Testing the Canon R6 for Astrophotography


In an extensive technical blog, I put the Canon R6 mirrorless camera through its paces for the demands of astrophotography. 

Every major camera manufacturer, with the lone exception of stalwart Pentax, has moved from producing digital lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, to digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM) cameras. The reflex mirror is gone, allowing for a more compact camera, better movie capabilities, and enhanced auto-focus functions, among other benefits. 

But what about for astrophotography? I reviewed the Sony a7III and Nikon Z6 mirrorless cameras here on my blog and, except for a couple of points, found them excellent for the demands of most astrophotography. 

For the last two years I’ve primarily used Canon’s astro-friendly and red-sensitive EOS Ra mirrorless, a model sadly discontinued in September 2021 after just two years on the market. I reviewed that camera in the April 2020 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, with a quick first look here on my blog

The superb performance of the Ra has prompted me to stay with the Canon mirrorless R system for future camera purchases. Here I test the mid-priced R6, introduced in August 2020.

CLICK or TAP on an image to bring it up full screen for closer inspection. All images are © 2021 by Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com. Use without permission is prohibited.

M31, the spiral galaxy in Andromeda, with the Canon R6 mirrorless camera. It is a stack of 8 x 8-minute exposures at ISO 800, blended with a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 400 for the core, to prevent it from overexposing too much, all with a SharpStar 76mm apo refractor at f/4.4 with its field flattener/reducer.

TL;DR SUMMARY

The Canon R6 has proven excellent for astrophotography, exhibiting better dynamic range and shadow recovery than most Canon DSLRs, due to the ISO invariant design of the R6 sensor. It is on par with the low-light performance of Nikon and Sony mirrorless cameras. 

The preview image is sensitive enough to allow easy framing and focusing at night. The movie mode produces usable quality up to ISO 51,200, making 4K movies of auroras possible. Canon DSLRs cannot do this. 

Marring the superb performance are annoying deficiencies in the design, and one flaw in the image quality – an amp glow – that particularly impacts deep-sky imaging.

R6 pros

The Canon R6 is superb for its:

  • Low noise, though not exceptionally so
  • ISO invariant sensor performance for good shadow recovery 
  • Sensitive live view display with ultra-high ISO boost in Movie mode 
  • Relatively low noise Movie mode with full frame 4K video
  • Low light auto focus and accurate manual focus assist  
  • Good battery life 

R6 cons

The Canon R6 is not so superb for its:

Design Deficiencies 

  • Lack of a top LCD screen
  • Bright timer display in Bulb on the rear screen
  • No battery level indication when shooting 
  • Low grade R3-style remote jack, same as on entry-level Canon DSLRs 

Image Quality Flaw

  • Magenta edge “amp glow” in long exposures 
The Canon Ra on the left with the 28-70mm f/2 RF lens and the Canon R6 on the right with the 70-200mm f/2/8 RF lens, two superb but costly zooms for the R system cameras.

CHOOSING THE R6

Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera, the 30-megapixel EOS R, was introduced in late 2018 to compete with Sony. As of late-2021 the main choices in a Canon DSLM for astrophotography are either the original R, the 20-megapixel R6, the 26-megapixel Rp, or the 45-megapixel R5. 

The new 24-megapixel Canon R3, while it has impressive low-noise performance, is designed primarily for high-speed sports and news photography. It is difficult to justify its $6,000 cost for astro work. 

I have not tested Canon’s entry-level, but full-frame Rp. While the Rp’s image quality is likely quite good, its small battery and short lifetime on a single charge will be limiting factors for astrophotography. 

Nor have I tested the higher-end R5. Friends who use the R5 for nightscape work love it, but with smaller pixels the R5 will be noisier than the R6, which lab tests at sites such as DPReview.com seem to confirm. 

Meanwhile, the original EOS R, while having excellent image quality and features, is surely destined for replacement in the near future – with a Canon EOS R Mark II? The R’s successor might be a great astrophoto camera, but with the Ra gone, I feel the R6 is currently the prime choice from Canon, especially for nightscapes.

I tested an R6 purchased in June 2021 and updated in August with firmware v1.4. I’ll go through its performance and functions with astrophotography in mind. I’ve ignored praised R6 features such as eye tracking autofocus, in-body image stabilization, and high speed burst rates. They are of limited or no value for astrophotography. 

Along the way, I also offer a selection of user tips, some of which are applicable to other cameras. 

LIVE VIEW FOCUSING AND FRAMING

“Back-of-the-camera” views of the R6 in its normal Live View mode (upper left) and its highly-sensitive Movie Mode (upper right), compared to views with four other cameras. Note the Milky Way visible with the R6 in its Movie mode, similar to the Sony in Bright Monitoring mode.

The first difference you will see when using any new mirrorless camera, compared to even a high-end DSLR, is how much brighter the “Live View” image is when shooting at night. DSLM cameras are always in Live View – even the eye-level viewfinder presents a digital image supplied by the sensor. 

As such, whether on the rear screen on in the viewfinder, you see an image that closely matches the photo you are about to take, because it is the image you are about to take. 

To a limit. DSLMs can do only so much to simulate what a long 30-second exposure will look like. But the R6, like many DSLMs, goes a long way in providing a preview image bright enough to frame a dark scene and focus on bright stars. Turn on Exposure Simulation to brighten the live image, and open the lens as wide as possible. 

The Canon R6 in its Movie Mode at ISO 204,800 and with a lens wide open.

But the R6 has a trick up its sleeve for framing nightscapes. Switch the Mode dial to Movie, and set the ISO up to 204,800 (or at night just dial in Auto ISO), and with the lens wide open and shutter on 1/8 second (as above), the preview image will brighten enough to show the Milky Way and dark foreground, albeit in a noisy image. But it’s just for aiming and framing.

This is similar to the excellent, but well-hidden Bright Monitoring mode on Sony Alphas. This high-ISO Movie mode makes it a pleasure using the R6 for nightscapes. The EOS R and Ra do not have this ability. While their live view screens are good, they are not as sensitive as the R6’s, with the R and Ra’s Movie modes able to go up to only ISO 12,800. The R5 can go up to “only” ISO 51,200 in its Movie mode, good but not quite high enough for live framing on dark nights. 

Comparing Manual vs. Auto Focus results with the R6.

The R6 will also autofocus down to a claimed EV -6.5, allowing it to focus in dim light for nightscapes, a feat impossible in most cameras. In practice with the Canon RF 15-35mm lens at f/2.8, I found the R6 can’t autofocus on the actual dark landscape, but it can autofocus on bright stars and planets (provided, of course, the camera is fitted with an autofocus lens). 

Autofocusing on bright stars proved very accurate. By comparison, while the Ra can autofocus on distant bright lights, it fails on bright stars or planets. 

Turning on Focus Peaking makes stars turn red, yellow or blue (your choice of colours) when they are in focus, as a reassuring confirmation. 

The Focus Peaking and Focus Guide menu.
The R6 live view display with Focus Guide arrows on and focused on a star, Antares.

In manual focus, an additional Focus Aid overlay provides arrows that close up and turn green when in focus on a bright star or planet. Or you can zoom in by 5x or 10x to focus by eye the old way by examining the star image. I wish the R6 had a 15x or 20x magnification; 5x and 10x have long been the Canon standards. Only the Ra offered 30x for ultra-precise focusing on stars. 

In all, the ease of framing and focusing will be the major improvement you’ll enjoy by moving to any mirrorless, especially if your old camera is a cropped-frame Canon Rebel or T3i! But the R6 particularly excels at ease of focusing and framing. 

NOISE PERFORMANCE

The key camera characteristic for astrophoto use is noise. I feel it is more important than resolution. There’s little point in having lots of fine detail if it is lost in a blizzard of high-ISO noise. And for astro work, we are almost always shooting at high ISOs.

Comparing the R6’s noise at increasingly higher ISO speeds on a starlit nightscape.

With just 20 megapixels, low by today’s standards, the R6 has individual pixels, or more correctly “photosites,” that are each 6.6 microns in size, the “pixel pitch.” 

By comparison, the 30-megapixel R (and Ra) has a pixel pitch of 5.4 microns, the 45-megapixel R5’s pixel pitch is 4.4 microns, while the acclaimed low-light champion in the camera world, the 12-megapixel Sony a7sIII, has large 8.5-micron photosites. 

The bigger the photosites (i.e. the larger the pixel pitch), the more photons each photosite can collect in a given amount of time – and the more photons they can collect, period, before they overfill and clip highlights. More photons equals more signal, and therefore a better signal-to-noise ratio, while the greater “full-well depth” yields higher dynamic range. 

Each generation of camera also improves the signal-to-noise ratio by suppressing noise via its sensor design and improved signal processing hardware and firmware. The R6 uses Canon’s latest DIGIC X processor shared by the company’s other mirrorless cameras. 

Comparing the R6 noise with the 6D MkII and EOS Ra on a deep-sky subject, galaxies.

In noise tests comparing the R6 against the Ra and Canon 6D Mark II, all three cameras showed a similar level of noise at ISO settings from 400 up to 12,800. But the 6D Mark II performed well only when properly exposed. Both the R6 and Ra performed much better for shadow recovery in underexposed scenes. 

Comparing the R6 noise with with the 6D MkII and EOS Ra on a shadowed nightscape.
Comparing the R6 noise with the EOS Ra on the Andromeda Galaxy at typical deep-sky ISO speeds.

In nightscapes and deep-sky images the R6 and Ra looked nearly identical at each of their ISO settings. This was surprising considering the Ra’s smaller photosites, which perhaps attests to the low noise of the astronomical “a” model. 

Or it could be that the R6 isn’t as low noise as it should be for a 20 megapixel camera. But it is as good as it gets for Canon cameras, and that’s very good indeed.

I saw no “magic ISO” setting where the R6 performed better than at other settings. Noise increased in proportion to the ISO speed. It proved perfectly usable up to ISO 6400, with ISO 12,800 acceptable for stills when necessary. 

ISO INVARIANCY

The flaw in many Canon DSLRs, one documented in my 2017 review of the 6D Mark II, was their poor dynamic range due to the lack of an ISO invariant sensor design. 

The R6, as with Canon’s other R-series cameras, has largely addressed this weakness. The sensor in the R6 appears to be nicely ISO invariant and performs as well as the Sony and Nikon cameras I have used and tested, models praised for their ISO invariant behaviour. 

Where this trait shows itself to advantage is on nightscapes where the starlit foreground is often dark and underexposed. Bringing out detail in the shadows in raw files requires a lot of Shadow Recovery or increasing the Exposure slider. Images from an ISO invariant sensor can withstand the brightening “in post” far better, with minimal noise increase or degradations such as a loss of contrast, added banding, or horrible discolourations. 

Comparing the R6 for ISO Invariancy on a starlit nightscape.

To test the R6, I shot sets of images at the same shutter speed, one well-exposed at a high ISO, then several at successively lower ISOs to underexpose by 1 to 5 stops. I then brightened the underexposed images by increasing the Exposure in Camera Raw by the same 1 to 5 stops. In an ideal ISO invariant sensor, all the images should look the same. 

The R6 did very well in images underexposed by up to 4 stops. Images underexposed by 5 stops started to fall apart, but I’ve seen that in Sony and Nikon images as well. 

Comparing the R6 for ISO Invariancy on a moonlit nightscape.

This behaviour applies to images underexposed by using lower ISOs than what a “normal” exposure might require. Underexposing with lower ISOs can help maintain dynamic range and avoid highlight clipping. But with nightscapes, foregrounds can often be too dark even when shot at an ISO high enough to be suitable for the sky. Foregrounds are almost always underexposed, so good shadow recovery is essential for nightscapes, and especially time-lapses, when blending in separate longer exposures for the ground is not practical.

With its improved ISO invariant sensor, the R6 will be a fine camera for nightscape and time-lapse use, which was not true of the 6D Mark II. 

For those interested in more technical tests and charts, I refer you to DxOMark’s report on the Canon R6.  

Comparing R6 images underexposed in 1-stop increments by using shorter shutter speeds.
Comparing R6 images underexposed in 1-stop increments by using smaller apertures.

However, to be clear, ISO invariant behaviour doesn’t help you as much if you underexpose by using too short a shutter speed or too small a lens aperture. I tested the R6 in series of images underexposed by keeping ISO the same but decreasing the shutter speed then the aperture in one-stop increments. 

The underexposed images fell apart in quality much sooner, when underexposed more than 3 stops. Again, this is behaviour similar to what I’ve seen in Sonys and Nikons. For the best image quality I feel it is always a best practice to expose well at the camera. Don’t count on saving images in post. 

An in-camera image fairly well exposed with an ETTR histogram.

TIP: Underexposing by using too short an exposure time is the major mistake astrophotographers make, who then wonder why their images are riddled with odd artifacts and patten noise. Always Expose to the Right (ETTR), even with ISO invariant cameras. The best way to avoid noise is to give your sensor more signal, by using longer exposures or wider apertures. Use settings that push the histogram to the right. 

LONG EXPOSURE NOISE REDUCTION

All cameras will exhibit thermal noise in long exposures, especially on warm nights. This form of noise peppers the shadows with hot pixels, often brightly coloured. 

This is not the same as the shot and read noise that adds graininess to high-ISO images and that noise reduction software can smooth out. This is a common misunderstanding, even among professional photographers who should know better! 

Thermal noise is more insidious and harder to eliminate in post without harming the image. However, Monika Deviat offers a clever method here at her website

The standard Canon LENR menu.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) eliminates this thermal noise by taking a “dark frame” and subtracting it in-camera to yield a raw file free of hot pixels. 

And yes, LENR does apply to raw files, another fact even many professional photographers don’t realize. It is High ISO Noise Reduction that applies only to JPGs, along with Color Space and Picture Styles.

Comparing a dark nightscape without and with LENR on a warm night. Hot pixels are mostly gone at right.

The LENR option on the R6 did eliminate most hot pixels, though sometimes still left, or added, a few. LENR is needed more on warm nights, and with longer exposures at higher ISOs. So the extent of thermal noise in any camera can vary a lot from shoot to shoot.

When LENR is active, the R6’s rear screen lights up with “Busy,” which is annoyingly bright. To hide this display, the only option is to close the screen. 

As with the EOS Ra, and all mirrorless cameras, the R6 has no “dark frame buffer” that allows several exposures to be taken in quick succession even with LENR on. Canon’s full-frame DSLRs have this little-known buffer that allows 3, 4, or 5 “light frames” to be taken in a row before the LENR dark frame kicks in a locks up the camera on Busy. 

Comparing long exposure images with the lens cap on (dark frames), to show just thermal noise. The right edge of the frame is shown, blown up, to reveal the amp glow, which LENR removes.

With all Canon R cameras, and most other DSLRs, turning on LENR forces the camera to take a dark frame after every light frame, doubling the time it takes to finish every exposure. That’s a price many photographers aren’t willing to pay, but on warm nights it can be necessary, and a best practice, for the reward of cleaner images.

The standard Canon Sensor Cleaning menu.

TIP: If you find hot pixels are becoming more obvious over time, try this trick: turn on the Clean Manually routine for 30 seconds to a minute. In some cameras this can remap the hot pixels so the camera can better eliminate them.  

STAR QUALITY 

Using LENR with the R6 did not introduce any oddities such as oddly-coloured, green or wiped-out stars. Even without LENR I saw no evidence of green stars, a flaw that plagues some Sony cameras at all times, or Nikons when using LENR. 

Comparing the R6 for noise and star colours at typical deep-sky ISOs and exposure times.

Canons have always been known for their good star colours, and the R6 is no exception. According to DPReview the R6 has a low-pass anti-alias filter in front of its sensor. Cameras which lack such a sensor filter do produce sharper images, but stars that occupy only one or two pixels might not de-Bayer properly into the correct colours. That’s not an issue with the R6.

I also saw no “star-eating,” a flaw Nikons and Sonys have been accused of over the years, due to aggressive in-camera noise reduction even on raw files. Canons have always escaped charges of star-eating. 

VIGNETTING/SHADOWING

DSLRs are prone to vignetting along the top and bottom of the frame from shadowing by the upraised mirror and mirror box. Not having a mirror, and a sensor not deeply recessed in the body, largely eliminates this edge vignetting in mirrorless cameras. 

This illustrates the lack of edge shadows but magenta edge glows in a single Raw file boosted for contrast.

That is certainly true of the R6. Images boosted a lot in contrast, as we do with deep-sky photos, show not the slightest trace of vignetting along the top or bottom edges There were no odd clips or metal bits intruding into the light path, unlike in the Sony a7III I tested in 2018. 

The full frame of the R6 can be used without need for cropping or ad hoc edge brightening in post. Except …

EDGE ARTIFACTS/AMP GLOWS

The R6 did exhibit one serious and annoying flaw in long exposure images – a magenta glow along the edges, especially the right edge and lower right corner. 

Comparing a close-up of a nightscape, without and with LENR, to show the edge glow gone with LENR on.

Whether this is the true cause or not, it looks like “amplifier glow,” an effect caused by heat from circuitry illuminating the sensor with infra-red light. It shows itself when images are boosted in contrast and brightness in processing. It’s the sort of flaw revealed only when testing for the demands of astrophotography. It was present in images I took through a telescope, so it is not IR leakage from an auto-focus lens. 

I saw this type of amp glow with the Sony a7III, a flaw eventually eliminated in a firmware update that, I presume, turned off unneeded electronics in long exposures. 

Amp glow is something I have not seen in Canon cameras for many years. In a premium camera like the R6 it should not be there. Period. Canon needs to fix this with a firmware update.

It is the R6’s only serious image flaw, but it’s surprising to see it at all. Turning on LENR eliminates the amp glow, as it should, but using LENR is not always practical, such as in time-lapses and star trails.

For deep-sky photography images are pushed to extremes of contrast, revealing any non-uniform illumination or colour. The usual practice of taking and applying calibration dark frames should also eliminate the amp glow. But I’d rather it not be there in the first place!

RED SENSITIVITY

The R6 I bought was a stock “off-the-shelf” model. It is Canon’s now-discontinued EOS Ra model that is (or was) “filter-modified” to record a greater level of the deep red wavelength from red nebulas in the Milky Way. Compared to the Ra, the R6 did well, but could not record the depth of nebulosity the Ra can, to be expected for a stock camera. 

Comparing the stock R6 with the filter-modified Ra on Cygnus nebulosity.

In wide-field images of the Milky Way, the R6 picked up a respectable level of red nebulosity, especially when shooting through a broadband light pollution reduction filter, and with careful processing. 

Comparing the stock R6 with the filter-modified Ra on the Swan Nebula with a telescope with minimal processing to the Raw images.
Comparing the stock R6 with the filter-modified Ra on the Swan Nebula with a telescope with a dual narrowband filter and with colour correction applied to the single Raw images.

However, when going after faint nebulas through a telescope, even the use of a narrowband filter did not help bring out the target. Indeed, attempting to correct the extreme colour shift introduced by such a filter resulted in a muddy mess and accentuated edge glows with the R6, but worked well with the Ra. 

While the R6 could be modified by a third party, the edge amp glow might spoil images, as a filter modification can make a sensor even more sensitive to IR light, potentially flooding the image with unwanted glows. 

TIP: Buying a used Canon Ra (if you can find one) might be one choice for a filter-modified mirrorless camera, one much cheaper than a full frame cooled CMOS camera such as a ZWO ASI2400MC. Or Spencer’s Camera sells modified versions of all the R series cameras with a choice of sensor filters. But I have not used any of their modded cameras.

RESOLUTION 

A concern of prospective buyers is whether the R6’s relatively low 20-megapixel sensor will be sharp enough for their purposes. R6 images are 5472 by 3648 pixels, much less than the 8000+ pixel-wide images from high-resolution cameras like the Canon R5, Nikon Z7II or Sony a1.

Unless you sell your astrophotos as very large prints, I’d say don’t worry. In comparisons with the 30-megapixel Ra I found it difficult to see a difference in resolution between the two cameras. Stars were nearly as well resolved in the R6, and only under the highest pixel-peeping magnification did stars look a bit more pixelated in the R6 than in the Ra. Faint stars were equally well recorded. 

Comparing resolution of the R6 vs. Ra with a blow-up of wide-field 85mm images
Comparing resolution of the R6 vs. Ra on blow-ups of the Andromeda Galaxy with a 76mm apo refractor. The R6 is more pixellated but it takes pixel peeping to see it!

The difference between 20 and 30 megapixels is not as great as you might think for arc-second-per-pixel plate scale. I think it would take going to the R5 with its 45 megapixel sensor to provide enough of a difference in resolution over the R6 to be obvious in nightscape scenes, or when shooting small, detailed deep-sky subjects such as globular clusters. 

If landscape or wildlife photography by day is your passion, with astrophotography a secondary purpose, then the more costly but highly regarded R5 might be the better choice. 

Super Resolution menu in Adobe Lightroom.

TIP: Adobe now offers (in Lightroom and in Camera Raw) a Super Resolution option, that users might think (judging by the rave reviews on-line) would be the answer to adding resolution to astro images from “low-res” cameras like the R6. 

Comparing a normal R6 image with the same image upscaled with Super Resolution.

Sorry! In my tests on astrophotos I’ve found Super Resolution results unsatisfactory. Yes, stars were less pixelated, but they became oddly coloured in the AI-driven up-scaling. Green stars appeared! The sky background also became mottled and uneven. 

