Kevin Ferrioli

Nights in 35mm Winspit Milky Way-Kevin G Ferrioli20190411-55.jpg

I’m a SQL analyst and developer by profession, living in Dorset, United Kingdom, which is an amazing place for people who love outdoor activities. I love mountain biking which has taken me to stunning locations, and there are miles of breath-taking walks with lots of nature and history around – every corner has a surprise, it’s like living in a fantasy, at least that’s how I see it.

Since I was a child, I’ve always had a fascination for the stars. I had the opportunity to visit places near the equator with true dark skies, where the Milky Way core is visible up in the sky – unlike in the UK where the core is barely visible on the horizon. It’s of unbelievable beauty. I spent most of my childhood visiting locations in the rain forest, flat lands and my favourite – the mountains, especially over 4000 meters.

My fascination for the night sky has always been with me and I have always wanted to capture their beauty. One day, I saw images from Michael Shainblum and he then became my main influence and inspiration. I’ve never looked to replicate his style or the others, it was just that I loved how his images made me feel so immersed. It inspired me to do the same with my photos, to capture an image that would put the viewer under the stars.

dorset nightscape
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As I did last year, I went again to the same place for my first Milky Way, Peveril Point, Swanage, Dorset UK. For my previous attempt, I used a Sigma Art lens 20mm F1.4. The idea was to capture more detailed foregrounds. The lens proved to be excellent for low light but it has four major downsides: first, photos of the night sky taken with this lens were extremely difficult to edit. Second, it is not very good for panoramas, despite I used a nodal head. Third, the autofocus is the worst of any lens that I have ever owned, it is very difficult to capture a sharp photo even with the best light conditions. And fourth, the lens profile in Lightroom is terrible, it makes the images worse. I was not bothered by the astigmatism distortion of the corners which virtually disappeared in panoramas. Overall, I was not happy with the lens, I felt I wasted my last year trying to use it. So I went back to my trustworthy Samyang lens 14mm F2,8. Coupled with the Canon 6D, still my preferred choice. I have not tested the Sigma 14mm F2 yet, but given the price, I will stick with my Samyang.

The image to the rights is the process used to create it. It is a panorama of 7 photos, Canon 6d and Samyang 14mm F2.8, ISO between 4000 and 5000. Each photo is 25 secs. Stitched in Adobe Lightroom.

Peveril Point Swanage Milky Way: 7 images highlighted below and stitched in Abobe Lightroom.

Peveril Point Swanage Milky Way: 7 images highlighted below and stitched in Abobe Lightroom.


The moon rise was spectacular, one of the most beautiful rises from the sea, it was also so dim that allowed to capture the Milky Way up to the last minute before the astronomical dawn. Again, I thank you the nature for this beautiful experience.

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All images have been captured with a Canon 6D Mk1. And most of the images were captured with a Samyang 14mm F2.8 Lens, my more recent work is being captured with the amazing Samyang 14mm F2.4 XP

Durdle Door, Dorset.

Durdle Door, Dorset.

Image by jasty78

Durdle Door (sometimes written Durdle Dor) is a natural limestone arch on the Jurassic Coast near Lulworth in Dorset, England.

It is privately owned by the Welds, a family who owns 12,000 acres (50 km2) in Dorset in the name of the Lulworth Estate. It is open to the public. The name Durdle is derived from the Old English word ‘thirl' meaning bore or drill.

The form of the coastline around Durdle Door is controlled by its geology—both by the contrasting hardnesses of the rocks, and by the local patterns of faults and folds. The arch has formed on a concordant coastline where bands of rock run parallel to the shoreline. The rock strata are almost vertical, and the bands of rock are quite narrow. Originally a band of resistant Portland limestone ran along the shore, the same band that appears one mile along the coast forming the narrow entrance to Lulworth Cove. Behind this is a 120-metre (390 ft) band of weaker, easily eroded rocks, and behind this is a stronger and much thicker band of chalk, which forms the Purbeck Hills. These steeply dipping rocks are part of the Lulworth crumple, itself part of the broader Purbeck Monocline, produced by the building of the Alps during the mid-Cenozoic.

