plus for action and wedding photographers, though they are of limited value for astrophotography.
Points of Comparison
In testing the Sony a7III I ignored all the auto functions. Instead, I concentrated on those points I felt of most concern to astrophotographers, such as:
Effectiveness of Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR)
Quality of Raw files, such as sharpness of stars
Brightness of Live View for framing and focusing
Uniformity of sensor illumination
Compatibility for time-lapse imaging
Levels of luminance and chrominance noise were excellent and similar to – but surprisingly not better than – the Nikon D750.
The Star Eater is gone. Stars are not smoothed out in long exposures.
The Sony exhibited good – though not great – “ISO invariant” performance.
Dark frame subtraction using Long Exposure Noise Reduction removed most – but not all – hot pixels from thermal noise.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Live View was absolutely superb, though the outstanding Bright Monitoring function is as well-hidden as Sony could possibly make it.
Sensor Illumination Uniformity
The Sony showed some slight edge-of-frame shadowing from the mask in front of the sensor, as well as a weak purple amp glow.
• The a7III lacks any internal intervalometer or ability to add one via an app. But it is compatible with many external intervalometers and controllers.
• The a7III’s red sensitivity for recording H-Alpha-emitting nebulas was poor.
• It lacks the “light-frame” buffer offered by full-frame Canons that allows shooting several frames in quick succession even with LENR turned on.
The a7III offers 4K video and, at 24 frames-per-second, is full-frame. Shutter speeds can be as slow as 1/4-second, allowing real-time aurora shooting at reasonable ISO speeds.
Shooting typical 400-frame time-lapses used about 40% of the battery capacity, similar to the other DSLRs.
The Sony a7III is a superb camera for still and time-lapse nightscape shooting, and excellent for real-time aurora videos. It is good, though not great, for long-exposure deep-sky imaging.
The Sony a7III uses a sensor that is “Backside Illuminated,” a feature that promises to improve low-light performance and reduce noise.
I saw no great benefit from the BSI sensor. Noise at typical astrophoto ISO speeds – 800 to 6400 – were about equal to the four-year-old Nikon D750.
That was a bit surprising. I expected the new BSI-equipped Sony to better the Nikon by about a stop. It did not. This emphasizes just how good the Nikon D750 is.
Nevertheless, noise performance of the Sony a7III was still excellent, with both the Sony and Nikon handily outperforming the Canon 6D MkII, with its slightly smaller pixels, by about a stop in noise levels.
NOTE: I performed all Raw developing with Adobe Camera Raw v10.3. It is possible some of the artifacts I saw are due to ACR not handling the a7III’s .ARW files as well as it should. But to develop all the images from Sony, Nikon, and Canon equally for comparisons, ACR is the best choice.
Both the Sony and Nikon use sensor and signal path designs that are “ISO invariant.” As a result, images shot underexposed at slower ISOs, then boosted in exposure later in processing look identical to properly exposed high-ISO images. Well, almost.
The Sony still showed some discoloration artifacts and added noise when boosting images by +4 EV that the Nikon did not. Even with uncompressed Raws, the Sony was not quite as ISO invariant as the Nikon, though the difference shows up only under extreme push-processing of badly underexposed frames.
Plus, the Sony was far better than the Canon 6D MkII’s “ISO variant” sensor. Canon really needs to improve their sensors to keep in the game.
Compressed vs. Uncompressed
The Sony a7III offers a choice of shooting Uncompressed or Compressed Raw files. Uncompressed Raws are 47 Mb in size; Compressed Raws are 24 Mb.
In well-exposed images, I saw little difference in image quality.
But the dark shadows in underexposed nightscapes withstood shadow recovery better in the uncompressed files. Compressed files showed more noise and magenta discoloration in the shadows.
It is not clear if Sony’s compressed Raws are 12-bit vs. 14-bit for uncompressed files.
Nevertheless, for the demands of nightscape and deep-sky shooting and processing, I suggest shooting Uncompressed Raws. Use Compressed only if you plan to take lots of time-lapse frames and need to conserve memory card space on extended shoots.
Star Eater (Updated June 3, 2018)
Over the last year or so, firmware updates from Sony introduced a much-publicized penchant for Sony Alphas to “eat” stars even in Raw files, apparently due to an internal noise reduction or anti-aliasing routine users could not turn off. Stars were smoothed away along with the noise in exposures longer than 3.2 seconds in some Sony cameras (longer than 30 seconds in others).
I feel that in the a7III the Star Eater has been largely vanquished.
As the images below show, there is a very slight one-pixel-level softening that kicks in at 4 seconds and longer but it did not eat or wipe out stars. Stars are visible to the same limiting magnitude and close double stars are just as well resolved across all exposures. Indeed, at slower ISOs and longer exposures, more stars are visible.
I saw none of the extreme effects reported by others with other Sonys, where masses of faint stars disappeared or turned into multi-colored blotches.
I did not see any significant “star eating” in any long exposures even up to the 4 minutes I used for some deep-sky shots. In images taken at the same time with other cameras not accused of star eating, the Sony showed just as many faint stars as the competitors. Long exposures showed just as many stars as did short exposures.
This was true whether I was shooting compressed or uncompressed Raws, with or without Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Neither compression nor LENR invoked “star eating.”
LENR Dark frames
For elimination of hot pixels from thermal noise I prefer to use Long Exposure Noise Reduction when possible for nightscape and deep-sky images, especially on warm summer nights.
Exceptions are images taken for star trail stacking and for time-lapses, images that must be taken in quick succession, with minimal time gap between frames.
Turning on LENR did eliminate most hot pixels in long exposures, but not all. A few remained. Also, when boosting the exposure a lot in processing, the images taken with LENR on showed more shot and read noise than non-LENR frames.
The dark frame the camera was taking and subtracting was actually adding some noise, perhaps due to a temperature difference. The cause is not clear.
Sony advises that when using LENR Raw images are recorded with only 12-bit depth, not 14-bit. This might be a contributing factor. Yet frames taken with LENR on were the same 47 Mb size as normal uncompressed frames.
For those who think this is normal for LENR use, the Nikon D750 shows nothing like this – frames taken with LENR on are free of all hot pixels and do not show more shot or read noise, nor deterioration of shadow detail from lower bit depths.
However, I emphasize that the noise increase from using LENR with the Sony was visible only when severely boosting underexposed images in processing.
In most shooting situations, I found using LENR provided the overriding positive benefit of reducing hot pixels. It just needs to be better, Sony!
How evenly an image is illuminated is a common factor when testing lenses.
But astrophotography, which often requires extreme contrast boosts, reveals non-uniform illumination of the sensor itself, regardless of the optics, originating from hardware elements in front of the sensor casting shadows onto the sensor.
This is most noticeable – indeed usually only noticeable – when shooting deep-sky targets though telescopes.
With DSLRs it is the raised mirror which often casts a shadow, produced a dark vignetted band along the bottom of the frame. Its extent varies from camera model to model.
With a mirrorless camera the sensor is not set far back in a mirror box, as it is in a DSLR. As such, I would have expected a more uniformly illuminated sensor.
Instead, I saw a slight shadowing at the top and bottom edges but just at the corners. This is from a thin metal mask in front of the sensor. It intrudes into the light path ever so slightly. It shouldn’t.
This is an annoying flaw, though applying “flat fields” or ad hoc local adjustments should eliminate this. But that’s a nuisance to do, and should not be necessary with a mirrorless camera.