I would not count on such “smart upscaling” options to add more pixels to astro-images from the R6. Then again, I don’t think there’s a need to. 

RAW vs. cRAW

Canon now offers the option of shooting either RAW or cRAW files, the latter being the same megapixel count but compressed in file size by almost a factor of two. This allows shooting twice as many images before card space runs out, perhaps useful for shooting lots of time-lapses on extended trips away from a computer. 

The R6 Image Quality menu with the cRAW Option.
Comparing an R6 cRAW with a RAW image.

However, the compression is not lossless. In high-ISO test images purposely underexposed, then brightened in post, I could see a slight degradation in cRAW images – the noise background looked less uniform and exhibited a blocky look, like JPG artifacts. 

The R6’s dual SD card slots.

TIP: With two SD card slots in the R6 (the second card can be set to record either a backup of images on card one, or serve as an overflow card) and the economy of large SD cards, there’s not the need to conserve card space as there once was. I would suggest always shooting in the full RAW format. Why accept any compression and loss of image quality? 

BATTERY LIFE

The R6 uses a new version of Canon’s standard LP-E6 battery, the LP-E6NH, that supports charging through the USB-C port and has a higher 2130mAh capacity than the 1800mAh LP-E6 batteries. However, the R6 is compatible with older batteries.

On warm nights, I found the R6 ran fine on one battery for the 3 to 4 hours needed to shoot a time-lapse sequence, with power to spare. However, as noted below, the lack of a top LCD screen means there’s no ongoing display of battery level, a deficiency for time-lapse and deep-sky work. 

For demanding applications, especially in winter, the R6 can be powered by an outboard USB power bank that has “Power Delivery” capability. That’s a handy feature. There’s no need to install a dummy battery leading out to a specialized power source. 

The R6’s Connection menu with Airplane mode to turn off battery-eating WiFi and Bluetooth.

TIP: Putting the camera into Airplane mode (to turn off WiFi and Bluetooth), turning off the viewfinder, and either switching off or closing the rear screen all helps conserve power. The R6 does not have GPS built in. Tagging images with location data requires connecting to your phone.

VIDEO USE

A major selling point for me was the R6’s low-light video capability. It replaces my Sony A7III, which had been my “go to” camera for real-time 4K movies of auroras. 

As best I can tell (from the dimmer auroras I’ve shot to date), the R6 performs equally as well as the Sony. It is able to record good quality (i.e. acceptably noise-free) 4K movies at ISO 25,600 to ISO 51,200. While it can shoot at up to ISO 204,800, the excessive noise makes the top ISO an emergency-use only setting. 

The R6’s Movie size and quality options, with 4K and Full HD formats and frame rates.
Comparing the R6 on a dim aurora at various high ISO speeds. Narrated at the camera — excuse the wind noise! Switch to HD mode for the best video playback quality. This was shot in 4K but WordPress plays back only in HD.

The R6 can shoot at a dragged shutter speed as slow as 1/8-second – good, though not as slow as the Sony’s 1/4-second slowest shutter speed in movie mode. That 1/8-second shutter speed and a fast f/1.4 to f/2 lens are the keys to shooting movies of the night sky. Only when auroras get shadow-casting bright can we shoot at the normal 1/30-second shutter speed and at lower ISOs.

As with Nikons (but not Sonys), the Canon R6 saves its movie settings separately from its still settings. When switching to Movie mode you don’t have to re-adjust the ISO, for example, to set it higher than it might have been for stills, very handy for taking both stills and movies of an active aurora, where quick switching is often required. 

Unlike the R and Rp, the R6 captures 4K movies from the full width of the sensor, preserving the field of view of wide-angle lenses. This is excellent for aurora shooting. 

The R6’s Movie Cropping menu option
A 4K movie of the Moon in full-frame and copped-frame modes, narrated at the camera. Again, this was shot in 4K but WordPress plays back only in HD.
Comparing blow-ups of frame-grabbed stills from a full-frame 4K vs. Cropped frame 4K. The latter is less pixellated.

However, the R6 offers the option of a “Movie Crop” mode. Rather than taking the 4K movie downsampled from the entire sensor, this crop mode records from a central 1:1 sampled area of the sensor. That mode can be useful for high-magnification lunar and planetary imaging, for ensuring no loss of resolution. It worked well, producing videos with less pixelated fine details in test movies of the Moon. 

Though of course I have yet to test it on one, the R6 should be excellent for movies of total solar eclipses. It can shoot 4K up to 60 frames per second in both full frame and cropped frame. It cannot shoot 6K (buy the R3!) or 8K (buy the R5!). 

The R6’s Canon Log settings menu for video files.

Shooting in the R6’s Canon cLog3 profile records internally in 10-bit, preserving more dynamic range in movies, up to 12 stops. During eclipses, that will be a benefit for recording totality, with the vast range of brightness in the Sun’s corona. It should also aid in shooting auroras which can vary over a huge range in brightness. 

Grading a cLog format movie in Final Cut under Camera LUT.

TIP: Processing cLog movies, which look flat out of camera, requires applying a cLog3 Look Up Table, or LUT, to the movie clips in editing, a step called “colour grading.” This is available from Canon, from third-party vendors or, as it was with my copy of Final Cut Pro, might be already installed in your video editing software. When shooting, turn on View Assist so the preview looks close to what the final graded movie will look like.

EXPOSURE TRACKING IN TIME-LAPSES

In one test, I shot a time-lapse from twilight to darkness with the R6 in Aperture Priority auto-exposure mode, of a fading display of noctilucent clouds. I just let the camera lengthen the shutter speed on its own. It tracked the darkening sky very well, right down to the camera’s maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, using a fish-eye lens at f/2.8. This demonstrated that the light meter in the R6 was sensitive enough to work well in dim light.

Other cameras I have used cannot do this. The meter fails at some point and the exposure stalls at 5 or 6 seconds long, resulting in most frames after that being underexposed. By contrast, the R6 showed excellent performance, negating the need for special bulb ramping intervalometers for some “holy grail” scenes. Here’s the resulting movie.

A time-lapse of 450 frames from 0.4 seconds to 30 seconds, with the R6 in Av mode. Set to 1080P for the best view!
A screenshot from LRTimelapse showing the smoothness of the exposure tracking (the blue line) through the sequence,

In addition, the R6’s exposure meter tracked the darkening sky superbly, with nary a flicker or variation. Again, few cameras can do this. Nikons have an Exposure Smoothing option in their Interval Timers which works well.

The R6 has no such option but doesn’t seem to need it. The exposure did fail at the very end, when the shutter reached its maximum of 30 seconds. If I had the camera on Auto ISO, it might have started to ramp up the ISO to compensate, a test I have yet to try. Even so, this is impressive time-lapse performance in auto-exposure.

MISSING FEATURES

The R6, like the low-end Rp, lacks a top LCD screen for display of camera settings and battery level. In its place we get a traditional Mode dial, which some daytime photographers will prefer. But for astrophotography, a backlit top LCD screen provides useful information during long exposures. 

The R6 top and back of camera view.

Without it, the R6 provides no indication of battery level while a shoot is in progress, for example, during a time-lapse. A top screen is also useful for checking ISO and other settings by looking down at the camera, as is usually the case when it’s on a tripod or telescope. 

The lack of a top screen is an inconvenience for astrophotography. We are forced to rely on looking at the brighter rear screen for all information. It is a flip-out screen, so can be angled up for convenient viewing on a telescope.

The R6’s flip screen, similar to most other new Canon cameras.

The R6 has a remote shutter port for an external intervalometer, or control via a time-lapse motion controller. That’s good! 

However, the port is Canon’s low-grade 2.5mm jack. It works, and is a standard connector, but is not as sturdy as the three-pronged N3-style jack used on Canon’s 5D and 6D DSLRs, and on the R3 and R5. Considering the cost of the R6, I would have expected a better, more durable port. The On/Off switch also seems a bit flimsy and easily breakable under hard use. 

The R6’s side ports, including the remote shutter/intervalometer port.

These deficiencies provide the impression of Canon unnecessarily “cheaping out” on the R6. You can forgive them with the Rp, but not with a semi-professional camera like the R6.

INTERVAL TIMER

Unlike the Canon R and Ra (which still mysteriously lack a built-in interval timer, despite firmware updates), the R6 has one in its firmware. Hurray! This can be used to set up a time-lapse sequence, but on exposures only up to the maximum of 30 seconds allowed by the camera’s shutter speed settings, true of most in-camera intervalometers. 

The Interval Timer menu page.

For 30-second exposures taken in succession as quickly as possible the interval on the R6 has to be set to 34 seconds. The reason is that the 30-second exposure is actually 32 seconds, true of all cameras. With the R6, having a minimum gap in time between shots requires an Interval not of 33 seconds as with some cameras, but 34 seconds. Until you realize this, setting the intervalometer correctly can be confusing. 

Like all Canon cameras, the R6 can be set to take only up to 99 frames, not 999. That seems a dumb deficiency. Almost all time-lapse sequences require at least 200 to 300 frames. What could it possibly take in the firmware to add an extra digit to the menu box? It’s there at in the Time-lapse Movie function that assembles a movie in camera, but not here where the camera shoots and saves individual frames. It’s another example where you just can’t fathom Canon’s software decisions.

Setting the Interval Timer for rapid sequence shots with a 30-second exposure.

TIP: If you want to shoot 100 or more frames, set the Number of Frames to 00, so it will shoot until you tell the camera to stop. But awkwardly, Canon says the way to stop an interval shoot is to turn off the camera! That’s crude, as doing so can force you to refocus if you are using a Canon RF lens. Switching the Mode dial to Bulb will stop an interval shoot, an undocumented feature. 

BULB TIMER

As with most recent Canon DSLRs and DSLMs, the menu also includes a Bulb Timer. This allows setting an exposure of any length (many minutes or hours) when the camera is in Bulb mode. This is handy for single long shots at night. 

The Bulb Timer menu page. Bulb Timer only becomes an active choice when the camera is on Bulb.

However, it cannot be used in conjunction with the Interval Timer to program a series of multi-minute exposures, a pity. Instead, a separate outboard intervalometer has to be used for taking an automatic set of any exposures longer than 30 seconds, true of all Canons. 

In Bulb and Bulb Timer mode, the R6’s rear screen lights up with a bright Timer readout. While the information is useful, the display is too bright at night and cannot be dimmed, nor turned red for night use, exactly when you are likely to use Bulb. The power-saving Eco mode has no effect on this display, precisely when you would want it to dim or turn off displays to prolong battery life, another odd deficiency in Canon’s firmware. 

The Bulb Timer screen active during a Bulb exposure. At night it is bright!

The Timer display can only be turned off by closing the flip-out screen, but now the viewfinder activates with the same display. Either way, a display is on draining power during long exposures. And the Timer readout lacks any indication of battery level, a vital piece of information during long shoots. The Canon R, R3 and R5, with their top LCD screens, do not have this annoying “feature.” 

TIP: End a Bulb Timer shoot prematurely by hitting the Shutter button. That feature is documented. 

IN-CAMERA IMAGE STACKING

The R6 offers a menu option present on many recent Canon cameras: Multiple Exposure. The camera can take and internally stack up to 9 images, stacking them by using either Average (best for reducing noise) or Bright mode (best for star trails). An Additive mode also works for star trails, but stacking 9 images requires reducing the exposure of each image by 3 stops, say from ISO 1600 to ISO 200, as I did in the example below. 

The Multiple Exposure menu page.

The result of the internal stacking is a raw file, with the option of also saving the component raws. While the options work very well, in all the cameras I’ve owned that offer such functions, I’ve never used them. I prefer to do any stacking needed later at the computer. 

Comparing a single image with a stack of 9 exposures with 3 in-camera stacking methods.

TIP: The in-camera image stacking options are good for beginners wanting to get advanced stacking results with a minimum of processing fuss later. Use Average to stack ground images for smoother noise. Use Bright for stacking sky images for star trails. Activate one of those modes, then control the camera with a separate intervalometer to automatically shoot and internally stack several multi-minute exposures. 

SHUTTER OPERATION

Being a mirrorless camera, there is no reflex mirror to introduce vibration, and so no need for a mirror lockup function. The shutter can operate purely mechanically, with physical metal curtains opening and closing to start and end the exposure. 

However, the default “out of the box” setting is Electronic First Curtain, where the actual exposure, even when on Bulb, is initiated electronically, but ended by the mechanical shutter. That’s good for reducing vibration, perhaps when shooting the Moon or planets through a telescope at high magnification. 

R6 Shutter Mode options.

In Mechanical, the physical curtains both start and end the exposure. It’s the mode I usually prefer, as I like to hear the reassuring click of the shutter opening. I’ve never found shutter vibration a problem when shooting deep sky images on a telescope mount of any quality. 

In Mechanical mode the shutter can fire at up to 12 frames a second, or up to 20 frames a second in Electronic mode where both the start and end of the exposure happen without the mechanical shutter. That makes for very quiet operation, good for weddings and golf tournaments! 

Electronic Shutter Mode is for fastest burst rates but has limitations.

Being vibration free, Electronic shutter might be great during total solar eclipses for rapid-fire bursts at second and third contacts when shooting through telescopes. Maximum exposure time is 1/2 second in this mode, more than long enough for capturing fleeting diamond rings.

Longer exposures needed for the corona will require Mechanical or Electronic First Curtain shutter. Combinations of shutter modes, drive rates (single or continuous), and exposure bracketing can all be programmed into the three Custom Function settings (C1, C2 and C3) on the Mode dial, for quick switching at an eclipse. It might not be until April 8, 2024 until I have a chance to test these features. And by then the R6 Mark II will be out! 

TIP: While the R6’s manual doesn’t state it, some reviews mention (including at DPReview) that when the shutter is in fully Electronic mode the R6’s image quality drops from 14-bit to 12-bit, true of most other mirrorless cameras. This reduces dynamic range. I would suggest not using Electronic shutter for most astrophotography, even for exposures under 1/2 second. For longer exposures, it’s a moot point as it cannot be used. 

The menu option that fouls up all astrophotographers using an R-series camera.

TIP: The R6 has the same odd menu item that befuddles many a new R-series owner, found on Camera Settings: Page 4. “Release Shutter w/o Lens” defaults to OFF, which means the camera will not work if it is attached to a manual lens or telescope it cannot connect to electronically. Turn it ON and all will be solved. This is a troublesome menu option that Canon should eliminate or default to ON. 

OTHER MENU FEATURES

The rear screen is fully touch sensitive, allowing all settings to be changed on-screen if desired, as well as by scrolling with the joystick and scroll wheels. I find going back to an older camera without a touchscreen annoying – I keep tapping the screen expecting it to do something! 

The Multi-Function Button brings up an array of 5 settings to adjust. This is ISO.

The little Multi-Function (M-Fn) button is a worth getting used to, as it allows quick access to a choice of five important functions such as ISO, drive mode and exposure compensation. However, the ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all changeable by the three scroll wheels. 

The Q button brings up the Quick Menu for displaying and adjusting key functions.

There’s also the Quick menu activated by the Q button. While the content of the Quick menu screen can’t be edited, it does contain a good array of useful functions, adjustable with a few taps. 

Under Custom settings, the Dials and Buttons can be re-assigned to other functions.

Unlike Sonys, the R6 has no dedicated Custom buttons per se. However, it does offer a good degree of customization of its buttons, by allowing users to re-assign them to other functions they might find more useful than the defaults. For example ….

This shows the AF Point button being re-assigned to the Maximize Screen Brightness (Temporary) command.
  • I’ve taken the AF Point button and assigned it to the Maximize Screen Brightness function, to temporarily boost the rear screen to full brightness for ease of framing. 
  • The AE Lock button I assigned to switch the Focus Peaking indicators on and off, to aid manual focusing when needed. 
  • The Depth of Field Preview button I assigned to switching between the rear screen and viewfinder, through that switch does happen automatically as you put your eye to the viewfinder.
  • The Set button I assigned to turning off the Rear Display, though that doesn’t have any effect when the Bulb Timer readout is running, a nuisance. 

While the physical buttons are not illuminated, having a touch screen makes it less necessary to access buttons in the dark. It’s a pity the conveniently positioned but mostly unused Rate button can’t be re-programmed to more useful functions. It’s a waste of a button. 

Set up the Screen Info as you like it by turning on and off screen pages and deciding what each should show.

TIP: The shooting screens, accessed by the Info button (one you do need to find in the dark!), can be customized to show a little, a lot, or no information, as you prefer. Take the time to set them up to show just the information you need over a minimum of screen pages. 

LENS AND FILTER COMPATIBILITY

The new wider RF mount accepts only Canon and third-party RF lenses. However, all Canon and third-party EF mount lenses (those made for DSLRs) will fit on RF-mount bodies with the aid of the $100 Canon EF-to-RF lens adapter. 

The Canon ER-to-RF lens adapter will be needed to attach R cameras to most telescope camera adapters and Canon T-rings made for older DSLR cameras.

This adapter will be necessary to attach any Canon R camera to a telescope equipped with a standard Canon T-ring. That’s especially true for telescopes with field flatterers where maintaining the standard 55mm distance between the flattener and sensor is critical for optimum optical performance. 

The shallower “flange distance” between lens and sensor in all mirrorless cameras means an additional adapter is needed not just for the mechanical connection to the new style of lens mount, but also for the correct scope-to-sensor spacing. 

The extra spacing provided by a mirrorless camera has the benefit of allowing a filter drawer to be inserted into the light path. Canon offers a $300 lens adapter with slide-in filters, though the choice of filters useful for astronomy that fit Canon’s adapter is limited. AstroHutech offers a few IDAS nebula filters.

Clip-in filters made for the EOS R, such as those offered by Astronomik, will also fit the R6. Though, again, most narrowband filters will not work well with an unmodified camera.

The AstroHutech adapter allows inserting filters into the light path on telescopes.

TIP: Alternatively, AstroHutech also offers its own lens adapter/filter drawer that goes from a Canon EF mount to the RF mount, and accepts standard 52mm or 48mm filters. It is a great way to add interchangeable filters to any telescope when using an R-series camera, while maintaining the correct back-focus spacing. I use an AstroHutech drawer with my Ra, where the modified camera works very well with narrowband filters. Using such filters with a stock R6 won’t be as worthwhile, as I showed above. 

A trio of Canon RF zooms — all superb but quite costly.

As of this writing, the selection of third-party lenses for the Canon RF mount is limited, as neither Canon or Nikon have “opened up” their system to other lens makers, unlike Sony with their E-mount system. For example, we have yet to see much-anticipated RF-mount lenses from Sigma, Tamron and Tokina. 

A trio of third party RF lenses — L to R: the TTArtisan 7.5mm f/2 and 11mm f/2.8 fish-eyes and the Samyang/Rokinon AF 85mm f/1.4.

Samyang offers 14mm and 85mm auto-focus RF lenses, but now only under their Rokinon branding. I tested the Samyang RF 85mm f/1.4 here at AstroGearToday

The few third-party lenses that are available, from TTArtisan, Venus Optics and other boutique Chinese lens companies, are usually manual focus lenses with reverse-engineered RF mounts offering no electrical contact with the camera. Some of these wide-angle lenses are quite good and affordable. (I tested the TTArtisan 11mm fish-eye here.)

Until other lens makers are “allowed in,” if you want lenses with auto-focus and camera metadata connections, you almost have to buy Canon. Their RF lenses are superb, surpassing the quality of their older EF-mount equivalents. But they are costly. I sold off a lot of my older lenses and cameras to help pay for the new Canon glass! 

I also have reviews of the superb Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8, as well as the unique Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 and popular Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses (a trio making up the  “holy trinity” of zooms) at AstroGearToday.com.

CONTROL COMPATIBILITY 

Astrophotographers often like to operate their cameras at the telescope using computers running specialized control software. I tested the R6 with two popular Windows programs for controlling DSLR and now mirrorless cameras, BackyardEOS (v3.2.2) and AstroPhotographyTool (v3.88). Both recognized and connected to the R6 via its USB port. 

Both programs recognized the Canon R6.

Another popular option is the ASIair WiFi controller from ZWO. It controls cameras via one of the ASIair’s USB ports, and not (confusingly) through the Air’s remote shutter jack marked DSLR. Under version 1.7 of its mobile app, the ASIair now controls Canon R cameras and connected to the R6 just fine, allowing images to be saved both to the camera and to the Air’s own MicroSD card. 

With an update in 2021, the ZWO ASIair now operates Canon R-series cameras.

The ASIair is an excellent solution for both camera control and autoguiding, with operation via a mobile device that is easier to use and power in the field than a laptop. I’ve not tried other hardware and software controllers with the R6. 

TIP: While the R6, like many Canon cameras, can be controlled remotely with a smartphone via the CanonConnect mobile app, the connection process is complex and the connection can be unreliable. The Canon app offers no redeeming features for astrophotography, and maintaining the connection via WiFi or Bluetooth consumes battery power. 

A dim red and green aurora from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on August 29/30, 2021. This is a stack of 4 exposures for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Canon 15-35mm RF lens at 25mm and the Canon R6 at ISO 4000.

