On April 23, 2023 the sky erupted with a massive solar storm, bringing the aurora to millions of people around the word.
On April 23 warnings went out alerting aurora watchers that a solar storm was imminent. And as the sky darkened that night locations all across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres were treated to a great sky show.
When we see this on our phone apps, we know we’ll get a great show. This was the auroral oval, lit up red, as the display was underway at my location in Alberta, Canada.
The strength of the interplanetary field (Bt) was high and the direction of the field (Bz) was well south, all welcome indicators of a superb show.
Sure enough, as it got dark that night, and from my location after the clouds cleared, an aurora was underway covering much of the sky.
The aurora moved south to occupy just the southern half of the sky, but with incredible ribbons crossing from east to west, rippling and pulsating off and on. Seeing patches of aurora pulse off and on and flaming up to the zenith is not uncommon toward the end of a substorm outburst. But this was the first time I can recall seeing pulsating ribbons.
At times, there was a dark ribbon across the sky, as the aurora formed a gap in its curtains, looking like a “dark aurora.”
The view looking straight up is always the most jaw-dropping when an aurora fills the sky. Rays and curtains converge at the magnetic zenith to form a “corona.”
I shot with three cameras, taking stills, time-lapses, and real-time movies. I edited them together here in a music video. Enlarge to full screen to view it. I hope you enjoy it!
With the Sun ramping up in activity, we should get more great shows of Northern – and Southern! – Lights around the world in the next few years,
I test nine programs for processing raw files for the demands of nightscape astrophotography.
Warning! This is a long and technical blog, but for those interested in picking the best software, I think you’ll find it the most comprehensive test of programs for processing nightscapes. The review is illustrated with 50 high-resolution, downloadable images which will take a while to load. Patience!
As a background, in December 2017 I tested ten contenders vying to be alternatives to Adobe’s suite of software. You can find that earlier survey here on my blog. But 2017 was ages ago in the lifetime of software. How well do the latest versions of those programs compare now for astrophotography? And what new software choices do we have as we head into 2023?
To find out, I compared eight programs, pitting them against what I still consider the standard for image quality when developing raw files, Adobe Camera Raw (the Develop module in Adobe Lightroom is essentially identical). I tested them primarily on sample nightscape images described below.
I tested only programs that are offered for both MacOS and Windows, with identical or nearly identical features for both platforms. However, I tested the MacOS versions.
In addition to Adobe Camera Raw (represented by the Adobe Bridge icon), I tested, in alphabetical order, and from left to right in the icons above:
ACDSee Photo Studio
Affinity Photo 2 (from Serif)
Capture One 23
DxO PhotoLab 6
Luminar Neo (from SkyLum)
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
I tested all the programs strictly for the purpose of processing, or “developing” raw files, using nightscape images as the tests. I also looked at features for preparing and exporting a large batch of images to assemble into time-lapse movies, though the actual movie creation usually requires specialized software.
NOTE: I did not test the programs with telescope images of nebulas or galaxies. The reason — most deep-sky astrophotographers never use a raw developer anyway. Instead, the orthodox workflow is to stack and align undeveloped raw files with specialized “calibration” software such as DeepSkyStacker or PixInsight that outputs 16-bit or 32-bit TIFFs, bypassing any chance to work with the raw files.
Here’s a summary of my recommendations, with the evidence for my conclusions presented at length (!) in the sections that follow:
What’s Best for Still Image Nightscapes?
Adobe Camera Raw (or its equivalent in Adobe Lightroom) still produces superb results, lacking only the latest in AI noise reduction, sharpening and special effects. Though, as I’ve discovered, AI processing can ruin astrophotos if not applied carefully.
The Adobe alternatives that provided the best raw image quality in my test nightscapes were Capture One and DxO PhotoLab.
ACDSee Photo Studio, Exposure X7,and Luminar Neo produced good results, but all had flaws.
ON1 Photo RAW had its flaws as well, but can serve as a single-program replacement for both Lightroom and Photoshop.
Affinity Photo works well as a Photoshop replacement, and at a low one-time cost. But it is a poor choice for developing raw images.
If you are adamant about avoiding subscription software, then a combination of DxO PhotoLab and Affinity Photo can work well, providing great image quality, and serving to replace both Lightroom and Photoshop.
I cannot recommend Darktable, despite its zero price. I struggled to use its complex and overly technical interface, only to get poor results. It also kept crashing, despite me using the new ARM version on my M1 MacBook Pro. It was worth what I paid for it.
At the end of my blog, I explain the reasons why I did not include other programs in the test, to answer the inevitable “But what about …!?” questions.
What’s Best for Basic Time-Lapses?
For simple time-lapse processing, where the same settings can be applied to all the images in a sequence, all the programs except Affinity Photo, can copy and paste settings from one key image to all the others in a set, then export them out as JPGs for movie assembly.
However, for the best image quality and speed, I feel the best choices are:
Adobe, either Lightroom or the combination of Camera Raw/Bridge
Capture One 23
DxO PhotoLab 6
While ON1 Photo RAW can assemble movies directly from developed raw files, I found Capture One or DxO PhotoLab can do a better job processing the raw files. And ON1’s time-lapse function is limited, so in my opinion it is not a major selling point of ON1 for any serious time-lapse work.
Luminar Neo was so slow at Copy & Paste and Batch Export it was essentially unusable.
What’s Best for Advanced Time-Lapses?
None of the non-Adobe programs will work with the third-party software LRTimelapse (www.lrtimelapse.com). It is an essential tool for advanced time-lapse processing.
While ON1 offers time-lapse movie assembly, it cannot do what LRTimelapse does — gradually shift processing settings over a sequence based on keyframes to accommodate changing lighting, and to micro-adjust exposure levels based on actual image brightness to smooth out the bane of time-lapse shooters — image flickering.
LRTimelapse works only with Lightroom or ACR/Bridge. If serious and professional time-lapse shooting is your goal, none of the Adobe contenders will do the job. Period. Subscribe to Adobe software. And buy LRTimelapse.
My testing demonstrated to me that for nightscape photography, Adobe software remains a prime choice, for its image quality and ease of use. However, the reasons to go with any program other than Adobe are:
For equal or even better image quality, or for features not offered by Adobe.
But mostly to avoid Adobe’s subscription model of monthly or annual payments.
All the non-Adobe alternatives can be purchased as a “perpetual license” for a one-time fee, though often with significant annual upgrade costs for each year’s major new release. However, you needn’t purchase the upgrade; your old version will continue to run. Below, I provide purchase prices in U.S. funds, but most companies have frequent sales and discount offers.
While all of Adobe’s competitors will proclaim one-time pricing, several also offer their software via annual subscriptions, with additional perks and bonuses, such as file syncing to mobile apps, or better long-term or package pricing, to entice you to subscribe.
Keep in mind that whatever program you use, its catalog and/or sidecar files where your raw image settings are stored will always be proprietary to that program. ON1 and Affinity also each save files in their own proprietary format. Switch to any other software in the future and your edits will likely not be readable by that new software.
Raw Editing vs. Layer-Based Editing
As I mentioned, I tested all the programs strictly for their ability to process, or “develop,” raw image files for nightscapes. (Raw files are likened to being digital negatives that we “develop.”)
For some nightscape still images, raw developing might be all that’s needed, especially as software companies add more advanced “AI” (artificial intelligence) technology to their raw developers for precise selection, masking, and special effects.
In the case of time-lapse sequences made of hundreds of raw frames, raw developing is the only processing that is practical. What we need for time-lapses is to:
Develop a single key raw file to look great, then …
Copy all its settings to the hundreds of other raw files in the time-lapse set, then …
Export that folder of raw images to “intermediate JPGs” for assembly into a movie, usually with a specialized assembly program.
However, for most still-image astrophotography, including nightscapes, we often stack and/or blend multiple images to create the final scene, for several reasons:
To stack multiple images with a Mean or Median stack mode to smooth noise.
To layer dozens of images with a Lighten blend mode to create star trails.
To layer and blend images via masking to combine the different exposures often needed to record the ground and sky each at their best.
Or often as not, a combination of all of the above!
All those methods require a layer-based program. Adobe Photoshop is the most popular choice.
Of the programs tested here, only two also offer the ability to layer multiple images for stacks, blends and composites. They are:
Affinity Photo 2
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
I did not test these two programs to compare their image layering and masking abilities vs. Photoshop, as important as those functions might be.
Fans of Skylum’s Luminar Neo will point out that it also supports image layers. In theory. In the version I tested (v1.6.2) bugs made it impossible to load files into layers properly — the layer stack became confused and failed to display the stack’s contents. I could not tell what it was stacking! Skylum is notorious for its buggy releases.