Worse is that long deep-sky exposures at high ISOs also exhibited a faint purple glow at the left edge, perhaps from heat from nearby electronics, a so-called “amp glow.” Or I’ve read where this is from an internal infrared source near the sensor.
Taking a dark frame with LENR did not eliminate this, and it should, demonstrating again that for whatever reason in the a7III LENR is not as effective as it should be.
I have not seen such “amp” glows in cameras (at least in the DSLRs I’ve used) for a number of years, so seeing it in the new Sony a7III was another surprise.
This would be much tougher to eliminate in deep-sky images where the extreme contrast boosts we typically apply to images of nebulas and galaxies will accentuate any odd glows.
One supplier of filter-modified cameras, Spencer’s Camera, also refuses to modify Sonys, because this glow renders them poor choices for filter modification, for those wanting cameras with deeper red sensitivity.
When shooting deep-sky objects, particularly red nebulas, we like a camera to have a less aggressive infrared cutoff filter, to pick up as much of the deep red Hydrogen-Alpha emission line as possible.
The Sony showed poor deep-red sensitivity, though not unlike other cameras. It was a little worse than the stock Canon 6D MkII.
This isn’t a huge detriment, as anyone who really wants to go after deep nebulosity must use a “filter-modified” camera anyway.
Canon and Nikon both offered factory modified cameras at one time, notably the Canon 60Da and Nikon D810a. Sony doesn’t have an “a” model mirrorless.
To get the most out of the Sony for deep-sky imaging you would have to have it modified by a third-party, though the amp glow described above makes it a poor choice for modification.
Live View Focusing and Framing
Up to now my report on the Sony a7III hasn’t shown as glowing a performance as all the YouTube reviews would have you believe.
But Live Focus is where the a7III really stands out. I love it!
In Live View it is possible to make the image so bright you can actually see the Milky Way live on screen! Wow! This makes it so easy to frame nightscapes and deep-sky fields.
But this special “Bright Monitoring” mode is as well hidden as Sony could make it. Unless you actually read the full-length 642-page PDF manual (you have to download it), you won’t know about it. Bright Monitoring does not appear in any of the in-camera menus you can scroll through, so you won’t stumble across it.
Instead, you have to go to the Camera Settings 2 page, then select Still Image–Custom Key. In the menu options that appear you can now scroll to one called Bright Monitoring. Surprise! Assign it to one of the hardware Custom C buttons. I put it on C2, making it easy to call up when needed.
The other Live View function that works well, but also needs assigning to a C button is the Camera Settings 1 > Focus Magnifier. I put this on C1. It magnifies the Live View by 5.9x or 11.7x, allowing for precise manual focusing on a star.
Two other functions are useful for Live View:
Camera Settings 2 > Live View Display > Setting Effect ON. This allows the Live View image to reflect the camera settings in use, better simulating the actual exposure, even without Bright Monitoring on.
Camera Settings 1 > Peaking Setting. Turning this ON superimposes a shimmering effect on parts of an image judged in focus. This might be an aid, or an annoyance. Try it.
In all, the Sony provides superb, if well-hidden, Live View options that make accurately framing and focusing a nightscape or time-lapse scene a joy.
Great Features for Astrophotography
Here are some other Sony a7III features I found of value for astrophotography, and for operating the camera at night.
Tilting LCD Screen
Like the Nikon D750, the Sony’s screen tilts vertically up and down, great for use when on a telescope, or on any tripod when aimed up at the sky. As photographers age, this becomes a more essential feature!
The four C buttons can be programmed for oft-used functions, making them easy to access at night. Standard functions such as ISO and Drive Mode are easy to get at on the thumb wheel, unlike the Nikon D750 where I am forever hunting for the ISO or Focus Zoom buttons, or the Canon 6D MkII which successfully hides the Focus Zoom and Playback buttons at night.
In new models, Sony now offers the option of a final “My Menu” page which you can populate with often-used functions from the other 35 pages of menu commands!
Adaptability to Many Lenses
Using the right lens adapter (I use one from Metabones), it is possible to use lenses with mounts made for Canon, Nikon, Sigma and others. Plus there are an increasing number of lenses from third parties offered with native Sony E-mounts. This is good news, as astrophotography requires fast, high-quality lenses, and the Sony allows more choices.
Lighter Weight / Smaller Size
The compact a7III body weighs a measured 750 grams, vs. 900 grams each for the Nikon D750 and Canon 6D MkII. The lower weight can be helpful for use on lightweight telescopes, on small motion control devices, and for simply keeping weight and bulk down when traveling.
Dual Card Slots
Not essential, but having two card slots is very helpful, for backup, for handling overflows from very long time-lapse shoots, or assigning them for stills vs. movies, or Raws vs. JPGs. Only Slot 1 will work with the fastest UHS II cards that are needed for recording the highest quality 4K video.
It is possible to power the camera though the USB port (indeed that’s how you charge the battery, as no separate battery charger is supplied as standard, a deficiency). This might be useful for long shoots, though likely as not that same USB port will be needed for an intervalometer or motion control device. But if the Sony had a built-in intervalometer…!
To reduce battery drain it is possible to turn off the EVF completely – I find I never use it at night – and to turn off the LCD display when shooting, though the latter is an option you have to activate to add to the Display button’s various modes.
The downside is that when shooting is underway you get no reassuring indication anything is happening, except for a brief LED flash when an image is written to a card.
Electronic Front Curtain Shutter
Most DSLRs do not offer this, but the Sony’s option of an electronic front curtain shutter and the additional Silent Shooting mode completely eliminates vibration, useful for some high-magnification shooting through telephotos and telescopes.
What’s Missing for Astrophotography
Intervalometer — NOW INCLUDED! UPDATE: In April 2019 Sony issued a v3 Firmware update for the a7III which added an internal intervalometer. I’ve used this new function and it works very well.
I had originally remarked that this useful function was missing. But no more! Thank you Sony!
While a built-in intervalometer is not essential, I find I often do use the Canon and Nikon in-camera intervalometers for simple shoots. So it is great to have one available on the Sony. However, like other brands’ internal intervalometers Sony’s is good only for exposures up to 30 seconds long.
Bulb Timer or Long Exposures
However, while the Sony has a Bulb setting there is no Bulb Timer as there is with the Canon. The Bulb Timer would allow setting long Bulb exposures of any length in the camera.
Instead, for any exposures over 30 seconds long (or time-lapses with >30-second-long frames) the Sony must be used with an external Intervalometer. I use a $50 Vello unit, and it works very well. It controls the Sony through the camera’s Multi USB port.
In-Camera Image Stacking
Also missing, and present on most new Canons, are Multiple Exposure modes for in-camera stacking of exposures in a Brighten mode (for star trails) or Averaging mode (for noise smoothing).
Yes, this can all be done later in processing, but having the camera do the stacking can often be convenient, and great for beginners, as long as they understand what those functions do, or even that they exist!
When using its internal intervalometer, the Nikon D750 has an excellent Exposure Smoothing option. This does a fine job smoothing frame-to-frame flickering in time-lapses, something the Canon cannot do. Nor the Sony, as it has no intervalometer at all.
Light Frame Buffer in LENR
This feature is little known and utilized, and only Canon full-frame cameras offer it. Turn on LENR and it is possible to shoot three (with the 6D MkII) or four (with the 6D) Raw images in quick succession even with LENR turned on. The Canon 5D series also has this.
The dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera only after the series of “light frames” are taken. This is wonderful for taking a set of noise-reduced deep-sky images for later stacking. Nikons don’t have this, not even the D810a, and not Sonys.
The Sony’s buttons are not illuminated. While these might add glows to long exposure images, if they could be designed not to do that (i.e. they turn off during exposures), lit buttons would be very handy at night.
Limited Touch Screen Functions
An alternative would be an LCD screen that was touch sensitive. The Sony a7III’s screen is, but only to select an area for auto focus or zooming up an image in playback. The Canon 6D MkII has a fully functional touch screen which can be, quite literally, handy at night.
Here’s another area where the new Sony a7III really shines.
It offers 4K (or more precisely UltraHD) video recording for videos of 3840 x 2160 pixels. (True 4K is actually 4096 x 2160 pixels.)
With a fast enough UHS-II Class card it can record 4K video up to 30 frames per second and at a bit rate of either 60 or 100 Mbps.
At 24 fps videos are full-frame with no cropping. Hurray! You can take full advantage of wide-angle lenses, great for auroras. At 30 fps, 4K videos are cropped with a 1.2x crop factor.
In Movie Mode ISO speeds go up to ISO 102,400, but are pretty noisy, if unusable at such speeds.
But when shooting aurora videos I found, to my surprise, I could “drag” the shutter speeds as slow as 1/4-second, fully 4 stops better than the Nikon’s slowest shutter speed of 1/60 second in Full HD, and 3 stops better than the Canon’s slowest movie shutter of 1/30 second.
Coupled with a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens, the slow shutter speed allows real-time aurora shooting at “only” ISO 6400 to 12,800, for quite acceptable levels of noise. I am very impressed!
Real-time video of auroras is not possible with anything like this quality with the Nikon (I’ve used it often), and absolutely not with the Canon. And neither are 4K.
Is the a7III as good for low-light video as the Sony a7s models, with their larger 8.5-micron pixels?
I would assume not, but not having an a7s (either Mark I or II) to test I can’t say for sure. But the a7III should do the job for bright auroras, the ones with rapid motion worth recording with video, plus offer 24 megapixels for high-quality stills of all sky subjects.
I think it’s a great camera for both astrophoto stills and video.
An example is in a 4K video I shot on May 6, 2018 of an usual aurora known as “STEVE.”
Steve Aurora – May 6, 2018 (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
For another example of using the Sony a7III for recording real-time video of the night sky see this video of the aurora shot from Norway in March 2019.
The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I found the a7III would use up about about 40% of the battery capacity in a typical 400-frame time-lapse on mild spring nights, with 30-second exposures. This is with the EVF and rear LCD Display OFF, and the camera in Airplane mode to turn off wireless functions to further conserve battery power. I was using the wired Vello intervalometer.
This is excellent performance on par with the DSLRs I use. At last, we have a mirrorless camera that not only doesn’t eat stars, it also does not eat batteries!
One battery can get you through a night of shooting, though performance will inevitably decline in winter, as with all cameras.
Lens and Telescope Compatibility
As versatile as a mirrorless camera is for lens choice, making use of that versatility requires buying the right lens adapter(s). They can cost anywhere from $100 to $400. The lowest cost units just adapt the lens mechanically; the more costly units also transfer lens data and allow auto focusing with varying degrees of compatibility.
For use on telescopes, the simple adapters will be sufficient, and necessary as many telescope-to-camera adapters and field flatteners are optimized for the longer lens flange-to-sensor distance of a DSLR. Even if you could get a mirrorless camera to focus without a lens adapter to add the extra spacing, the image quality across the field might be compromised on many telescopes.
I used the Metabones Canon-to-Sony adapter when attaching the Sony to my telescopes using my existing Canon telescope adapters. Image quality was just fine.
Time-Lapse Controller Compatibility
Due to limitations set by Sony, controlling one of their cameras with an external controller can be problematic.
Devices that trigger only the shutter should be fine. That includes simple intervalometers like the Vello, the Syrp Genie Mini panning unit, and the Dynamic Perception and Rhino sliders, to name devices I use. However, all will need the right camera control cable, available from suppliers like B&H.
And, as I found, the Sony might need to be placed into Continuous shooting mode to have the shutter fire with every trigger pulse from the motion controller. When used with the Genie Mini (below) the Sony fired at only every other pulse if it was in Single shot mode, an oddity of Sony’s firmware.
Some time-lapse controllers are able to connect to a camera through its USB port and then adjust the ISO and aperture as well, for ramped “holy grail” sunset-to-Milky Way sequences.
In conclusion, here’s my summary recommendations for the three competitive cameras, rating them from Poor, to Fair, to Good, to Excellent.
SONY: I deducted marks from the Sony a7III for deep-sky imaging for its lack of a light frame buffer, poor red sensitivity, odd LENR performance, and purple amp glow not seen on the other cameras and that dark frames did not eliminate.
However, I did not consider “star eating” to be a negative factor, as the Sony showed just as many stars and as well-resolved as did the competitors, and what more could you ask for?
I rate the Sony excellent for nightscape imaging and for real-time aurora videos. I list it as just “good” for time-lapse work only because it will not be fully compatible with some motion controllers and rampers. So beware!
NIKON: I deducted points for real-time video of auroras – the D750 can do them but is pretty noisy with the high ISOs needed. Its red sensitivity is not bad, but its lack of a light frame buffer results a less productive imaging cycle when using LENR on deep-sky shooting.
I know … people shoot dark frames separately for subtracting later in processing. However, I’ve found these post-shoot darks rarely work well, as the dark frames are not at the same temperature as the light frames, and often add noise or dark holes.
CANON: The 6D MkII’s lack of an ISO invariant sensor rears its ugly head in underexposed shadows in dark-sky nightscapes. I like its image stacking options, which can help alleviate the noise and artifacts in still images, but aren’t practical for time-lapses. Thus my Good rating for nightscapes but Fair rating for time-lapses. (See my test at https://amazingsky.net/2017/08/09/testing-the-canon-6d-mark-ii-for-nightscapes/)
While the 6D MkII has HD video, it is incapable of any low-light video work.
And its light-frame buffer is great for minimizing shooting time for a series of deep-sky images with in-camera LENR dark frames, which I find are the best for minimizing thermal noise. Give me a Canon full-frame any day for prime-focus deep-sky shooting.
It’s just a pity the 6D MkII has only a 3-frame buffer when using LENR. Really Canon? The 2008-vintage 5D MkII had a 5-frame buffer! Your cameras are getting worse for astrophotography while Sony’s are getting better.
CANON 6D Mk II
Real-Time Video (Auroras)
Wide-field Deep Sky
Telescopic Deep Sky
I trust you’ll find the review of value. Thanks for reading!
ADDENDUM as of JUNE 6, 2018
Since publishing the first results a number of people commented with suggestions for further testing, to check claims that:
The Sony would perform better for noise under dark sky conditions, at high ISOs, rather than the moonlit scene above. OK, let’s try that.
The Sony would perform better in an ISO Invariancy “face-off” if its ISOs were kept above 640, to keep all the images within the Sony’s upper ISO range of its dual-gain sensor design, with two ranges (100 to 400, and 640 on up). Fair enough.
What little “star-eater” effect I saw might be mitigated by shooting on Continuous drive mode or by firing the shutter with an external timer. That’s worth a check, too.
For the additional tests, I shot all images within a 3-hour span on the night of June 5/6, using the Sony a7III, Nikon D750, and Canon 6D MkII, with the respective lenses: the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, the Sigma 14mm Art at f/2, and the Rokinon 14mm SP at f/2.5.