SUGGESTIONS TO CANON

To summarize, in firmware updates, Canon should:

  • Fix the low-level amp glow. No camera should have amp glow. 
  • Allow either dimming the Timer readout, turning it red, or just turning it off!
  • Add a battery display to the Timer readout. 
  • Expand the Interval Timer to allow up to 999 frames, as in the Time-Lapse Movie. 
  • Allow the Rate button to be re-assigned to more functions.
  • Default the Release Shutter w/o Lens function to ON.
  • Revise the manual to correctly describe how to stop an Interval Timer shoot.
  • Allow programming multiple long exposures by combining Interval and Bulb Timer, or by expanding the shutter speed range to longer than 30 seconds, as some Nikons can do.
The Zodiacal Light in the dawn sky, September 14, 2021, from home in Alberta, with the winter sky rising. This is a stack of 4 x 30-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise, and a single 30-second exposure for the sky, all with the TTArtisan 7.5mm fish-eye lens at f/2 and on the Canon R6 at ISO 1600.

CONCLUSION

The extended red sensitivity of the Canon EOS Ra makes it better suited for deep-sky imaging. But with it now out of production (Canon traditionally never kept its astronomical “a” cameras in production for more than two years), I think the R6 is now Canon’s best camera (mirrorless or DSLR) for all types of astrophotography, both stills and movies. 

However, I cannot say how well it will work when filter-modified by a third-party. But such a modification is necessary only for recording red nebulas in the Milky Way. It is not needed for other celestial targets and forms of astrophotography. 

A composite showing about three dozen Perseid meteors accumulated over 3 hours of time, compressed into one image showing the radiant point of the meteor shower in Perseus. All frames were with the Canon R6 at ISO 6400 and with the TTArtisan 11mm fish-eye lens at f/2.8.

The low noise and ISO invariant sensor of the R6 makes it superb for nightscapes, apart from the nagging amp glow. That glow will also add an annoying edge gradient to deep-sky images, best dealt with when shooting by the use of LENR or dark frames. 

As the image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, at the top of the blog attests, with careful processing it is certainly possible to get fine deep-sky images with the R6. 

For low-light movies the R6 is Canon’s answer to the Sony alphas. No other Canon camera can do night sky movies as well as the R6. For me, it was the prime feature that made the R6 the camera of choice to complement the Ra. 

Alan, September 22, 2021 / © 2021 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com  

Tracks of the Geosats


This short video, below, captures time-lapses of the trails of geostationary satellites through southern Orion. It demonstrates the “crowded sky” we now have above us. 

If you have tried photographing the Orion Nebula and Sword of Orion area with long tracked exposures you have no doubt seen these trails in your photos. Here I shot to purposely capture them in a time-lapse, for demonstration purposes. 

Please note, these are not Starlink satellites. So do not blame Elon Musk for these! 

These are the much more established geostationary or “geosynchronous” satellites that orbit 35,785 kilometres above Earth and so take 24 hours to orbit the planet. As such they remain apparently motionless over the same spot on Earth, allowing fixed dish antennas to aim at them.

(For more about geosats see the Wikipedia page.)

So why are they moving here?

The camera is on a mount that is tracking the sky as it turns from east to west, so the stars are staying still. What would normally be satellites fixed in one spot in the sky (after all, they are called “geostationary” for a reason) instead trail into short streaks traveling from west to east (right to left) in the frame. But in reality, it is the stars that are in motion behind the satellites. 

The region of sky in Orion below the Orion Nebula (the object at top) lies south of the line that bisects the sky into northern and southern halves called the “celestial equator.” Most geostationary satellites also orbit in Earth’s equatorial plane and so appear along a belt near the celestial equator in the sky. 

This chart from SkySafari shows the belt of geosats through southern Orion with the satellites identified. The green box is the field of view of the telescope (shown below) that I used to take the time-lapses.

In this video, however, they appear about 5° to 7° south of the celestial equator (which runs through the famous Belt of Orion off frame at top). That’s because I live north of the equator of the Earth, at a latitude of 51° north. So parallax makes the geosat belt appears south of the celestial equator in my sky. From a site in the southern hemisphere the geosat belt would appear north of the celestial equator.

You’ll notice some satellites travelling diagonally — they are not geosats. You’ll also see some flashing or pulsing satellites — they are likely tumbling objects, perhaps spent rocket boosters.

The satellites are visible because they are high enough to reflect sunlight even in the middle of the night, as the sequences each end about 11:30 to midnight local time.

But in this video the satellites are not flaring — this is their normal brightness. During flare season around the two equinoxes geosats can become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. For a video of that phenomenon see my video shot in October 2020, below. 


TECH DETAILS FOR “TRACKS OF THE GEOSATS” VIDEO:

The video at top contains time-lapses shot on two nights: January 18 and 20, 2021. Both are made from hundreds of frames taken through a William Optics RedCat astrograph at f/5 with a 250mm focal length. The field of view is 8° by 5.5°. 

The William Optics RedCat 51mm f/5 astrographic refactor.

Each exposure is 30 seconds long, taken at a one second interval. The camera was a Canon 6D MkII at ISO 3200 on January 18 and ISO 1600 on January 20 in the brighter moonlight that night. 

In the first sequence from January 18 the equatorial mount, an Astro-Physics Mach1, is left to track on its own and is unguided. So the stars wobble back and forth slightly due to periodic error in the mount. The field also drifts north due to slight misalignment on the pole. Clouds pass through the field during the shoot. 

In the second clip from January 20, taken with a quarter Moon lighting the sky, the mount was autoguided, using an MGEN3 auto-guider. So the stars remained better fixed over the 5.5 hours of shooting. A slight glitch appears near the end where I swapped camera batteries, and the camera turned ever so slightly causing the stars to enlarge a bit for a moment. 

LRTimelapse at work processing the second sequence, deflickering some of the oddly exposed frames.

The frames were processed in Adobe Camera Raw and LRTimelapse

TimeLapse DeFlicker at work assembling the video, showing its All Frames + Lighten blend mode for the Accumulating version of clip #2.

I then assembled exported JPGs with TimeLapseDeFlicker, using a 3-frame Lighten blend mode to lengthen the trails. The final version was assembled with TLDF’s All Frames mode (shown above) where every frame gets stacked for an accumulated total, to show the busy sky traffic! 

Thanks! 

— Alan, © 2021 / AmazingSky.com 

The Rising of the Harvest Moon


On two clear evenings the Harvest Moon rose red and and large over the Alberta prairie.

I present a short music video (linked to below) of time-lapse sequences of the Harvest Moon of 2020 rising. I shot the sequences through a small telescope to zoom in on the Moon’s disk as it rose over the flat horizon of the prairie near where I live. I love being able to see the horizon!

Note the effects of atmospheric refraction squishing the Moon’s disk close to the horizon. The Moon becomes more normal and spherical as it rose higher.

People sometimes think the refraction effect is responsible for making the Full Moon appear large on the horizon, but the atmosphere has nothing to do with it. The effect is strictly an optical illusion. The Moon is no bigger on the horizon than when it is higher in the sky.

The photo below shows a composite of images taken September 30, 2020.

The rising of the nearly Full Moon, the Harvest Moon of 2020, on September 30, from a site near home in Alberta, looking just south of due east this night. Refraction distorts the disk and atmospheric absorption reddens the disk toward the horizon. This is a multiple exposure composite of 6 images with the Canon 6D MkII through the 80mm A&M apo refractor at f/6 without field flattener. Taken as part of a time-lapse sequence with images every 2 seconds. The frames for this blend were taken 2 minutes apart, so selected from every 60 frames out of the sequence. All were at 1/8 second at ISO 100. Images stacked in Photoshop and blended with Lighten mode. The ground comes from the first image.

Note in the image below, from October 1, how much redder the Moon appears. That’s the effect of atmospheric absorption, in this case from dust and smoke in the air dimming and reddening the Moon (the same happens to the rising or setting Sun). At times this evening it looked like the Moon was in a total eclipse.

The Harvest Moon (the Full Moon of October 1, 2020) rising almost due east at the end of a country road in southern Alberta, near home. The horizon was smoky or dusty, so the Moon was very red as it rose, and looking almost like a totally eclipsed Moon. This is a blend of 6 exposures, all 1/2-second with the A&M 80mm f/6 apo refractor (for 480mm focal length) and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400, taken as part of a 460-frame time-lapse sequence, with shots every 2 seconds. For this composite I choose 6 images at 2-minute intervals, so the Moon rose its own diameter between frames. The ground comes from the first image in the sequence when the lighting was brightest. The Moon rose at 7:35 pm this night, about 30 minutes after sunset. A mild Orton glow effect added to the ground with Luminar 4.

Below is the link to the time-lapse music video on Vimeo. It is in 4K. I used Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Bridge, and LRTimelapse to process the component images as raw files for the time-lapse sequences, as per tutorials in my Nightscape and Time-Lapse ebook, above.

Thanks for looking! Clear skies!

— Alan / © 2020 www.amazingsky.com

Ten Tips for Taking Time-Lapses


Selfie at Grasslands National Park

I present my top 10 tips for capturing time-lapses of the moving sky. 

If you can take one well-exposed image of a nightscape, you can take 300. There’s little extra work required, just your time. But if you have the patience, the result can be an impressive time-lapse movie of the night sky sweeping over a scenic landscape. It’s that simple. 

Or is it? 

Here are my tips for taking time-lapses, in a series of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that I’ve found effective for ensuring great results. 

But before you attempt a time-lapse, be sure you can first capture well-exposed and sharply focused still shots. Shooting hundreds of frames for a time-lapse will be a disappointing waste of your time if all the images are dark and blurry. 

For that reason many of my tips apply equally well to shooting still images. But taking time-lapses does require some specialized gear, techniques, planning, and software. First, the equipment. 

NOTE: This article appeared originally in Issue #9 of Dark Sky Travels e-magazine.


SELECTING EQUIPMENT

Camera on Tripod
Essential Gear
Time-lapse photography requires just the camera and lens you might already own, but on a solid tripod (a carbon-fibre Manfrotto with an Acratech ball-head is shown here), and with an intervalometer. 

TIP 1 — DO:  Use a solid tripod 

A lightweight travel tripod that might suffice for still images on the road will likely be insufficient for time-lapses. Not only does the camera have to remain rock steady for the length of the exposure, it has to do so for the length of the entire shoot, which could be several hours. Wind can’t move it, nor any camera handling you might need to do mid-shoot, such as swapping out a battery. 

The tripod needn’t be massive. For hiking into scenic sites you’ll want a lightweight but sturdy tripod. While a carbon fibre unit is costly, you’ll appreciate its low weight and good strength every night in the field. Similarly, don’t scrimp on the tripod head. 

TIP 2 — DO:  Use a fast lens

Csmera on Ball Head
The All-Important Lens
A fast lens is especially critical for time-lapses to allow capturing good sky and ground detail in each exposure, as compositing later won’t be feasible. This is the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art lens.

As with nightscape stills, the single best purchase you can make to improve your images of dark sky scenes is not buying a new camera (at least not at first), but buying a fast, wide-angle lens. 

Ditch the slow kit zoom and go for at least an f/2.8, if not f/2, lens with 10mm to 24mm focal length. This becomes especially critical for time-lapses, as the fast aperture allows using short shutter speeds, which in turn allows capturing more frames in a given period of time. That makes for a smoother, slower time-lapse, and a shoot you can finish sooner if desired. 

TIP 3 — DO:  Use an intervalometer

3A-Intervalometer-Canon
Canon intervalometer functions

3B-Intervalometer-Nikon
Nikon intervalometer functions

Intervalometer Trio
Automating the Camera
The intervalometer is also key. For cameras without an internal intervalometer (screens from a Canon and a Nikon are shown above), an outboard unit like one of these, is essential. Be sure to get the model that fits your camera’s remote control jack.

Time-lapses demand the use of an intervalometer to automatically fire the shutter for at least 200 to 300 images for a typical time-lapse. Many cameras have an intervalometer function built into their firmware. The shutter speed is set by using the camera in Manual mode. 

Just be aware that a camera’s 15-second exposure really lasts 16 seconds, while a 30-second shot set in Manual is really a 32-second exposure. 

So in setting the interval to provide one second between shots, as I advise below, you have to set the camera’s internal intervalometer for an interval of 17 seconds (for a shutter speed of 15 seconds) or 33 seconds (for a shutter speed of 30 seconds). It’s an odd quirk I’ve found true of every brand of camera I use or have tested. 

Alternatively, you can set the camera to Bulb and then use an outboard hardware intervalometer (they sell for $60 on up) to control the exposure and fire the shutter. Test your unit. Its interval might need to be set to only one second, or to the exposure time + one second. 

How intervalometers define “Interval” varies annoyingly from brand to brand. Setting the interval incorrectly can result in every other frame being missed and a ruined sequence.


SETTING YOUR CAMERA

TIP 4 — DON’T:  Underexpose

4-Histogram Example
Expose to the Right
When shooting, choose settings that will yield a histogram that is not slammed to the left, but is shifted to the right to minimize noise and lift details in the shadows.

As with still images, the best way to beat noise is to give the camera signal. Use a wider aperture, a longer shutter speed, or a higher ISO (or all of the above) to ensure the image is well exposed with a histogram pushed to the right. 

If you try to boost the image brightness later in processing you’ll introduce not only the very noise you were trying to avoid, but also odd artifacts in the shadows such as banding and purple discolouration. 

With still images we have the option of taking shorter, untrailed images for the sky, and longer exposures for the dark ground to reveal details in the landscape, to composite later. With time-lapses we don’t have that luxury. Each and every frame has to capture the entire scene well. 

At dark sky sites, expose for the dark ground as much as you can, even if that makes the sky overly bright. Unless you outright clip the highlights in the Milky Way or in light polluted horizon glows, you’ll be able to recover highlight details later in processing. 

After poor focus, underexposure, resulting in overly noisy images, is the single biggest mistake I see beginners make.

TIP 5 — DON’T:  Worry about 500 or “NPF” Exposure Rules

Milky Way and ISS over Waterton Lakes
Stills from a Sequence
A stack of single frames from a time-lapse sequence can often make a good still image, such as this scene of the Space Station rising over Waterton Lakes National Park. The 30-second exposures were just within the “500 Rule” for the 15mm lens used here, but minor star trailing won’t be that noticeable in a final movie.

While still images might have to adhere to the “500 Rule” or the stricter “NPF Rule” to avoid star trailing, time-lapses are not so critical. Slight trailing of stars in each frame won’t be noticeable in the final movie when the stars are moving anyway. 

So go for rule-breaking, longer exposures if needed, for example if the aperture needs to be stopped down for increased depth of field and foreground focus. Again, with time-lapses we can’t shoot separate exposures for focus stacking later. 

Just be aware that the longer each exposure is, the longer it will take to shoot 300 of them. 

Why 300? I find 300 frames is a good number to aim for. When assembled into a movie at 30 frames per second (a typical frame rate) your 300-frame clip will last 10 seconds, a decent length of time in a final movie. 

You can use a slower frame rate (24 fps works fine), but below 24 the movie will look jerky unless you employ advanced frame blending techniques. I do that for auroras.

5B-PhotoPills Calculator
PhotoPills Calculator
Apps such as PhotoPills offer handy calculators for juggling exposure time vs. the number of frames to yield the length of the time-lapse shoot.

Bonus Tip

How long it will take to acquire the needed 300 frames will depend on how long each exposure is and the interval between them. An app such as PhotoPills (via its Time lapse function) is handy in the field for calculating exposure time vs. frame count vs. shoot length, and providing a timer to let you know when the shoot is done. 

TIP 6 — DO:  Use short intervals

6A-Intervals-No Gaps

6B-Intervals-Gaps
Mind the Gap!
At night use intervals as short as possible to avoid gaps in time, simulated here (at top) by stacking several time-lapse frames taken at a one-second interval into one image. Using too long an interval, as demonstrated just above, yields gaps in time and jumps in the star motion, simulated here by stacking only every other frame in a sequence. 

At night, the interval between exposures should be no more than one or two seconds. By “interval,” I mean the time between when the shutter closes and when it opens again for the next frame. 

Not all intervalometers define “Interval” that way. But it’s what you expect it means. If you use too long an interval then the stars will appear to jump across the sky, ruining the smooth motion you are after. 

In practice, intervals of four to five seconds are sometimes needed to accommodate the movement of motorized “motion control” devices that turn or slide the camera between each shot. But I’m not covering the use of those advanced units here. I cover those options and much, much more in 400 pages of tips, techniques and tutorials in my Nightscapes ebook, linked to above.

However, during the day or in twilight, intervals can be, and indeed need to be, much longer than the exposures. It’s at night with stars in the sky that you want the shutter to be closed as little as possible. 

TIP 7 — DO:  Shoot Raw

7-Camera Raw Comparison
The Power of Raw
Shooting raw, even for time-lapse frames that will eventually be turned into JPGs, allows for maximum control of shadows, highlights, colour balance, and noise reduction. “Before” is what came out of the camera; “After” is with the development settings shown applied in Camera Raw.

This advice also applies to still images where shooting raw files is essential for professional results. But you likely knew that.

However, with time-lapses some cameras offer a mode that will shoot time-lapse frames and assemble them into a movie right in the camera. Don’t use it. It gives you a finished, pre-baked movie with no ability to process each frame later, an essential step for good night time-lapses. And raw files provide the most data to work with.

So even with time-lapses, shoot raw not JPGs. 

If you are confident the frames will be used only for a time-lapse, you might choose to shoot in a smaller S-Raw or compressed C-Raw mode, for smaller files, in order to fit more frames onto a card. 

But I prefer not to shrink or compress the original raw files in the camera, as some of them might make for an excellent stacked and layered still image where I want the best quality originals (such as for the ISS over Waterton Lakes example above). 

To get you through a long field shoot away from your computer buy more and larger memory cards. You don’t need costly, superfast cards for most time-lapse work. 


PLANNING AND COMPOSITION

TIP 8 — DO:  Use planning apps to frame 

8A-TPE Screen
Planning the Shoot
Apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (shown here set for the author’s Waterton Lakes site for moonrise) help in planning where the Sun, Moon and Milky Way will be from your site during the shoot.

8B-TPE 3D Demo
Simulating the Shoot
The companion app to The Photographer’s Ephemeris, TPE 3D, shown above in the inset, exactly matches the real scene for the mountain skyline, placement of the Milky Way, and lighting from the rising Moon. 

All nightscape photography benefits from using one of the excellent apps we now have to assist us in planning a shoot. They are particularly useful for time-lapses. 

Apps such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great. I like the latter as it links to its companion TPE 3D app to preview what the sky and lighting will look like over the actual topographic horizon from your site. You can scrub through time to see the motion of the Milky Way over the scenery. The Augmented Reality “AR” modes of these apps are also useful, but only once you are on site during the day.

For planning a time-lapse at home I always turn to a “planetarium” program to simulate the motion of the sky (albeit over a generic landscape), with the ability to add in “field of view” indicators to show the view your lens will capture. 

You can step ahead in time to see how the sky will move across your camera frame during the length of the shoot. Indeed, such simulations help you plan how long the shoot needs to last until, for example, the galactic core or Orion sets.

Planetarium software helps ensure you frame the scene properly, not only for the beginning of the shoot (that’s easy — you can see that!), but also for the end of the shoot, which you can only predict. 

8C-Stellarium Start

8D-Stellarium End
Planetarium Planning
An alternative is to use a planetarium program such as the free Stellarium, shown above, which can display lens fields of view. These scenes show the simulated vs. real images (insets) for the start (top) and end (bottom) of the Waterton Lakes time-lapse with a 35mm lens frame, outlined in red. 

To save you from guessing wrong, try the free Stellarium (stellarium.org), or the paid Starry Night (starrynight.com) or SkySafari (skysafariastronomy.com). I use Starry Night. 

Bonus Tip

If your shoot will last as long as three hours, do plan to check the battery level and swap batteries before three hours is up. Most cameras, even new mirrorless models, will now last for three hours on a full battery, but likely not any longer. If it’s a cold winter night, expect only one or two hours of life from a single battery.


PROCESSING

TIP 9 — DO:  Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all

9A-Bridge-Copy

9B-Bridge-Paste
Copy and Paste Settings
Most raw developers or photo library programs (Adobe Bridge is shown here) offer the essential ability to copy settings from one image and paste them onto hundreds of others in a folder, developing all the time-lapse frames in a snap.

Processing the raw files takes the same steps and settings as you would use to process still images. 

With time-lapses, however, you have to do all the processing required within your favourite raw developer software. You can’t count on bringing multiple exposures into a layer-based processor such as Photoshop to stack and blend images. That works for a single image, but not for 300. 

I use Adobe Camera Raw out of Adobe Bridge to do all my time-lapse processing. But many photographers use Lightroom, which offers all the same settings and non-destructive functions as Adobe Camera Raw. 

For those who wish to “avoid Adobe” there are other choices, but for time-lapse work an essential feature is the ability to develop one frame, then copy and paste its settings (or “sync” settings) to all the other frames in the set. 

Not all programs allow that. Affinity Photo does not. Luminar doesn’t do it very well. DxO PhotoLab, ON1 Photo RAW, and the free Raw Therapee, among others, all work fine. 

HOW TO ASSEMBLE A TIME-LAPSE

Once you have a set of raws all developed, the usual workflow is to export all those frames out as high-quality JPGs which is what movie assembly programs need. Your raw developing software has to allow batch exporting to JPGs — most do. 