The limestone and chalk are in closer proximity at Durdle Door than at Swanage, 10 miles (16 km) to the east, where the distance is over 2 miles (3 km). Around this part of the coast nearly all of the limestone has been removed by sea erosion, whilst the remainder forms the small headland which includes the arch. Erosion at the western end of the limestone band has resulted in the arch formation.

UNESCO teams monitor the condition of both the arch and adjacent beach.

The 120-metre (390 ft) isthmus which joins the limestone to the chalk is made of a 50-metre (160 ft) band of Portland limestone, a narrow and compressed band of Cretaceous Wealden clays and sands, and then narrow bands of greensand and sandstone.

In Man O' War Bay, the small bay immediately east of Durdle Door, the band of Portland and Purbeck limestone has not been entirely eroded away, and is visible above the waves as Man O'War Rocks. Similarly, offshore to the west, the eroded limestone outcrop forms a line of small rocky islets called (from east to west) The Bull, The Blind Cow, The Cow, and The Calf.

As the coastline in this area is generally an eroding landscape, the cliffs are subject to occasional rockfalls and landslides; a particularly large slide occurred just to the east of Durdle Door in April 2013, resulting in destruction of part of the South West Coast Path.

There is a dearth of early written records about the arch, though it has kept a name given to it probably over a thousand years ago. In the late eighteenth century there is a description of the "magnificent arch of Durdle-rock Door", and early nineteenth-century maps called it 'Duddledoor' and 'Durdle' or 'Dudde Door'. In 1811 the first Ordnance Survey map of the area named it as 'Dirdale Door'. 'Durdle' is derived from the Old English 'thirl', meaning to pierce, bore or drill which in turn derives from 'thyrel', meaning hole. Similar names in the region include Durlston Bay and Durlston Head further east, where a oastal stack suggests the existence of an earlier arch, and the Thurlestone, an arched rock in the neighbouring county of Devon to the west. The 'Door' part of the name probably maintains its modern meaning, referring to the arched shape of the rock; in the late nineteenth century there is reference to it being called the "Barn-door", and is described as being "sufficiently high for a good-sized sailing boat to pass through it."

Music videos have been filmed at Durdle Door, including parts of Tears for Fears' "Shout", Billy Ocean's "Loverboy", and Cliff Richard's "Saviour's Day"

The landscape around Durdle Door has been used in scenes in several films, including Wilde (1997) starring Stephen Fry, Nanny McPhee starring Emma Thompson,

the 1967 production of Far From The Madding Crowd (the latter also filmed around nearby Scratchy Bottom), and the Bollywood film Housefull 3.

Ron Dawson's children's story Scary Bones meets the Dinosaurs of the Jurassic Coast creates a myth of how Durdle Door came to be, as an 'undiscovered' dinosaur called Durdle Doorus is magically transformed into rock.

Dorset-born Arthur Moule, a friend of Thomas Hardy and missionary to China, wrote these lines about Durdle Door for his 1879 book of poetry Songs of heaven and home, written in a foreign land:

durdle door

Good Lighting Advice

Good Lighting Advice

by Chasing Stars

To achieve International Dark Sky Reserve status all those responsible for lighting (local authorities, highway departments, businesses and individual residents) are required to ensure that light pollution (light escaping sideways and upwards) is reduced to a minimum.

LEDs are now beginning to appear above our streets and main roads in very large numbers. Sadly, far too many LEDs are very bright, and their excess light reflects from the ground into the sky.

AONB Position Statement & Good Practice Note

The AONB position statements set out its current position on a variety of topics. These include light pollution, and the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty derives much of its beauty from its qualities of tranquillity, remoteness and cultural heritage. Light pollution has the potential to erode and destroy that tranquillity and sense of remoteness.

It is, therefore, considered appropriate that all artificial external lighting within its borders, or within the setting of the AONB, should be muted, screened, and the minimum required.  