The cameras were on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker to keep stars pinpoints, though the ground blurred in the longer exposures.
DARK SKY NOISE TEST
I show only the Sony and Nikon compared here, shot at the common range of ISOs used for nightscape shooting, 800 to 12800. All images are equally well exposed. The inset image at right in Photoshop shows the scene, the Milky Way above dark trees in my backyard!
To the eye, the Sony and Nikon look very similar for noise levels, just as in the moonlit scene. Both are very good – indeed, among the best performing cameras for high-ISO noise levels. But the Sony, being four years newer than the Nikon, is not better.
BUT … what the Sony did exhibit was better details in the shadows than the Nikon.
And this was with equal processing and no application of Shadow Recovery. This is where the Sony’s Backside Illuminated sensor with presumably higher quantum efficiency in gathering photons might be providing the advantage. With its good shadow details, you have to apply less shadow recovery in post-processing, which does keep noise down. So points to Sony here.
I did put all the high ISO images through the classic noise reduction program Noise Ninja to measure total Luminance and Chrominance noise, and included the Canon 6D MkII’s images.
The resulting values and graph show the Sony actually measured worse for noise than the Nikon at each high ISO speed, 3200 to 12800, though with both performing much better than the Canon.
The higher noise of the Canon is visually obvious, but I’d say the Sony a7III and Nikon D750 are pretty equal visually for noise, despite the numbers.
DARK SKY ISO INVARIANCY
Again, here I show only the Sony and Nikon, the two “ISO invariant” cameras. The correct exposure for the scene was 30 seconds at ISO 6400 and f/2. The images shown here were shot at lower ISOs to underexposure the dark scene by 2 to 4 stops or EV. Those underexposed images were then boosted later in processing (in Adobe Camera Raw) by the required Exposure Value to equalize the image brightness.
Contrary to expectations, the Sony did not show any great loss in image quality as it crossed the ISO 640 boundary into its lower ISO range. But the Nikon did show more image artifacts in the “odd-numbered” ISOs of 640 and 500. In this test, the Nikon did not perform as well as the Sony for ISO invariancy. Go figure!
Again, the differences are in images vastly underexposed. And both cameras performed much better than the ISO “variant” Canon in this test.
STAR EATER REVISITED
I shot images over a wide-range of exposures, from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, but show only the ones covering the 2-second to 4-second range, where the “star-eater” anti-aliasing or noise smoothing applied by Sony kicks in (above 3.2 seconds it seems).
I shot with the Sony a7III on Single shot drive mode, on Continuous Low drive mode (with the camera controlling the shutter speed in both cases), and a set with the Sony on Bulb and the shutter speed set by an external Vello intervalometer.
This is really pixel peeping at 400%. In Single drive mode, stars and noise soften ever so slightly at 4 seconds and higher. In Continuous mode, I think the effect is still there but maybe a little less. In shots on Bulb controlled by the External Timer, maybe the stars at 4 seconds are a little sharper still. But this is a tough call. To me, the star eater effect on the Sony a7III is a non-issue. It may be more serious on other Sony alphas.
DE-BAYERING STAR ARTIFACTS
An issue that, to me, has a more serious effect on star quality is the propensity of the Sony, and to some extent the Nikon, to render tiny stars as brightly colored points, unrealistically so. In particular, many stars look green, from the dominance of green-filtered photosites on Bayer-array sensors.
Here I compare all three cameras for this effect in two-minute tracked exposures taken with Long Exposure Noise Reduction (i.e. in-camera dark frame subtraction) off and on.
The Sony shows a lot of green stars with or without LENR. The Nikon seems to discolor stars only when LENR is applied. Why would that be? The Canon is free of any such issue – stars are naturally colored whether LENR dark frames are applied or not.
This is all with Raws developed with Adobe Camera Raw.
When opening the same Raws in other programs (ON1 Photo RAW, Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, and Raw Therapee) the results can be quite different, with stars often rendered with fringes of hot, colored pixels. Or rendered with little or no color at all. Raw Therapee offers a choice of de-Bayering, or “de-mosaic,” routines, and each produces different looking stars, and none look great! Certainly not as good as the Canon rendered with Camera Raw.
What’s going on here is a mystery – it’s a combination of the cameras’ unique Raw file formats, anti-alias filter in front of the sensor (or lack thereof in the Sony), and the de-Bayering routines of all the many Raw developers wrestling with the task of rendering stars that occupy only a few pixels. It’s unfair to blame just the hardware or the software.
But this test re-emphasized my thoughts that Canon DSLRs remain the best for long-exposure deep-sky imaging where you can give images as much exposure time as they need, while the ISO invariant Sony and Nikons exceed at nightscape shooting where exposures are often limited and plagued by dark shadows and noise.
The first total lunar eclipse in 2.5 years provides lots of opportunities for some great photos.
On the morning of January 31, before sunrise for North America, the Full Moon passes through the umbral shadow of the Earth, creating the first total eclipse of the Moon since September 27, 2015.
The pre-dawn event provides many photo opportunities. Here’s my summary of tips and techniques for capturing the eclipsed Moon.
But First … What is a Lunar Eclipse?
As the animation (courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center) shows, an eclipse of the Moon occurs when the Full Moon (and they can happen only when the Moon is exactly full) travels through the shadow of the Earth.
The Moon does so at least two times a year, though often not as a total eclipse, one where the entire disk of the Moon is engulfed by the umbra.
When the Moon is within only the outer penumbral shadow we see very little effect, with a barely perceptible darkening of the Moon, if that. I don’t even list the times below for the start and end of the penumbral phases.
It’s only when the Moon begins to enter the central umbral shadow that we see an obvious effect. That’s when the partial eclipse begins, and we see a dark bite appear on the left edge of the Moon. The shadow appears to creep across the Moon to darken more of its disk. While it looks like the shadow is moving across the Moon, it is really the Moon moving into, then out of, the umbral shadow that causes the eclipse.
At this eclipse the partial phases last about an hour before and after totality.
Once the Moon is completely immersed in the umbra, totality begins, and lasts 77 minutes at this eclipse, a generous length. However, in North America, only sites in the western half of the continent get to see all or most of totality.
Where is the Eclipse?
As the chart above shows, the Pacific area including Hawaii, Australia, and eastern Asia can see the entire eclipse with the Moon high in the evening or midnight sky.
Most of North America (my tips are aimed at North American photographers) can see at least some part of this eclipse.
From the eastern half of the continent the Moon sets at sunrise during either totality (from the central areas of North America), or during the first partial phases (from eastern North America). Those in the east can take advantage of interesting photo opportunities by capturing the partially eclipsed Moon setting in the west in the dawn twilight.
However, the most dramatic images of a deep red Moon in the western sky, such as above, will be possible only from the west. And even then, the further north and west you live, the better your view.
Even from the southwestern United States the Moon sets just after the end of totality, requiring a site with a low and clear horizon to the west in order to see the whole event.
I live in Alberta, Canada, and the diagrams I provide here are for my area, where the Moon sets during the final partial phase. I offer them as examples of the kinds of planning you can do to ensure great photos. But exactly where the Moon will be during totality, and where and when it will set on your horizon, will depend on your location.
The latter two apps present the sightlines toward the Moon overlaid on a map of your location, to help you plan where to be to shoot the eclipsed Moon setting behind a suitable foreground.