9C-Image Processor Screen
Photoshop Batch Export
Raw developers usually have a batch export function. So does Photoshop, via its Image Processor utility, shown here (found under File>Scripts>Image Processor) that can export a folder of raws into JPGs or TIFFs, and re-size them, often needed for final 4K or HD movies. 

However, none of the programs above (except Photoshop and Adobe’s After Effects) will create the final movie, whether it be from those JPGs or from the raws. 

9D-TLDF Screen
Assembling JPGs
The author’s favourite assembly program is TimeLapse DeFlicker (TLDF). It can turn a folder of JPGs into movies as large as 8K and with ProRes codecs for the highest quality.

So for assembling the intermediate JPGs into a movie, I often use a low-cost program called TLDF (TimeLapse DeFlicker) available for MacOS and Windows (timelapsedeflicker.com). It offers advanced functions such as deflickering (i.e. smoothing slight frame-to-frame brightness fluctuations) and frame blending (useful to smooth aurora motions or to purposely add star trails).

While there are many choices for time-lapse assembly, I suggest using a program dedicated to the task and not, as many do, a movie editing program. For most sequences, the latter makes assembly unnecessarily difficult and harder to set key parameters such as frame rates. 

TIP 10 — DO:  Try LRTimelapse for more advanced processing

10A-LRT-Bridge Keyframes
Working on Keyframes
The advanced processing program LRTimelapse creates several keyframes through the sequence (seven are shown here in Adobe Bridge) which you develop so each looks its best. During this sequence, the Moon rose changing the lighting toward the end of the shoot (in the last three keyfames). 

Get serious about time-lapse shooting and you will want — indeed, you will need — the program LRTimelapse (LRTimelapse.com). A free but limited trial version is available. 

This powerful program is for sequences where one setting will not work for all the frames. One size does not fit all.

Instead, LRTimelapse allows you to process a few keyframes throughout a sequence, say at the start, middle, and end. It then interpolates all the settings between those keyframes to automatically process the entire set of images to smooth (or “ramp”) and deflicker the transitions from frame to frame. 

10B-LRT-Final Screen
LRTimelapse Ramping
LRTimelapse reads your developed keyframe data and applies smooth transitions of all settings to each of the raw files between the keyframes. The result is a seamless and smooth final movie. The pink curve shows how the scene brightened at moonrise. The blue diamonds on the yellow line mark the seven keyframes. 

This is essential for sequences where the lighting changes during the shoot (say, the Moon rises or sets), and for so-called “holy grails.” Those are advanced sequences that track from daylight or twilight to darkness, or vice versa, over a wide range of camera settings.

However, LRTimelapse works only with Adobe Lightroom or the Adobe Camera Raw/Bridge combination. So for advanced time-lapse work Adobe software is essential. 

A Final Bonus Tip

Keep it simple. You might aspire to emulate the advanced sequences you see on the web, where the camera pans and dollies during the movie. I suggest avoiding complex motion control gear at first to concentrate on getting well-exposed time-lapses with just a static camera. That alone is a rewarding achievement.

But before that, first learn to shoot still images successfully. All the settings and skills you need for a great looking still image are needed for a time-lapse. Then move onto capturing the moving sky. 

I end with a link to an example music video, shot using the techniques I’ve outlined. Thanks for reading and watching. Clear skies!

The Beauty of the Milky Way from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.


© 2019 Alan Dyer

Alan Dyer is author of the comprehensive ebook How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses. His website is www.amazingsky.com 

For a channel of his time-lapse movies, music videos, and tutorials on Vimeo see https://vimeo.com/channels/amazingsky 

 

The Great Transit Expedition of 2019


Blog Title

On November 11, I traveled to the near-flung corners of my backyard to observe the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.

History is replete with tales of astronomers traveling to the far corners of the Earth to watch dark objects pass in front of the Sun — the Moon in eclipses, and Mercury and Venus in transits.

On November 11, to take in the last transit of Mercury until 2032, I had planned a trip to a location more likely to have clear skies in November than at home. A 3-day drive to southern Arizona was the plan.

But to attend to work and priorities at home I cancelled my plans. Instead, I decided to stay home and take my chances with the Alberta weather, perhaps making a run for it a day’s drive away if needed to chase into clear skies.

Transit of Mercury Selfie with Sun

As it turned out, none of that was necessary. The forecast for clear, if cold, skies held true and we could not have had a finer day for the transit. Even the -20° C temperatures were no problem, with no wind, and of course sunshine!

Plus being only steps from home and a warming coffee helped!

As it turned out, the site in Arizona I had booked to stay was clouded out for the entire event. So I was happy with my decision!

For my site in Alberta, as for all of western North America, the Sun rose with the transit in progress. But as soon as the Sun cleared the horizon there was Mercury, as a small, if fuzzy, black dot on the Sun.

Low Sun with Mercury in Transit

As the Sun rose the view became sharper, and was remarkable indeed — of a jet black dot of a tiny planet silhouetted on the Sun.

The Transit of Mercury Across the Sun (10 am MST)

I shot through two telescopes, my 4-inch and 5-inch refractors, both equipped with solar filters of course. I viewed through two other telescopes, for white-light and hydrogen-alpha filtered views.

I was able to follow the transit for three hours, for a little more than half the transit, until Mercury exited the Sun just after 11 a.m. MST. The view below is from moments before Mercury’s exit, or “egress.”

The Transit of Mercury Across the Sun (11 am MST)

I shot still frames every 15 seconds with each of the two cameras and telescopes, for a time-lapse, plus I shot real-time videos.

Mercury at Mid-Transit (November 11, 2019)

At this transit Mercury passed closer to the centre of the Sun’s disk than it will for any other transit in the 21st century, making this event all the more remarkable. That point is recorded above, from a shot taken at 8:19 a.m. MST.

Stacking a selection of the time-lapse frames, ones taken 1-minute intervals, produced this composite of the transit, from just before mid-transit until Mercury’s egress.

Transit of Mercury Composite Across the Sun v2

I assembled all the best images and 4K videos together into a movie, which I narrated live at the telescope as the transit was happening. I hope this provides a sense of what it was like to view this rare event.

The Transit of Mercury from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

We won’t see another until 2032, but not from North America. The next transit of Mercury viewable from here at home is not until 2049! This was likely my last transit, certainly for a while!

Transit of Mercury Trophy Shot

This was my trophy shot! Bagged the transit!

P.S.: For my video of the previous transit of Mercury in May 2016, see my blog post which includes a similar compilation video.

P.P.S.: And for tech details on the images and videos in this blog, please click through to Vimeo and the video description I have there of cameras, scopes, and settings.

Clear skies!

Alan, November 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife


Aurora over Prince of Wales Museum, YellowknifeIt was a fabulous week of clear skies and dancing auroras in and around Yellowknife in Canada’s North.

For the second year in a row I traveled due north from home in Alberta to visit Yellowknife, capitol of Canada’s Northwest Territories. At a latitude of 62° North, Yellowknife lies directly under the auroral oval and so enjoys views of the Northern Lights on almost every clear night.

During my 8-night stay from September 3 to 10 almost every night was clear and filled with auroras.

Somba K’e Park

The Lights can be seen even from within the downtown core, as the opening image shows, taken from the urban Sombe K’e Park looking over Frame Lake and the Prince of Wales Museum.

The Museum is lit with rippling bands of coloured light that emulate the aurora borealis.

Pilot’s Monument

A favourite urban site for viewing the Lights is the Pilot’s Monument lookout in the middle of Yellowknife’s Oldtown district. This panorama sweeps from northeast at left to west at far right, looking mostly south over the downtown core.

This night even the urban lights were not enough to wash out the Lights as they brightened during a brief substorm.

Panorama of the Aurora Dancing over Yellowknife
This is a 300° panorama of the Northern Lights over Yellowknife, NWT on the night of Sept 6-7, 2019, during a sub-storm outbreak at 12:45 a.m. when the sky went wild with aurora. This is a 9-segment panorama with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800, for 10 seconds each.

Rotary Park

Another good urban site that gets you away from immediate lights is the open spaces of Rotary Park overlooking the houseboats anchored in Yellowknife Bay. This panorama again sweeps from east to west, looking toward to the waxing Moon low in the south.

Again, despite the urban lights and moonlight, the Lights were spectacular.

Aurora Panorama from Rotary Park, Yellowknife
A 240° panorama of the Northern Lights from the Boardwalk in the urban Rotary Park in Yellowknife, NWT, on Sept 10, 2019. A waxing gibbous Moon is bright to the south and lights the sky and landscape. This is a 7-segment panorama, each segment 8 seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

Prosperous Lake

The main viewing sites for the Northern Lights are down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail east of the city away from urban lights.. One of the closest stops is a parking lot on the shore of a backwater bay of Prosperous Lake. It’s where many tourist buses stop and unload their passengers, mostly to get their selfies under the Lights.

But with patience you can get your own photos unencumbered by other lights and people, as I show below.

Aurora Tourists at Prosperous Lake (Sept 5-6, 2019)
A group of aurora tourists take their aurora selfies at Prosperous Lake, near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot on the Ingraham Trail for aurora watching. This was about 1:15 a.m. MDT. This is a single 5-second exposure with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO800.

Aurora over Prosperous Lake, Yellowknife (Sept 5-6, 2019)
The Northern Lights over the end of Prosperous Lake, on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot for aurora watching in the area. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Sigma 20mm lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

On one of my nights I stopped at Prosperous on the way to sites farther down Ingraham Trail to catch the twilight colours in the stunningly clear sky.

Sunset Twilight at Prosperous Lake
Twilight at Prosperous Lake on the Ingraham Trail, near Yellowknife, NWT, Sept. 7, 2019. The colours are accentuated by volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

Madeline Lake

This small lake and picnic site farther along the Trail serves as a great place to shoot the Lights reflected in the calm waters and looking north. I spent one of my nights at Madeline Lake, a popular spot for local residents to have a campfire under the Lights.

Campfire Under the Aurora #2
Enjoying a campfire on a fine September Saturday night under the brightening Northern Lights, at Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife. This is a single 10-second exposure with the 20mm Sigma lens at f/2 and Nikon D750 at ISO 800.

And it’s popular for tour buses, whose headlights shine out across the lake as they arrive through the night, in this case casting my long shadow across the misty lake.

Selfie Shadow at Madeline Lake with Aurora
A novelty shot of the shadow of me and my tripod projected across a misty Madeline Lake by car headlights from arriving aurora tourists at this popular spot on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife. This was September 7, 2019. A single exposure.

Aurora Tourists at Madeline Lake
A group of aurora tourists take in the show at Madeline Lake, on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT, a popular spot for the busloads of visitors being shuttled around each night. The Big Dipper is at centre. This is a single exposure, 6 seconds at ISO 3200 with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III.

However, again with patience it is possible to get clean images of the aurora and its reflections in the lake.

Aurora over Madeline Lake Panorama (Sept 7, 2019)
The Northern Lights in a subtle but colourful display over the still waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. This was the night of September 7-8, 2019. This is a 4-segment panorama, each 13 seconds at ISO 1600 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III camera.

The Ramparts

Farther down the Trail is a spot the tour buses will not go to as a visit to the Ramparts waterfall on the Cameron River requires a hike down a wooded trail, in the dark with bears about. Luckily, my astrophoto colleague, amateur astronomer, and local resident Stephen Bedingfield joined me for a superb shoot with us the only ones present at this stunning location.

Photographer at Cameron River Ramparts
Photographer Stephen Bedingfield is shooting the Northern Lights at the Ramparts waterfalls on the Cameron River, September 8, 2019. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.

Aurora over Cameron River Ramparts
The Northern Lights over the waterfalls known as the Ramparts on the Cameron River east of Yellowknife, NWT, on September 8, 2019. This is a single exposure of 20 seconds with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600, blended with two light painted exposures of the same duration but with the water illuminated to make it more white.

The view looking the other way north over the river was equally wonderful. What a place for viewing the Northern Lights!

Aurora over Cameron River with Autumn Colours
The Northern Lights in an arc across the northern sky over the Cameron River, downriver from the Ramparts Falls. This was September 8, 2019 with the trees turning in their fall colours. The Big Dipper at top centre. This is a two-segment panorama, each 25 seconds at f/2 with the Laowa 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 800. Stitched with ACR.

The view from a viewpoint early on the trail down to the Ramparts and overlooking the Cameron River yielded a superb scene with the low Moon and twilight providing the illumination as the Lights kicked up early in the evening.

Aurora over Cameron River in Moonlight
The curtains of an early evening aurora starting to dance in the twilight and with the western sky lit by moonlight from the waxing gibbous Moon low in the sky and off-frame to the right. This is from the Cameron River viewpoint off the Ramparts falls trail on the Ingraham trail near Yellowknife. This is a single 15-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

Prelude Lake

A favourite spot is the major camping and boat launch area of Prelude Lake Territorial Park. But to avoid the crowds down by the shoreline, Stephen and I hiked up to the overlook above the lake looking north. A few other ardent photographers joined us. This was another spectacular and perfect night.

Aurora in Twilight over Prelude Lake
An arc of Northern Lights appears in the evening twilight over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, on September 9, 2019. This is a single 25-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 800.

September is a superb time to visit as the lakes are still open and the autumn colours make for a good contrast with the sky colours.

The panorama below takes in the Big Dipper at left, Capella at centre, and with the Pleiades and Hyades rising at right of centre.

Auroral Arc in the Twilight at Prelude Lake
The arc of Northern Lights starting a show in the deep twilight over Prelude Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. This was September 9, 2019. Light from the waxing gibbous Moon behind the camera also illuminates the scene. This is a 5-segment panorama with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800 and all at 25 seconds. Stitched with PTGui, as ACR and Photoshop refused to joint the left segments.

I used the 8mm fish-eye lens to capture the entire sky, the only way you can really take in the whole scene on camera. When the Lights fill the sky you don’t know which way to look or aim your camera!

There are many other scenic spots along the Trail, such as Pontoon Lake, Reid Lake, and Tibbitt Lake at the very end of Ingraham Trail. For images and movies I shot last year at Tibbitt Lake, see my blog post at Aurora Reflections in Yellowknife.

But in my 8 nights in Yellowknife this year I managed to hit many of the key aurora spots for photography and viewing. I recommend a visit, especially in September before autumn clouds roll in later in the season, and while the lakes are not frozen and nighttime temperatures are mild.

Here’s a 3-minute music video of clips I shot from all these sites showing the motion of the Lights as it appeared to the eye in “real-time,” not sped up or in time-lapse.

The Northern Lights of Yellowknife from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

It’s in 4K on Vimeo. Enjoy!

I’ve made my bookings for next year in September!

— Alan / October 6, 2019 / © 2019 AmazingSky.com

 

Testing the MSM Tracker


MSM Test Title

A new low-cost sky tracker promises to simplify not only tracking the sky but also taking time-lapses panning along the horizon. It works but …

If you are an active nightscape photographer chances are your social media feeds have been punctuated with ads for this new low-cost tracker from MoveShootMove.com. 

For $200, much less than popular trackers from Sky-Watcher and iOptron, the SiFo unit (as it is labelled) offers the ability track the sky, avoiding any star trails. That alone would make it a bargain, and useful for nightscape and deep-sky photographers. 

But it also has a function for panning horizontally, moving incrementally between exposures, thus the Move-Shoot-Move designation. The result is a time-lapse movie that pans along the horizon, but with each frame with the ground sharp, as the camera moves only between exposures, not during them. 

 

MSM Polar Aligned Side V1
The Move-Shoot-Move Tracker
The $200 MSM can be polar aligned using the optional laser, shown here, or an optical polar scope to allow to follow the sky. The ball head is user supplied. 

Again, for $200 this is an excellent feature lacking in trackers like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyTracker. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini does, however, offer both tracking and “move-shoot-move” time-lapse functions, but at a cost of $300 to $400 U.S., depending on accessories. 

All these functions are provided in a unit that is light (weighing 700 grams with a tripod plate and the laser) and compact (taking up less space in your camera bag than most lenses). By comparison, the Star Adventurer Mini weighs 900 grams with the polar scope, while the original larger Star Adventurer is 1.4 kg, double the MSM’s weight. 

Note, that the MSM’s advertised weight of 445 grams does not include the laser or a tripod plate, two items you need to use it. So 700 grams is a more realistic figure, still light, but not lighter than the competition by as much as you might be led to believe. 

Nevertheless, the MSM’s small size and weight make it attractive for travel, especially for flights to remote sites. Construction is solid and all-metal. This is not a cheap plastic toy.

But does it work? Yes, but with several important caveats that might be a concern for some buyers. 

What I Tested

I purchased the Basic Kit B package for $220 U.S., which includes a small case, a laser pointer and bracket for polar alignment (and with a small charger for the laser’s single 3.7-volt battery), and with the camera sync cable needed for time-lapse shooting. 

I also purchased the new “button” model, not the older version that used a knob to set various tracking rates. 

 

MSM with Canon 6D MkII
MSM Fitted Out
Keep in mind that to use any tracker like the MSM you will need a solid tripod with a head good enough to hold the tracker and camera steady when tipped over when polar aligned, and another ball head on the tracker itself.

The ball head needed to go on top of the tracker is something you supply. The kit does come with two 3/8-inch stud bolts and a 3/8-to1/4-inch bushing adapter, for placing the tracker on tripods in the various mounting configurations I show below. 

The first units were labelled as ‘SiFo,” but current units now carry the Gauda brand name. I’ll just call it the MSM. 

I purchased the gear from the MSM website, and had my order fulfilled and shipped to me in Canada from China with no problems. 

Tracking the Sky in Nightscapes

The attraction is its tracking function, allowing a camera to follow the sky and take exposures longer than any dictated by “500” or “NPF” Rules to avoid any star trailing. 

Exposures can be a minute or more to record much more depth and detail in the Milky Way, though the ground will blur. But blending tracked sky exposures with untracked ground exposures gets around that, and with the MSM it’s easy to turn on and off the tracking motor, something not possible with the low-cost wind-up Mini Track from Omegon. 

MSM Polar Aligned Side V2
Mounting on the Side
The MSM is shown in illustrations and instructions mounted by its side panel bolt hole. This works, but produced problems with the gears not meshing well and the MSM not tracking at all for initial exposures. 

The illustrations and instructions (in a PDF well-hidden off the MSM Buy page) show the MSM mounted using the 1/4-20 bolt hole on the side of the unit opposite the LED-illuminated control panel. While this seems to be the preferred  method, in the first unit I tested I found it produced serious mis-tracking problems. 

MSM Test (On Side) 1 minute 50mm
50mm Lens Set, Mounted on the Side
A set of five consecutive 1-minute exposures taken with the original SiFo-branded MSM mounted by its side bolt hole showed the MSM’s habit of taking several minutes for the gears to mesh and to begin tracking. Tap or click to download full-res version.

With a Canon 6D MkII and 50mm f/1.4 lens (not a particularly heavy combination), the MSM’s gears would not engage and start tracking until after about 5 minutes. The first exposures were useless. This was also the case whenever I moved the camera to a new position to re-frame the scene or sky. Again, the first few minutes produced no or poor tracking until the gears finally engaged. 

This would be a problem when taking tracked/untracked sets for nightscapes, as images need to be taken in quick succession. It’s also just plain annoying.

However, see the UPDATE at the end for the performance of a new Gauda-branded unit that was sent to me. 

Sagittarius - Red Enhancer Filter
50mm Nightscape
With patience and persistence you can get well-tracked nightscapes with the MSM. This is a single 1-minute exposure with a 50mm lens. Tap or click to download full-res version.

Mounting Options

The solution was to mount the MSM using the 3/8-inch bolt hole on the back plate of the tracker, using the 1/4-20 adapter ring to allow it to attach to my tripod head. This still allowed me to tip the unit up to polar align it. 

MSM Polar Aligned Back V1
Mounting on the Back
Mounting the MSM using its back plate produced more reliable tracking results, though requires swapping mounting bolts and 3/8-1/4-inch adapter rings from the preferred method of mounting the MSM for time-lapse work. 

Tracking was now much more consistent, with only the first exposure usually badly trailed. But subsequent exposures all tracked, but with varying degrees of accuracy as I show below. 

When used as a tracker, you need to control the camera’s exposure time with an external intervalometer you supply, to allow setting exposures over 30 seconds long. 

The MSM offers a N and S setting, the latter for use in the Southern Hemisphere. A 1/2-speed setting turns the tracker at half the normal sidereal rate, useful for nightscapes as a compromise speed to provide some tracking while minimizing ground blurring. 

Polar Alignment

For any tracker to track, its rotation axis has to be aimed at the Celestial Pole, near Polaris in the Northern Hemisphere, and near Sigma Octantis in the Southern Hemisphere. 

MSM Tracker with Laser Pointer (Red Light Version)
Polar Aligning on Polaris
The MSM’s bright laser pointer is useful for aiming the tracker at the North Celestial Pole, located about a degree away from Polaris in the direction of Alkaid, the end star in the Handle of the Big Dipper or Plough. 

I chose the laser pointer option for this, rather than the polar alignment scope. The laser attaches to the side of the MSM using a small screw-on metal bracket so that it points up along the axis of rotation, the polar axis. 

The laser is labeled as a 1mw unit, but it is far brighter than any 1mw I’ve used. This does make it bright, allowing the beam to show up even when the sky is not dark. The battery is rechargeable and a small charger comes with the laser. Considering the laser is just a $15 option, it’s a bargain. But ….