Position Statement 1 - Light Pollution (PDF, 75Kb)

Good Practice Note 7 - Good External Lighting (PDF 70Kb)

Position Statement 7a - Recommendations for Dark-Sky compliant lighting on new builds & refurbishments - a Developers' Guide (PDF 500kb)

Terms used in describing good lighting, and waste light not directed to the area to be lit.

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Task or Useful light – light that fulfils the task for which the lamp was installed.

  • Obtrusive light – light causing a problem of some kind through misdirection.

  • Spill light - falls outside the area where it is needed.

  • Upward reflected light - unwanted light bouncing off the ground.

  • Direct upward light - wasted light shining above a light fitting (not necessarily vertically upwards – it may be escaping just one degree above the horizontal but will eventually end up in the sky).

  • Light intrusion – over-bright and poorly directed light, often going in windows and/or causing glare and discomfort on other premises. Sometimes called light trespass, but this term is normally to be avoided as, in law, trespass is deliberate intrusion and the intrusive light is usually the result of ignorance rather than malice.

Examples

Good

Compact LED light directed downwards. This and similar types are recommended for domestic, commercial, farmyard and similar uses: preferably with sensors to switch off when not needed. 
Photo: Auraglow

A halogen floodlight, correctly angled, can light a large area. 
Photo: Martin Morgan-Taylor

Bad

An LED floodlight that, even if tilted down, will shine above the horizontal
Photo: ILP

An LED floodlight on a hospital shining into ward windows: its wiring and short fitting bar mean that it cannot be tilted far enough downwards to illuminate the area to be lit. It will always emit upwards as well as down.
Photo: Bob Mizon

Environmental Zones

It is recommended that Local Planning Authorities specify the following environmental zones for exterior lighting control within their Development Plans.

ZoneSurroundingLighting EnvironmentExamplesE0ProtectedDarkUNESCO Starlight Reserves, IDA Dark Sky ParksE1NaturalIntrinsically darkNational Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty etcE2RuralLow district brightnessVillage or relatively dark outer suburban locationsE3SuburbanMedium district brightnessSmall town centres or suburban locationsE4UrbanHigh district brightnessTown/city centres with high levels of night-time activitySource: Guidance Notes for the Reduction of Obtrusive Light GN01:2011


Where an area to be lit lies on the boundary of two zones the obtrusive light limitation values used should be those applicable to the most rigorous zone.
NB: Zone E0 must always be surrounded by an E1 Zone.

Lighting Types, qualities and Impacts - Bob Mizon Commission for Dark Skies (CfDS) - March 2016

This paper by Bob Mizon looks at best practice relating to external lighting - Different types of lighting through the years, terminology guide, threats to the environment from blue-rich white lighting, putting light where it is needed, part-night switch-offs and common misconceptions met when discussing quality lighting and good practice...

Download Lighting: types, qualities and impacts (PDF - 1.2Mb)

Institute of Lighting Professionals

The Institution of Lighting Professionals (ILP) is the UK and Ireland's largest and most influential professional lighting association, dedicated solely to excellence in lighting.

The key purpose of the ILP is to promote excellence in all forms of lighting. This includes interior, exterior, sports, road, flood, emergency, tunnel, security and festive lighting as well as design and consultancy services.

Their website contains a wealth of information and advice, and we would recommend the two links below - the first one being a PDF, and the second link taking you to the free resources page on their website:

Guidance Notes for the Reduction of Obtrusive Light (PDF)

Free Resources from the Institute of Lighting Professionals

More Links to useful resources

Universe Today - LEDs: Light Pollution Solution or Night Sky Nemesis? - Article by Bob King

Edison Tech Centre - Find out about the evolution of the Electric Light.

International working group (PDF) - Regional Government of Andalusia - Declaration on the use of blue-rich white light sources for nighttime lighting

Understanding & choosing colour temperature in LED lights (YouTube Video) - David Geldart of Lumicrest Lighting Solutions

Blue-rich LED Lighting — Bright New Future? - The Commission for Dark Skies

Switchoffs - Most UK councils are adopting environmental and economic lights-out policies - The Commission for Dark Skies

Top Ten Dark Sky Locations Dorset, UK

You can also check out the NEED-LESS interactive night sky simulator to find the darkest places in the AONB and discover what to expect when you're looking upwards.

