Marvelous Nights in the Mountains


In mid-October 2022 I enjoyed a rare run of five clear and mild nights in the Rocky Mountains for shooting nightscapes of the stars. Here’s a portfolio … and a behind-the-scenes look at its making.

Getting two perfectly clear nights in a row is unusual in the mountains. Being treated to five is a rare treat. Indeed, had I started my shooting run earlier in the week I could have enjoyed even more of the string of cloudless nights in October, though under a full Moon. But five was wonderful, allowing me to capture some of the scenes that had been on my shot list for the last few years.

Here is a portfolio of the results, from five marvelous nights in Banff and Jasper National Parks, in Alberta, Canada. 

For the photographers, I also provide some behind-the-scenes looks at the planning and shooting techniques, and of my processing steps. 


Night One — Peyto Lake, Banff National Park

Peyto Lake, named for pioneer settler and trail guide Bill Peyto who had a cabin by the lakeshore, is one of several iconic mountain lakes in Banff. Every tour bus heading along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper stops here. By day is it packed. By night I had the newly constructed viewpoint all to myself. 

The stars of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, over the waters of Peyto Lake, Banff, in deep twilight. This is a stack of 6 x 30-second exposures for the ground and a single untracked 30-second exposure for the sky, all at f/2.8 with the Canon RF 15-35mm lens at 15mm, and Canon R5 at ISO 800.

I shot the classic view north in deep twilight, with the stars of Ursa Major and the Big Dipper low over the lake, as they are in autumn. A show of Northern Lights would have been ideal, but I was happy to settle for just the stars. 

This is a blend of two panoramas: the first of the sky taken at or just before moonrise with the camera on a star tracker to keep the stars pinpoint, and the second taken for the ground about 20 minutes later with the tracker off, when the Moon was up high enough to light the peaks. Both pans were with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at 15mm and f/2.8, and Canon R5 at ISO 1600, with the sky pan being 7 segments for 1 minute each, and the untracked ground panorama being the same 7 segments for 2 minutes each.

The night was perfect, not just for the clarity of the sky but also the timing. The Moon was just past full, so was rising in late evening, leaving a window of time between the end of twilight and moonrise when the sky would be dark enough to capture the Milky Way. Then shortly after, the Moon would come up, lighting the peaks with golden moonlight — alpenglow, but from the Moon not Sun. 

The above is blend of two panoramas, each of seven segments, the first for the sky taken when the sky was dark, using a star tracker to keep the stars pinpoints. The second for the ground I shot a few minutes later at moonrise with no tracking, to keep the ground sharp. I show below how I blended the two elements. 

The Photographer’s Ephemeris
TPE 3D

To plan such shots I use the apps The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and its companion app TPE 3D. The screen shot above at left shows the scene in map view for the night in question, with the Big Dipper indicated north over the lake and the line of dots for the Milky Way showing it to the southwest over Peyto Glacier. Tap or click on the images for full-screen versions.

Switch to TPE 3D and its view at right above simulates the scene you’ll actually see, with the Milky Way over the mountain skyline just as it really appeared. The app even faithfully replicates the lighting on the peaks from the rising Moon. It is an amazing planning tool.

This is a blend of 5 x 20-second exposures stacked for the ground to smooth noise, and a single 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon R5 at ISO 1600. All were untracked camera-on-tripod shots.

On the drive back from Peyto Lake to Saskatchewan River Crossing I stopped at another iconic spot, the roadside viewpoint for Mt. Cephren at Waterfowl Lakes. By this time, the Moon was well up and fully illuminating the peak and the sky, but still leaving the foreground dark. The sky is blue as it is by day because it is lit by moonlight, which is just sunlight reflecting off a perfectly neutral grey rock, the Moon! 

This is from a set of untracked camera-on-tripod shots using short 30-second exposures. 


Night Two — Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park 

By the next night I was up in Jasper, a destination I had been trying to revisit for some time. But poor weather prospects and forest fire smoke had kept me away in recent years. 

The days and nights I was there coincided with the first weekend of the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I attended one of the events, the very enjoyable Aurora Chaser’s Retreat, with talks and presentations by some well-known chasers of the Northern Lights. Attendees had come from around North America. 

This is a blend of: a stack of 4 x 1-minute tracked exposures for the sky at ISO 1600 plus a stack of 7 x 2-minute untracked exposures at ISO 800 for the ground, plus an additional single 1-minute tracked exposure for the reflected stars and the foreground water. All were with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at 15mm and f/2.8 and Canon R5.