Those determined not to use Adobe software should be aware that, apart from Affinity Photo and ON1 Photo RAW, all the other programs tested here are not replacements for Adobe Photoshop, nor are they advertised as such. They are just raw developers, and so can serve only to replace Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw/Adobe Bridge.
This is the main image I threw at all nine programs, a single 2-minute exposure taken at Lake Louise, Alberta in October 2022. The lens was the Canon RF15-35mm at f/2.8 on a Canon R5 camera at ISO 800.
Above is the raw image as it came out of camera, with the default Adobe Color camera profile applied, but no other adjustments. The length of exposure on a static tripod meant the stars trailed. The image has:
A sky that needs color correcting and contrast enhancement.
Dark shadows in the foreground and distance that need recovery.
Bright foreground areas that need suppressing, where lights from the Chateau Lake Louise hotel illuminate the mountainsides and water.
Lens flares and lights from night hikers that need retouching out.
It is an iconic scene, but when shot at night, it’s a challenging one to process.
Above is the image after development in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), using sliders under its Basic, Optics, Detail, Curve, Color Mixer, and Calibration tabs, and applying the Adobe Landscape camera profile. Plus I added retouching, and local adjustments with ACR’s masks to affect just the sky and parts of the ground individually. This is the result I think looks best, and is the look I tried to get all other programs to match or beat. You might prefer a different look or style.
In addition, I tried all programs on another two-minute exposure of the scene (shown above) but taken on a star tracker to produce untrailed, pinpoint stars, but a blurred ground. It served to test how well each program’s noise reduction and sharpening dealt with stars.
I shot that tracked version to blend with the untracked version to produce the very final image above, created from the Camera Raw edits. That blending of sky and ground images (with each component a stack of several images) was done in Photoshop. However, Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW could have done the required layering and masking. I show a version done with Affinity at the end of the blog.
In a statement I read some time ago, DxO stated that Adobe products enjoy a 90% share of the image processing market, leaving all the competitors to battle over the remaining 10%. I’m not sure how accurate that is today, especially as many photographers will use more than one program.
However, I think it is fair to say Adobe’s offerings are the programs all competitors are out to beat.
NOTE: Click/tap on any of the images to bring them up full screen as high-res JPGs so you can inspect them more closely.
The Established Standard
Adobe Camera Raw (included with Photoshop, Adobe Bridge and Lightroom)
Cost: $10 a month, or $120 a year by subscription for 20 Gb of cloud storage (all prices in U.S. $)
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is the raw development utility that comes with Photoshop and Adobe Bridge, Adobe’s image browsing application. Camera Raw is equivalent to the Develop module in Lightroom, Adobe’s cataloguing and asset management software. Camera Raw and Lightroom have identical processing functions and can produce identical results, but I tested ACR. I use it in conjunction with Adobe Bridge as an image browser. Bridge can then send multiple developed images into Photoshop as layers for stacking. All programs are included in Adobe’s Photo subscription plan.
The Contenders (in Alphabetical Order)
Here are the eight programs I tested, comparing them to Adobe Camera Raw. All but Skylum’s Luminar Neo offer free trial copies.
ACDSee Photo Studio
Cost: $100 to $150, depending on version. $50 on up for annual major upgrades. By subscription from $70 a year.
I tested Photo Studio for Mac v9. Windows users have a choice of Photo Studio Professional or Photo Studio Ultimate. All three versions offer a suite of raw development tools, in addition to cataloging functions. However, the Ultimate version (Windows only) also offers layer-based editing, making it similar to Photoshop. ACDSee assured me that Photo Studio for Mac resembles the Windows Professional version, at least for basic raw editing and image management. However, Photo Studio Professional for Windows also has HDR and Panorama merging, which the Mac version does not.
Affinity Photo 2
Cost: $70. Upgrades are free except for rare whole-number updates (in seven years there’s been only one of those!). No subscription plan is offered.
Apart from the free Darktable, this is the lowest-cost raw developer on offer here. But Affinity’s strength is as a layer-based editor to compete with Photoshop. As such, Affinity Photo has some impressive features, such as the unique ability to calibrate and align deep-sky images, its stack modes (great for star trails and noise smoothing) which only Photoshop also has, and its non-destructive adjustment layers, filters and masks. Affinity Photo is the most Photoshop-like of all the programs here. However, it alone of the group lacks any image browser or cataloging function, so this is not a Lightroom replacement.
Capture One 23 Pro
Cost: $299. 33% off (about $200) for annual major upgrades. By subscription for $180 a year.
Capture One started life as a program for tethered capture shooting in fashion studios. It has evolved into a very powerful raw developer and image management program. While Capture One advertises that it now offers “layers,” these are only for applying local adjustments to masked areas of a single underlying image. While they work well, you cannot layer different images. So Capture One cannot be used like Photoshop, to stack and composite images. It is a Lightroom replacement only, but a very good one. However, it is the most costly to buy, upgrade each year, or subscribe to, which appears to be the sales model Capture One is moving toward, following Adobe.
In contrast to Capture One, you cannot argue with Darktable’s price! For a free, open-source program, Darktable is surprisingly full-featured, while being fairly well supported and updated. As with most free cross-platform programs, Darktable uses an unconventional and complex user interface lacking any menus. It has two main modules: Lighttable for browsing images, and Darkroom for editing images. Map, Slideshow, Print and Tethering modules clearly signal this program is intended to be a free version of Lightroom. The price you pay, however, is in learning to use its complex interface.
DxO PhotoLab 6 ELITE
Cost: $219. $99 for annual major upgrades. No subscription plan is offered.
DxO PhotoLab is similar to Capture One in being a very complete and feature-rich raw developer with good image management functions and a well-designed interface. While it has an image browser for culling, keywording and rating images, PhotoLab does not create a catalog as such, so this isn’t a full Lightroom replacement. But it is a superb raw developer, with very good image quality and noise reduction. While PhotoLab is also available in a $140 ESSENTIAL edition, it lacks the DeepPrime noise reduction and ClearView Plus haze reduction, both useful features for astrophotos.
Cost: $129. $89 for annual major upgrades. No subscription plan is offered.
Formerly known as Alien Skin Exposure, from the makers of the once-popular utilities Blow Up and Eye Candy, Exposure X7 is a surprisingly powerful raw editor (considering you might not have heard of it!), with all the expected adjustment options, plus a few unique ones such as Bokeh for purposely blurring backgrounds. It enjoys annual major updates, so is kept up to date, though is a little behind the times in lacking any AI-based effects or masking, or even automatic edge detection. Like Capture One, Exposure offers adjustment layers for ease of applying local edits.
Cost: $149. $39 to $59 for individual Extensions. $179 for Extensions pack. By subscription for $149 a year which includes Neo and all Extensions. Frequent discounts and changing bundles make the pricing confusing and unpredictable.
By contrast to Exposure X7, Luminar Neo from Skylum is all about AI. Indeed, its predecessor was called Luminar AI. Introduced in 2022, Neo supplanted Luminar AI, whose image catalog could not be read by Neo, much to the consternation of users. Luminar AI is now gone. All of Skylum’s effort now goes into Neo. It offers the expected raw editing adjustments, along with many powerful one-click AI effects and tools, some offered as extra-cost extensions in a controversial à la carte sales philosophy. Neo’s cataloging ability is basic and unsuitable for image management.
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
Cost: $99. $60 for annual major upgrades. $70 for individual plug-ins, each with paid annual updates. By subscription for $90 a year which includes all plug-ins and updates.
Of all the contenders tested, this is the only program that can truly replace both Lightroom and Photoshop, in that ON1 Photo RAW has cataloging, raw developing, and image layering and masking abilities. In recent years ON1 has introduced AI functions for selection, noise reduction, and sharpening. Some of these are also available as individual plug-ins for Lightroom and Photoshop at an additional cost. While the main program and plug-ins can be purchased as perpetual licences, the total cost makes an annual subscription the cheapest way to get and maintain the full ON1 suite. Like Capture One, they are moving customers to be subscribers.
I have assumed a workflow that starts with raw image files, not JPGs, for high-quality results. And I have assumed the goal of making that raw image look as good as possible at the raw stage, an important step in the workflow, as it is the only time we have access to the full dynamic range of the 14-bit raw data that comes from the camera.
I judged each program based on several features I consider key to great nightscapes and time-lapses:
Browser/Cataloging Functions —Because we often deal with lots of images from an astrophoto shoot, the program should allow us to sort, rate, and cull images before proceeding with developing the best of the set for later stacking, and to easily compare the results.