UPDATE ADDED SEPTEMBER 1

Since I published the review, I have had the laser professionally tested, and it measured as having an output of 45 milliwatts. Yet it is labeled as being under 1 milliwatt. This is serious misrepresentation of the specs, done I can only assume to circumvent import restrictions. In Canada it is now illegal to import, own, or use any green laser over 5 milliwatts, a power level that would be sufficient for the intended use of polar aligning. 45mw is outright illegal. 


So be warned, use of this laser will be illegal in some areas. And use of any green laser will be illegal close to airports, and outlawed entirely in some jurisdictions such as Australia, a fact the MSM website mentions. 

The legal alternative is the optical polar alignment scope. I already have several of those, but my expectation that I could use one I had with the same bracket supplied with the laser were dashed by the fact that the bracket’s hole is too narrow to accept any of the other polar alignment scopes I have, which are all standard items. I you want a polar scope, buy theirs for $70. 

However, if you can use it where you live, the laser works well enough, allowing you to aim the tracker at the Pole just by eye. For the wide lenses the tracker is intended to be used with, eyeball alignment proved good enough.

Just be very, very careful not to accidentally look down the beam. Seriously. It is far too easy to do by mistake, but doing so could damage your eye in moments. 

Tracking the Sky in Deep-Sky Images

How well does the MSM actually track? In tests of the original SiFo unit I bought, and in sets of exposures with 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses, and with the tracker mounted on the back, I found that 25% to 50% of the images showed mis-tracking. Gear errors still produced slightly trailed stars. This gear error shows itself more as you shoot with longer focal lengths. 

MSM Test (On Back) 2 min 35mm
35mm Lens Set, Mounted on the Back
A set of 2-minute exposures with the MSM mounted by its back plate showed better tracking with quicker gear meshing, though still with some frames showing trailing. Tap or click to download full-res version.

The MSM is best for what it is advertised as — as a tracker for nightscapes with forgiving wide-angle lenses in the 14mm to 24mm range. With longer lenses, expect to throw away a good number of exposures as unusable. Take twice as many as you think you might need.

MSM Test (On Back) 1 min 135mm
135mm Telephoto Lens Set
A set of 20 one-minute exposures with a 135mm lens showed more than half with unusable amounts of mis-tracking. But enough worked to be usable! Tap or click to download full-res version.

With a 135mm lens taking Milky Way closeups, more than half the shots were badly trailed. Really badly trailed. This is not from poor polar alignment, which produces a gradual drift of the frame, but from errors in the drive gears, and random errors at that, not periodic errors. 

To be fair, this is often the case with other trackers as well. People always want to weight them down with heavy and demanding telephotos for deep-sky portraits, but that’s rarely a good idea with any tracker. They are best with wide lenses.

That said, I found the MSM’s error rate and amount to be much worse than with other trackers. With the Star Adventurer models and a 135mm lens for example, I can expect only 20% to 25% of the images to be trailed, and even then rarely as badly as what the MSM exhibited.

See the UPDATE at the end for the performance of the replacement Gauda-branded unit sent to me with the promise of much improved tracking accuracy. 

The Arrow, Dumbbell, and Coathanger
Sagitta and Area with the 135mm
The result of the above set was a stack of 8 of the best for a fine portrait of the Milky Way area in Sagitta, showing the Dumbbell Nebula and Coathanger asterism. Each sub-frame was 1 minute at f/2 and ISO 1600. Tap or click to download full-res version.

Yes, enough shots worked to be usable, but it took using a fast f/2 lens to keep exposure times down to a minute to provide that yield. Users of slow f/5.6 kit-zoom lenses will struggle trying to take deep-sky images with the MSM. 

In short, this is a low-cost tracker and it shows. It does work, but not as well as the higher-cost competitors. But restrict it to wide-angle lenses and you’ll be fine. 

Panning the Ground 

The other mode the MSM can be used in is as a time-lapse motion controller. Here you mount the MSM horizontally so the camera turns parallel to the horizon (or it can be mounted vertically for vertical panning, a mode I rarely use and did not test). 

MSM Tracker Taking Time-Lapse in Moonlight
The MSM at Work
I performed all the time-lapse testing from my rural backyard on nights in mid-August 2019 with a waning Moon lighting the sky. 

This is where the Move-Shoot-Move function comes in. 

The supplied Sync cable goes from the camera’s flash hot shoe to the MSM’s camera jack. What happens is that when the camera finishes an exposure it sends a pulse to the MSM, which then quickly moves while the shutter is closed by the increment you set.

There is a choice of 4 speeds, marked in degrees-per-move: 0.05°, 0.2°, 0.5°, and 1.0°. For example, as the movie below shows, taking 360 frames at the 1° speed results in a complete 360° turn.

 

MSM Control Panel CU
Time-Lapse Speeds
The control panel offers a choice of N and S rotation directions, a 1/2-speed rate for partially tracked nightscapes, and Move-Shoot-Move rates per move of 0.05°, 0.2°, 0.5° and a very fast 1° setting. The Sync cable plugs into the jack on the MSM. The other jack is for connecting to a motion control slider, a function I didn’t test.

The MSM does the moving, but all the shutter speed control and intervals must be set using a separate intervalometer, either one built into the camera, or an outboard hardware unit. The MSM does not control the camera shutter. In fact, the camera controls the MSM.

Intervals should be set to be about 2 seconds longer than the shutter speed, to allow the MSM to perform its move and settle. 

This connection between the MSM and camera worked very well. It is unconventional, but simple and effective.

MSM Time-Lapse Correct
Mounting for Time-Lapse
The preferred method of mounting the MSM for time-lapses is to do so “upside-down” with its rotating top plate at bottom attached to the tripod. Thus the whole MSM and camera turns, preventing the Sync cable from winding up during a turn. 

Too Slow or Too Fast

The issue is the limited choice of move speeds. I found the 0.5° and 1° speeds much too fast for night use, except perhaps for special effects in urban cityscapes. Even in daytime use, when exposure times are very short, the results are dizzying, as I show below. 

Even the 0.2°-per-move speed I feel is too fast for most nightscape work. Over the 300 exposures one typically takes for a time-lapse movie, that speed will turn the MSM (300 x 0.2°) = 60 degrees. That’s a lot of motion for 300 shots, which will usually be rendered out at 24 or 30 frames per second for a clip that lasts 10 to 12 seconds. The scene will turn a lot in that time.

On the other hand, the 0.05°-per-move setting is rather slow, producing a turn of (300 x 0.05°) = 15° during the 300 shots. 

That works, but with all the motion controllers I’ve used — units that can run at whatever speed they need to get from the start point to the end point you set — I find a rate of about 0.1° per move is what works best for a movie that provides the right amount of motion. Not too slow. Not too fast. Just right. 

MSM Time-Lapse Correct CU
Inverted Control Panel
When mounted as recommended for time-lapses, the control panel does end up upside-down. 


UPDATE ADDED DECEMBER 21, 2019

From product photos on the MoveShootMove.com website now it appears that the tracker is now labeled MSM, as it should have been all along.

Most critically, perhaps in response to this review and my comments here, the time-lapse speeds have been changed to 0.05, 0.075, 0.1 and 0.125 degrees per move, adding the 0.1°/move speed I requested below and deleting the overly fast 0.5° and 1.0° speeds.

Plus it appears the new units have the panel labels printed the other way around so they are not upside down for most mounting situations.

I have not tested this new version, but these speeds sound much more usable for panning time-lapses. Bravo to MSM for listening! 

MSM Rotator 2019


Following the Sky in a Time-Lapse

The additional complication is trying to get the MSM to also turn at the right rate to follow the sky — for example, to keep the galaxy core in frame during the time-lapse clip. I think doing so produces one of the most effective time-lapse sequences. 

But to do that with any device requires turning at a rate of 15° per hour, the rate the sky moves from east to west.

Because the MSM provides only set fixed speeds, the only way you have of controlling how much it moves over a given amount of time, such as an hour, is to vary the shutter speed. 

I found that to get the MSM to follow the Milky Way in a time-lapse using the 0.05° rate and shooting 300 frames required shooting at a shutter speed of 12 seconds. No more, no less. 

MSM Time-Lapse Top Plate
Top Plate Display
When mounted “upside-down” for a time-lapse the top surface provides the N-S direction arrows (N moves clockwise) and a small, handy bubble level.

Do the Math

Where does that number come from? 

At its rate of 0.05°/move, the MSM will turn 15° over 300 shots. The sky moves 15° in one hour, or 3600 seconds. So to fit 300 shots into 3600 seconds means each shot has to be no longer than (3600/300) = 12 seconds long. 

The result works, as I show in the sampler movie. 

But 12 seconds is a rather short shutter speed on a dark, moonless night with the Milky Way. 

For properly exposed images you would need to shoot at very fast apertures (f/1.4 to f/2) and/or high and noisy ISO speeds. Neither are optimal. But they are forced upon you by the MSM’s restricted rates. 

Using the faster 0.2° rate (of the original model) yields a turn of 60° over 300 shots. That’s four hours of sky motion. So each exposure now has to be 48 seconds long for the camera to follow the sky, four times longer because the drive rate is now four times faster. 

A shutter speed of 48 seconds is a little too long in my opinion. Stars in each frame will trail. Plus a turn of 60° over 300 shots is quite a lot, producing a movie that turns too quickly. 

MSM Time-Lapse Inverted
Alternative Time-Lapse Configuration
The other option is to mount the MSM so the control panel is right-side-up and the top turn-table (the part that turns and that the camera is attached to) is on top. Now only the camera turns; the MSM does not. This works but the Sync cable can wrap around and bind in long turns. For short turns of 30° to 60° it is fine. 

By far the best speed for motion control time-lapses would be 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed.  (DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: That speed seems to now be offered.)

Yes, having only a limited number of pre-wired speeds does make the MSM much easier to program than devices like the Star Adventurer Mini or SYRP Genie Mini that use wireless apps to set their functions. No question, the MSM is better suited to beginners who don’t want to fuss with lots of parameters. 

As it is, getting a decent result requires some math and juggling of camera settings to make up for the MSM’s limited choices of speeds. 

Time-Lapse Movie Examples

This compilation shows examples of daytime time-lapses taken at the fastest and dizzying 0.5° and 1.0° speeds, and night time-lapses taken at the slower speeds. The final clip is taken at 0.05°/move and with 12-second exposures, a combination that allowed the camera to nicely follow the Milky Way, albeit at a slow pace. Taking more than the 300 frames used here would have produced a clip that turned at the same rate, but lasted longer. 

Battery Life

The MSM is powered off an internal rechargeable battery, which can be charged from any 5-volt charger you have from a mobile phone. 

The MSM uses a USB-C jack for the power cable, but a USB-A to USB-C cord is supplied, handy as you might not have one if you don’t have other USB-C devices. 

The battery lasted for half a dozen or more 300-shot time-lapses, enough to get you through at least 2 or 3 nights of shooting. However, my testing was done on warm summer nights. In winter battery life will be less. 

While the built-in battery is handy, in the field should you find battery level low (the N and S switches blink as a warning) you can’t just swap in fresh batteries. Just remember to charge up before heading out. Alternatively, it can be charged from an external 5V battery pack such as used to prolong cell phone life. 

Hercules and Corona Borealis (50mm 6D)
The constellations of Hercules and Corona Borealis in the northern spring and summer sky. This is a stack of 3 x 2-minute exposures with the 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800, plus an additional 2 min exposure through the Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows. All tracked on the original MSM SiFo Tracker from China. Tap or click to download full-res version.

Other Caveats

The MSM does not offer, nor does it promise, any form of automated panorama shooting. This is where the device turns by, say, 15° to 45° between shots, to shoot the segments for a still-image panorama. More sophisticated motion controllers from SYRP and Edelkrone offer that function, including the ability to mate two devices for automated multi-tier panoramas. 

Nor does the MSM offer the more advanced option of ramping speeds up and down at the start and end of a time-lapse. It moves at a constant rate throughout. 

While some of the shortcomings could perhaps be fixed with a firmware update, there is no indication anywhere that its internal firmware can be updated through the USB-C port. 

MSM Polar Aligned On Back


UPDATE ADDED OCTOBER 7, 2019

Since I published the review, MSM saw the initial test results and admitted that the earlier units like mine (ordered in June) exhibited large amounts of tracking error. They sent me a replacement unit, now branded with the Gauda label. According to MSM it contains a more powerful motor promised to improve tracking accuracy and making it possible to take images with lenses as long as 135mm.

I’m sorry to report it didn’t.

MSM Gauda-135mm Back-NE
This shows 300% blow-ups of a star field rising in the northeast sky taken with the new Gauda unit and with a 135mm lens, each for 2 minutes in quick succession. Less than 50% of the frames were useable and untrailed. (The first frames were shot through high clouds.)

MSM Gauda-135mm Back-Zenith
Taken the same night as the previous set, this shows 24 shots taken in quick succession with the same 135mm lens for 2 minutes each but with the camera aimed overhead to the zenith. None of the images were usable. All were trailed, most very badly.

In tests with the 135mm lens the new, improved MSM still showed lots of tracking error, to the point that images taken with a lens as long as this were mostly unusable.

Tap or click on the images to download full-res versions.

The short movie above takes the full-frame images from the zenith set of 24 frames taken over 48 minutes and turns them into a little time-lapse. It shows how the mechanism of the MSM seems to be wobbling the camera around in a circle, creating the mis-tracking.

Comparison with the Star Adventurer

As a comparison, the next night I used a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (the full-size model not the Mini) to shoot the same fields in the northeast and overhead with the same 135mm lens and with the same ball-head, to ensure the ball-head was not at fault. Here are the results:

Star Adventurer-135mm-NE
The same field looking northeast, with 300% blow-ups of 2-minute exposures with the 135mm lens and Star Adventurer tracker. As is usual with this unit, about 20% of the frames show mis-tracking, but none as badly as the MSM.

Star Adventurer-135mm-Zenith
Aiming the camera to the zenith the Star Adventurer again showed a good success rate with a slightly greater percentage trailed, but again, none as badly as the MSM.

The Star Adventurer performed much better. Most images were well-tracked. Even on those frames that showed trailing, it was slight. The Star Adventurer is a unit you can use to take close-ups of deep-sky fields with telephoto lenses, if that’s your desire.

By contrast, the MSM is best used — indeed, I feel can only be used practically — with wide-angle lenses and with exposures under 2 minutes. Here’s a set taken with a 35mm lens, each for 2 minutes.

MSM Gauda-35mm Side-NE
This is a set of consecutive 2-minute exposures with a 35mm lens and Canon 6D MkII on the MSM tracker, with the tracker mounted using the side 1/4-20 bolt hole. It was aimed to the northeast. About half the images showed significant trailing.

With the more forgiving 35mm lens, while more images worked, the success rate was still only 50%.

What I did not see with the new Gauda unit was the 5-minute delay before the gears meshed and tracking began. That issue has been resolved by the new, more powerful motor. The new Gauda model does start tracking right away.

But it is still prone to significant enough drive errors that stars are often trailed even with a 35mm lens (this was on a full-frame Canon 6D MkII).


UPDATED CONCLUSIONS (December 21, 2019)

The MSM tracker is low-cost, well-built, and compact for easy packing and travel. It performs its advertised functions well enough to allow users to get results, either tracked images of the Milky Way and constellations, or simple motion-control time-lapses. 

But it is best used — indeed I would suggest can only be used — with wide-angle lenses for tracked Milky Way nightscapes. Even then, take more shots than you think you need to be sure enough are well-tracked and usable. 

It can also be used for simple motion-control time-lapses, provided you do to the math to get it to turn by the amount you want, working around the too-slow or too-fast speeds. The new 0.1° per move speed (added in models as of December 2019) seems a reasonable rate for most time-lapses. 

However, I think aspiring time-lapse photographers will soon outgrow the MSM’s limitations for motion-control sequences. But it can get you started. 

If you really value its compactness and your budget is tight, the MSM will serve you well enough for tracked nightscape shooting with wide-angle lenses.

But if you wish to take close-ups of starfields and deep-sky objects with longer lenses, consider a unit like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer for its lower tracking errors. Or the Star Adventurer Mini for its better motion-control time-lapse functions. 

— Alan Dyer / August 22, 2019 / UPDATED October 7, 2019 / © 2019 AmazingSky.com

 

Testing the Nikon Z6 for Astrophotography


Nikon Z Title

I put the new Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera through its paces for astrophotography. 

Following Sony’s lead, in late 2018 both Nikon and Canon released their entries to the full-frame mirrorless camera market. 

Here I review one of Nikon’s new mirrorless models, the Z6, tested solely with astrophotography in mind. I did not test any of the auto-exposure, auto-focus, image stabilization, nor rapid-fire continuous mode features. 

For full specs and details on the Z-series cameras see Nikon USA’s website.

Sony a7III vs Nikon Z6 copy

In my testing I compared the Nikon Z6 (at right above) to two competitive cameras, the relatively new Sony a7III mirrorless (at left above) and 2015-vintage Nikon D750 DSLR.

All three are “entry-level” full-frame cameras, with 24 megapixels and in a similar $2,000 price league, though the older D750 now often sells at a considerable discount.


Disclosure

I should state at the outset that my conclusions are based on tests conducted over only three weeks in mid-winter 2019 while I had the camera on loan from Nikon Canada’s marketing company. 

I don’t own the camera and didn’t have many moonless nights during the loan period to capture a lot of “beauty” shots under the stars with the Z6.

Auroral Arc (January 10, 2019)
An arc of the auroral oval across the northern horizon on the night of January 10-11, 2019. With the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon Z6 for testing.

However, I think my testing was sufficient to reveal the camera’s main traits of interest — as well as deficiencies it might have — for astrophotography.

I should also point out that I do not participate in “affiliate links,” so I have no financial motivation to prompt you to buy gear from merchants. 

But if you buy my ebook (at right), which features reams of sections on camera and time-lapse gear, I would be very pleased! 


TL;DR Conclusions

In short — I found the Nikon Z6 superb for astrophotography. 

Nikon Z6 Screens copy

Summary:

• It offers as low a noise level as you’ll find in a 24-megapixel full-frame camera, though its noise was not significantly lower than the competitive Sony a7III, nor even the older Nikon D750. 

• The Z6’s ISO-invariant sensor proved excellent when dealing with the dark underexposed shadows typical of Milky Way nightscapes.

• The Live View was bright and easy to enhance to even brighter levels using the Movie mode to aid in framing nightscapes. 

• When shooting deep-sky images through telescopes using long exposures, the Z6 did not exhibit any odd image artifacts such as edge vignetting or amplifier glows, unlike the Sony a7III. See my review of that camera in my blog from 2018. 

Recommendations: 

• Current owners of Nikon cropped-frame cameras wanting to upgrade to full-frame would do well to consider a Z6 over any current Nikon DSLR. 

• Anyone wanting a full-frame camera for astrophotography and happy to “go Nikon” will find the Z6 nearly perfect for their needs. 


Nikon Z6 vs. Z7

Nikon Front View copy

I opted to test the Z6 over the more expensive Z7, as the 24-megapixel Z6 has 6-micron pixels resulting in lower noise (according to independent tests) than the 46 megapixel Z7 with its 4.4 micron pixels. 

In astrophotography, I feel low noise is critical, with 24-megapixel cameras hitting a sweet spot of noise vs. resolution.

However, if the higher resolution of the Z7 is important for your daytime photography needs, then I’m sure it will work well at night. The Nikon D850 DSLR, with a sensor similar to the Z7, has been proven by others to be a good astrophotography camera, albeit with higher noise than the lesser megapixel Nikons such as the D750 and Z6.

NOTE: Tap or click on images to download and display them full screen for closer inspection.


High ISO Noise

Comparison - Noise at 3 ISOs
The three 24-megapixel cameras compared at three high ISO levels in a close-up of a dark-sky nightscape.

To test noise in a real-world situation, I shot a dark nightscape scene with the three cameras, using a 24mm Sigma Art lens on the two Nikons, and a 24mm Canon lens on the Sony via a MetaBones adapter. I shot at ISOs from 800 to 12,800, typical of what we use in nightscapes and deep-sky images. 

The comparison set above shows performance at the higher ISOs of 3200 to 12,800. I saw very little difference among the trio, with the Nikon Z6 very similar to the Sony a7III, and with the four-year-old Nikon D750 holding up very well against the two new cameras. 

The comparison below shows the three cameras on another night and at ISO 3200.

Noise at 3200-3 Cameras
The three cameras compared for noise at properly exposed moonlit scenes at ISO 3200, a typical nightscape setting.

Both the Nikon Z6 and Sony a7III use a backside illuminated or “BSI” sensor, which in theory is promises to provide lower noise than a conventional CMOS sensor used in an older camera such as the D750. 

In practice I didn’t see a marked difference, certainly not as much as the one- or even 1/2-stop improvement in noise I might have expected or hoped for.

Nevertheless, the Nikon Z6 provides as low a noise level as you’ll find in a camera offering 24 megapixels, and will perform very well for all forms of astrophotography. 


ISO Invariance

Comparison - ISO Invariancy
The three cameras compared for ISO invariance at 0EV (well exposed) and -5EV (5 stops underexposed then brightened in processing).