On my first night in Jasper I headed up to Pyramid Lake, a favorite local spot for stargazing and night sky photography, particularly from the little island connected to the “mainland” by a wooden boardwalk. Lots of people were there quietly enjoying the night. I shared one campfire spot with several other photographers also shooting the Milky Way over the calm lake before moonrise.

This is a blend of: a stack of 4 x 1-minute tracked exposures for the sky at ISO 1600 plus a stack of 6 x 3-minute untracked exposures at ISO 800 for the ground, all with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at 20mm and f/2.8 and Canon R5. The tracker was the Star Adventurer Mini.

A little later I moved to the north end of Pyramid Island for the view of the Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain, now fully lit by the rising waning Moon, and with some aspens still in their autumn colours. A bright meteor added to the scene.


Night Three — Athabasca River Viewpoint, Jasper National Park

For my second night in Jasper, I ventured back down the Icefields Parkway to the “Goats and Glaciers” viewpoint overlooking the Athabasca River and the peaks of the Continental Divide. 

This is a blend of three 3-section panoramas: the first taken with a Star Adventurer Mini for 3 x 2-minute tracked exposures for the sky at ISO 800; the second immediately afterward with the tracker off for 3 x 3-minutes at ISO 800 for the ground; and the third taken about an hour later as the Moon rose, lighting the peaks with warm light, for 3 x 2.5-minutes at ISO 1600. All with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at f/2.8 and 15mm and Canon R5,

As I did at Peyto Lake, I shot a panorama (this one in three sections) for the sky before moonrise with a tracker. I then immediately shot another three-section panorama, now untracked, for the ground while it was still lit just by starlight under a dark sky. I then waited an hour for moonrise and shot a third panorama to add in the golden alpenglow on the peaks. So this is a time-blend, bending reality a bit. See my comments below! 


Night Four — Edith Lake, Jasper National Park

With a long drive back to Banff ahead of me the next day, for my last night in Jasper I stayed close to town for shots from the popular Edith Lake, just up the road from the posh Jasper Park Lodge. Unlike at Pyramid Lake, I had the lakeshore to myself. 

This is a panorama of four segments, each 30 seconds untracked with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at 15mm and f/2.8 and Canon R5 at ISO 1000.

This would be a fabulous place to catch the Northern Lights, but none were out this night. Instead, I was content to shoot scenes of the northern stars over the calm lake and Pyramid Mountain. 

This is a blend of a single tracked 2-minute exposure for the sky and water with the reflected stars, with a single untracked 4-minute exposure for the rest of the ground, both at f/2.8 with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at 17mm and Canon R5 at ISO 800.
This is a blend of a single tracked 2-minute exposure for the sky and water with the reflected stars, with a stack of two untracked 3-minute exposure for the rest of the ground, both at f/2.8 with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at 17mm and Canon R5 at ISO 1600. I shot this October 16, 2022.

The Moon was now coming up late, so the shots above are both in darkness with only starlight providing the illumination. Well, and also some annoying light pollution from town utility sites off the highway. Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve, but a lot of the town’s street and utility lighting remains unshielded. 


Night Five — Lake Louise, Banff National Park

On my last night I was at Lake Louise, as the placement of the Milky Way would be perfect. 

This is a blend of two sets of exposures: – a stack of two untracked 2-minute exposures for the ground at ISO 800 – a stack of four tracked 1-minute exposures for the sky at ISO 1600 All with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at f/2.8 and 20mm and Canon R5, and with the camera and tripod not moving between image sets.

There’s no more famous view than this one, with Victoria Glacier at the end of the blue-green glacial lake. Again, by day the site is thronged with people and the parking lot full by early morning. 

By night, there were just a handful of other photographers on the lakeshore, and the parking lot was nearly empty. I could park right by the walkway up to the lake. 

The Photographer’s Ephemeris
TPE 3D

Again, TPE and TPE 3D told me when the Milky Way would be well-positioned over the lake and glacier, so I could complete the untracked ground shots first, to be ready to shoot the tracked sky segments by the time the Milky Way had turned into place over the glacier. 

This is a blend of three vertical panoramas: the first is a set of three untracked 2-minute exposures for the ground at ISO 800 with the camera moved up by 15° from segment to segment; the second shot immediately afterward is made of 7 x 1-minute tracked exposures at ISO 1600 for the sky, also moved 15° vertically from segment to segment; elements of a third 3-section panorama taken about 90 minutes earlier during “blue hour” were blended in at a low level to provide better lighting on the distant peaks. All with the Canon RF15-35mm lens at f/2.8 and 20mm and Canon R5.

This image is also a panorama but a vertical one, made primarily of three untracked segments for the ground and seven tracked segments for the sky, panning up from the horizon to past the zenith overhead, taking in most of the summer and autumn Milky Way from Serpens up to Cassiopeia.