Lens Corrections —Does the program apply automatic lens corrections for distortion and vignetting? How extensive is its lens database? Or are manual adjustments required?
Noise Reduction —We shoot at high ISOs, so good noise reduction is essential for removing digital noise without sacrificing details such as pixel-level stars, or adding AI artifacts.
Shadow Recovery —While good highlight recovery can be important (and a prime reason for shooting and processing raw images), in nightscapes good shadow recovery is even more crucial. The starlit ground is dark, but rich in detail. We want to recover that shadow detail, without affecting other tonal ranges or introducing noise.
Local Adjustments and Masking —Good masking tools allow us to do more at the raw stage while we have access to the full range of image data. But how precise can the masks be? How easy is it to apply different settings to the ground and sky, the most common need for local adjustments with nightscapes.
Overall Finished Image Quality —Tools such as Dehaze and Clarity can work wonders at boosting contrast in the sky. Good color adjustments from HSL sliders can help fine-tune the overall color balance. How good did the final image look? — an admittedly subjective judgement.
Copy & Paste Settings —A program should not only develop one image well, but also then be able to transfer all of that key image’s settings to several other images taken for noise stacking, or to what could be hundreds of images shot for a time-lapse movie or star trail scene.
Batch Export —For stacking images for star trails, or for creating panoramas in advanced stitching programs such as PTGui, or when assembling time-lapse movies, the program should allow a “batch export” of selected images to TIFFs or JPGs for use elsewhere.
Advanced Features —Does the program support panorama stitching and HDR (High Dynamic Range) merging of selected developed raw files? If so, what type of file does it create?
Summary Comparison Table
• = Feature is present; ticks the boxes!
— = Feature is missing
Partial = Feature only partially implemented (e.g. Only has distortion correction but not vignetting correction, or has limited cataloging functions)
I judged other features on an admittedly subjective scale of Poor, Fair, Good, or Excellent, based on my overall impressions of the reliability, options offered, quality, and/or speed of operation.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 1. Browsing and Cataloging
Here, feature by feature, are what I feel are the differences among the programs, comparing them using the key factors I listed above.
All programs, but one, offer a Browse or Library module presenting thumbnails of all the images in a folder or on a drive. (For Adobe Camera Raw that module is Adobe Bridge, included with the Creative Cloud Photo subscription.) From the Browse/Library module you can sort, rate and cull images.
Luminar Neo’s Catalog function (as of early 2023) allows only flagging images as favorites. It is very crude.
The other programs have more full-featured image management, allowing star rating, color label rating, pick/reject flags, keywording, grouping into collections or projects, and searching.
Capture One and ON1 Photo RAW provide the option of importing images into formal catalogs, just as Adobe Lightroom requires. However, unlike Lightroom, both programs can also work with images just by pointing them to a folder, without any formal import process. Capture One calls this a “session.” Adobe Bridge works that way — it doesn’t produce a catalog.
While not having to import images first is convenient, having a formal catalog allows managing a library even when the original images are off-line on a disconnected hard drive, or for syncing to a mobile app. If that’s important, then consider Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW, or Adobe Lightroom. They each have mobile apps.
Adobe Lightroom (but not Bridge) is also able to connect directly to what it calls “Publish Services” — Flickr, PhotoShelter, and SmugMug for example, using plug-ins offered by those services. I use that feature almost daily. ACDSee offers that feature only in its Windows versions of Photo Studio. As best I could tell, all other programs lacked anything equivalent.
SerifAffinity Photo is the lone exception lacking any form of image browser or asset management. It’s hard to fathom why in late 2022, with their major update to Version 2 of their software suite, Serif did not introduce a digital asset management program to link their otherwise excellent Photo, Designer and Publisher programs. This is a serious limitation of Serif’s Affinity creative suite, which is clearly aimed at competing one-on-one with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, yet Serif has no equivalent of Adobe Bridge for asset management.
WINNERS: Capture One and ON1 Photo RAW, for the most flexibility in informal browsing vs. formal cataloguing. Adobe Lightroom for its Publish Services.
LOSER: Affinity Photo for lacking any image management or catalog.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 2. Lens Corrections
The wide-angle lenses we typically use in nightscape and time-lapse imaging suffer from vignetting and lens distortions. Ideally, software should automatically detect the camera and lens used and apply accurate corrections based on its equipment database.
Of the nine programs tested, only four — Adobe Camera Raw, Darktable, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 Photo Raw — automatically applied both distortion and vignetting corrections for the Canon RF15-35mm lens I used for the test images. DxO is particularly good at applying corrections, drawing upon the company’s vast repository of camera and lens data. If your local copy of PhotoLab is missing a camera-lens combination, what it calls a “module,” DxO allows you to download it or request it.
Capture One and Exposure X7 both detected the lens used and applied distortion correction, but did nothing to adjust vignetting. I had to apply vignetting correction, a more important adjustment, manually by eye.
ACDSee and Luminar have no Auto Lens Corrections at all; distortion and vignetting both have to be dialed in manually.
Affinity Photo lacked any automatic correction data for the Canon RF15-35mm lens in question, despite the lens being introduced in 2019. I selected the similar Canon EF16-35mm lens instead, as I show above circled in blue. Affinity gets marks off for having an outdated and incomplete lens database.
WINNERS: Adobe, Darktable, DxO PhotoLab, and ON1 Photo RAW, for full Auto Lens Corrections.
LOSERS: ACDSee and Luminar, for lacking Auto Lens Corrections.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 3. Noise Reduction and Sharpening
Absolutely essential to astrophotography is effective noise reduction, of both grainy “luminance” noise, as well as colorful speckles and splotches from “chrominance” noise. Programs should smooth noise without eliminating stars, removing star colors, or adding odd structures and artifacts.
Conversely, programs should offer a controllable level of sharpening, without introducing dark halos around stars, a sure sign of over-zealous sharpening.
I tested noise reduction using the tracked version of my test images, as the pinpoint stars from the 45-megapixel Canon R5 will reveal any star elimination or discoloration.
Adobe Camera Raw’s aging noise reduction routine stood up very well against the new AI competitors. It smoothed noise acceptably, while retaining star colors and Milky Way structures. But turn it up too high, as might be needed for very high ISO shots, and it begins to blur or wipe out stars. AI noise reduction promises to solve this.
AI-Based Noise Reduction:
DxO PhotoLab’s Prime and DeepPrime AI-based options can also do a good job. But … I find DeepPrime (shown above) and the newer DeepPrimeXD (shown below) can introduce wormy looking artifacts to starfields. The older Prime method might be a better choice. However, the annoyance with DxO PhotoLab is that it is not possible to preview any of its Prime noise reduction results full-screen, only in a tiny preview window, making the best settings a bit of a guess, requiring exporting the image to see the actual results.
ON1 Photo RAW’s NoNoise AI can also do a good job, but has to be backed off a lot from the automatic settings its AI technology applies. Even so, I found it still left large-scale color blotches, a pixel-level mosaic pattern, and worst of all, dark halos around stars, despite me applying no sharpening at all to the image. ON1 continues to over-sharpen under the hood. I criticized it for star halos in my 2017 survey — the 2023 version behaves better, but still leaves stars looking ugly.
The other AI program, Luminar Neo with its Noiseless AI extension (an extra-cost option) did a poor job, adding strange artifacts to the background sky and colored halos around stars.
So beware of AI. As I show above with DxO, because they are not trained on starfields, AI routines can introduce unwanted effects and false structures. What works wonders on high-ISO wildlife or wedding shots can ruin astrophotos.
Capture One smoothed noise very well, but tended to bloat stars and soften fine detail with its Single Pixel control turned up even to one pixel, as here.
Affinity Photo nicely smoothed noise, but also removed star colors, yet added colored rims to some stars, perhaps from poor de-Bayering. Serif Lab’s raw engine still has its flaws.
ACDSee Photo Studio also added loads of unacceptable halos to stars, and could not reduce noise well without smoothing details.
Darktable has very good noise reduction, including a panel specifically for Astrophoto Denoise. Great! Pity its routines seemed to wipe out star colors and fine structures in the Milky Way.
Exposure X7 smoothed noise well, but also wiped out details and structures, and its sharpening adds dark halos to stars.
That said, it might be possible to eke out better results from all these programs with more careful settings. Backing off sharpening or noise reduction can avoid some of the unwanted side effects I saw, but leave more noise.
Adobe Camera Raw does eliminate most random hot or dead pixels “under the hood.” However, I wish it had an adjustable filter for removing any that still remain (usually from thermal noise) and that can plague the shadows of nightscapes. Single-pixel filters are offered by Capture One, Darktable, DxO, and Exposure X7. Though turning them up too high can ruin image detail.