Nikon and Sony both employ an “ISO-invariant” signal flow in their sensor design. You can purposely underexpose by shooting at a lower ISO, then boost the exposure later “in post” and end up with a result similar to an image shot at a high ISO to begin with in the camera. 

I find this feature proves its worth when shooting Milky Way nightscapes that often have well-exposed skies but dark foregrounds lit only by starlight. Boosting the brightness of the landscape when developing the raw files reveals details in the scene without unduly introducing noise, banding, or other artifacts such as magenta tints. 

That’s not true of “ISO variant” sensors, such as in most Canon cameras. Such sensors are far less tolerant of underexposure and are prone to noise, banding, and discolouration in the brightened shadows.

See my test of the Canon 6D MkII for its performance under the differing demands of nightscape photography and deep-sky imaging.

To test the Z6’s ISO invariance (as shown above) I shot a dark nightscape at ISO 3200 for a properly exposed scene, and also at ISO 100 for an image underexposed by a massive 5 stops. I then boosted that image by 5 stops in exposure in Adobe Camera Raw. That’s an extreme case to be sure. 

I found the Z6 provided very good ISO invariant performance, though with more chrominance specking than the Sony a7III and Nikon D750 at -5 EV.

Below is a less severe test, showing the Z6 properly exposed on a moonlit night and at 1 to 4 EV steps underexposed, then brightened in processing. Even the -4 EV image looks very good.

Comparison-ISO Invariancy in Moonlight
This series taken under moonlight shows that even images underexposed by -4 EV in ISO and boosted later by +4 EV in processing look similar for noise and image quality as an image properly exposed in the camera (at ISO 800 here).

In my testing, even with frames underexposed by -5 EV, I did not see any of the banding effects (due to the phase-detect auto-focus pixels) reported by others. 

As such, I judge the Z6 to be an excellent camera for nightscape shooting when we often want to extract detail in the shadows or dark foregrounds. 


Compressed vs. Uncompressed / Raw Large vs. Small 

Comparison - Z6 Large vs Medium RAW
Comparing Z6 images shot at full resolution and at Medium Raw size. to show resolution and noise differences.

The Z6, as do many Nikons, offers a choice of shooting 12-bit or 14-bit raws, and either compressed or uncompressed. 

I shot all my test images as 14-bit uncompressed raws, yielding 46 megabyte files with a resolution of 6048 x 4024 pixels. So I cannot comment on how good 12-bit compressed files are compared to what I shot. Astrophotography demands the best original data. 

Z6 Menu - Raw Formats

However, as the menu above shows, Nikon now also offers the option of shooting smaller raw sizes. The Medium Raw setting produces an image 4528 x 3016 pixels and a 18 megabyte file (in the files I shot), but with all the benefits of raw files in processing.

Nikon with Card Slot copy
The Z cameras use the XQD style memory cards and in a single card slot. The fast XQDs are ideal for recording 4K movies at high data rates but are more costly than the more common SD cards.

The Medium Raw option might be attractive when shooting time-lapses, where you might need to fit as many frames onto the single XQD card as possible, yet still have images large enough for final 4K movies. 

However, comparing a Large Raw to a Medium Raw did show a loss of resolution, as expected, with little gain in noise reduction. 

This is not like “binning pixels” in CCD cameras to increase signal-to-noise ratio. I prefer to never throw away information in the camera, to allow the option of creating the best quality still images from time-lapse frames later. 

Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Nikon now offer this option on new models, a feature which has long been on Canon cameras. 


Star Image Quality

Orion Nebula, M42 and M43, with Nikon Z6
The Orion Nebula with the Nikon Z6

The Orion Nebula in Moonlight
The Orion Nebula with the Nikon D750

Above is the Orion Nebula with the D750 and with the Z6, both shot in moonlight with the same 105mm refractor telescope.

I did not find any evidence for “star-eating” that Sony mirrorless cameras have been accused of. (However, I did not find the Sony a7III guilty of eating stars either.) Star images looked as good in the Z6 as in the D750. 

M42 Blow-up in ACR
A single Orion Nebula image with the Z6 in a 600% blow-up in Adobe Camera Raw, showing clean artifact-free star images with good, natural colours.

Raw developers (Adobe, DxO, ON1, and others) decoded the Z6’s Bayer-array NEF files fine, with no artifacts such as oddly-coloured or misshapen stars, which can arise in cameras lacking an anti-alias filter. 


LENR Dark frames 

Z6 Dark Frame- No LENR
A blank long exposure with no LENR applied – click or tap to open the image full screen

Z6 Dark Frame-With LENR
A blank long exposure with LENR – tap or click to open the image full screen

Above, 8-minute exposures of nothing, taken with the lens cap on at room temperature: without LENR, and with LENR, both boosted a lot in brightness and contrast to exaggerate the visibility of any thermal noise. These show the reduction in noise speckling with LENR activated, and the clean result with the Z6. At small size you’ll likely see nothing but black!

For deep-sky imaging a common practice is to shoot “dark frames,” images recording just the thermal noise that can then be subtracted from the image. 

The Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature offered by all cameras performs this dark frame subtraction internally and automatically by the camera for any exposures over one second long. 

I tested the Z6’s LENR and found it worked well, doing the job to effectively reduce thermal noise (hot pixels) without adding any other artifacts. 

Z6 iMenu Screen
The rear screen “i” menu as I had it customized for my testing, with functions for astrophotography such as LENR assigned to the 12 boxes.

NOTE:

Some astrophotographers dismiss LENR and never use it. By contrast, I prefer to use LENR to do dark frame subtraction. Why? Through many comparison tests over the years I have found that separate dark frames taken later at night rarely do as good a job as LENR darks, because those separate darks are taken when the sensor temperature, and therefore the noise levels, are different than they were for the “light” frames. 

I’ve found that dark frames taken later, then subtracted “in post” inevitably show less or little effect compared to images taken with LENR darks. Or worse, they add a myriad of pock-mark black specks to the image, adding noise and making the image look worse.

The benefit of LENR is lower noise. The penalty of LENR is that each image takes twice as long to shoot — the length of the exposure + the length of the dark frame. Because …


As Expected on the Z6 … There’s no LENR Dark Frame Buffer

Only Canon full-frame cameras offer this little known but wonderful feature for astrophotography. Turn on LENR and it is possible to shoot three (with the Canon 6D MkII) or four (with the Canon 6D) raw images in quick succession even with LENR turned on. The Canon 5D series also has this feature. 

The single dark frame kicks in and locks up the camera only after the series of “light frames” are taken. This is excellent for taking a set of noise-reduced deep-sky images for later stacking without need for further “image calibration.” 

No Nikon has this dark frame buffer, not even the “astronomical” D810a. And not the Z6.

ANOTHER NOTE: 

I have to mention this every time I describe Canon’s dark frame buffer: It works only on full-frame Canons, and there’s no menu function to activate it. Just turn on LENR, fire the shutter, and when the first exposure is complete fire the shutter again. Then again for a third, and perhaps a fourth exposure. Only then does the LENR dark frame lock up the camera as “Busy” and prevent more exposures. That single dark frame gets applied to each of the previous “light” frames, greatly reducing the time it takes to shoot a set of dark-frame subtracted images. 

But do note that Canon’s dark frame buffer will not work if…:

a) You leave Live View on. Don’t do that for any long exposure shooting.

b) You control the camera through the USB port via external software. It works only when controlling the camera via its internal intervalometer or via the shutter port using a hardware intervalometer.


Sensor Illumination 

M35 with Z6 & Traveler (4 Minutes)
A single 4-minute exposure of Messier 35 in moonlight at ISO 400 with the Z6 and 105mm apo refractor, with no flat fielding or lens correction applied, showing the clean edges and lack of amp glows. The darkening of the corners is inherent in the telescope optical system and is not from the camera.

With DSLRs deep-sky images shot through telescopes, then boosted for contrast in processing, usually exhibit a darkening along the bottom of the frame. This is caused by the upraised mirror shadowing the sensor slightly, an effect never noticed in normal photography. 

Mirrorless cameras should be free of this mirror box shadowing. The Sony a7III, however, still exhibits some edge shadows due to an odd metal mask in front of the sensor. It shouldn’t be there and its edge darkening is a pain to eliminate in the final processing. 

As I show in my review of the a7III, the Sony also exhibits a purple edge glow in long-exposure deep-sky images, from an internal light source. That’s a serious detriment to its use in deep-sky imaging.

Happily, the Z6 proved to be free of any such artifacts. Images are clean and evenly illuminated to the edges, as they should be. I saw no amp glows or other oddities that can show up under astrophotography use. The Z6 can produce superb deep-sky images. 


Red Sensitivity

M97 with Z6 & Traveler (4 Minutes)
Messer 97 planetary nebula and Messier 108 galaxy in a lightly processed single 4-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 105mm refractor, again showing a clean field. The glow at top right is from a Big Dipper star just off the edge of the field.

During my short test period, I was not able to shoot red nebulas under moonless conditions. So I can’t say how well the Z6 performs for recording H-alpha regions compared to other “stock” cameras. 

However, I would not expect it to be any better, nor worse, than the competitors. Indeed, the stock Nikon D750 I have does a decent job at picking up red nebulas, though nowhere near as well as Nikon’s sadly discontinued D180a. See my blog post from 2015 for an example shot with that camera. 

With the D810a gone, if it is deep red nebulosity you are after with a Nikon, then consider buying a filter-modified Z6 or having yours modified. 

Both LifePixel and Spencer’s Camera offer to modify the Z6 and Z7 models. However, I have not used either of their services, so cannot vouch for them first hand. 


Live View Focusing and Framing 

Z6 Live View Screen
An image of the back of the camera with a scene under moonlight, with the Z6 set to the highest ISO speed in the movie mode, to aid framing the scene at night.

For all astrophotography manually focusing with Live View is essential. And with mirrorless cameras there is no optical viewfinder to look through to frame scenes. You are dependent on the live electronic image (on the rear LCD screen or in the eye-level electronic viewfinder, or EVF) for seeing anything.

Thankfully, the Z6 presents a bright Live View image making it easy to frame, find, and focus on stars. Maximum zoom for precise focusing is 15x, good but not as good as the D750’s 20x zoom level, but better than Canon’s 10x maximum zoom in Live View. 

The Z6 lacks the a7III’s wonderful Bright Monitoring function that temporarily ups the ISO to an extreme level, making it much easier to frame a dark night scene. However, something similar can be achieved with the Z6 by switching it temporarily to Movie mode, and having the ISO set to an extreme level.

As with most Nikons (and unlike Sonys), the Z6 remembers separate settings for the still and movie modes, making it easy to switch back and forth, in this case for a temporarily brightened Live View image to aid framing. 

That’s very handy, and the Z6 works better than the D750 in this regard, providing a brighter Live View image, even with the D750’s well-hidden Exposure Preview option turned on. 


Video Capability 

Comparison - Movie Noise Levels
Comparing the three cameras using 1/25-second still frames grabbed from moonlit night movies (HD with the D750 and 4K with the Z6 and a7III) shot at ISO 51200, plus a similarly exposed frame from the a7III shot with a shutter speed of only 1/4 second allowing the slower ISO of 8000.

Where the Z6 pulls far ahead of the otherwise similar D750 is in its movie features.

The Z6 can shoot 4K video (3840 x 2160 pixels) at either 30, 25, or 24 frames per second. Using 24 frames per second and increasing the ISO to between 12,800 to 51,200 (the Z6 can go as high as ISO 204,800!) it is possible to shoot real-time video at night, such as of auroras.

But the auroras will have to be bright, as at 24 fps, the maximum shutter speed is 1/25-second, as you might expect. 

The a7III, by comparison, can shoot 4K movies at “dragged” shutter speeds as slow as 1/4 second, even at 24 fps, making it possible to shoot auroras at lower and less noisy ISO speeds, albeit with some image jerkiness due to the longer exposures per frame. 

The D750 shoots only 1080 HD and, as shown above, produces very noisy movies at ISO 25,600 to 51,200. It’s barely usable for aurora videos.

The Z6 is much cleaner than the D750 at those high ISOs, no doubt due to far better internal processing of the movie frames. However, if night-sky 4K videos are an important goal, a camera from the Sony a7 series will be a better choice, if only because of the option for slower dragged shutter speeds.

For examples of real-time auroras shot with the Sony a7III see my music videos shot in Yellowknife and in Norway. 


Battery Life

Nikon Z6 Battery copy

The Z6 uses the EN-EL15b battery compatible with the battery and charger used for the D750. But the “b” variant allows for in-camera charging via the USB port. 

In room temperature tests the Z6 lasted for 1500 exposures, as many as the D750 was able to take in a side-by-side test. That was with the screens off.

At night, in winter temperatures of -10 degrees C (14° F), the Z6 lasted for three hours worth of continuous shooting, both for long deep-sky exposure sets and for a test time-lapse I shot, shown below. 

A time-lapse movie, downsized here to HD from the full-size originals, shot with the Z6 and its internal intervalometer, from twilight through to moonrise on a winter night. Processed with Camera Raw and LRTimelapse. 

However, with any mirrorless camera, you can extend battery life by minimizing use of the LCD screen and eye-level EVF. The Z6 has a handy and dedicated button for shutting off those screens when they aren’t needed during a shoot.

The days of mirrorless cameras needing a handful of batteries just to get through a few hours of shooting are gone. 


Lens and Telescope Compatibility 

Nikon with Sigma and FTZ copy
A 14mm Sigma Art lens with the Nikon FTZ lens adapter needed to attach any “legacy” F-mount lens to the Z6.

As with all mirrorless cameras, the Nikon Z cameras use a new lens mount, one that is incompatible with the decades-old Nikon F mount. 

The Z mount is wider and can accommodate wider-angle and faster lenses than the old F mount ever could, and in a smaller package. While we have yet to see those lenses appear, in theory that’s the good news.

The bad news is that you’ll need Nikon’s FTZ lens adapter to use any of your existing Nikon F-mount lenses on either the Z6 or Z7. As of this writing, Nikon is supplying an FTZ free with every Z body purchase. 

I got an FTZ with my loaner Z6 and it worked very well, allowing even third-party lenses like my Sigma Art lenses to focus at the same point as they normally do (not true of some thIrd-party adapters), preserving the lens’s optical performance. Autofocus functions all worked fine and fast.

Nikon with Scope Adapter and FTZ copy
The FTZ adapter needed to attach the Z6 to a telescope camera adapter (equipped with a standard Nikon T-ring) and field flattener lens for a refractor.

You’ll also need the FTZ adapter for use on a telescope, as shown above, to go from your telescope’s camera adapter, with its existing Nikon T-ring, to the Z6 body. 

T-rings are becoming available for the Z-mount, but even these third-party adapters are actually extension tubes, not just rings.

The reason is that the field flattener or coma corrector lenses often required with telescopes are designed to work best with the longer lens-to-sensor distance of a DSLR body. The FTZ adapter provides the necessary spacing, as do third-party adapters. 

Nikon Z6 FTZ Foot copy
The FTZ lens adapter has its own tripod foot, useful for balancing front-heavy lenses like the big Sigma here.

The only drawback to the FTZ is that any tripod plate attached to the camera body itself likely has to come off, and the tripod foot incorporated into the FTZ used instead. I found myself often having to swap locations for the tripod plate, an inconvenience. 


Camera Controller Compatibility 

Nikon with Ports copy
The port side of the Z6, with the DC2 shutter remote jack at bottom, and HDMI and USB-C ports above. There’s also a mic and headphone jack for video use.

Since it uses the same Nikon-type DC2 shutter port as the D750, the Z6 it should be compatible with most remote hardware releases and time-lapse motion controllers that operate a Nikon through the shutter port. An example are the controllers from SYRP.

On the other hand, time-lapse devices and external intervalometers that run Nikons through the USB port might need to have their firmware or apps updated to work with the Z6.

For example, as of early May 2019, CamRanger lists the Z6 as a supported camera; the Arsenal “smart controller” does not. Nor does Alpine Labs for their Radian and Pulse controllers, nor TimeLapse+ for its excellent View bramping intervalometer. Check with your supplier.

For those who like to use laptops to run their camera at the telescope, I found the Windows program Astro Photography Tool (v3.63) worked fine with the Z6, in this case connecting to the camera’s USB-C port using the USB-C to USB-A cable that comes with the camera. This allows APT to shift not only shutter speed, but also ISO and aperture under scripted sequences. 

However, BackyardNikon v2.0, current as of April 2019, does not list the Z6 as a supported camera. 


Raw File Compatibility 

Z6 Raw open in Raw Therapee
A Z6 Raw NEF file open in Raw Therapee 5.6, showing good star images and de-Bayering.

Inevitably, raw files from brand new cameras cannot be read by any raw developer programs other than the one supplied by the manufacturer, Nikon Capture NX in this case. However, even by the time I did my testing in winter 2019 all the major software suppliers had updated their programs to open Z6 files. 

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, Affinity Photo, DxO PhotoLab, Luminar 3, ON1 PhotoRAW, and the open-source Raw Therapee all open the Z6’s NEF raw files just fine. 

Z6 Raw in PixInsight
PixInsight 1.8.6 failing to open a Z6 raw NEF file.

Specialized programs for processing astronomy images might be another story. For example, as of v1.08.06, PixInsight, a favourite program among astrophotographers, does not open Z6 raw files. Nor does Nebulosity v4. But check with the developers for updates. 


Other Features for Astrophotography 

Here are other Nikon Z6 features I found of value for astrophotography, and for operating the camera at night. 

Nikon with Looking Right copy

Tilting LCD Screen 

Like the Nikon D750 and Sony A7III, the Z6 offers a tilting LCD screen great for use on a telescope or tripod when aimed up at the sky. However, the screen does not flip out and reverse, a feature useful for vloggers, but seldom needed for astrophotography. 

Nikon Z6 Top Screen copy
Showing the top OLED screen and dedicated ISO button that is easy to access in the dark. It works in conjunction with the top dial.

OLED Top Screen (Above)

The Sony doesn’t have one, and Canon’s low-cost mirrorless Rp also lacks one. But the top-mounted OLED screen of the Z6 is a great convenience for astrophotography. It makes it possible to monitor camera status and battery life during a shoot, even with the rear LCD screen turned off to prolong battery life.

Z6 Menu - Quick Menu

Touch Screen 

Sony’s implementation of touch-screen functions is limited to just choosing autofocus points. By contrast, the Nikon Z6 offers a full range of touchscreen functions, making it easy to navigate menus and choose settings. 

I do wish there was an option, as there is with Pentax, to tint the menus red for preserving night vision.

Z6 Menu - Intervalometer

Built-in Intervalometer

As with other Nikons, the Z6 offers an internal intervalometer capable of shooting time-lapses, just as long as individual exposures don’t need to be longer than 30 seconds. 

In addition, there’s the Exposure Smoothing option which, as I have found with the D750, is great for smoothing flickering in time-lapses shot using auto exposure. 

Sony has only just added an intervalometer to the a7III with their v3 firmware update, but with no exposure smoothing. 

Z6 Menu - Silent Shooting

Custom i Menu / Custom Function Buttons 

The Sony a7III has four custom function buttons users can assign to commonly used commands, for quick access. For example, I assign one Custom button to the Bright Monitoring function which is otherwise utterly hidden in the menus, but superb for framing nightscapes, if only you know it’s there! 

The Nikon Z6 has two custom buttons beside the lens mount. However, I found it easier to use the “i” menu (shown above) by populating it with those functions I use at night for astrophotography. It’s then easy to call them up and adjust them on the touch screen.

Thankfully, the Z6’s dedicated ISO button is now on top of the camera, making it much easier to find at night than the awkwardly placed ISO button on the back of the D750, which I am always mistaking for the Image Quality button, which you do not want to adjust by mistake. 

Nikon Z6-My Menu

My Menu 

As most cameras do, the Z6 also has a “My Menu” page which you can also populate with favourite menu commands. 

Nikon D750 and Z6 copy
The D750 (left) compared to the smaller and lighter Z6 (right). This shows the wider Z lens mount compared to Nikon’s old F-mount standard.

Lighter Weight / Smaller Size

The Z6 provides similar imaging performance, if not better (for movies) than the D750, and in a smaller and lighter camera, weighing 200 grams (0.44 pounds) less than the D750. Being able to downsize my equipment mass is a welcome plus to going mirrorless.

Comparison - Z6 Mech vs Silent Shutter
Extreme 800% blow-ups of the Moon show a slightly sharper image with the Z6 set to Silent Shutter.

Electronic Front Curtain Shutter / Silent Shooting 

By design, mirrorless cameras lack any vibration from a bouncing mirror. But even the mechanical shutter can impart vibration and blurring to high-magnification images taken through telescopes. 

The electronic front curtain shutter (lacking in the D750) helps eliminate this, while the Silent Shooting mode does just that — it makes the Z6 utterly quiet and vibration free when shooting, as all the shutter functions are now electronic. This is great for lunar and planetary imaging. 


What’s Missing for Astrophotography (not much!)

Bulb Timer for Long Exposures

While the Z6 has a Bulb setting, there is no Bulb Timer as there is with Canon’s recent cameras. A Bulb Timer would allow setting long Bulb exposures of any length in the camera, though Canon’s cannot be combined with the intervalometer. 