Nightscape Gear 

As readers always want to know what gear I used, I shot all images on all nights with the 45-megapixel Canon R5 camera and Canon RF15-35mm lens, with exposures of typically 1 to 3 minutes each at ISOs of 800 to 1600. I had other cameras and lenses with me but never used them. 

The R5 works very well for nightscapes, despite its small pixels. See my review of it here on my blog, and of a holy trinity of Canon RF lenses including the RF15-35mm here

Star Adventurer Mini tracker with Alyn Wallace V-Plate and AcraTech Panorama Head

For a tracker for such images, I used the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini, a compact and lightweight unit that is easy to pack and carry to shooting sites. See my review of it here at AstroGearToday. 

I use the Mini with a V-Plate designed by nightscape photographer Alyn Wallace and sold by Move-Shoot-Move. It is an essential aid to taking tracked panoramas, as it allows me to turn the camera horizontally manually from one pan segment to the next while the camera is tracking the stars. It’s easy to switch the tracker on (for the sky) and off (for the ground). The Mini tracks quite accurately and reliably. Turn it on and you can be sure it is tracking. 

For more tips on shooting panoramas, see my blog post from 2019.


Behind-the-Scenes Processing

For those who are interested, here’s a look at how I processed and assembled the images, using the Peyto Lake panorama as an example. This is not a thorough tutorial, but shows the main steps involved. Tap or click on an image to download a full-size version.

  • I first develop all the raw files (seven here) in Adobe Camera Raw, applying identical settings to make them look best for what they are going to contribute to the final blend, in this case, for the tracked sky with pinpoint stars and the Milky Way. 
  • Camera Raw (as does Adobe’s Lightroom) has an excellent Merge to Panorama function which usually works very well on such scenes. This shows the stitched sky panorama, created with one click.
  • I develop and stitch the untracked ground segments to look their best for revealing details in the landscape, overexposing the sky in the process. Stars are also trailed, from the long exposures needed for the dark ground. No matter – these will be masked out.
  • This shows the stack of images now in Adobe Photoshop, but here revealing just the layer for the sky panorama and its associated adjustment layers to further tweak color and contrast. I often add noise reduction as a non-destructive “smart filter” applied to the “smart object” image layer. See my review of noise reduction programs here
  • This shows just the ground panorama layer, again with some adjustment and retouching layers dedicated to this portion of the image. 
  • The sky has to be masked out of the ground panorama, to reveal the sky below. The Select Sky command in Photoshop usually works well, or I just use the Quick Selection tool and then Select and Mask to refine the edge. That method can be more accurate. 
  • Aligning the two panoramas requires manually nudging the untracked ground, up in this case, to hide the blurred and dark horizon from the tracked sky panorama. Yes, we move the earth! The sky usually also requires some re-touching to clone out blurred horizon bits sticking up. Dealing with trees can be a bit messy! 

The result is the scene above with both panorama layers and the masks turned on. While this now looks almost complete, we’re not done yet. 

  • Local adjustments like Dodge and Burn (using a neutral grey layer with a Soft Light blend mode) and some luminosity masks tweak the brightness of portions of the scene for subtle improvements, to emphasize some areas while darkening others. It’s what film photographers did in the darkroom by waving physical dodging and burning tools under the enlarger. 
  • I add finishing touches with some effect plug-ins: Radiant Photo added some pop to the ground, while Luminar Neo added a soft “Orton glow” effect to the sky and slightly to the ground. 

All the adjustments, filters, and effects are non-destructive so they can be re-adjusted later, when upon further inspection with fresh eyes I realize something needs work.  


Was It Photoshopped?

I hope my look behind the curtains was of interest. While these types of nightscapes taken with a tracker, and especially multi-segment panoramas, do produce dramatic images, they do require a lot of processing at the computer. 

Was it “photoshopped?” Yes. Was it faked? No. The sky really was there over the scene you see in the image. However, the long exposures of the camera do reveal more details than the eye alone can see at night — that is the essence of astrophotography. 

My one concession to warping reality is in the time-blending — the merging of panoramas taken 30 minutes to an hour apart. I’ll admit that does push my limits for preferring to record real scenes, and not fabricate them (i.e. “photoshop” them in common parlance).

But at this shoot on these marvelous nights, making use of the perfectly timed moonrises was hard to resist!

— Alan, November 17, 2022 / AmazingSky.com 

Chasing the Shadowed Moon


The tradition continued of chasing clear skies to see a lunar eclipse.