WINNERS: Adobe and DxO PhotoLab (if the latter is used cautiously)
LOSERS: ACDSee, Affinity, Darktable, Exposure X7, and Luminar Neo for unacceptable loss of detail and star colors, while adding in false structures (Neo)
Feature-by-Feature Details — 4. Shadow Recovery
While all programs have exposure and contrast adjustments, the key to making a Milky Way nightscape look good is being able to boost the shadows in the dark starlit ground, while preventing the sky or other areas of the image from becoming overly bright or washed out.
In the three examples above I have applied only white balance and exposure correction, then “lifted” the Shadows. I added some contrast adjustment to Darktable, to help improve it, and Smart Lighting to the DxO image, which was needed here.
Here are my findings, roughly in order of decreasing image quality, but with Adobe first as the one to match or beat.
Adobe Camera Raw has a very good Shadows slider that truly affects just the dark tonal areas and with a slight touch (turning it up to 100 doesn’t wipe out the image). Some other programs’ Shadows adjustments are too aggressive, affect too wide a range of tones, or just add a grey wash over the image, requiring further tweaks to restore contrast.
Capture One did an excellent job on Shadow recovery under its High Dynamic Range set of sliders. The dark landscape brightened without becoming flat or grey. This is a primary contributor to its excellent image quality.
DxO PhotoLab’s Shadows slider affects a wider tonal range than ACR or Capture One, also brightening mid-tones, though it has a Midtones slider to separately adjust those. On its own, the Shadows slider didn’t work as well as in ACR or Capture One. But DxO’s superb feature is its “Smart Lighting,” which can work wonders on a scene with one click. Another unique adjustment is “ClearView Plus,” a form of Dehaze which can snap up contrast, often too aggressively, but it can be backed off in intensity. Those two adjustments alone might be reason enough to use PhotoLab.
ON1 Photo RAW’s Shadows slider affected too wide a range of tonal values, brightening the entire scene and making it look flat. This can be overcome with some tweaks to the Contrast, Blacks and Midtones sliders. It takes more work to make a scene look good.
ACDSee’s Fill Light and Shadows sliders were also much too broad. But its unique LightEQ panel has options for “Standard” and “Advanced” settings which each provide an equalizer interface for making more selective tonal adjustments. It worked well, though the image looked too harsh and contrasty, despite me adding no contrast adjustments, the opposite flaw of other programs.
Luminar Neo’s Shadows slider under its DevelopRAW panel was also broad, washing out contrast, requiring a liberal application of its SuperContrast slider to return the image to a better look. But the final result looked fine.
Exposure X7’s Shadows slider also lowered overall contrast, requiring boosting Contrast and Blacks to return the image to a pleasing tonal balance.
Affinity Photo’s Shadows slider did a far better job in its new v2 (released in late 2022) than in the original Affinity Photo, which was frankly awful. Even so, I found Affinity Photo 2 still tended to produce flat results, hard to compensate for from within the Develop Persona, as its options are so limited.
Darktable’s Shadows slider (which has several sub-sliders) produced a flat result. Despite the numerous variations of other contrast and level adjustments scattered over various panels, I could not get a pleasing result. It will take a true Darktable fan and expert to exact a good image from its bewildering options, if it’s even possible.
WINNERS: Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, plus Adobe still works well
LOSERS: Affinity Photo and Darktable
Feature-by-Feature Details — 5. Local Adjustments and Masking
This is the area where programs have made major improvements in the five years since my last survey of raw developers. Thus I devote a major section to the feature.
With accurate and easy masking it is now easier to apply adjustments to just selected areas of a raw image. We can finish off a raw file to perhaps be publication ready, without having to use a layer-based program like Photoshop to perform those same types of local adjustments. Adobe Camera RAW, Luminar Neo, and ON1 Photo Raw are leaders in this type of advanced AI masking. But other programs have good non-AI methods of masking – and making – local adjustments.
Adobe Camera Raw (and Adobe Lightroom) now has far better masking than in older versions that used the awkward method of applying multiple “pins.” Masks now occupy separate layers, and AI masks can be created in one-click for the sky (and ground by inverting the Sky mask) and for key subjects in the image. Other non-AI masks can be created with brushes (with an Auto Mask option for edge detection) and gradient overlays, and with the option of luminance and color range masks. The AI-created Sky masks proved the most accurate compared to other programs’ AI selections, though they can intrude into the ground at times. But the sky masks do include the stars. In all, Camera Raw (or Lightroom) has the most powerful masking tools of the group, though they can be tricky to master.
ACDSee Photo Studio allows up to eight different brushed-on mask areas, each with its own adjustments, in addition to gradient masks. There is no edge detection as such, though the brushes can be limited to selecting areas of similar brightness and color. The “Magic” brush option didn’t help in selecting just the sky and stars. Local adjustments are possible to only Exposure, Saturation, Fill Light, Contrast, and Clarity. So no local color adjustments are possible. In all, local adjustments are limited.
Affinity Photo has, in its Develop Persona, what it calls Overlays, where for each Overlay, or layer, you can brush on separate sets of adjustments using all the sliders in the Develop Persona. Oddly, there is no option for decreasing the opacity of a brush, only its size and feathering. While there is an Edge Aware option, it did a poor job on the test image detecting the boundary between land and sky, despite the edge being sharply defined. So local adjustments require a lot of manual brushing and erasing to get an accurate mask. The red mask Overlay, useful at times, has to be turned on and off manually. Other programs (ACR and Capture One) have the option of the colored overlay appearing automatically just when you are brushing.
Capture One offers adjustment layers for each mask required. The only “smart” brush is the Magic Brush which affects areas across the entire image with similar luminosity. There isn’t any edge detection option as such, so creating masks for the sky and ground is still largely a manual process requiring careful brushing. Separate layers can be added for healing and retouching. While Capture One’s local adjustments can work well, they require a lot more manual work than do programs equipped with AI-driven selection tools.
DxO PhotoLab allows multiple local adjustments, with the option of an Auto Mask brush that nicely detects edges, though the mask overlay itself (as shown above on the sky) doesn’t accurately show the area being affected. Strange. Masks can also be added with what are called Control Points to affect just areas of similar luminance within a wide circle, often requiring multiple Control Points to create an adjustment across a large region. Masks can also be created with adjustable brushes. Each masked area is then adjusted using a set of equalizer-like mini-controls, rather than in the main panels. In all, it’s a quirky interface, but it can work quite well once you get used to it.
Exposure X7 offers adjustment layers with options to add a gradient, or to draw or brush on an area to make a selection. There is no edge detection, only a color range mask option, so creating a sky or ground mask can require lots of hand painting. I found the preview sluggish, making it a bit of a trial-and-error exercise to make fine adjustments. However, the full range of tone and color adjustments can be applied to any local mask, a plus compared to ACDSee for example.
Luminar was first out with AI masks to automatically select the sky, and various landscape elements it detects. In all it does a good job, making it easy to add local adjustments. There are also gradient tools and normal brushes, but oddly, considering the amount of AI Luminar relies on, there is no edge detection (at least, as of early 2023). So brushing to create a mask requires a lot of finicky painting and erasing to refine the mask edge. The strong point is that masks can be added to any of Luminar’s many filters and adjustment panels, allowing for lots of options for tweaking the appearance of selected areas, such as adding special effects like glows to the sky or landscape. However, most of those filters and effects are added to the image after it is developed, and not to the original raw file.
ON1 Photo RAW has always offered good local adjustments, with each occupying its own layer. Photo RAW 2023 added its new “Super Select” AI tools to compete with Adobe. But they are problematic. The select Sky AI masking fails to include stars, leaving a sky mask filled with black holes, requiring lots of hand painting to eliminate. You might as well have created the mask by hand to begin with. Plus in the test image, selecting “Mountain” to create a ground mask just locked up the program, requiring a Force Quit to exit it. However, ON1’s conventional masks and adjustments work well, with a wide choice of brush options. The Perfect Brush detects areas of similar color, not edges per se.
WINNERS: Adobe and Luminar for accurate AI masks
LOSER: Darktable— it has no Local Adjustments at all
I provide each of the finished images for the untracked star trail example below, under Program-by-Program Results. But here’s a summary, in what I admit is a subjective call. One program would excel in one area, but be deficient in another. But who produced the best looking end result?
Overall, I think Capture One came closest to matching or exceeding Adobe Camera Raw for image quality. Its main drawback is the difficulty in creating precise local adjustment masks.