Instead, the Nikon must be used with an external Intervalometer for any exposures over 30 seconds long. Any number of units are compatible with the Z6, through its shutter port which is the same type DC2 jack used in the D750.

Z6 Menu - Multiple Exposures

In-Camera Image Stacking to Raws

The Z6 does offer the ability to stack up to 10 images in the camera, a feature also offered by Canon and Pentax. Images can be blended with a Lighten (for star trails) or Average (for noise smoothing) mode. 

However, unlike with Canon and Pentax, the result is a compressed JPG not a raw file, making this feature of little value for serious imaging. Plus with a maximum of only 10 exposures of up to 30-seconds each, the ability to stack star trails “in camera” is limited. 

Illuminated Buttons 

Unlike the top-end D850, the Z6’s buttons are not illuminated, but then again neither are the Z7’s.


As a bonus — the Nikon 35mm S-Series Lens

Nikkor 35mm Lens Test
The upper left frame corner of a tracked star image shot with the 35mm S lens wide open at f/1.8 and stopped down at third stop increments.

With the Z6 I also received a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 S lens made for the Z-mount, as the lens perhaps best suited for nightscape imaging out of the native Z-mount lenses from Nikon. See Nikon’s website for the listing. 

If there’s a downside to the Z-series Nikons it’s the limited number of native lenses that are available now from Nikon, and likely in the future from anyone, due to Nikon not making it easy for other lens companies to design for the new Z mount. 

In testing the 35mm Nikkor on tracked shots, stars showed excellent on- and off-axis image quality, even wide open at f/1.8. Coma, astigmatism, spherical aberration, and lateral chromatic aberration were all well controlled. 

However, as with most lenses now offered for mirrorless cameras, the focus is “by-wire” using a ring that doesn’t mechanically adjust the focus. As a result, the focus ring turns continuously and lacks a focus scale. 

So it is not possible to manually preset the lens to an infinity mark, as nightscape photographers often like to do. Focusing must be done each night. 

Until there is a greater selection of native lenses for the Z cameras, astrophotographers will need to use the FTZ adapter and their existing Nikon F-mount or third-party Nikon-mount lenses with the Zs.


Recommendations 

I was impressed with the Z6. 

The Owl Nebula and Messier 108 Galaxy
The Owl Nebula, Messier 97, a planetary nebula in our galaxy, and the edge-on spiral galaxy Messier 108, paired below the Bowl of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. This is a stack of 5 x 4-minute exposures at ISO 1600 with the Nikon Z6 taken as part of testing. This was through the Astro-Physics Traveler refractor at f/6 with the Hotech field flattener and FTZ adapter.

For any owner of a Nikon cropped-frame DSLR (from the 3000, 5000, or 7000 series for example) wanting to upgrade to full-frame for astrophotography I would suggest moving to the Z6 over choosing a current DSLR. 

Mirrorless is the way of the future. And the Z6 will yield lower noise than most, if not all, of Nikon’s cropped-frame cameras.

Nikkor 35mm S Lens copy
The Z6 with the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 S lens native for the Z mount.

For owners of current Nikon DSLRs, especially a 24-megapixel camera such as the D750, moving to a Z6 will not provide a significant improvement in image quality for still images. 

But … it will provide 4K video and much better low-light video performance than older DSLRs. So if it is aurora videos you are after, the Z6 will work well, though not quite as well as a Sony alpha. 

In all, there’s little downside to the Z6 for astrophotography, and some significant advantages: low noise, bright live view, clean artifact-free sensor images, touchscreen convenience, silent shooting, low-light 4K video, all in a lighter weight body than most full-frame DSLRs. 

I highly recommend the Nikon Z6. 

— Alan, April 30, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

 

Shooting Moonstrikes at Dinosaur Park


Moonlight at Dino Park Title

It was a magical night as the rising Moon lit the Badlands with a golden glow.

When doing nightscape photography it’s often best not to fight the Moon, but to embrace it and use it as your light source.

I did this on a fine night, Easter Sunday, at one of my favourite nightscape spots, Dinosaur Provincial Park.

I set up two cameras to frame different views of the hoodoos as they lit up with the light of the rising waning Moon.

The night started out as a dark moonless evening as twilight ended. Then about 90 minutes after the arrival of darkness, the sky began to brighten again as the Moon rose to illuminate the eroded formations of the Park.

Moonrise Light at Dinosaur Park - West
The formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, lit by the rising gibbous Moon, off camera at left, on April 21/22, 2019. This is looking west, with the stars of the winter sky setting. Procyon is at right. Aphard in Hydra is above the hill. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and a single exposure for the sky, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens at f/5.6 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, each for 25 seconds. The images were from the end of a sequence shot for a time-lapse using the TimeLapse+ View intervaolometer. 

This was a fine example of “bronze hour” illumination, as some have aptly called it.

Photographers know about the “golden hour,” the time just before sunset or just after sunrise when the low Sun lights the landscape with a golden glow.

The Moon does the same thing, with a similar tone, though greatly reduced in intensity.

The low Moon, especially just after Full, casts a yellow or golden tint over the scene. This is caused by our atmosphere absorbing the “cold” blue wavelengths of moonlight, and letting through the “warm” red and yellow tones.

Making use of the rising (or setting) Moon to light a scene is one way to capture a nightscape lit naturally, and not with artificial lights, which are increasingly being frowned upon, if not banned at popular nightscape destinations.

StarryNightImage
A screen shot from the desktop app Starry Night (by Simulation Curriculum) showing the waning gibbous Moon rising in the SE on April 21. Such “planetarium” apps are useful for simulating the sky of a planned shoot.

“Bronze hour” lighting is great in still-image nightscapes. But in time-lapses the effect is more striking — indeed, in time-lapse lingo it is called a “moonstrike” scene.

The dark landscape suddenly lights up as if it were dawn, yet stars remain in the sky.

IMG_4579
A screen shot of a planning app that is a favourite of mine, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, set up to show the scene for moonrise on April 21 from the Park.

The best nights for such a moonstrike are ones with a waning gibbous or last quarter Moon. At these phases the Moon rises after sunset, to re-light a scene after evening twilight has faded.

On April 21 I made use of such a circumstance to shoot moonstrike stills and movies, not only for their own sake, but for use as illustrations in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-lapse eBook (at top here).

TimeLapse+View-Day Interval

One camera, the Nikon D750, I coupled with a device called a bramping intervalometer, in this case the TimeLapse+ View, shown above. It works great to automatically shift the shutter and ISO speeds as the sky darkens then brightens again.

Yes, in bright situations the camera’s own Auto Exposure and Auto ISO modes might accomplish this.

But … once the sky gets dark the Auto circuits fail and you’re left with hugely underexposed images.

The TimeLapse+ View, with its more sensitive built-in light meter, can track right through into full darkness, making it possible to shoot so-called “holy grail” time-lapses that go from daylight to darkness, from sunset to the Milky Way, all shot unattended.

Moonrise Light at Dinosaur Park - North
The eroding formations of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, lit by the rising gibbous Moon, off camera at right, on April 21/22, 2019. This is looking north, with Polaris at upper centre, Capella setting at left, Vega rising at right, and the W of Cassiopeia at lower centre. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one exposure from that set for the sky. All with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2.8 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200, each for 30 seconds.  

For the other camera, the Sony a7III (with the Laowa 15mm lens I just reviewed) I set the camera manually, then shifted the ISO and shutter speed a couple of times to accommodate the darkening, then brightening of the scene.

Processing the resulting RAW files in the highly-recommended program LRTimelapse smoothed out all the jumps in brightness to make a seamless transition.

I also used the new intervalometer function that Sony has just added to the a7III with its latest firmware update. Hurray! I complained about the lack of an intervalometer in my original review of the Sony a7III. But that’s been fixed.

Moonrise Star Trails at Dinosaur Park
This is looking north, with the stars of the northern sky pivoting around Polaris. This is a stack of 8 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and 250 exposures for the sky, blended with Lighten mode to create the stails. However, I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions in Photoshop to do the stacking, creating the tapering effect in the process. All exposures with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2.8 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200, each for 30 seconds. 

I shot 425 frames with the Sony, which I not only turned into a movie but, as one can with time-lapse frames, I also stacked into a star trail still image, in this case looking north to the circumpolar stars.

To do the stacking I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop, developed and sold by StarCircleAcademy.

I prefer this action set over dedicated programs such as StarStaX, because it works directly with the developed Raw files. There’s no need to create a set of JPGs to stack, compromising image quality, and departing from the non-destructive workflow I prefer to maintain.

While the still images are very nice, the intended final result was this movie above, a short time-lapse vignette using clips from both cameras. Do watch in HD.

I rendered out the frames from the Sony both as a “normal” time-lapse, and as one with accumulating star trails, again using the Advanced Stacker Plus actions to create the intermediate frames for assembling into the movie.

All these techniques, gear, and apps are explained in tutorials in my eBook, above. However, it’s always great to get a night perfect for putting the methods to work on a real scene.

— Alan, April 27, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Auroras at Sea


Aurora from at Sea Near Lofotens #1

As I do a couple of times a year, earlier this month I was cruising the coast of Norway chasing the Northern Lights – successfully!

One of my “retirement gigs” is to serve as a lecturer for the educational travel company Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) on some of their aurora cruises along the Norwegian coast on one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships.

This time, as I was last autumn, I was on Hurtigruten’s flagship coastal ferry, the m/s Trollfjord.

Aurora over the Norwegian Sea #2 (Feb 27, 2019)
The Northern Lights over the Norwegian Sea south of the small fishing village of Oksfjord, from the Hurtigruten ferry ship the m/s Trollfjord on the northbound voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes. This was during a minor geomagnetic storm producing an all-sky aurora with a Kp Index however of no more Kp 3 – 4 this night. A break in the clouds allowed a glimpse of the Lights for about an hour at 11 pm. This is looking north. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400. Ship motion inevitably adds some star trailing.

Our tour group was treated to five fine nights with auroras, an unusually good take out of the 12-day round trip cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen. Our first look, above, was on February 27, but through cloud.

Auroral Swirls over Båtsfjord, Norway
Swirls of auroral curtains over Båtsfjord, Norway while we were in port on the southbound portion of the Hurtigruten coastal cruise on the ms Trollfjord. This was March 1, 2019. The stars of Taurus and the Pleiades are at left; Cassiopeia at upper right. This is a single 0.8-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.

But after we reached the top end at Kirkenes and turned around for the southbound voyage, skies cleared remarkably. We had a wonderful four clear days and nights in a row, all with Northern Lights.

Auroral Swirls Overhed from the ms Trollfjord
Auroral curtains in an overhead coronal burst swirling at the zenith during a fine display on March 1, 2019, as seen from the deck of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord, while in port in Båtsfjord, Norway. The Big Dipper is at upper right; Cassiopeia at lower left, and Polaris in the centre amid the aurora. This is a single 1-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. It was taken from port with the ship stationary and amid the port lights.

The best show was March 1, and when we were in port in the northern coastal village of Båtsfjord. The Lights danced overhead in the best show I had seen from Norway.

Aurora over Skjervøy, Norway
The Northern Lights over the village of Skjervøy on the northern coast of Norway north of Tromsø. Taken from the deck of the Hurtigruten ship the ms Trollfjord while in port, March 2, 2019. Looking west with Cassiopeia at right and the Pleiades at left. This is a blend of two exposures: a long 4-second exposure for the sky and aurora, and a short 0.8-second exposure for the ground and city lights. All at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 800.

The next night we got a good show while we were in the port of Skjervøy.

As we continued south we emerged out from under the auroral oval zone, placing the Lights to the north, back in the direction we had come from.

Equally spectacular in my mind were some of the sunsets and twilight skies we enjoyed as we sailed through the Lofoten Islands, including on our visit to the narrow Trollfjord fjord for which the ship is named.

Sunset from the Trollfjord
Sunset in Norway from the ms Trollfjord on the southbound voyage, on March 2, 2019.

Trollfjord at Twilight
The mouth of the Trollfjord in the Lofoten Islands, Norway, at twilight taken from the forward Deck 6 of the ms Trollfjord, the Hurtigruten ferry ship named for the narrow fjord. This is a 4-section handheld panorama with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/8 and Sony a7III camera at ISO 100. Stitched with ACR.

Alpenglow and Twilight on the Fjords
A panorama of the Raftsundet Strait at sunset with alpenglow on the peaks and evening twilight colours to the right at the sunset point. This was March 3, 2019 on the southbound voyage on the ms Trollfjord as we approached the Trollfjord itself. This is a 7-section panorama, handheld, with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III, stitched with ACR.

On our aurora nights I mostly shot “real-time” video of the Lights, using the low-light capability and 4K functions of the Sony a7III camera. The result is a music video linked to below.

The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

I hope you enjoy it. Do view it full-screen and at 4K resolution.

For details on this cruise (I’ll be on the October 10 trip this fall) see the Road Scholar page for this Arctic Skies trip. Autumn is a spectacular time in the fjords and along the coast, as the mountainsides are in fall colours.

Join me!

— Alan, March 15, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Photographing the Total Eclipse of the Moon


Lunar Eclipse CompositeOn 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   total   lunar  eclipse  — 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.

For a short explanation of the geometry of lunar eclipses see the NASA/Goddard video at https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/11516 

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. 

Telescope CU-Stages
This shows the length of the eclipse phases relative to the start of the partial eclipse as the Moon begins to enter the umbra at right. The Moon’s orbital motion takes it through the umbra from right to left (west to east) relative to the background stars. The visible eclipse ends 196 minutes (3 hours and 16 minutes) after it began. Click or tap on the charts to download a high-res version.

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!

Total Lunar Eclipse (December 20/21, 2010)
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with 130mm AP apo refractor at f/6 and Canon 7D at ISO 400 for 4 seconds, single exposure, shortly after totality began.

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!

LE2019Jan21T
All of the Americas can see this eclipse. The eclipse gets underway as the Moon sets at dawn over Europe. Diagram courtesy EclipseWise.com

For more details on times see www.EclipseWise.com and the event page at http://www.eclipsewise.com/lunar/LEprime/2001-2100/LE2019Jan21Tprime.html 

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.

Framing TL-Mid-Eclipse
The sky at mid-eclipse from my Alberta site. Created with the planetarium software Starry Night, from Simulation Curriculum.

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. 

To plan your local shoot, I suggest using planetarium software such as the free Stellarium or Starry Night (the software I used to prepare the sky charts in this post), and photo planning apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills. 

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. 

Eclipse Times Table

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. 

Lunar Eclipse Closeup with Stars
The total eclipse of the Moon of September 27, 2015, through a telescope, at mid-totality with the Moon at its darkest and deepest into the umbral shadow, in a long exposure to bring out the stars surrounding the dark red moon. This is a single exposure taken through a 92mm refractor at f/5.5 for 500mm focal length using the Canon 60Da at ISO 400 for 8 seconds. The telescope was on a SkyWatcher HEQ5 equatorial mount tracking at the lunar rate.

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.

Total Lunar Eclipse (December 20/21, 2010)
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, with 15mm lens at f/3.2 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 for a 1-minute tracked exposure. Without a tracker, use shorter exposures (less than 20 seconds) and higher ISOs or wider apertures to avoid trailing,

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. 

Framing Eclipse Sky
Click or tap on any of the charts to download a high-resolution copy.

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. 

Framing Winter Milky Way & Moon

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.

Total Lunar Eclipse, Dec 20, 2010 24mm Wide-Angle
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, with Canon 5D MKII and 24mm lens at f2.8 for stack of four 2-minute exposures at ISO 800. Taken during totality using a motorized sky tracker. The eclipsed Moon is the red object above Orion, and the stars appear bloated due to high haze and fog rolling in.

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.

Total Lunar Eclipse, Feb. 20, 2008
Lunar eclipse, Feb 20, 2008 with a 135mm telephoto and Canon 20Da camera showing the Moon’s size with such a lens and cropped-frame camera. This is a blend of 8-second and 3-second exposures to bring out stars and retain the Moon. Both at ISO200 and f/2.8. Saturn is at lower left and Regulus at upper right.

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. 

Framing TL-Start of Eclipse
This set of 3 charts shows the position of the Moon at the start, middle, and end of the eclipse, for planning lens choice and framing of the complete eclipse path. The location is Alberta, Canada.

Framing TL-Mid-Eclipse

Framing TL-End of 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. 

Lunar Eclipse From Beginning to End, To True Scale
This is a multiple-exposure composite of the total lunar eclipse of Sunday, September 27, 2015, as shot from Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada. For this still image composite of the eclipse from beginning to end, I selected just 40 frames taken at 5-minute intervals, out of 530 I shot in total, taken at 15- to 30-second intervals for the full time-lapse sequence included 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.

Lunar Eclipse Sequence from Monument Valley
The total lunar eclipse of April 4, 2015 taken from near Tear Drop Arch, in western Monument Valley, Utah. I shot the totality images during the short 4 minutes of totality. The mid-totality image is a composite of 2 exposures: 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 for the sky and landscape, with the sky brightening blue from dawn twilight, and 1.5 seconds at f/5.6 and ISO 400 for the disk of the Moon itself. Also, layered in are 26 short exposures for the partial phases, most being 1/125th sec at f/8 and ISO 400, with ones closer to totality being longer, of varying durations.

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.


My Rant! 

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, and  symmetrically 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.

Telescope FOV-400 & 800mm

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. 

Sigma on SAM on Stars

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. 

Framing Telephoto CU

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.

Total Lunar Eclipse, Dec 20, 2010 Total HDR
A High Dynamic Range composite of 7 exposures of the Dec 20/21, 2010 total lunar eclipse, from 1/2 second to 30 seconds, to show the more normally exposed eclipsed Moon with the star cluster M35, at left, in Gemini, to show the scene as it appeared in binoculars. Each tracked photo taken with a 77mm Borg apo refractor at f/4.2 (300mm focal length) and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.

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. 

Total Lunar Eclipse Exposure Series
This series shows the need to constantly shift exposure by lengthening the shutter speed as the eclipse progresses. Do the same to shorten the exposure after totality. The exposures shown here are typical. 

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

Total Lunar Eclipse, Dec 20, 2010 Partial HDR
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, with 5-inch refractor at f/6 (780mm focal length) and Canon 7D (cropped frame camera) at ISO 400. This is an HDR blend of 9 images from 1/125 second to 2 seconds, composited in Photoshop. Note  the blue tint along the shadow edge.

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.  

Lunar Eclipse Composite
Composite image digitally created in Photoshop of images taken during October 27, 2004 total lunar eclipse, from Alberta Canada. Images taken through 5-inch apo refractor at f/6 with Canon Digital Rebel 300D camera at ISO 200.

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! 

Telescope CU-Stages
Repeated from earlier, this chart shows the path of the Moon through the north half of the umbra, a path that will be the same for any site, as will be the timing. North is up here.

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.

Astrospheric
The Astrospheric website, with astronomy-oriented weather predictions. It’s also available as a great mobile app.

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. 

Good luck and clear skies on eclipse night!

— Alan, January 1, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

Testing ON1 Photo RAW for Astrophotography


ON1 Testing Title

Can the new version of ON1 Photo RAW match Photoshop for astrophotography? 

The short TL;DR answer: No.

But … as always, it depends. So do read on.


Released in mid-November 2018, the latest version of ON1 Photo RAW greatly improves a non-destructive workflow. Combining Browsing, Cataloging, Raw Developing, with newly improved Layers capabilities, ON1 is out to compete with Adobe’s Creative Cloud photo suite – Lightroom, Camera Raw, Bridge, and Photoshop – for those looking for a non-subscription alternative.

Many reviewers love the new ON1 – for “normal” photography.

But can it replace Adobe for night sky photos? I put ON1 Photo RAW 2019 through its paces for the demanding tasks of processing nightscapes, time-lapses, and deep-sky astrophotos.


The Conclusions

In my eBook “How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses” (linked to at right) I present dozens of processing tutorials, including several on how to use ON1 Photo RAW, but the 2018 edition. I was critical of many aspects of the old version, primarily of its destructive workflow when going from its Develop and Effects modules to the limited Layers module of the 2018 edition.

I’m glad to see many of the shortfalls have been addressed, with the 2019 edition offering a much better workflow allowing layering of raw images while maintaining access to all the original raw settings and adjustments. You no longer have to flatten and commit to image settings to layer them for composites. When working with Layers you are no longer locked out of key functions such as cropping.

I won’t detail all the changes to ON1 2019 but they are significant and welcome.

The question I had was: Are they enough for high-quality astrophotos in a non-destructive workflow, Adobe Photoshop’s forté.

While ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is much better, I concluded it still isn’t a full replacement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite, as least not for astrophotography.

NOTE: All images can be downloaded as high-res versions for closer inspection. 


ON1 2019 is Better, But for Astrophotography …

  1. Functions in Layers are still limited. For example, there is no stacking and averaging for noise smoothing. Affinity Photo has those.
  2. Filters, though abundant for artistic special effect “looks,” are limited in basic but essential functions. There is no Median filter, for one.
  3. Despite a proliferation of contrast controls, for deep-sky images (nebulas and galaxies) I was still not able to achieve the quality of images I’ve been used to with Photoshop.
  4. The lack of support for third-party plug-ins means ON1 cannot work with essential time-lapse programs such as Timelapse Workflow or LRTimelapse.