It wouldn’t be an eclipse without a chase. Total eclipses of the Sun almost always demand travel, often to the far side of the world, to stand in the narrow path of the Moon’s shadow. 

By contrast, total eclipses of the Moon come to you — they can be seen from half the planet when the Full Moon glides through Earth’s shadow. 

Assuming you have clear skies! That’s the challenge. 

Of the 14 total lunar eclipses (TLEs) visible from here in Alberta since 2000, I have seen all but one, missing the January 21, 2000 TLE due to clouds. 

But of the remaining 13 TLEs so far in the 21st century, I watched only three from home, the last home lunar eclipse being in December 2010. 

The total lunar eclipse of May 26, 2021 here in the initial partial phases with it embedded in thin cloud. The clouds add a glow of iridescent colours around the Moon, with the part of the Moon’s disk in the umbral shadow a very deep, dim red. A subtle blue band appears along the umbral shadow line, usually attributed to ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere. With the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens.

I viewed three TLEs (August 2007, February 2008, and December 2011) from the Rothney Observatory south-west of Calgary as part of public outreach programs I was helping with. 

In April 2014, I was in Australia and viewed the eclipsed Moon rising in the evening sky over Lake Macquarie, NSW. 

A year later, in April 2015, I was in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border for the short total eclipse of the Moon at dawn. 

But of the eclipses I’ve seen from Alberta since 2014, I have had to chase into clear skies for all of them — to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in both October 2014 and September 2015, to the Crowsnest Pass for January 2018, and to Lloydminster for January 2019. 

A selfie of the successful eclipse chaser bagging his trophy, the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019. This was from a site south of Lloydminster on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, but just over into the Saskatchewan side.

The total lunar eclipse on the morning of May 26, 2021 was no exception. 

Leading up to eclipse day prospects for finding clear skies anywhere near home in southern Alberta looked bleak. The province was under widespread cloud bringing much-needed rain. Good for farmers, but bad for eclipse chasers.

Then, two days prior to the eclipse a hole in the clouds was predicted to open up along the foothills in central Alberta just at the right time, at 4 a.m. The predictions stayed consistent a day later. 

Environment Canada predictions, as displayed by the wonderful Astrospheric app, showed Rocky Mountain House (the red circle) on the edge of the retreating clouds.

So trusting the Environment Canada models that had served me well since 2014, I made plans to drive north the day before the eclipse to Rocky Mountain House, a sizeable town on Highway 11 west of Red Deer, where the foothills begin. “Rocky” was predicted to be on the edge of the clearing, with a large swath of clear sky in the right direction, to the southwest where the Moon would be.

Fortunately, COVID restrictions are not so severe here as to demand stay-at-home orders. I could travel, at least within Alberta. Hotels were open, but restaurants only for takeaway.

The Starry Night desktop planetarium program provided a preview of the eclipsed Moon’s location and movement, plus the field of view of lenses, to plan the main shots with an 85mm lens (the time-lapse) and a 200mm lens (the close-ups over the horizon).

This was going to be a tough eclipse even under the best of sky conditions, as for us in Alberta the Moon would be low and setting into the southwest at dawn. The Moon would be darkest and in mid-eclipse just as the sky was also brightening with dawn twilight. 

However, a low eclipse offers the opportunity of a view of the reddened Moon over a scenic landscape, in this case of the eclipsed Moon setting over the Rockies. That was the plan.

Unfortunately, Rocky Mountain House wasn’t the ideal destination as it lies far from the mountains. I was hoping for a site closer to the Rockies in southern Alberta. But a site with clear skies is always the first priority.

The task is then finding a spot to set up with a clear view to the southwest horizon, which from the area around Rocky is tough — it’s all trees! 

This is where planning apps are wonderful. 

The Photographer’s Ephemeris app showed possible side road sites and the position of the eclipsed Moon relative to the site terrain. The arc of spheres is the Milky Way.

I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to search for a side road or spot to pull off where I could safely set up and be away from trees to get a good sightline to the horizon and possibly distant mountains. 

A site not far from town was ideal, to avoid long pre- and post-eclipse drives in the wee hours of the morning. The timing of this eclipse was part of the challenge — in having to be on site at 4 a.m.

TPE showed several possible locations and a Google street view (not shown here) seemed to confirm that the horizon in that area off Highway 11 would be unobstructed over cultivated fields. 

But you don’t know for sure until you get there. 

The PhotoPills AR mode overlays a graphic of the night sky on top of a live view from the phone’s camera, useful when on site to check the shooting geometry for that night. The Moon was in the right place!

So as soon as I arrived, I went to one site I had found remotely, only to discover power lines in the way. Not ideal.