Descriptions

1.       King Alfred’s Tower

Kingsettle Hill, South Brewham, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0LB

King Alfred’s Tower is a striking 160ft (49m) folly, built in 1772 for Henry Hoare II, known as Henry the Magnificent, the designer of the iconic  Stourhead gardens. It is believed to mark the site where King Alfred the Great rallied his troops in 878. The tower commemorates the accession of George III to the throne in 1760 and the end of the Seven Years War. Henry would surely have appreciated the majesty of the night sky as much as his own creations and this site provides a perfect spot from which to admire the beauty above.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: ST778340
Eastings: 377848 Northings: 134032
Latitude: 51.105152 Longitude: -2.3177773
Facilities: Car park
Owner: The National Trust

2.       Dinton Park

St Mary's Road, Dinton, Wiltshire SP3 5HH

Perfectly described by the National Trust as “far-reaching rolling parkland with tranquil views in the grounds of a Neo-Grecian house”. Please note that car parking for Dinton Park is located on St Mary's Road immediately south of St Mary's Church. There is no visitor car parking at Philipps House itself. This park is one of Wiltshire’s best kept secrets and boasts substantial views - even Salisbury Cathedral can be seen from the highest point. Just like the night sky, the house is strikingly simple, deliberately conservative and grand, making it a fantastic backdrop for your night time photography.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: SU009315
Eastings: 400985 Northings: 131584
Latitude: 51.083577 Longitude: -1.9873184
Facilities: Car park, nearby shop and pub.
Owner: The National Trust

3.       Fontmell and Melbury Downs

Spreadeagle Hill, Melbury Abbas, Dorset SP7 0DT

At 263m, the summit of Melbury Hill is one of the highest points in Dorset. An Armada beacon sited here in 1588 formed part of the chain of signal beacons stretching between London and Plymouth. What better place to witness the other navigational tools used by sea farers worldwide – the mystical constellations. This site offers superb panoramic views which, apart from Win Green, are unparalleled in the AONB.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: ST886187
Eastings: 388608 Northings: 118715
Latitude: 50.967740 Longitude: -2.1636066
Facilities: Car park, nearby café at Compton Abbas Airfield.
Owner: The National Trust

4.       Martin Down Nature Reserve

This 336ha reserve is home to an exceptional collection of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats, including a number of rare or threatened species. It also offers an exceptional view of our night skies. Savour this ancient landscape where our prehistoric ancestors would have relied heavily on the night sky for navigation, planning their year and for their religion and associated rituals.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: SU036200
Eastings: 403665 Northings: 120048
Latitude: 50.979831 Longitude: -1.9491720
Facilities: Car park
Owner: Natural England and Hampshire County Council

5.       Win Green

Donhead Hollow, Near Ludwell, Wiltshire SP7 0ES

One of the best known and most iconic sites in the Cranborne Chase AONB, Win Green is its highest point as well as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It contains chalk grassland, a habitat that has been seriously eroded in the UK and offers extensive views, with Bournemouth, the Isle of Wight, Salisbury, Glastonbury Tor, the Mendips, the Quantocks and Milk Hill all visible when clear.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: ST923204
Eastings: 392328 Northings: 120473
Latitude: 50.983613 Longitude: -2.1106625
Facilities: Car park
Owner: The National Trust

6.       Knowlton

Knowlton, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 5AE

Many people report a strange sensation when standing at the centre of Church Henge, among the ruins of the medieval church. This is perhaps because it is at the heart of a major pagan ceremonial site, once taken over by Christian worship, but now returned to nature. Surrounding the site is the largest concentration of pre-historic barrows and henges found anywhere in the UK. Read up on the constellation myths created by our ancestors that tell of gods and monsters, heroes and villains and other legends using only the stars in the night sky and then witness the incredible theatrical display for yourself. The backdrop of the stunning church also makes for fantastic astrophotography.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: SU023102
Eastings: 402331 Northings: 110231
Latitude: 50.891560 Longitude: -1.9682264
Facilities: Small car park
Owner: English Heritage