DxO PhotoLab also produced a fine result, but still looking a little flat compared to ACR and Capture One. But it does have good AI noise reduction.
In the middle of the ranking are the group of ACDSee Photo Studio, Exposure X7, and ON1 Photo RAW. Their results look acceptable, but closer examination reveals the flaws such as haloed stars and loss of fine detail. So they rank from Fair to Good, depending on how much you pixel peep!
Luminar Neo did a good job, though achieving those results required going beyond what its DevelopRAW panel can do, to apply Neo’s other filters and effects. So in Neo’s case, I did more to the image than what was possible with just raw edits. But with Luminar, the distinction between raw developer and layer-based editor is fuzzy indeed. It operates quite differently than other programs tested here, perhaps refreshingly so.
For example, with the more conventionally structured workflow of Affinity Photo, I could have exacted better results from it had I taken the developed raw image into its Photo Persona to apply more adjustments farther down the workflow. The same might be said of ON1 Photo RAW.
But the point of this review was to test how well programs could do just at the raw-image stage. Due to the unique way it operates, I’ll admit Luminar Neo did get the advantage in this raw developer test. Though it failed on several key points.
WINNERS: Adobe and Capture One, with DxO a respectable second
Getting one image looking great is just the first step. Even when shooting nightscape stills we often take several images to stack later.
As such, we want to be able to process just one image, then copy and paste its settings to all the others in one fell swoop. And then we need to be able to inspect those images in thumbnails to be sure they all look good, as some might need individual tweaking.
While it’s a useful feature for images destined for a still-image composite, Copy & Paste Settings is an absolutely essential feature for processing a set for a time-lapse movie or a star trail stack.
I tested the programs on the set of 360 time-lapse frames of the Perseid meteor shower used next for the Batch Export test.
Adobe Bridge makes it easy to copy and paste Camera Raw settings to identically process all the files in a folder. Lightroom has a similar function. Adobe also has adaptive masks, where a sky mask created for one image will adapt to all others, even if the framing or composition changes, as it would in a motion-control time-lapse sequence or panorama set. Applying settings to several hundred images is fairly quick, though Bridge can be slow at rendering the resulting thumbnails.
ON1 Photo RAW can also copy and paste AI masks adaptively, so a Sky mask created for one image will adapt to match another image, even if the framing is different. However, applying all the settings to a large number of images and rendering the new previews proved achingly slow. And it’s a pity it doesn’t create a better sky mask to begin with.
Capture One has a single Copy and Apply Adjustments command where you develop one image, select it plus all the other undeveloped images in the set to sync settings from the processed image to all the others. But the adjustment layers and their masks copy identically; there is no adaptive masking because there are no AI-generated masks. However, applying new settings to hundreds of images and rendering their thumbnails is very fast, better than other programs.
DxO PhotoLab’s Control Point masks and local adjustments also copy identically. Copying adjustments from one image to the rest in the set of 360 test images was also very fast.
ACDSee Photo Studio and Exposure X7 also allow copying and pasting all or selected settings, including local adjustment masks. ACDSee was slow, but Exposure X7 was quite quick to apply settings to a large batch of images, such as the 360 test images.
Darktable’s function is under the History Stack panel where you can copy and paste all or selected settings, but all are global — there are no local adjustments or masks.
Luminar Neo allows only copying and pasting of all settings, not a selected set. When testing it on the set of 360 time-lapse frames, Neo proved unworkably slow, taking as much as an hour to apply settings and render the resulting thumbnails in its Catalog view, during which time my M1 MacBook Pro warned the application was running out of memory, taking up 110 Gb! I had to Force Quit it.
Affinity Photo is capable of editing only one image at a time. There is no easy or obvious way to copy the Develop Persona settings from one raw image, open another, then paste in those settings. You can only save Presets for each Develop Persona panel, making transferring settings from one image to even just one other image a tedious process.
But … there is a non-obvious and unintuitive method in Affinity which works for stacking and processing a few raw files for a blend:
Process one raw image and then click Develop so it moves into the Photo Persona, as a “RAW Layer (Embedded),” a new feature in Affinity Photo 2.
Find the other raw image files (they won’t have any settings applied) and simply drag them onto the Photo Persona screen.
Use the Move tool to align the resulting new layers with the original image.
Select all the image layers (but only the first will have any settings applied) and hit the Develop Persona button.
Then hit the Develop button — this will apply the settings from the first image to all the others in the layer stack. It’s the best Affinity can do for a “copy and paste” function.
Change the blend mode or add masks to each layer to create a composite or star trail stack.
Each layer can be re-opened in the Develop Persona if needed to adjust its settings.
It’s all a bit of a kludge, but it does work.
WINNERS: Capture One for blazing speed; Adobe and ON1 for adaptive masks
LOSER: Affinity Photo, for lacking this feature entirely, except for a method that is not at all obvious and limited in its use.
Feature-by-Feature Details — 8. Batch Export
Once you develop a folder of raw images with “Copy & Paste,” you now have to export them with all those settings “baked into” the exported files.
This step creates an intermediate set of TIFFs or JPGs to either assemble into a movie with programs such as TimeLapse DeFlicker, or to stack into a star trail composite using software such as StarStaX.
To test the Batch Export function, I used each program to export the same set of 360 developed raw files taken with a 20-megapixel Canon R6, shot for a meteor shower time-lapse, exporting them into full-resolution, low-compression JPGs.
While all programs can do the task, some are much better than others.
Adobe Bridge has a configurable Export panel (though it can be buggy at times), as does Lightroom. Its speed is good, but is beaten by several of the competitors.
Even Affinity Photo can do a batch export, done through its “New Batch Job” function. As with its other image selection operations, Affinity depends on your operating system’s Open dialog box to pick images. Exporting worked well, though without being able to develop a batch of raw files, I’m not sure why you would have cause to use this batch function to export them. I had to test it with undeveloped raws. Oddly, Affinity’s exported JPGs (at 5496 x 3664 pixels) were slightly larger than the size of the original raws (which were 5472 x 3648 pixels). No other program did this.
Most programs allow saving combinations of Export settings as frequently used presets. An exception is Exposure X7 where separate presets have to be saved and loaded for each option in its Export panel, awkward. And Luminar Neo’s batch export is basic, with no option for saving Export presets at all.
In the export of the 360 test images, each program took:
Adobe Bridge 15 minutes (after 3 attempts to get it to actually work!)
ACDSee Photo Studio 33 minutes
Affinity Photo 2 32 minutes
Capture One 23 6 minutes
Darktable 4 16 minutes
DxO PhotoLab 6 8 minutes
Exposure X7 5 minutes 30 seconds
Luminar Neo 8.5 hours (!)
ON1 Photo RAW 2023 1.4 hours
This was on my M1 Max MacBook Pro. Your mileage will vary! The clear winners in the export race were Exposure X7, Capture One, and DxO. ON1 was way behind the pack. Luminar was impossibly slow. It is not a program for working with lots of images.
ON1’s Time-Lapse Function
Unique among these programs, ON1 Photo RAW provides a Time-Lapse function that allows directly exporting developed raw files to a final movie, without the need to export an intermediate JPG set. That sounds like a great time saver. Only Adobe After Effects can do the same.
However … ON1’s options are limited: up to a maximum DCI 4K size, in H264 or Apple ProRes codecs, and with a choice of just three frame rates: 24, 25, or 30 frames per second. A dedicated assembly program such as TimeLapse DeFlicker can do a much better job, and faster, with more options such as frame blending, and up to 8K movie sizes.
And oddly, ON1’s Time-Lapse panel provides no option for where to save the movie or what to name it — it defaults to saving the movie to the original folder with the images, and with the name of one of the images. I had to search for it to locate it.
WINNERS: Exposure X7 and Capture One for sheer speed
LOSER: Luminar Neo for being unusably slow
Feature-by-Feature Details — 9. Advanced Features
Here I’ve noted what programs offer what features, but I tested only the panorama stitching function. For a panorama test I used a set of seven images shot with the Canon R5 and RF15-35mm lens at Peyto Lake, Banff.
Adobe Camera Raw (and Lightroom) offers HDR Merge and Panorama stitching plus, uniquely, the ability to merge multi-exposure HDR panoramas. But it has no Focus Stack option (that’s in Photoshop). For panoramas, ACR offers a choice of projection geometries, and the very excellent Boundary Warp function for filling in blank areas, as well as content-aware Fill Edges. The result is a raw DNG file.
Capture One has HDR Merge and Panorama stitching, but no Focus Stack option. Like ACR, Capture One’s panorama mode offers a choice of projection geometries and results in a raw DNG file for further editing at the raw level. It worked well on the test set, though lacks anything equivalent to ACR’s content-aware Fill Edges and Boundary Warp options.