When is the Eclipse?
While where the Moon is in your sky depends on your site, the various eclipse events happen at the same time for everyone, with differences in hour due only to the time zone you are in.
Here are the times for the start and end of the partial and total phases.
Note that all times are A.M., in the early morning, before sunrise, on January 31. Go out at 6 P.M. on the evening of January 31 and you’ll be 12 hours too late. You missed it!
All times are A.M. on January 31. “—“ means the event is not visible; the Moon has set.
The time of moonset at your site will vary with your location. Use planning apps to calculate your local moonset time.
Picking a Site
No matter where you are in North America you want a site with a good view to the west and northwest, preferably with a clear view of a relatively unobstructed but photogenic horizon.
While having an eclipse occur at dawn (or at dusk) does limit the amount of eclipse we can see, it has the benefit of providing many more photo opportunities of the eclipsed Moon above a scenic landscape or foreground element.
From eastern North America you will have to be content with images of the partially eclipsed Moon setting, similar to the image above of a rising partially-eclipsed Moon.
From the centre of the continent, where the Moon sets during totality, the dim, reddened Moon is likely to disappear into the brightening sky. Remember, when the Moon is full it sets just as the Sun rises. So shots of a red Moon right on the horizon aren’t likely to be possible. The Moon will be too dim and the sky too bright.
From sites in the west, the Moon will set either just at the end of totality or shortly afterwards, making the Moon brighter and more obvious in the sunrise sky, as the foreground in the west lights up with red light from the Sun rising in the east.
It is that same red sunlight filtered by our atmosphere that continues on into our planet’s shadow and lights the Moon red during totality.
Picking a Technique
Lunar eclipses lend themselves to a wide range of techniques, from a simple camera on a tripod, to a telescope on a tracking mount following the sky.
What you use depends not only on the gear you have on hand, but also on your site. It might not be practical to set up loads of gear at a scenic site you have to trek into — especially when you have to set up in the wee hours of a cold winter morning.
You could set up earlier that night on January 30, but only if your site is safe enough to leave the gear unattended while you sleep.
Keep it simple!
Option 1: Simple Camera-on-Tripod
The easiest method is to take single shots with a moderate wide-angle or normal lens with the camera on a fixed tripod. No fancy trackers are needed here.
If the sky is bright with twilight, you might be able to meter the scene and use Auto exposure.
But earlier in the night, with the Moon in a darker sky, as I show above, use Manual exposure and try settings of 1 to 10 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 at ISO 400 to 1600. That’s a wide range, to be sure, but it will vary a lot depending on when you shoot and where you are, factors that will affect how bright the sky is at your site. Just shoot, check, and adjust.
Option 2: Advanced Camera-on-Tripod
A more advanced method is to compose the scene so the lens frames the entire path of the Moon from the start of the partial eclipse until moonset.
As shown above, that will take at least a 35mm lens on a full frame camera, or 20mm lens on a cropped frame camera.
Take exposures every 15 to 30 seconds if you want to turn the set into a time-lapse movie. But a still-image composite with the lunar disks well separated will need shots only every 5 to 10 minutes.
Such a composite takes good planning and proper exposures to pull off, but will be true to the scene, with the lunar disk and its motion shown to the correct scale as it was in the sky. That’s in stark contrast to the flurry of ugly “faked” composites that will appear on the web by the end of February 1, ones with huge telephoto Moons pasted willy-nilly onto a wide-angle sky. Don’t do it!
Exposures for any lunar eclipse are tricky, whether you are shooting closeups or wide-angles, because the Moon and sky change so much in brightness.
For wide-angle composites, you can expose just for the bright lunar disk and let the sky go dark. Exposures for just the Moon will range from very short (about 1/500th second at ISO 100) for the partials, to 1 to 2 seconds at ISO 400 for the totals, then shorter again (1/15 to 1/2 second at ISO 400) for the end shots in twilight when the Moon and sky may be similar in brightness. That’ll take constant monitoring and adjusting throughout the shoot.
As I did below, you’d then composite and layer the well-exposed disks into another background image exposed longer for the sky, likely shot in twilight. To maintain the correct relative locations of the lunar disks and foreground, the camera cannot move.
That technique works best if it’s just a still image you are after, such as below.
The above image is a composite of the April 4, 2015 total lunar eclipse from Monument Valley, Utah. That eclipse occurred under similar circumstances as this month’s eclipse, with the eclipse underway as the Moon set in the west at sunrise.
By comparison, the composite here is made of a few selected frames out of hundreds I took at 15-second intervals, and with each frame exposed for the sky, for use in a time-lapse movie. In this case, the Moon became overexposed at the end as it emerged from the umbra.
Indeed, if it’s a time-lapse movie you want (see the video linked to below), then each frame will have to be exposed well enough to show the sky and landscape.
While this method will overexpose the partially-eclipsed Moon, the Moon will darken and become better exposed throughout totality when the same long exposure for the reddened Moon might also work for the sky, to pick up stars. Exposures will have to shorten again as the sky brightens with twilight.
Again, constant baby-sitting and adjusting the camera will be needed. So if it’s cold where you are prepare for a frigid multi-hour shoot. I doubt you’ll be able to leave the camera on Auto exposure to run on its own, not until at least bright twilight begins.
Option 3: Telephoto Close-Ups
The Moon is surprisingly small (only 1/2-degree across) and needs a lot of focal length to do it justice.
For an “in-your-face” close-up of the eclipse you’ll need a 300mm to 800mm (!) lens. Unfortunately, the Moon and sky are moving and any exposures over 1 to 2 seconds (required during totality) will blur the Moon badly if its disk is large on the frame.
If you don’t have a tracking mount, one solution is to keep the Moon’s disk small (using no more than a fast f/2.8 200mm lens) and exposures short by using a high ISO speed.
Or plan to shoot with a telephoto only when the Moon is low in the sky, as I did above, when you can include the horizon which you would want to be sharp anyway. Framing the Moon and horizon won’t need a super telephoto.
The sky will then also be brighter and require short exposures that don’t need to be tracked. However, how bright and obvious the Moon will be will again depend on your location. This may or may not be a practical option, certainly not if the Moon is setting during mid-totality where you are.
Option 4: Tracked Telescopic Close-Ups
If you have a mount that can be polar aligned to track the sky, then more options are open to you.
You can use a telescope mount or one of the compact and portable trackers, such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron Sky Tracker units. While these latter units work great, you are best to keep the payload weight down and your lens size under 300mm.
That’s just fine for this eclipse, as you really don’t need a frame-filling Moon. The reason is that the Moon will appear about 4 degrees away from the bright star cluster called the Beehive, or Messier 44, in Cancer. As shown above, a 200mm to 300mm lens will frame this unique pairing well.
Even so, exposures to show the cluster properly might have to be long enough that the Moon overexposes, even at mid-totality. If so, take different exposures for the Moon and stars and composite them later, as I did below.
If you do want to shoot with more focal length, a monster telephoto lens will work, but a small telescope such as an 80mm aperture f/6 to f/7 refractor will provide enough focal length and image size at much lower cost. But either way, the lens or telescope should be mounted on a solid equatorial telescope mount, and polar aligned to track the sky.
For the sharpest lunar disks, use the Lunar tracking rate.
Exposures will vary from as short as 1/500th second at ISO 100 to 200 for the barely eclipsed Moon, to 4 to 16 seconds at f/6 to f/8 and at ISO 400 to 1600 for the Moon at mid-totality.
