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.
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 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 have been 0.1° per move. That would allow 24-second exposures to follow the sky, allowing a stop less in aperture or ISO speed.
MSM — please ditch the 1° rate.
Though MSM claims the unit was designed by astrophotographers, it’s hard to imagine any time-lapse experts thinking the speeds they settled on were the best.
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.
But … If only the MSM had a better 0.1° speed, it would be ideal for beginners wanting to dabble in motion-control time-lapse.
As it is, getting a decent result requires some math and juggling of camera settings to make up for the MSM’s limited and, in my opinion, wrong 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).
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. A 0.1° per move rate would have been much better.
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.
The high altitude of the Moon at mid-eclipse from North America (with it 40 to 70 degrees above the horizon) will also demand a lens as wide as 10mm to 24mm, depending whether you use portrait or landscape orientation, and if your camera uses a cropped frame or full frame sensor. The latter have the advantage in this category of wide-angle nightscape.
Alternatively, using a longer 14mm to 35mm lens allows you to frame the Moon beside Orion and the winter Milky Way, as above, but without the landscape. Again, this will require a dark rural site.
If you take this type of image with a camera on a fixed tripod, use high ISOs to keep exposures below 10 to 20 seconds to avoid star trailing. You have an hour of totality to shoot lots of exposures to make sure some will work best.
If you have a sky tracker to follow the stars, as I did above, exposures can be much longer — perhaps a minute to pick up the Milky Way really well — and ISOs can be lower to avoid noise.
Option 1 Variation — Urban Eclipses
Unfortunately, point-and-shoot cameras and so-called “bridge” cameras, ones with non-interchangeable lenses, likely won’t have lenses wide enough to capture the whole scene, landscape and all. Plus their sensors will be noisy when used at high ISOs. Those cameras might be best used to capture moderate telephoto closeups at bright urban sites.
With any camera, at urban sites look for scenic opportunities to capture the eclipsed Moon above a skyline or behind a notable landmark. By looking up from below you might be able to frame the Moon beside a church spire, iconic building, or a famous statue using a normal or short telephoto lens, making this a good project for those without ultra-wide lenses.
Whatever your lens or subject, at urban sites expose as best you can for the foreground, trying to avoid any bright and bare lights in the frame that will flood the image with lens flares in long exposures.
Capturing such a scene during the deep partial phases might produce a brighter Moon that stands out better in an urban sky than will a photo taken at mid-totality when the Moon is darkest.
TIP: Practice, Practice, Practice!
With any camera, especially beginner point-and-shoots, ensure success on eclipse night by practicing shooting the Moon before the eclipse, during the two weeks of the waxing Moon leading up to Full Moon night and the eclipse.
The crescent Moon with Earthshine on the dark side of the Moon is a good stand-in for the eclipsed Moon. Set aside the nights of January 8 to 11 to shoot the crescent Moon. Check for exposure and focus. Can you record the faint Earthshine? It’s similar in brightness to the shadowed side of the eclipsed Full Moon.
The next week, on the nights of January 18 and 19, the waxing gibbous Moon will be closer to its position for eclipse night and almost as bright as the uneclipsed Full Moon, allowing some rehearsals for shooting it near a landmark.
Option 2: Advanced — Multiple Exposures
An advanced method is to compose the scene so the lens frames the entire path of the Moon for the 3 hours and 16 minutes from the start to the end of the partial eclipse.
As shown above, including the landscape will require at least a 20mm lens on a full frame camera, or 12mm lens on a cropped frame camera. However, these charts are for my site in western Canada. From sites to the east and south where the Moon is higher an even wider lens might be needed, making this a tough sequence to take.
With wide lenses, the Moon will appear quite small. The high altitude of the Moon and midnight timing won’t lend itself to this type of multiple image composite as well as it does for eclipses that happen near moonrise or moonset, as per the example below.
A still-image composite with the lunar disks well separated will need shots only every 5 minutes, as I did above for the September 27, 2015 eclipse.
Exposures for any lunar eclipse are tricky, whether you are shooting close-ups or wide-angles, because the Moon and sky change so much in brightness.
As I did for the image below, for a still-image composite, you can expose just for the bright lunar disk and let the sky go dark.
Exposures for just the Moon will range from very short (about 1/500th second at f/8 and ISO 100) for the partials, to 1/2 to 2 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 and ISO 400 for the totals, then shorter again (back to 1/500 at ISO 100) for the end shots when the Full Moon has returned to its normal brilliance.
That’ll take constant monitoring and adjusting throughout the shoot, stepping the shutter speed gradually longer thorough the initial partial phase, then shorter again during the post-totality partial phase.
You’d then composite and layer (using a Lighten blend mode) the well-exposed disks (surrounded by mostly black sky) into another background image exposed longer for 10 to 30 seconds at ISO 800 to 1600 for the sky and stars, shot at mid-totality.
To maintain the correct relative locations of the lunar disks and foreground, the camera cannot move.