ON1 Photo RAW offers HDR Merge, Focus Stack, and Panorama stitching of raw files. Using the same seven images that ACR and Capture One succeeded with, ON1 failed to stitch two of the segments, leaving a partial pano. It does offer a limited choice of projection methods and, like ACR, has the option to warp the image to fill blank areas. It creates a raw DNG file.
Affinity Photo also offers HDR Merge, Focus Stack, and Panorama stitching, all from raw files. However, the panorama function is quite basic, with no options for projection geometry or content-aware fill. But it did a good job blending all segments of the test set seamlessly. The result is a raw file that can be further processed in the Develop Persona.
ACDSee Photo Studio for Mac lacks any HDR, Focus Stack, or Panorama stitching. Those functions are available in the Windows versions (Pro and Ultimate), but I did not test them.
Luminar Neo offers HDR Merge and Focus Stack through two extra-cost extensions. As of this writing it does not offer Panorama stitching, but more extensions (yet to be identified!) will be released in 2023.
Darktable offers just HDR Merge, but no Focus Stack or Panorama functions.
DxO PhotoLab 6 lacks any HDR, Focus Stack or Panorama functions. Ditto for Exposure X7. Those are serious deficiencies, as we have a need for all those functions when processing nightscapes. You would have to develop the raw files in DxO or Exposure, then export TIFFs to merge or stitch them using another program such as Affinity Photo.
WINNERS: Adobe and Capture One
LOSER: DxO for missing key functions expected in a premium “Adobe killer”
I could end the review here, but I feel it’s important to present the evidence, in the form of the final images, as best I could process them with each of the programs. I rate their overall image quality and performance on a subjective scale of Poor / Fair / Good / Excellent, with additional remarks about the Pros and Cons of each program, as I see them.
Adobe Camera Raw (also applies to Adobe Lightroom)
IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent
PROS: ACR has excellent selective shadow recovery and good noise reduction which, while not up to the level of new AI methods, doesn’t introduce any weird AI artifacts. Its panels and sliders are fairly easy to use, with a clean user interface. Its new AI masking and local adjustments are superb, though take some practice to master.
CONS: It is available only by monthly or annual subscription, and lacks the more advanced AI noise reduction, sharpening, and one-click special effects of some competitors. Using the Adobe suite requires moving between different Adobe programs to perform all functions. Adobe Bridge, a central program in my workflow, tends to be neglected by Adobe, and suffers from bugs and deficiencies that go uncorrected.
ACDSee Photo Studio (for Mac)
IMAGE QUALITY: Fair
PROS: Photo Studio in its various versions offers good image management functions, making it suitable as a non-subscription Lightroom alternative. It offers an advanced array of tonal and color adjustments in an easy-to-use interface.
CONS: It produced badly haloed stars and had poor noise reduction. Its local adjustments are limited and lag behind the competition with no AI functions. It has no panorama stitching or HDR merging functions in the Mac version — the Windows versions get much more love and attention from ACDSee.
Affinity Photo 2
IMAGE QUALITY: Fair (for its Develop Persona) / Good to Excellent (as a Photoshop replacement)
PROS: Affinity Photo is certainly the best alternative to Photoshop for anyone looking to avoid Adobe. It is an excellent layer-based program (far better than GIMP) with unique features for astrophotographers such as stacking and gradient removal. With v2, it is now possible to transfer a raw file from the Develop Persona to the Photo Persona non-destructively, allowing re-opening the raw file for re-editing, similar to Adobe’s Camera Raw Smart Objects.
CONS: Affinity Photo’s Develop Persona for raw files is basic, with limited adjustments and producing average results at best. Transferring settings from one raw file to others is difficult, if not impossible. Affinity Photo is designed for editing single images only.
Capture One 23
IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent
PROS: Capture One has excellent shadow recovery and color adjustment controls. Local adjustments are easy to add and edit, though lack edge detection and AI selection. It has excellent cataloging functions, and overall superb image quality. It’s a good Lightroom alternative.
CONS: It’s costly to purchase, and more expensive than Adobe’s Creative Cloud to subscribe to. It can easily soften stars if not careful. It lacks AI masking, and overall the program tends to lag behind competitors by a few years for advanced features — Capture One added panorama stitching only a couple of versions back. I found the program also tended to litter my drive with Capture One folders.
IMAGE QUALITY: Poor
PROS: It’s free! And it offers many adjustments and intricate options not found elsewhere that the technically minded will enjoy experimenting with.
CONS: Darktable’s community of developers has added a bewildering array of panels in a confusing interface, making Darktable not for beginners nor the feint of heart. I struggled with it, all for poor results. Just finding the Export function was a challenge. Darktable is a program designed by programmers for use by other programmers who love to play with image data, and who care little for a user interface friendly to “the rest of us!”
DxO PhotoLab 6
IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent
PROS: Along with Capture One, I found DxO PhotoLab capable of producing a good-looking image, the equal of or perhaps better than Camera Raw, partly because of DxO’s ClearView and Smart Lighting options. It has lots of downloadable camera and lens modules for automatic lens corrections. Its noise reduction was excellent, though its DeepPrime and DeepPrimeXD options can add AI artifacts.
CONS: There are no adjustment layers or masks as such. Local adjustments are done through DxO’s quirky Control Point interface which isn’t as visually intuitive nor as precise as masks and layers. As of PhotoLab 6, DxO has yet to offer panorama or HDR merging, lagging far behind the competition.
IMAGE QUALITY: Fair
PROS: Exposure has a full set of tonal and color adjustments, and essential image management functions. It has good local adjustment layers, though with no AI or smart brushes to automatically detect edges. It produced acceptable final results, though still looking a little flat.
CONS: Exposure lacks any panorama stitching or HDR merging functions. Its noise reduction can wipe out stars and image details, and its sharpening adds dark halos to stars. It often crashed during my testing, by simply quitting unexpectedly. Annoying.
IMAGE QUALITY: Good to Excellent
PROS: Luminar has a clean, fresh interface with many powerful AI-driven functions and effects unique to Luminar and that are easy to apply. The final result looks fine. Its AI masks work quite well. Neo also works as a plug-in for Photoshop or Lightroom.
CONS: Luminar is expensive to purchase outright with all the Extensions, with a subscription the most economical method of acquiring, and maintaining, the full package. Its Noiseless AI didn’t handle starfields well. Neo lacks a useable cataloging function, and the version tested had numerous serious bugs. It is best for editing just single images.
ON1 Photo RAW 2023
IMAGE QUALITY: Good
PROS: ON1 Photo RAW is the only program of the set that can: catalog images, develop raw files, and then layer and stack images, performing all that Lightroom and Photoshop can do. It can serve as a one-program solution, and has excellent Effects and NoNoise AI, also available as plug-ins for Adobe software. It offers layer-based editing as well.
CONS: ON1 consistently produces dark halos around stars from over-sharpening in its raw engine. These cannot be eliminated. Its AI selection routines are flawed. Its AI noise reduction can leave artifacts if applied too aggressively, which is the default setting. Opening images from the Browse module as layers in the Edit module can be slow. It offers no stack modes (present in Photoshop and Affinity) for easy noise smoothing or star trail stacking, and the alternative — changing layer Blend modes — has to be done one at a time for each layer, a tedious process for a large image stack.
Why Didn’t I Test …?
… [Insert your favorite program here!] No doubt it’s one you consider badly neglected by all the world’s photographers!
But … as I stated at the outset, I tested only programs offered for both MacOS and Windows. I tested the MacOS versions — and for nightscapes, which are more demanding than normal daytime scenes.
I did not test:
Adobe Photoshop Elements —Effectively Photoshop “Lite,” Elements is available for $99 as a one-time purchase with a perpetual license, for both MacOS and Windows. Optional annual updates cost about $80. While it offers image and adjustment layers, and can open .PSD files, Elements cannot do much with 16-bit images, and has limited functions for developing raw files, in its version of Camera Raw “Lite.” And its Lightroom-like Organizer module does not not have any Copy & Paste Settings or batch export functions, making it unsuitable for batch editing or time-lapse production.
Like Apple’s Photos and other free photo apps, I don’t consider Elements to be a serious option for nightscape and time-lapse work. A Creative Cloud Photo subscription doesn’t cost much more per year, yet gets you far, far more in Adobe’s professional-level software.