As I did above, during the deep partial phases shoot both long exposures for the red umbra and short exposures for the bright part of the Moon not yet in the umbra. Merge those later with High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques and software, or with luminosity masks.
Even if you’re not sure how to do this now, shoot all the required exposures anyway so you’ll have them when your processing skills improve.
Option 5: Time-Lapse Close-Ups
With a tracking telescope you could fire shots every 30 seconds or so, and then assemble them into a time-lapse movie.
But as with wide-angle time-lapses, that will take constant attention to gradually and smoothly shift exposures, ideally by 1/3rd-stop increments every few shots during the partial and total phases.
If you track at the lunar rate, as I did in the still image below and in the music video linked to at bottom, the Moon will stay centred while it drifts though the stars.
Track at the sidereal rate and the stars will stay more or less fixed while the Moon drifts through the frame from right to left (west to east). But that takes even more careful planning to position the Moon correctly at the start of the sequence so it remains “in frame” for the duration of the eclipse and ends up where you want at the end, which will occur with the Moon low in a bright sky.
Again, planetarium software such as Starry Night, which can be set to display a camera frame, is essential to plan the shoot.
Either way, do take care to accurately polar align your mount, or you’ll be confronted with the monumental task of having to manually align hundreds of images later. Trust me, I know!
I would consider the telescopic time-lapse method the most challenging of techniques.
Considering the hour of the night and the likely cold temperatures, your best plan might be to keep it simple. It’s what I plan to do. I’ll be happy to get a few good wide-angle still images, and perhaps a tracked telephoto close-up of the Moon and Beehive as a bonus.
While there is another total lunar eclipse (TLE) in six months on July 27/28, it is not visible at all from North America.
Our next TLE occurs 12 Full Moons, or one lunar year from now, on the night of January 20/21, 2019, when all of North America gets to watch totality at a more reasonable hour, though perhaps not at a more reasonable temperature.
I leave you with a music video of the last TLE, on September 27, 2015 that incorporates still and time-lapse sequences shot using all of the above methods.
However, while you can read all about how to shoot the eclipse, nothing beats actually shooting to ensure success. But how do you do that, when there’s only one eclipse?
Here are my “Top 10” suggestions:
Wide-Angle Shots – Shoot a Twilight Scene
The simplest way to shoot the eclipse is to employ a camera with a wide lens running on auto exposure to capture the changing sky colors and scene brightness.
Auto Exposure Check in Twilight
If you intend to shoot wide-angle shots of the eclipse sky and scene below, with anything from a mobile phone to a DSLR, practice shooting a time-lapse sequence or a movie under twilight lighting. Does your camera expose properly when set to Auto Exposure? If you are using a phone camera, does it have any issues focusing on the sky? How big a file does a movie create?
With Telephotos and Telescopes – Shoot the Filtered Sun
The toughest techniques involve using long lenses and telescopes to frame the eclipsed Sun up close. They need lots of practice.
Framing and Focusing
You’ll need to have your safe and approved solar filter purchased (don’t wait!) that you intend to use over your lens or telescope. With the filter in place, simply practice aiming your lens or telescope at the Sun at midday. It’s not as easy as you think! Then practice using Live View to manually focus on the edge of the Sun or on a sunspot. Can you get consistently sharp images?
Exposures of the filtered Sun will be the same as during the partial phases, barring cloud or haze, as above, that can lengthen exposure times. Otherwise, only during the thin crescent phases will shutter speeds need to be 2 to 3 stops (or EV steps) longer than for a normal Sun.
With the camera aimed away from the Sun (very important!), perhaps at a distant landscape feature, practice removing the filter quickly. Can you do it without jarring the camera and bumping it off target? Perhaps try this on the Moon at night as well, as it’s important to also test this with the camera and tripod aimed up high.
Ease of Use
With the Sun up high at midday (as it will be during the eclipse from most sites), check that you can still look through, focus, and operate the camera easily. Can you read screens in the bright daylight? What about once it gets darker, as in twilight, which is how dark it will get during totality.
If you are using an untracked tripod, check how much the Sun moves across your camera frame during several minutes. For videos you might make use of that motion. For still shots, you’ll want to ensure the Sun doesn’t move too far off center.
Aligning Tracking Mounts
If you plan to use a motorized equatorial mount capable of tracking the sky, “Plan A” might be to set it up the night before so it can be precisely polar aligned. But the reality is that you might need to move on eclipse morning. To prepare for that prospect, practice roughly polar aligning your mount during the day to see how accurate its tracking is over several minutes. Do that by leveling the mount, setting it to your site’s latitude, and aiming the polar axis as close as you can to due and true north. You don’t need precise polar alignment to gain the benefits of a tracking mount – it keeps the Sun centered – for the few minutes of totality.
Telephotos and Telescopes – Shoot Full Moon Closeups
Shoot the Full Moon around July 8 or August 7. If you intend to use Auto Exposure during totality, check how well it works on the Full Moon. It’s the same brightness as the inner corona of the Sun, though the Moon occupies a larger portion of the frame and covers more metering sensor points. This is another chance to check your focusing skill.
Telescopes and Telescopes – Shoot Crescent Moon Closeups
Shoot the waxing crescent moon in the evening sky during the last week of June and again in the last week of July. Again, test Auto Exposure with your camera in still or movie mode (if you intend to shoot video) to see how well the camera behaves on a subject with a large range in brightness. Or step through a range of exposures manually, from short for the bright sunlit crescent, to long for the dark portion of the Moon lit by Earthshine. It’s important to run through your range of settings quickly, just as you would during the two minutes of totality. But not too quickly, as you might introduce vibration. So …
In the resulting images, check for blurring from vibration (from you handling the camera), from wind, and from the sky’s east-to-west motion moving the Moon across the frame, during typical exposures of 1 second or less.
By practicing, you’ll be much better prepared for the surprises that eclipse day inevitably bring. Always have a less ambitious “Plan B” for shooting the eclipse simply and quickly should a last-minute move be needed.
However, may I recommend …
For much more detailed advice on shooting options and techniques, and for step-by-step tutorials on processing eclipse images, see my 295-page eBook on the subject, available as an iBook for Apple devices and as a PDF for all computers and tablets.
I present my Top 10 Tips for photographing the August 21 total eclipse of the Sun.
If the August total eclipse will be your first, then you could heed the advice of many and simply follow “Tip #0:” Just don’t photograph it! Look up and around to take in the spectacle. Even then, you will not see it all.
However, you might see less if you are operating a camera.
But I know you want pictures! To help you be successful, here are my tips for taking great photos without sacrificing seeing the eclipse.
TIP #1: Keep It Simple
During the brief minutes of totality, the easiest way to record the scene is to simply hold your phone camera up to the sky and shoot. Zoom in if you wish, but a wide shot may capture more of the twilight effects and sky colors, which are as much a part of the experience as seeing the Sun’s gossamer corona around the dark disk of the Moon.
Better yet, use an adapter to clamp your phone to a tripod. Frame the scene as best you can (you might not be able to include both the ground and Sun) and shoot a time-lapse, or better yet, a video.
Start it 2 or 3 minutes before totality (if you can remember in the excitement!) and let the camera’s auto exposure take care of the rest. It’ll work fine.
That way you’ll also record the audio of your excited voices. The audio may serve as a better souvenir than the photos. Lots of people will have photos, but nobody else will record your reactions!
Just make sure your phone has enough free storage space to save several minutes of HD video or, if your camera has that feature, 4K video.