I found another nearby side road with a clean view. From there I used the PhotoPills app (above) and its augmented reality “AR” mode to confirm, that yes, the Moon would be in the right place over a clear horizon at eclipse time the next morning. 

The Theodolite app records viewing directions onto site images, useful for documenting sites for later use at night.

Another app I like for site scouting, Theodolite, also confirmed that the view toward the eclipsed Moon’s direction (with an azimuth of about 220°) would be fine from that site. 

As a Plan B — it’s always good to have a Plan B! — I also drove west along Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway, toward the mountains, in search of a rare site away from trees, just in case the only clear skies lay to the west. I found one, some 50 km west of Rocky, but thankfully it was not needed. The Plan A site worked fine, and was just 5 minutes south of town, and bed!

My eclipse gear at work with the eclipse in progress in the morning twilight at 4:30 a.m.

I set up two tripods. One was for the Canon R6 with an 85mm lens for a “time-lapse” sequence of the Moon moving across the frame as it entered the Earth’s umbral shadow. 

The other tripod I used for closeups of just the Moon using the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens, then switched to the Canon Ra and a 135mm lens, then the longer 200mm lens once the Moon got low enough to also be in frame with the horizon. Those were for the prime shot of the eclipse over the distant mountains and skyline. 

A composite “time-lapse” blend of the setting Full Moon entering the Earth’s umbral shadow on the morning of May 26, 2021. This shows the Moon moving into Earth’s shadow and gradually disappearing in the bright pre-dawn sky. I shot images with the 85mm lens at 1-minute intervals but choose only every 5th image for this blend, so the Moons are spaced at 5-minute intervals.

It all worked! The sky turned out to be clearer than predicted, a pleasant surprise, with only some light cloud obscuring the Moon halfway through the partial phases (the first image at top). 

The other surprise was how dark the shadowed portion of the Moon was. This was a very short total eclipse, with totality only 14 minutes long. With the Moon passing through the outer, lighter part of the umbral shadow, I would have expected a brighter eclipse, making the reddened Moon stand out better in the blue twilight.

As it was, in the minutes before the official start of totality at 5:11 a.m. MDT, the Moon effectively disappeared from view, both to the eye and camera. 

The total lunar eclipse of May 26, 2021, here in the late partial phase about 15 minutes before totality began, with a thin arc of the Full Moon at the top of the disk still in sunlight. The rest is in the red umbral shadow of the Earth. The same pinkish-red light is beginning to light the distant Rocky Mountains in the dawn twilight. This is a single 1.3-second exposure with the 200mm lens and Canon Ra, untracked on a tripod. I did blend in a short 1/6-second exposure for just the bright part of the Moon to tone down its brightness.

My best shots were of the Moon still in partial eclipse but with the umbral shaded portion bright enough to show up red in the images. The distant Rockies were also beginning to light up pink in the first light of dawn. 

The total lunar eclipse of May 26, 2021, taken at 5:01 a.m. MDT, about 10 minutes before the start of totality, with a thin arc of the Full Moon at the top of the disk still in sunlight. The rest is in the red umbral shadow of the Earth but the eclipsed portion of the Moon was so dim it was disappearing into the brightening twilight. This is a single 0.8-second exposure with the 200mm lens and Canon Ra.

My last view was of a sliver-thin Moon disappearing into Earth’s shadow just prior to the onset of totality. I packed up and headed back to bed with technically the Moon still up and in total eclipse, but impossible to see. Still I was a happy eclipse chaser! 

It was another successful eclipse trip, thwarted not so much by clouds, but by the darkness of our planet’s shadow, which might have been due to widespread cloud or volcanic ash in the atmosphere of Earth. 

The other factor at play was that this was a “supermoon,” with the larger Moon near perigee entering more deeply into the umbra than a normal-sized Moon. 

A preview using Starry Night of the November 18/19, 2021 near-total lunar eclipse from the longitude and latitude of Alberta, with the Moon hight in the south west of the Milky Way.

The next lunar eclipse is six months later, on the night of November 18/19, 2021 when the Moon will not quite fully enter Earth’s umbral shadow, for a 97% partial eclipse. But enough of the Moon will be in the dark umbra for most of the Moon to appear red, with a white crescent “smile” at the bottom. 

As shown above, from my location in Alberta the Moon will appear high in the south, in Taurus just west of the Milky Way. The winter stars and Milky Way will “turn on” and fade into view as the eclipse progresses.

We shall see if that will be a rare “home” eclipse, or if it will demand another chase to a clear hole in the clouds on a chilly November night. 

— Alan, © 2021 amazingsky.com 

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