Corel PaintShop — As with ACDSee’s product suite, Corel’s PaintShop is available in Pro and Pro Ultimate versions, both updated for 2023, and each with extensive raw and layer-based editing features. But they are only for Windows. If you are a PC user, PaintShop is certainly worth testing out. Their neglected MacOS program (also available for Windows and Linux) is the raw developer AfterShot Pro 3 (currently at v220.127.116.116). It is labeled as being from 2017, and last received a minor bug fix update in January 2021. I included it in my 2017 survey, but could not this year as it refused to recognize the CR3 raw files from my Canon R5 and R6 cameras.
Darkroom and Acorn are two Mac-only apps wth just basic features. There are no doubt numerous other similar Windows-only apps that I am not familiar with.
GIMP — Being free, it has its loyal fans. But it is not a raw developer, so it is not tested here. It is favorite of some astrophotographers as a no-cost substitute for Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo. It’s available for MacOS and Windows.
Iridient Developer — Its anachronistic, text-only website looks like it comes from 1995, giving the impression that this raw developer should be free, open-source software. It isn’t; it costs $99. It is a basic raw developer but only for MacOS. It is updated frequently, and a trial copy is available.
Pixelmator Pro — While it is a very capable and well-supported program with some excellent features, it too is available only for MacOS. Like Affinity Photo, it seems to be primarily for editing individual raw images, and lacks any image management functions, notably Copy & Paste Settings.
PixInsight — This specialized astrophoto program is designed for deep-sky image processing and bringing out the most subtle structures in faint nebulas and galaxies. For those it works wonders. But it is not suitable for nightscapes. Examples I’ve seen from PI fans who have used it for nightscapes, including images I’ve sent them for their expert processing, have not impressed me.
RawTherapee — As of early January 2023 when I completed my testing, the latest version of this free open-source program, v5.9, was available only for Windows and Linux. The MacOS version was still back at v5.8 from February 2020, a version that was unable to open the Canon CR3 raw files I was using in my tests. While the CR3 format has been out for several years, RawTherapee was still not supporting it, a hazard of open-source software dependent on the priorities of volunteer programmers who mostly use Windows. Like Darktable, RawTherapee is an incredibly complex program to use, with programmers adding every possible panel, slider and checkbox they could think of. [UPDATE MARCH 2023: RawTherapee 5.9 for MacOS is now available and opens Canon .CR3 files. Mac users might certainly want to try it. And Windows users, too!]
Topaz Studio — While Topaz Labs has been busy introducing some fine AI specialty programs, such as DeNoise AI, their main photo editor, Topaz Studio, has been neglected for years and, as of late 2022, was not even listed as a product for sale. It’s gone.
What About? — To prevent the number of programs tested from growing even larger, I did not include a few other little-known and seldom-used programs such as Cyberlink PhotoDirector and Picktorial, though I’m sure they have their fans.
I also did not test any camera manufacturer programs, such as Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, Nikon’s CaptureNX, or Sony’s ImagingEdge. They will open raw images only from their own cameras. Few photographers use them unless forced to, perhaps to open new raw files not yet supported by Adobe, DxO, et al, or to access files created by special camera functions such as Pixel Shift or Raw Burst Mode.
Having used Adobe software for decades, I’m used to its workings and the look it provides images. I’ve yet to see any of the competitors produce results so much better that they warrant me switching programs. At best, the competitors produce results as good as Adobe, at least for nightscape astrophotos, though with some offering unique and attractive features.
For example, the AI noise reduction routines in DxO PhotoLab and ON1 Photo RAW can outperform Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom. Adobe needs to update its raw editing software with more advanced noise reduction and sharpening. Even so, the AI routines in the competitors are prone to creating odd artifacts, so have to be applied carefully to astrophotos.
As I recommended in 2017, for those who refuse to use Adobe — or any software by subscription — a possible combination for the best astrophoto image quality might be DxO PhotoLab 6 for raw developing and basic time-lapse processing, paired with Affinity Photo 2 for stacking and compositing still images, from finished TIFF files exported out of DxO then opened and layered with Affinity.
The pairing of Capture One with Affinity could work just as well, though is more costly. And anyone who hates software by subscription in principle might want to avoid Capture One as they are pushing customers toward buying only by subscription, as is ON1.
For a single-program solution, I’d recommend ON1 Photo RAW more highly, if only it produced better star image quality. Its raw engine continues to over-sharpen, and its AI masking functions are flawed, though will likely improve. I routinely use ON1’s Effects plug-in from Photoshop, as it has some excellent “finishing-touch” filters such as Dynamic Contrast. I find ON1’s NoNoise AI plug-in also very useful.
The same applies to Luminar Neo. While I can’t see using it as a principle processing program, it works very well as a Photoshop plug-in for adding special effects, some with its powerful and innovative AI routines.
Finally — Download Trials and Test!
But don’t take my word for all of this. Please test for yourself!
With the exception of Luminar Neo, all the programs I tested (and others I didn’t, but you might be interested in) are available as free trial copies. Try them out on your images and workflow. You might find you like one program much better than any of the others or what you are using now.
Often, having more than one program is useful, if only for use as a plug-in from within Lightroom or Photoshop. Some plug-ins made for Photoshop also work from within Affinity Photo, though it is hit-and-miss what plug-ins will actually work. (In my testing, plug-ins from DxO/Nik Collection, Exposure X7, ON1, RC-Astro, and Topaz all work; ones from Skylum/Luminar install but fail to run.)
While I was impressed with Capture One and DxO PhotoLab, for me the need to use the program LRTimelapse (shown above) for processing about 80 percent of all the time-lapse sequences I shoot means the question is settled. LRTimelapse works only with Adobe software, and the combination works great and improves wth every update of LRTimelapse.
Even for still images, the ease of working within Adobe’s ecosystem to sort, develop, layer, stack, and catalog images makes me reluctant to migrate to a mix of programs from different companies, especially when the cost of upgrading many of those programs is not much less than, or even more costly, than an Adobe Photo plan subscription.
However … if it’s just a good raw developer you are after for astro work, without paying for a subscription, try Capture One 2023 or DxO PhotoLab 6. Try Affinity Photo if you want a good Photoshop replacement.
On August 7, 2022 we were treated to a fine aurora and a superb showing of the anomalous STEVE arc across the sky.
Where I live in southern Alberta we are well positioned to see a variety of so-called “sub-auroral” phenomena — effects in the upper atmosphere associated with auroras but that appear south of the main auroral arc, thus the term “sub-auroral.”
The main auroral band typically lies over Northern Canada, at latitudes 58° to 66°, though it can move south when auroral activity increases. However, on August 7, the Kp Index was predicted to reach Kp5, on the Kp 0 to 9 scale, so moderately active, but not so active it would bring the aurora right over me at latitude 51° N, and certainly not down over the northern U.S., which normally requires Kp6 or higher levels.
So with Kp5, the aurora always appeared in my sky this night to the north, though certainly in a fine display, as I show above.
However, at Kp5, the amount of energy being pumped into the magnetosphere and atmosphere around Earth is high enough to trigger (through mechanisms only beginning to be understood) some of the unique phenomena that occur south of the main aurora. These often appear right over me. That was the case on August 7.
I captured the above panoramas of the aurora early in the night, when we also were treated to a late season display of noctilucent clouds low in the north. These are high altitude water-vapour clouds up almost as high as the aurora. They are common in June and July from here (we are also in an ideal latitude for seeing them). But early August was the latest I had ever sighted NLCs.
As the NLCs faded, the auroral arc brightened, promising a good show, in line with the predictions (which don’t always come true!). The main aurora reached a peak in activity about 11:30 pm MDT, when it was bright and moving along the northern and northeastern horizon. It then subsided in brightness and structure, giving the impression the show was over.
But that’s exactly when STEVE can — and this night did! — appear.
Sure enough, about 12:15 am, a faint arc appeared in the east, which slowly extended to cross the sky, passing straight overhead. This was STEVE, short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
STEVE is not an aurora per se, which is caused by electrons raining down from the magnetosphere. STEVE is a ribbon of hot (~3000°) gas flowing east to west. STEVE typically appears for no more than an hour, often less, before he fades from view.
At his peak, STEVE is often accompanied by green “picket-fence” fingers hanging down from the main pink band, which also have a westward rippling motion. These do seem to be caused by vertically moving electrons.
This night I shot with three cameras, with lenses from 21mm to 7.5mm, including two fish-eye lenses needed to capture the full extent of sky-spanning STEVE. I shot still, time-lapses, and real-time videos, compiled below.
Amateur photos like mine have been used to determine the height of STEVE, which seems to be 250 to 300 km, higher than the main components of a normal aurora. Indeed, previous images of mine have formed parts of the data sets for two research papers, with me credited as a citizen scientist co-author.