TIP #2: Shoot Wide With a DSLR
For better image quality, step up to this hands-off technique.
Use a tripod-mounted camera that accepts interchangeable lenses (a digital single lens reflex or a mirrorless camera) and use a lens wide enough to take in the ground below and Sun above.
Depending on where you are and the sensor size in your camera, that’ll likely mean a 10mm to 24mm lens.
By going wide you won’t record details in the corona of the Sun or its fiery red prominences. But you can record the changing sky colors and perhaps the dark shadow of the Moon sweeping from right to left (west to east) across the sky. You can also include you and your eclipse group silhouetted in the foreground. Remember, no one else will record you at the eclipse.
TIP #3: Shoot on Auto Exposure
For wide shots, there’s no need to attend to the camera during the eclipse. Set the camera on Auto Exposure – Aperture Priority (Av), the camera ISO between 100 to 400, and your lens aperture to f/2.8 (fast) to f/5.6 (slow).
Use a higher ISO if you are using a slower lens such as a kit zoom. But shoot at ISO 100 and at f/2.8 if you have a wide lens that fast.
In Av mode the camera will decide what shutter speed to use as the lighting changes. I’ve used this technique at many eclipses and it works great.
TIP #4: Let the Camera Do the Shooting
To make this wide-angle technique truly hands-off use an intervalometer (either built into your camera or a separate hardware unit) to fire the shutter automatically.
Once again, start the sequence going 3 to 5 minutes before totality, with the intervalometer set to fire the shutter once every second. Don’t shoot at longer intervals, or you’ll miss too much. Shutter speeds won’t likely exceed one second.
Again, be sure your camera’s memory card has enough free space for several hundred images. And don’t worry about a solar filter on your lens. It’ll be fine for the several minutes you’ll have it aimed up.
Out of the many images you’ll get, pick the best ones, or turn the entire set into a time-lapse movie.
TIP #5: Shoot on Manual Focus
Use Auto Exposure and an intervalometer. But … don’t use Auto Focus.
Switch your lens to Manual Focus (MF) and focus on a distant scene element using Live View.
Or use Auto Focus to first focus on something in the distance, then switch to Manual and don’t touch focus after that. If you leave your lens on Auto Focus the shutter might not fire if the camera decides it can’t focus on the blank sky.
TIP #6: Shoot Raw
For demanding subjects like a solar eclipse always shoot your images in the Raw file format. Look in your camera’s menus under Image Quality.
Shoot JPGs, too, if you like, but only Raw files record the widest range of colors and brightness levels the camera sensor is capable of detecting.
Later in processing you can extract amazing details from Raw files, both in the dark shadows of the foreground, and in the bright highlights of the distant twilight glows and corona around the Sun. Software to do so came with your camera. Put it to use.
TIP #7: OK, Use a Telephoto Lens! But …
If you really want to shoot close-ups, great! But don’t go crazy with focal length. Yes, using a mere 135mm or 200mm lens will yield a rather small image of the eclipsed Sun. But you don’t need a monster 600mm lens or a telescope, which typically have focal lengths starting at 600mm. With long focal lengths come headaches like:
•Keeping the Sun centered. The Earth is turning! During the eclipse that motion will carry the Sun (and Moon) its own diameter across your frame from east to west during the roughly two minutes of totality. While a motorized tracking mount can compensate for this motion, they take more work to set up properly, and must be powered. And, if you are flying to the eclipse, they will be much more challenging to pack. I’m trying to keep things simple!
•Blurring from vibration. This can be an issue with any lens, but the longer your lens, the more your chances of getting fuzzy images because of camera shake, especially if you are touching the camera to alter settings.
An ideal focal length is 300mm to 500mm. But …
When using any telephoto lens, always use a sturdy tripod with a head that is easy to adjust for precise aiming, and that can aim up high without any mechanical issues. The Sun will be halfway, or more, up the sky, not a position some tripod heads can reach.
TIP #8: Use Auto Exposure, or … Shoot a Movie
During totality with your telephoto, you could manually step through a rehearsed set of exposures, from very short shutter speeds (as short as 1/4000 second) for the diamond rings at either end of totality, to as long as one or two seconds at mid-totality for the greatest extent of the corona’s outermost streamers.
But that takes a lot of time and attention away from looking. Yes, there are software programs for automating a camera, or techniques for auto bracketing. But if this is your first eclipse an easier option is to simply use Auto Exposure/Aperture Priority and let the camera set the shutter speed. Again, you could use an intervalometer to fire the shutter so you can just watch.
Don’t use high ISO speeds. A low ISO of 100 to 400 is all you need and will produce less noise. The eclipsed Sun is still bright. You don’t need ISO 800 to 3200.
Even on Auto Exposure, you’ll get good shots, just not of the whole range of phenomena an eclipsed Sun displays.
Or, once again and better yet – put your camera into video mode and shoot an HD or 4K movie. Auto Exposure will work just fine, allowing you to start the camera then forget it.
Place the Sun a solar diameter or two to the left of the frame and let the sky’s motion drift it across the frame for added effect. Start the sequence running a minute or two before totality with your solar filter on. Then just let the camera run … except …
TIP #9: Remember to Remove the Filter!
You will need a safe solar filter over your lens or telescope to shoot the partial phases of the eclipse, and to frame and focus the Sun. This cannot be a photo neutral density or polarizing filter. It must be a filter designed for observing and shooting the Sun, made of metal-coated glass or Mylar plastic. Anything else is not safe and likely far too bright.
But you do NOT need the filter for totality.
Remove it … when?
The answer: a minute or so before totality if you want to capture the first diamond ring just before totality officially starts. Set a timer to remind you, as visually it is very difficult to judge the right moment with your unaided eye. The eclipse will start sooner than you expect.
If you have your camera on Auto Exposure, it will compensate just fine for the change in brightness, from the filtered to the unfiltered view.
But don’t leave your unfiltered camera aimed at the Sun. Replace the filter no more than a minute or so after totality and the second diamond ring ends.
TIP #10: Focus!
Everyone worries about getting the “best exposure.” Don’t! You’ll get great looking telephoto eclipse close-ups with any of a wide range of exposures.
What ruins most eclipse shots, other than filter forgetfulness, is fuzzy images, from either shaky tripods or poor focus.
Focus manually using Live View on the filtered partially eclipsed Sun. Zoom up on the edge of the Sun or sharp tip of the crescent. Re-focus a few minutes before totality, as the changing temperature can shift the focus of long lenses and telescopes.
But you needn’t worry about re-focusing after you remove the filter. The focus will not change with the filter off.
TIP #1 AGAIN: Keep It Simple!
I’ll remind you to keep things simple for a reason other than giving you time to enjoy the view, and that’s mobility.
You might have to move at the last minute to escape clouds. Complex photo gear can be just too much to take down and set up, often with minutes to spare, as many an eclipse chaser can attest is often necessary. Keep your gear light, easy to use, and mobile. Committing to an overly ambitious and inflexible photo plan and rig could be your undoing.
By following both my “Ten Tips” advice blogs you should be able to get great eclipse images to wow your friends and fans, all without missing the experience of actually seeing … and feeling … the eclipse.
However … may I recommend …
For much more detailed advice on shooting options and techniques, and for step-by-step tutorials on processing eclipse images, see my 295-page eBook on the subject, available as an iBook for Apple devices and as a PDF for all computers and tablets.