7.       Badbury Rings

B3082, near Wimborne, Dorset BH21 4DZ

Badbury Rings is an Iron Age hill fort in the territory of the Durotriges. In the Roman era, soldiers built a temple nearby which was used by the people of Vindocladia, a small local settlement. Back then there was little light pollution and our ancestors would have visited Badbury Rings and witnessed the full majestic view of our galaxy and beyond.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: ST960030
Eastings: 395983 Northings: 103064
Latitude: 50.827097 Longitude: -2.0584077
Facilities: Car park
Owner: The National Trust

8.       Cley Hill

Corsley, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 7QU

Although a bracing walk to the top of this ancient hillfort, once you’ve reached the summit you’ll be on top of one of the UK’s UFO hotspots. For almost 40 years this site has drawn UFO spotters who are keen to see if the talk of lights, flying objects and other unidentifiable oddities are true. Warminster has a designated National Reporting Centre for UFOs - so you won’t have to go far to record your sightings. The site offers 360 degree views of the surrounding hills and while the lights of Warminster may reduce the quality of the darkness, you may well enjoy an out of this world experience.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: ST837442
Eastings: 383769 Northings: 144287
Latitude: 51.197568 Longitude: -2.2336712
Facilities: Car park
Owner: National Trust

9.       Sutton Veny playing fields

This small picturesque village not far from Warminster is home to the Starquest Astronomy Club, a successful group made up of novices and more experienced astronomers. They meet once a month for talks and training in all things astronomy and also set up their telescopes on Sutton Veny playing fields for observation sessions. If you’re looking to find out more about the AONB’s night skies and astronomy, this club is probably for you. For more information, email peter.lee@tytherington.net; tel: 01985 840093.

Directions
Website
Grid reference: ST901417
Eastings: 390192 Northings: 141759
Latitude: 51.174978 Longitude: -2.1416849

10.   Ox Drove

Middle Down, north of Alvediston

Retrace the steps of our ancestors as they drove their cattle along this ancient track and take a journey of your own exploring the night sky. While you will not see the same brightness of starry night skies as they once boasted, you will still be one of the lucky 10% living in this country who are able to witness pristine skies.  Park in the lay-by next to the Ox Drove.

Directions
Grid reference: ST964250
Eastings: 396469 Northings: 125041
Latitude: 51.024727 Longitude: -2.0517156
Facilities: Car parking in lay-by

Light Pollution

The Good and the Bad

The Good and the Bad

by http://www.chasingstars.org.uk

Why do our dark skies need protecting?

The night sky makes up half of our visual environment and yet, unlike historic housing, ancient settlements, resident wildlife and our fantastic landscapes, the night sky has no protection, which explains why in just six years light pollution has increased by 24%.

This is not just bad news for people who can no longer be enthralled by the night sky. The amount of money squandered by ‘wasted’ light is staggering, plus the cost to human and wildlife health is significant. Making just a small low-cost difference to our lighting could bring about massive changes for the better.

Pollution is just that – light that is wasted and not used to light the things that people need. We all need light and certainly don’t want to make the AONB a light-free zone. All we want to do is ensure that we have the right lights in the right place at the right time.

The impacts of light pollution are significant, but small changes can make a big difference.

Is light pollution really that bad?

Even though it doesn’t smell bad, and if you’re used to it, it doesn’t look that bad, light pollution has been proved by experts to be just as bad as air and environmental pollution – it’s just not as obvious.

Here are some facts to get you started….

  • Total of 830,000 tonnes of CO2 pollution is produced from the energy wasted by streetlights alone.

  • The estimated cost of wasted light (that which isn’t shining on the things we need to illuminate) is a staggering £1 billion.

  • Light pollution is directly linked to a decrease in robin, songbird and owl populations.

  • Insects are the basis of many food chains, but one street light can kill up to 150 each night.

  • Lighting at night disrupts our circadian rhythm which has been proved to increase your risk of stress by 52%. It is linked to more serious health issues too.