STEVE is a unique example of citizen scientists working with the professional researchers to solve a mystery that anyone who looks up at the right time and from the right place can see. August 7-8, 2022 and my backyard in Alberta was such a time and place.
As a bonus, a few frames recorded Perseid meteors, with the annual shower becoming active.
For a video compilation of some of my stills and videos from the night, see this Vimeo video.
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.
NOTE: In early November 2022 Canon announced the EOS R6 MkII, which one assumes will eventually replace the original R6 once stock of that camera runs out. The MkII has a 24 Mp sensor for slightly better resolution, and offers longer battery life. But the main improvements over the R6 is to autofocus accuracy, a function of little use to astrophotographers. Only real-world testing will tell if the R6 MkII has better or worse noise levels than the R6, or has eliminated the R6’s amp glow, reported on below.
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.
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
The Canon R6 is not so superb for its:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 high-ISO images – a magenta glow along the edges, especially the right edge and lower right corner.
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.
UPDATE AUGUST 1, 2022: As of v1.6 of the R6 firmware, released in July 2022, the amp glow issue remains and has not been fixed. It may never be at this point.
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 high-ISO 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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 ….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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°.
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.
The frames were processed in Adobe Camera Raw and LRTimelapse
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
TIP 9 — DO: Develop one raw frame and apply settings to all
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
However, again with patience it is possible to get clean images of the aurora and its reflections in the lake.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm and misty waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left. Capella is at right. This is a single 13-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left; Capella at far right. This is a single 8-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
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.
The view looking the other way north over the river was equally wonderful. What a place for viewing the Northern Lights!
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.
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.
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.
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!
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019, with photographers in the foreground shooting the Lights from the viewpoint above the lake. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 10 seconds at ISO 3200. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 20 seconds at ISO 1000. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 preferredmethod, in the first unit I tested I found it produced serious mis-tracking problems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
• 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As most cameras do, the Z6 also has a “My Menu” page which you can also populate with favourite menu commands.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I was impressed with the Z6.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A self-portrait on the back deck of the ms Trollfjord, southbound out of Berlevag this night and under the Northern Lights.
Aurora photographers and observers on the rear deck 9 area of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on the southbound voyage along the Norwegian coast, on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400.
Curtains of Northern Lights over the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on March 1, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
A low arc of aurora late in the voyage south on March 4, 2019, our last sighting for the cruise, after we crossed the Arctic Circle. A single exposure at ISO 10000 due to the large motion of the ship. The smoke from the ship is at top, illuminated by the funnel lights that were not turned off this night.
An example of multiple concentric auroral curtains, here over the Norwegian coast on the southbound Hurtigruten ship ms Trollfjord on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
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.
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.
On the evening of January 20 for North America, the Full Moon passes through the umbral shadow of the Earth, creating a total eclipse of the Moon.
No, this isn’t a “blood,” “super,” nor “wolf” Moon. All those terms are internet fabrications designed to bait clicks.
It is a totallunareclipse — an event that doesn’t need sensational adjectives to hype, because they are always wonderful sights! And yes, the Full Moon does turn red.
As such, on January 20 the evening and midnight event provides many opportunities for great photos of a reddened Moon in the winter sky.
Here’s my survey of tips and techniques for capturing the eclipsed Moon.
First … What is a Lunar Eclipse?
As the animation below shows (courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center), an eclipse of the Moon occurs when the Full Moon (and they can happen only when the Moon is exactly full) travels through the shadow of the Earth.
The Moon does so at least two times each year, though often not as a total eclipse, one where the entire disk of the Moon enters the central umbral shadow. Many lunar eclipses are of the imperceptible penumbral variety, or are only partial eclipses.
Total eclipses of the Moon can often be years apart. The last two were just last year, on January 31 and July 27, 2018. However, the next is not until May 26, 2021.
At any lunar eclipse we see an obvious darkening of the lunar disk only when the Moon begins to enter the umbra. That’s when the partial eclipse begins, and we see a dark bite appear on the left edge of the Moon.
While it looks as if Earth’s shadow sweeps across the Moon, it is really the Moon moving into, then out of, our planet’s umbra that causes the eclipse. We are seeing the Moon’s revolution in its orbit around Earth.
At this eclipse the partial phases last 67 minutes before and after totality.
Once the Moon is completely immersed in the umbra, totality begins and lasts 62 minutes at this eclipse, a generous length.
The Moon will appear darkest and reddest at mid-eclipse. During totality the lunar disk is illuminated only by red sunlight filtering through Earth’s atmosphere. It is the light of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around our planet.
And yes, it is perfectly safe to look at the eclipsed Moon with whatever optics you wish. Binoculars often provide the best view. Do have a pair handy!
At this eclipse because the Moon passes across the north half of the umbra, the top edge of the Moon will always remain bright, as it did above in 2010, looking like a polar cap on the reddened Moon.
Near the bright edge of the umbra look for subtle green and blue tints the eye can see and that the camera can capture.
Where is the Eclipse?
As the chart below shows, all of the Americas can see the entire eclipse, with the Moon high in the evening or late-night sky. For the record, the Moon will be overhead at mid-eclipse at local midnight from Cuba!
I live in Alberta, Canada, at a latitude of 50 degrees North. And so, the sky charts I provide here are for my area, where the Moon enters the umbral shadow at 8:35 p.m. MST with the Moon high in the east. By the end of totality at 10:44 p.m. MST the Moon shines high in the southeast. This sample chart is for mid-eclipse at my site.
I offer them as examples of the kinds of planning you can do to ensure great photos. I can’t provide charts good for all the continent because exactly where the Moon will be during totality, and the path it will take across your sky will vary with your location.
In general, the farther east and south you live in North America the higher the Moon will appear. But from all sites in North America the Moon will always appear high and generally to the south.
The latter two apps present the sightlines toward the Moon overlaid on a map of your location, to help you plan where to be to shoot the eclipsed Moon above a suitable foreground, if that’s your photographic goal.
When is the Eclipse?
While where the Moon is in your sky depends on your site, the various eclipse events happen at the same time for everyone, with differences in hour due only to the time zone you are in.
While all of North America can see the entirety of the partial and total phases of this eclipse (lasting 3 hours and 16 minutes from start to finish), the farther east you live the later the eclipse occurs, making for a long, late night for viewers on the east coast.
Those in western North America can enjoy all of totality and be in bed at or before midnight.
Here are the times for the start and end of the partial and total phases. Because the penumbral phases produce an almost imperceptible darkening, I don’t list the times below for the start and end of the penumbral eclipse.
PM times are on the evening of January 20.
AM times are after midnight on January 21.
Note that while some sources list this eclipse as occurring on January 21, that is true for Universal Time (Greenwich Time) and for sites in Europe where the eclipse occurs at dawn near moonset.
For North America, if you go out on the evening of January 21 expecting to see the eclipse you’ll be a day late and disappointed!
Picking a Photo Technique
Lunar eclipses lend themselves to a wide range of techniques, from a simple camera on a tripod, to a telescope on a tracking mount following the sky.
If this is your first lunar eclipse I suggest keeping it simple! Select just one technique, to focus your attention on only one camera on a cold and late winter night.
Then during the hour of totality take the time to enjoy the view through binoculars and with the unaided eye. No photo quite captures the glowing quality of an eclipsed Moon. But here’s how to try it.
Option 1: Simple — Camera-on-Tripod
The easiest method is to take single shots using a very wide-angle lens (assuming you also want to include the landscape below) with the camera on a fixed tripod. No fancy sky trackers are needed here.
During totality, with the Moon now dimmed and in a dark sky, use a good DSLR or mirrorless camera in Manual (M) mode (not an automatic exposure mode) for settings of 2 to 20 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 at ISO 400 to 1600.
That’s a wide range, to be sure, but it will vary a lot depending on how bright the sky is at your site. Shoot at lots of different settings, as blending multiple exposures later in processing is often the best way to reproduce the scene as your eyes saw it.
Shoot at a high ISO if you must to prevent blurring from sky motion. However, lower ISOs, if you can use them by choosing a slower shutter speed or wider lens aperture, will yield less digital noise.
Focus carefully on a bright star, as per the advice below for telephoto lenses. Don’t just set the lens focus to infinity, as that might not produce the sharpest stars.
One scene to go for at this eclipse is similar to the above photo, with the reddened Moon above a winter landscape and shining east of Orion and the winter Milky Way. But that will require shooting from a dark site away from urban lights. But when the Moon is totally eclipsed, the sky will be dark enough for the Milky Way to appear.