Here are my top tips for shooting terrific still-image nightscapes … and time-lapse movies of the night sky.
1. Go for pixel size, not pixel count
When choosing a camera for night sky scenes, the most important characteristic is not number of megapixels. Just the opposite.
The best cameras are usually models with more modest megapixel counts. Each of their individual pixels is larger and so collects more photons in a given exposure time, yielding higher a signal-to-noise ratio – or lower noise, critical for night shooting.
Cameras with pixels (the “pixel pitch”) 6 to 8 microns across are best. Many high-megapixel cameras have tiny 4-micron pixels.
Large-pixel cameras are often the full-frame models, such as the Canon 5D MkIII and 6D, the Nikon D610, D750, and Df, and the Sony a7s and a7S II.
Many “cropped-frame” cameras are now 18- to 24-megapixel models with smaller, noise-prone pixels. They can certainly be used, but will require more care in exposing well at lower ISOs, and in processing to smooth out noise without blurring detail.
2. Learn to fly on manual
While DSLRs and Compact System Cameras have amazing automatic functions we use none of them at night.
Instead, we use the camera on Manual or Bulb, dialling in shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed manually. We also have to focus manually, using Live View mode to focus on a bright star or distant light.
Learn the tradeoffs involved: Increasing ISO sensitivity of the sensor keeps exposure times down but increases noise. Opening up the lens aperture to f/2 or f/1.4 also keeps exposures short but introduces image-blurring aberrations, especially at the frame corners.
To prevent stars from trailing due to the sky’s motion adhere to the “500 Rule:” the maximum exposure time is roughly 500 divided by the focal length of your lens.
3. Expose to the right
At night, always give the sensor plenty of signal.
Use whatever combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO will provide a well-exposed image. The image “histogram,” the graph of number of pixels at each brightness level shown above, should never be slammed to the left.
It should be a well-distributed “mountain range” of pixels, extending well to the right. If the 500 Rule restricts your shutter speed, and your desire for sharp images across the frame demands you shoot at f/2.8 or even slower, then don’t be afraid to bump up the ISO speed to whatever it takes to produce a good histogram and a well-exposed image.
Noise will look far worse if you underexpose, then try to boost the image brightness later in processing. Expose to the right!
4. Shoot Raw!
Shoot Raw. Period.
When comparing Raw and compressed JPG versions of the same image, you can be fooled into thinking the JPGs look better (i.e. smoother) because of the noise reduction the camera has applied to the JPG that is beyond your control. However, that smoothing has also wiped out fine detail, like stars.
By shooting Raw you get to control whatever level of noise reduction and sharpening the image needs later in processing.
JPGs are also 8-bit images with a limited tonal range – or palette – in which to record the subtle gradations of brightness and colour present in our images.
Imported Raw files are 16-bit, with a much wider tonal scale and colour palette. That’s critical for all astrophotos when, even with a well-exposed image, many tonal values are down in the dark end of the range. Processing Raw images makes it possible to extract detail in the shadows and highlights.
Even when shooting a time-lapse sequence, shoot Raw.
5. Take dark frames (sometimes!)
LENR reduces noise.
It’s a topic of some debate, but in my experience it is always better to turn on the camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) function when shooting individual nightscape images. Doing so forces the camera to take a “dark frame,” an exposure of equal length but with the shutter closed.
It records just the noise, which the camera then subtracts from the image. Yes, it takes twice as long to acquire an image, but the image is cleaner, with fewer noisy pixels.
This is especially true when shooting on hot summer nights (the warmer the sensor the higher the noise). That said, you cannot use LENR when shooting frames for star trail composites or time-lapse movies.
For those, the interval between images should be no more than 1 to 5 seconds. Using LENR would introduce unsightly gaps in the trails or jumps in the star motion in time-lapses.
As an alternative, it is possible to take separate dark frames at the end of the night by simply covering the lens and taking exposures of the same duration and at the same ISO as your “light frames.”
Some stacking software, such as StarStax and the Advanced Stacker Actions have places to put these dark frames, to subtract them from the stack later in processing.
6. Use fast lenses
A fast lens is your best accessory.
While the “kit zoom” lenses that come with many DSLRs are great for shooting bright twilight or Full Moon scenes, they will prove too slow for dark starlit scenes with the Milky Way.
In addition to exposing to the right and shooting Raw, the secret to great nightscapes is to shoot with fast lenses, usually “prime” lenses with fixed focal lengths. They are usually faster and have better image quality than zooms.
Your most-used lens for nightscape and time-lapse shooting is likely to be a 14mm to 24mm f/2 to f/2.8 lens.
Fortunately, because we don’t need (and indeed can’t use) autofocus we can live happily with low-cost manual lenses, such as the models made in Korea and sold under brands such as Rokinon, Samyang and Bower. They work very well.
7. Get to know the Moon & Milky Way
For many nightscape and time-lapse shoots, the Moon is your light source for illuminating the landscape.
When the Moon is absent, the Milky Way is often your main sky subject.
Knowing where the Moon will be in the sky at its various phases, and when it will rise (in its waning phases after Full Moon) or set (in its waxing phases before Full) helps you a plan a shoot, so you’ll know whether a landscape will be well lit.
Astronomy apps for desktop computers and mobile devices are essential planning aids. A good one specifically for photographers is The Photographer’s Ephemeris.
Knowing in what season and time of night the Milky Way will be visible is essential if you want to capture it. Don’t try for Milky Way shots in spring – it isn’t up!
8. Keep it simple to start
Don’t be seduced by the fancy gear.
Time-lapse imaging has blossomed into a field replete with incredible gear for moving a camera incrementally during a shoot, and for automating a shoot as day turns to night.
I explain how to use all the fancy gear in my ebook, linked to below, however … Great time-lapses, and certainly still-frame nightscapes, can be taken with no more than a DSLR camera with a good fast lens and mounted on a sturdy tripod. Invest in the lens and don’t scrimp on the tripod.
Another essential for shooting multi-frame star trails and time-lapses is a hardware intervalometer ($50 to $150).
9. Learn the intricacies of intervals
For time-lapses, an intervalometer is essential.
Mastering exposure and focus in still images is essential for great time-lapse movies because they are simply made of hundreds of well-exposed still frames.
But move to time-lapses and you have additional factors to consider: how many frames to shoot and how often to shoot them. A good rule of thumb is to shoot 200 to 300 frames per sequence, shot with an interval of no more than 1 to 5 seconds between exposures, at least for starry night sequences.
However, most intervalometers (the Canon TC-80N3 is an exception) define their “Interval” setting to mean the time from when the shutter opens to when it opens again. In that case, you set the Interval to be a value 1 to 5 seconds longer than the exposure time you are using. That’s also true of the intervalometer function Nikon builds into their internal camera firmware.
10. Go to beautiful places
While the gear can be simple, great shots demand an investment in time.
By all means practice at home and at nearby sites that are quick to get to. Try out gear and techniques at Full Moon when exposures are short (the Full Moon is bright!) and you can see what you are doing.
But beautiful images of landscapes lit by moonlight or starlight require you to travel to beautiful locations.
When you are on site, take the time to frame the scene well, just as you would during the day. Darkness is no excuse for poor composition!
While shooting nightscapes and time-lapses can be done with a minimal investment in hardware and software, it does require an investment in time – time to travel and spend nights shooting at wonderful places under the stars.
Enjoy the night!
I cover all these topics, and much more, in detail in my ebook How to Photograph & Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. Click the link below to learn more.