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


Recommendations

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

  1. Its improved layering and excellent masking functions are great for blending separate ground and sky images, or for applying masked adjustments to selected areas.

Time-Lapses: ON1 works is just adequate for basic time-lapse processing:

  1. Yes, you can develop one image and apply its settings to hundreds of images in a set, then export them for assembly into a movie. But there is no way to vary those settings over time, as you can by mating Lightroom to LRTimelapse.
  2. As with the 2018 edition, you still cannot copy and paste masked local adjustments from image to image, limiting their use.
  3. Exporting those images is slow.

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

  1. Stars inevitably end up with unsightly sharpening haloes.
  2. De-Bayering artifacts add blocky textures to the sky background.
  3. And all the contrast controls still don’t provide the “snap” and quality I’m used to with Photoshop when working with low-contrast subjects.

Library / Browse Functions

ON1 Browse Module
ON1 cannot catalog or display movie files or Photoshop’s PSB files (but then again with PSBs neither can Lightroom!).

ON1 is sold first and foremost as a replacement for Adobe Lightroom, and to that extent it can work well. Unlike Lightroom, ON1 allows browsing and working on images without having to import them formally into a catalog.

However, you can create a catalog if you wish, one that can be viewed even if the original images are not “on-line.” The mystery seems to be where ON1 puts its catalog file on your hard drive. I was not able to find it, to manually back it up. Other programs, such as Lightroom and Capture One, locate their catalogs out in the open in the Pictures folder.

For those really wanting a divorce from Adobe, ON1 now offers an intelligent AI-based function for importing Lightroom catalogs and transferring all your Lightroom settings you’ve applied to raw files to ON1’s equivalent controls.

However, while ON1 can read Photoshop PSD files, it will flatten them, so you would lose access to all the original image layers.

ON1’s Browse module is good, with many of the same functions as Lightroom, such as “smart collections.” Affinity Photo – perhaps ON1’s closest competitor as a Photoshop replacement – still lacks anything like it.

But I found ON1’s Browse module buggy, often taking a long while to allow access into a folder, presumably while it is rendering image previews.

There are no plug-ins or extensions for exporting directly to or synching to social media and photo sharing sites.


Nightscape Processing – Developing Raw Images

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

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

ON1 did a fairly good job. Some of its special effect filters, such a Dynamic Contrast, Glow, and Sunshine, can help bring out the Milky Way, though do add an artistic “look” to an image which you might or might not like.

Below, I compare Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to ON1. It was tough to get ON1’s image looking the same as ACR’s result, but then again, perhaps that’s not the point. Does it just look good? Yes, it does.

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

Compared to Adobe Camera Raw, which has a good array of basic settings, ON1 has most of those and more, in the form of many special Effects, with many combined as one-click Presets, as shown below.

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

A few presets and individual filters – the aforementioned Dynamic Contrast and Glow – are valuable. However, most of ON1’s filters and presets will not be useful for astrophotography, unless you are after highly artistic and unnatural effects.

Noise Reduction and Lens Correction

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

Critical to all astrophotography is excellent noise reduction. ON1 does a fine job here, with good smoothing of noise without harming details.

Lens Correction works OK. It detected the 20mm Sigma art lens and automatically applied distortion correction, but not any vignetting (light “fall-off”) correction, perhaps the most important correction in nightscape work. You have to dial this in manually by eye, a major deficiency.

By comparison, ACR applies both distortion and vignetting correction automatically. It also includes settings for many manual lenses that you can select and apply in a click. For example, ACR (and Lightroom) includes settings for popular Rokinon and Venus Optics manual lenses; ON1 does not.

Hot Pixel Removal

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

I shot the example image on a warm summer night and without using in-camera Long Exposure Noise Reduction (to keep the gap between exposures short when shooting sets of tracked and untracked exposures for later compositing).

However, the penalty for not using LENR to expedite the image taking is a ground filled with hot pixels. While Adobe Camera Raw does have some level of hot pixel removal working “under the hood,” many specks remained.

ON1 showed more hot pixels, until you clicked Remove Hot Pixels, found under Details. As shown at centre above, it did a decent job getting rid of the worst offenders.

But as I’ll show later, the penalty is that stars now look distorted and sometimes double, or you get the outright removal of stars. ON1 doesn’t do a good job distinguishing between true sharp-edged hot pixels and the softer images of stars. Indeed, it tends to over sharpen stars.

A competitor, Capture One 11, does a better job, with an adjustable Single Pixel removal slider, so you can at least select the level of star loss you are willing to tolerate to get rid of hot pixels.

Star Image Quality

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

Yes, we are pixel peeping here, but that’s what we do in astrophotography. A lot!

Stars in ON1 don’t look as good as in Camera Raw. Inevitably, as you add contrast enhancements, stars in ON1 start to exhibit dark and unsightly “sharpening haloes” not present in ACR, despite me applying similar levels of sharpening and contrast boosts to each version of the image.

Camera Raw has been accused of producing images that are not as sharp as with other programs such as Capture One and ON1.

There’s a reason. Other programs over-sharpen, and it shows here.

We can get away with it here in wide-field images, but not later with deep-sky close-ups. I don’t like it. And it is unavoidable. The haloes are there, albeit at a low level, even with no sharpening or contrast enhancements applied, and no matter what image profile is selected (I used ON1 Standard throughout).

De-Bayering Artifacts

ON1-Debayer
ON1, with contrast boosts applied but with no sharpening or noise reduction, shows star haloes, while the sky shows a blocky pattern at the pixel level in high ISO shots.

ACR-Debayer
Adobe Camera Raw, with similar settings but also no sharpening or noise reduction, shows a smooth and uniform sky background.

You might have to download and closely inspect these images to see the effect, but ON1’s de-Bayering routine exhibits a cross-hatched blocky pattern at the pixel-peeping level. ACR does not.

I see this same effect with some other raw developers. For example, the free Raw Therapee shows it with many of its choices for de-Bayering algorithms, but not all. Of the more than a dozen raw developers I tested a year ago, ACR and DxO PhotoLab had (and still have) the most artifact-free de-Bayering and smoothest noise reduction

Again, we can get away with some pixel-level artifacts here, but not later, in deep-sky processing.


Nightscape Processing — Layering and Compositing

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

Compositing

The 2018 version of ON1 forced you to destructively flatten images when bringing them into the Layers module.

The 2019 version of ON1 improves that. It is now possible to composite several raw files into one image and still retain all the original Develop and Effects settings for non-destructive work.

You can then use a range of masking tools to mask in or out the sky.

For the example above, I have stacked tracked and untracked exposures, and am starting to mask out the trailed stars from the untracked exposure layer.

To do this with Adobe, you would have to open the developed raw files in Photoshop (ideally using “smart objects” to retain the link back to the raw files). But with ON1 we stay within the same program, to retain access to non-destructive settings. Very nice!

To add masks, ON1 2019 does not have the equivalent of Photoshop’s excellent Quick Selection Tool for selecting the sky or ground. It does have a “Perfect Brush” option which uses the tonal value of the pixels below it, rather than detecting edges, to avoid “painting over the lines.”

While the Perfect Brush does a decent job, it still requires a lot of hand painting to create an accurate mask without holes and defects. There is no non-destructive “Select and Mask” refinement option as in Photoshop.

Yes, ON1’s Refine Brush and Chisel Mask tools can help clean up a mask edge but are destructive to the mask. That’s not acceptable to my non-destructive mindset!

Local Adjustments 

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

The masking tools are also applicable to adding “Local Adjustments” to any image layer, to brighten or darken regions of an image for example.

These work well and I find them more intuitive than the “pins” ACR uses on raw files, or DxO PhotoLab’s quirky “U-Point” interface.

ON1’s Local Adjustments work more like Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers and are similarly non-destructive. Excellent.

Luminosity Masks

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

A very powerful feature of ON1 is its built-in Luminosity masking.

Yes, Camera Raw now has Range Masks, and Photoshop can be used to create luminosity masks, but making Photoshop’s luminosity masks easily adjustable requires purchasing third-party extension panels.

ON1 can create an adjustable and non-destructive luminosity mask on any image or adjustment layer with a click.

While such masks, based on the brightness of areas, aren’t so useful for low-contrast images like the Milky Way scene above, they can be very powerful for merging high-contrast images (though ON1 also has an HDR function not tested here).

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

ON1 has the advantage here. Its Luminosity masks are a great feature for compositing exposures or for working on regions of bright and dark in an image.

Final Composite

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

Here again is the final result, above.

It is not just one image each for the sky and ground, but is instead a stack of four images for each half of the composite, to smooth noise. This form of stacking is somewhat unique to astrophotography, and is commonly used to reduce noise in nightscapes and in deep-sky images, as shown later.

Stacking

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

Here I show how you have to stack images in ON1.

Unlike Photoshop and Affinity Photo, ON1 does not have the ability to merge images automatically into a stack and apply a mathematical averaging to the stack, usually a Mean or Median stack mode. The averaging of the image content is what reduces the random noise.

Instead, with ON1 you have perform an “old school” method of average stacking – by changing the opacity of the layers, so that Layer 2 = 50%, Layer 3 = 33%, Layer 4 = 25%, and so on. The result is identical to performing a Mean stack mode in Photoshop or Affinity.

Fine, except there is no way to perform a Median stack, which can be helpful for eliminating odd elements present in only one frame, perhaps an aircraft trail.

Copy and Paste Settings

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

Before we even get to the stacking stage, we have to develop and process all the images in a set. Unlike Lightroom or Camera Raw, ON1 can’t develop and synchronize settings to a set of images at once. You can work on only one image at a time.

So, you work on one image (one of the sky images here), then Copy and Paste its settings to the other images in the set. I show the Paste dialog box here.

This works OK, though I did find some bugs – the masks for some global Effects layers did not copy properly; they copied inverted, as black instead of white masks.

However, Luminosity masks did copy from image to image, which is surprising considering the next point.

The greater limitation is that no Local Adjustments (ones with masks to paint in a correction to a selected area) copy from one image to another … except ones with gradient masks. Why the restriction?

So as wonderful as ON1’s masking tools might be, they aren’t of any use if you want to copy their masked adjustments across several images, or, as shown next, to a large time-lapse set.

While Camera Raw’s and Lightroom’s Local Adjustment pins are more awkward to work with, they do copy across as many images as you like.


Time-Lapse Processing

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

A few Adobe competitors, such as Affinity Photo (as of this writing) simply can’t do this.

By comparison, with the exception of Local Adjustments, ON1 does have good functions for Copying and Pasting Settings. These are essential for processing a set of hundreds of time-lapse frames.

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

Once all the images are processed – whether it be with ON1 or any other program – the frames have to exported out to an intermediate set of JPGs for assembly into a movie by third-party software. ON1 itself can’t assemble movies, but then again neither can Lightroom (as least not very well), though Photoshop can, through its video editing functions.

For my test set of 220 frames, each with several masked Effects layers, ON1 took 2 hours and 40 minutes to perform the export to 4K JPGs. Photoshop, through its Image Processor utility, took 1 hour and 30 minutes to export the same set, developed similarly and with several local adjustment pins.

ON1 did the job but was slow.

A greater limitation is that, unlike Lightroom, ON1 does not accept any third party plug-ins (it serves as a plug-in for other programs). That means ON1 is not compatible with what I feel are essential programs for advanced time-lapse processing: either Timelapse Workflow (from https://www.timelapseworkflow.com) or the industry-standard LRTimelapse (from https://lrtimelapse.com).

Both programs work with Lightroom to perform incremental adjustments to settings over a set of images, based on the settings of several keyframes.

Lacking the ability to work with these programs means ON1 is not a program for serious and professional time-lapse processing.


Deep-Sky Processing

ON1-Tracked Milky Way
A tracked 2-minute exposure of the Cygnus Milky Way, with a Sony a7III camera at ISO 800 and Venus Optics Laowa 15mm lens at f/2, developed in ON1.

ACR-Tracked Milky Way
The same Milky Way image developed in Adobe Camera Raw. It looks better!

Wide-Angle Milky Way

Now we come to the most demanding task: processing long exposures of the deep-sky, such as wide-angle Milky Way shots and close-ups of nebulas and galaxies taken through telescopes. All require applying generous levels of contrast enhancement.

As the above example shows, try as I might, I could not get my test image of the Milky Way to look as good with ON1 as it did with Adobe Camera Raw. Despite the many ways to increase contrast in ON1 (Contrast, Midtones, Curves, Structure, Haze, Dynamic Contrast and more!), the result still looked flat and with more prominent sky gradients than with ACR.

And remember, with ACR that’s just the start of a processing workflow. You can then take the developed raw file into Photoshop for even more precise work.

With ON1, its effects and filters all you have to work with. Yes, that simplifies the workflow, but its choices are more limited than with Photoshop, despite ON1’s huge number of Presets.

Deep-Sky Close-Ups

ON1 Processed M31
The Andromeda Galaxy, in a stack of six tracked and auto-guided 8-minute exposures with a stock Canon 6D MkII through an 80mm f/6 refractor.

Photoshop Processed M31
The same set of six exposures, stacked and processed with ACR and Photoshop, with multiple masked adjustment layers as at right. The result looks better.

Similarly, taking a popular deep-sky subject, the Andromeda Galaxy, aka M31, and processing the same original images with ON1 and ACR/Photoshop resulted in what I think is a better-looking result with Photoshop.

Of course, it’s possible to change the look of such highly processed images with the application of various Curves and masked adjustment layers. And I’m more expert with Photoshop than with ON1.

But … as with the Cygnus Milky Way image, I just couldn’t get Andromeda looking as good in ON1. It always looked a little flat.

Dynamic Contrast did help snap up the galaxy’s dark lanes, but at the cost of “crunchy” stars, as I show next. A luminosity “star mask” might help protect the stars, but I think the background sky will inevitably suffer from the de-Bayering artifacts.

Star and Background Sky Image Quality

ON1 Processed M31-Close-Up
A 400% close-up of the final Andromeda Galaxy image. It shows haloed stars and a textured and noisy sky background.

Photoshop Processed M31-Close-Up
The same area blown up 400% of the Photoshop version of the Andromeda Galaxy image. Stars and sky look smoother and more natural.

As I showed with the nightscape image, stars in ON1 end up looking too “crunchy,” with dark halos from over sharpening, and also with the blocky de-Bayering artifacts now showing up in the sky.

I feel it is not possible to avoid dark star haloes, as any application of contrast enhancements, so essential for these types of objects, brings them out, even if you back off sharpening at the raw development stage, or apply star masks.

ON1 Processed M31-With & Without
On the left, the image before any processing applied; on the right, after the level of processing needed for such deep-sky images. What starts out looking OK, turns messy.

ON1 is applying too much sharpening “under the hood.” That might “wow” casual daytime photographers into thinking ON1 is making their photos look better, but it is detrimental to deep-sky images. Star haloes are a sign of poor processing.

Noise and Hot Pixels

ON1 With & Without NR and Hot Pixels
With and without noise reduction and hot pixel removal shows stars becoming lost and misshapen with the Remove Hot Pixel option.

ON1’s noise reduction is quite good, and by itself does little harm to image details.

But turn on the Remove Hot Pixel button and stars start to be eaten. Faint stars fade out and brighter stars get distorted into double shapes or have holes in them.

Hot pixel removal is a nice option to have, but for these types of images it does too much harm to be useful. Use LENR or take dark frames, best practices in any case.

Image Alignment and Registration

ON1 Auto-Alignment
The six Andromeda images stacked then “Auto-Aligned” in ON1, with just the top (first) and bottom (last) images turned on here. with the top image switched to Difference blend mode to show any mis-alignment.

Photoshop Auto-Alignment
The same set stacked and “Auto-Aligned” in Photoshop, with the same first and last images turned on and blended with Difference. PS’s alignment is much better, indicated by the image “blacking out” as the two registered frames cancel out.

Before any processing of deep-sky images is possible, it is first necessary to stack and align them, to make up for slight shifts from image to image, usually due to the mount not being perfectly polar aligned. Such shifts can be both translational (left-right, up-down) and rotational (turning about the guide star).

New to ON1 2019 is an Auto-Align Layers function. It worked OK but not nearly as well as Photoshop’s routine. In my test images of M31, ON1 didn’t perform enough rotation.

Once stacked and aligned, and as I showed above, you then have to manually change the opacities of each layer to blend them for noise smoothing.

By comparison, Photoshop has a wonderful Statistics script (under File>Scripts) that will automatically stack, align, then mean or median average the images, and turn the result into a non-destructive smart object, all in one fell swoop. I use it all the time for deep-sky images. There’s no need for separate programs such as Deep-Sky Stacker.

In ON1, however, all that has to be done manually, step-by-step. ON1 does do the job, just not as well.


Wrap-Up

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

ON1 Photo RAW 2019 is a major improvement, primarily in providing a more seamless and less destructive workflow.

Think of it as Lightroom with Layers! 

But it isn’t Photoshop.

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

True to ON1’s heritage as a special effect plug-in, it has some fine Effect filters, such as Dynamic Contrast above, ones I sometimes use from within Photoshop as plug-in smart filters.

Under Sharpen, ON1 does offer a High Pass option, a popular method for sharpening deep-sky objects.

Missing Filters and Adjustments

But for astrophoto use, ON1 is missing a lot of basic but essential filters for pixel-level touch-ups. Here’s a short list:

• Missing are Median, Dust & Scratches, Radial Blur, Shake Reduction, and Smart Sharpen, just to mention a handful of filters I find useful for astrophotography, among the dozens of others Photoshop has, but ON1 does not. But then again, neither does Lightroom, another example of how ON1 is more light Lightroom with layers and not Photoshop.

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

• While ON1 has many basic adjustments for color and contrast, its version of Photoshop’s Selective Color lacks Neutral or Black sliders, great for making fine changes to color balance in astrophotos.

• While there is a Curves panel, it has no equivalent to Photoshop’s “Targeted Adjustment Tool” for clicking on a region of an image to automatically add an inflection point at the right spot on the curve. This is immensely useful for deep-sky images.

• Also lacking is a basic Levels adjustment. I can live without it, but most astrophotographers would find this a deal-breaker.

• On the other hand, hard-core deep-sky photographers who do most of their processing in specialized programs such as PixInsight, using Photoshop or Lightroom only to perform final touch-ups, might find ON1 perfectly fine. Try it!

Saving and Exporting

ON1 saves its layered images as proprietary .onphoto files and does so automatically. There is no Save command, only a final Export command. As such it is possible to make changes you then decide you don’t like … but too late! The image has already been saved, writing over your earlier good version. Nor can you Save As … a file name of your choice. Annoying!

Opening a layered .onphoto file (even with ON1 itself already open) can take a minute or more for it to render and become editable.

Once you are happy with an image, you can Export the final .onphoto version as a layered .PSD file but the masks ON1 exports to the Photoshop layers may not match the ones you had back in ON1 for opacity. So the exported .PSD file doesn’t look like what you were working on. That’s a bug.

Only exporting a flattened TIFF file gets you a result that matches your ON1 file, but it is now flattened.

Bugs and Cost

I encountered a number of other bugs, ones bad enough to lock up ON1 now and then. I’ve even seen ON1’s own gurus encounter bugs with masking during their live tutorials. These will no doubt get fixed in 2019.x upgrades over the next few months.

But by late 2019 we will no doubt be offered ON1 Photo RAW 2020 for another $80 upgrade fee, over the original $100 to $120 purchase price. True, there’s no subscription, but ON1 still costs a modest annual fee, presuming you want the latest features.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with that, and ON1 2019 is a significant improvement.

However, I found that for astrophotography it still isn’t there yet as a complete replacement for Adobe.

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

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

 

Aurora Reflections in Yellowknife


Auroral Arc over Tibbitt Lake

The Northern Lights are amazing from Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

A handful of locations in the world are meccas for aurora chasers. Yellowknife is one of them and, for me, surprisingly accessible with daily flights north.

In a two-hour flight from Calgary you can be at latitude 62° North and standing under the auroral oval with the lights dancing overhead every clear night.

Aurora Panorama at Tibbit Lake #2

The attraction of going in early September, as I did, is that the more persistent clouds of late autumn have not set in, and the many lakes and rivers are not yet frozen, making for superb photo opportunities.

Lakes down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail, such as Prosperous, Prelude, and Pontoon are popular spots for the busloads of tourists who fly in every year from around the world.

On one magical night I and my local host and guide, Stephen Bedingfield, went to the end of the Trail, to where the Ice Road begins, to Tibbitt Lake, and had the site to ourselves. The aurora was jaw-dropping that night.

On other nights with less certain prospects I stayed in town, and still got a fine show on several nights, the Lights so bright they show up well even from within urban Yellowknife.

On another night we chased into clear skies down Highway 3 to the west, to a rocky plateau on the Canadian Precambrian Shield. Even amid the clouds, the aurora was impressive.

Aurora in the Clouds Panorama

But it was the night at Tibbitt that was the highlight.

Here is the finale music video from movies shot that night, September 8, 2018, with two cameras: the Sony a7III used to take “real-time” 4K videos of the aurora motion, and the Nikon D750 used to take time-lapses.

The movie is in 4K. The music, Eternal Hope, is by Steven Gutheinz and is used by permission of West One Music.

Aurora Reflections from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

Click through to Vimeo for more technical info about the video.

Enjoy! And do share!

And make Yellowknife one of your bucket-list locations.

— Alan, October 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com