That technique works best if it’s just a still image you are after, such as above. This image is such a composite, of the April 4, 2015 total lunar eclipse from Monument Valley, Utah.
This type of composite takes good planning and proper exposures to pull off, but will be true to the scene, with the lunar disk and its motion shown to the correct scale and position as it was in the sky. It might be a composite, but it will be accurate.
That’s in stark contrast to the flurry of ugly “faked” composites that will appear on the web by the end of the day on January 21, ones with huge telephoto Moons pasted willy-nilly onto a wide-angle sky.
Rather than look artistic, most such attempts look comically cut-and-pasted. They are amateurish. Don’t do it!
Option 3: Advanced — Wide-Angle Time-Lapses
If it’s a time-lapse movie you want (see the video below), take exposures every 10 to 30 seconds, to ensure a final movie with smooth motion.
Unlike shooting for a still-image composite, for a time lapse each frame will have to be exposed well enough to show the Moon, sky, and landscape.
That will require exposures long enough to show the sky and foreground during the partial phases — likely about 1 to 4 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 400. In this case, the disk of the partially-eclipsed Moon will greatly overexpose, as it does toward the end of the above time-lapse from September 27, 2015..
But the Moon will darken and become better exposed during the late stages of the partial eclipse and during totality when a long exposure — perhaps now 10 to 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 800 to 1600 — will record the bright red Moon amid the stars and winter Milky Way.
Maintaining a steady cadence during the entire sequence requires using an interval long enough throughout to accommodate the expected length of the longest exposure at mid-totality, with similar camera settings to what you’ve used for other Milky Way nightscapes. If you’ve never taken those before, then don’t attempt this complex sequence.
After totality, as the Moon and sky re-brighten, exposures will have to shorten again, andsymmetrically in reverse fashion for the final partial phases.
Such a time-lapse requires consistently and incrementally adjusting the camera over the three or more hours of the eclipse on a cold winter night. The high altitude of the Moon and its small size on the required wide angle lenses will make any final time lapse less impressive than at eclipses that occur when the Moon is rising or setting.
But … the darkening of the sky and “turning on” of the Milky Way during totality will make for an interesting time-lapse effect. The sky and scene will be going from a bright fully moonlit night to effectively a dark moonless night, then back to moonlit. It’s a form of “holy grail” time lapse, requiring advanced processing with LRTimelapse software.
Again, do not move the camera. Choose your lens and frame your camera to include the entire path of the Moon for as long as you plan to shoot.
Even if the final movie looks flawed, individual frames should still produce good still images, or a composite built from a subset of the frames.
Option 4: Simple — Telephoto Close-Ups
The first thought of many photographers is to shoot the eclipse with as long a telephoto lens as possible. That can work, but …
The harsh reality is that the Moon is surprisingly small (only 1/2-degree across) and needs a lot of focal length to do it justice, if you want a lunar close-up.
You’ll need a 300mm to 800mm lens. Unfortunately, the Moon and sky are moving and any exposures over 1/4 to 2 seconds (required during totality) will blur the Moon badly if its disk is large on the frame and all you are using is a fixed tripod.
If you don’t have a tracking mount, one solution is to keep the Moon’s disk small (using no more than a fast f/2 or f/2.8 135mm to 200mm lens) and exposures short by using a high ISO speed of 1600 to 3200. Frame the Moon beside the Beehive star cluster as I show below.
Take a range of exposures. But … be sure to focus!
TIP: Focus! And Focus Again!
Take care to focus precisely on a bright star using Live View. That’s true of any lens but especially telephotos and telescopes.
Focus not just at the start of the night, but also more than once again later at night. Falling temperatures on a winter night will cause long lenses and telescopes to shift focus. What was sharp at the start of the eclipse won’t be by mid totality.
The catch is that if you are shooting for a time-lapse or composite you likely won’t be able to re-point the optics to re-focus on a star in mid-eclipse. In that case, be sure to set up the gear well before you want to start shooing to let it cool to ambient air temperature. Now focus on a star, then frame the scene. Then hope the lens doesn’t shift off focus. You might be able to focus on the bright limb of the Moon but it’s risky.
Fuzzy images, not bad exposures, are the ruin of most attempts to capture a lunar eclipse, especially with a telephoto lens. And the Moon itself, especially during totality, is not a good target to focus on. Use a bright star. The winter sky has lots!
Option 5: Advanced — Tracked Telescopic Close-Ups
If you have a mount that can be polar aligned to track the sky, then many more options are open to you.
You can use a telescope mount or one of the compact and portable trackers, such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (I show the Mini model above) or iOptron Sky Tracker units. While these latter units work great, you are best to keep the payload weight down and your lens size well under 300mm.
That’s just fine for this eclipse, as you really don’t need a frame-filling Moon. The reason is that the Moon will appear about 6 degrees west of the bright star cluster called the Beehive, or Messier 44, in Cancer.
As shown above, a 135mm to 200mm lens will frame this unique pairing well. For me, that will be the signature photo of this eclipse. The pairing can happen only at lunar eclipses that occur in late January, and there won’t be any more of those until 2037!
That’s the characteristic that makes this eclipse rare and unique, not that it’s a “super-duper, bloody, wolf Moon!” But it doesn’t make for a catchy headline.
Exposures to show the star cluster properly might have to be long enough (30 to 120 seconds) that the Moon overexposes, even at mid-totality. If so, take different exposures for the Moon and stars, then composite them later, as I did above for the December 20, 2010 eclipse near the Messier 35 star cluster in Gemini.
If really you want to shoot with even more focal length for framing just the Moon, a monster telephoto lens will work, but a small telescope such as an 80mm aperture f/6 to f/7 refractor will provide enough focal length and image size at much lower cost and lighter weight, and be easier to attach to a telescope mount.
But even with a 500mm to 800mm focal length telescope the Moon fills only a small portion of the frame, though cropped frame cameras have the advantage here. Use one if it’s a big Moon you’re after!
No matter the camera, the lens or telescope should be mounted on a solid equatorial telescope mount that you must polar align earlier in the night to track the sky.
Alternatively, a motorized Go To telescope on an alt-azimuth mount will work, but only for single shots. The rotation of the field with alt-az mounts will make a mess of any attempts to shoot multiple-exposure composites or time-lapses, described below.
Whatever the mount, for the sharpest lunar disks during totality, use the Lunar tracking rate for the motor.
Assuming an f-ratio of f/6 to f/8, exposures will vary from as short as 1/250th second at ISO 100 to 200 for the barely eclipsed Moon, to 4 to 20 seconds at ISO 400 to 1600 for the Moon at mid-totality.
It’s difficult to provide a precise exposure recommendation for totality because the brightness of the Moon within the umbra can vary by several stops from eclipse to eclipse, depending on how much red sunlight manages to make it through Earth’s atmospheric filter to light the Moon.
TIP: Shoot for HDR
As I did above, during the deep partial phases an option is to shoot both long, multi-second exposures for the red umbra and short, split-second exposures for the bright part of the Moon not yet in the umbra.
Take 5 to 7 shots in rapid succession, covering the range needed, perhaps at 1-stop increments. Merge those later with High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques and software, or with luminosity masks.
Even if you’re not sure how to do HDR processing now, shoot all the required exposures anyway so you’ll have them when your processing skills improve.
Option 6: Advanced — Close-Up Composites and Time-Lapses
With a tracking telescope on an equatorial mount you could fire shots every 10 to 30 seconds, and then assemble them into a time-lapse movie, as below.
But as with wide-angle time-lapses, that will demand constant attention to gradually and smoothly shift exposures, ideally by 1/3rd-stop increments every few shots during the partial and total phases. Make lots of small adjustments, rather than fewer large ones.
If you track at the lunar rate, as I did above, the Moon should stay more or less centred while it drifts though the stars, assuming your mount is accurately polar aligned, an absolutely essential prerequisite here.
Conversely, track at the sidereal rate and the stars will stay more or less fixed while the Moon drifts through the frame from right to left (west to east) as I show above in a composite of the October 27, 2004 eclipse.
But such a sequence takes even more careful planning to position the Moon correctly at the start of the sequence so it remains “in frame” for the duration of the eclipse, and ends up where you want at the end.
In the chart below, north toward Polaris is at the top of the frame. Position the Moon at the start of the eclipse so it ends up just above the centre of the frame at mid-eclipse. Tricky!
As I show above, for this type of “Moon-thru-shadow” sequence a focal length of about 400mm is ideal on a full frame camera, or 300mm on a cropped frame camera.
From such a time-lapse set you could also use several frames selected from key stages of the eclipse, as I did in 2004, to make up a multiple-image composite showing the Moon moving through the Earth’s shadow.
Again, planetarium software such as Starry Night I used above, which can be set to display the field of view of the camera and lens of your choice, is essential to plan the shoot. Don’t attempt it without the right software to plan the framing.
I would consider the telescopic time-lapse method the most challenging of techniques. Considering the hour of the night and the likely cold temperatures, your best plan might be to keep it simple.
It’s what I plan to do.
I’ll be happy to get a tracked telephoto close-up of the Moon and Beehive cluster as my prime goal, with a wide-angle scene of the eclipsed Moon beside Orion and the Milky Way as a bonus. A few telescope close-ups will be even more of a bonus.
However, just finding clear skies might be the biggest challenge!
Try the Astrospheric app for astronomy-oriented weather predictions. The Environment Canada data it uses has led me to clear skies for several recent eclipses that other observers in my area missed.
It’ll be worth the effort to chase!
The next total eclipse of the Moon anywhere on Earth doesn’t occur until May 26, 2021 in an event visible at dawn from Western North America. The next total lunar eclipse visible from all of North America comes a lunar year later, on May 15, 2022.
Total Lunar Eclipse from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I leave you with a music video of the lunar eclipse of September 27, 2015 that incorporates still and time-lapse sequences shot using all of the above methods.