Let’s look at this more positively…

  • There is increasing interest, wonder and amazement at the incredible array of stars above us. Stargazing is a fabulous educational activity for all and by keeping our dark skies you’ll be one of the lucky 10% of people in this country to enjoy this spectacular show.

  • Dark skies make the Cranborne Chase AONB unique, encouraging people to visit from polluted areas to escape to our pocket of tranquillity. That means more income for businesses through people arriving and staying longer.

  • Saving money. Substantial savings can be made by local authorities, businesses and individuals by turning off or dimming down unnecessary lighting. That means more money for the things that matter.

  • Saving energy. There is no point shining a light into the sky. Energy wastage can easily be considerably reduced – which is so much better for the environment.

All of the above is wasted light.

Easy ways to protect and enhance our dark skies… and banish the pollution

It is often said that if we all do a little, collectively we can make a big impact. In one small area of Wales, angling lights to illuminate the ground and turning off lights when they were not needed reduced light pollution by 10%.

Do you have concerns about street lighting or obtrusive lighting from another property? Let us know. We will not divulge your details but will work with others to install lighting which is a win win for everyone.

If you are interested in finding out more about light pollution, its impacts and some solutions, visit the websites below, both of which have some great resources on this subject:

Chasing Stars

Home of Outstanding Dark Night Skies as well as Natural Beauty.

Outstanding Dark Night Skies

Outstanding Dark Night Skies

Cranborne Chase can celebrate the fact that more than 50% of the 380 square miles of the AONB still has the lowest levels of light pollution in England - and the rest of the Chase is not far behind.

In fact, the Chase is one of the best places to stargaze in England. Our aim is to help you enjoy this aspect of our AONB as much as our multitude of other ground-based treasures. The great thing is that whether you work, live or visit the Cranborne Chase AONB there is something to see 24 hours a day.

There are currently only two other. areas in England that have been formally recognised for their low levels of light namely Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve and Northumberland Dark Sky Park. With your help Cranborne Chase AONB could be the third.

This important designation will not only put us on the map, but allow us to protect and enhance our night sky for generations to come.

How can you help?

Visit Survey monkey to sign our pledge. We would love your support. Please sign our pledge to show your love for our dark skies and our bid to get them protected. We would also love to know what you think of your own local dark skies. Please send us your photos, poems and stargazing adventures.

Do you have an iPhone? We are looking for volunteers to help us take measurements of the night sky. No experience is necessary and it’s as easy as downloading an app, standing outside and pressing a button – and hey presto and we have another piece of evidence to show how amazing our skies are.

Download IPhone app

DIY SOS (save our skies)

Why not give your home a low cost dark sky makeover? You would be amazed how easy it can be to make a few small changes that will transform your night view.

Here is an easy guide, but if you need help just let us know. Once you have done it please tell us – it all helps towards gaining Dark Sky Reserve status.

We are looking for volunteers too to work with us to show the accreditors we are serious about protecting our dark skies. Could you help by working with us to reduce light pollution in your community or business? We promise lots of publicity, plus plenty of support along the way.

Paul Howell @Pictor Images

Paul Howell @Pictor Images

Tokina AT-X 14-20mm F/2 PRO DX Review

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by Michael Burnham

Can you feel it? The start of Milky Way Galaxy season is less than 6 weeks away! This is the time of year when the core of the Milky Way Galaxy is up at night. It starts being visible in the predawn hours in late February and goes into September. If you shoot with a DLSR with an APS-C (DX) sensor Tokina has an amazing fast apertured super-wide angle zoom that is perfect for shooting the Milky Way Galaxy or any other astrophotography application.

Ladies and Gentlemen, if you don’t know it already please allow me to introduce the Tokina AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX lens. Not a misprint, its a constant f/2, not 2.8.

Fast Aperture

At the time of writing the constant f/2.0 is the fastest super-wide angle zoom lens available for APS-C sized DSLRs. F/2.0 is nearly a full stop faster than f/2.8 which equates to almost twice as much light entering the camera. More light entering the camera has several advantages; First, it allows the camera to focus in lower light situations. Second, it allows for more light to hit the sensor when doing long exposures at night, the faint light from more distant stars will be recorded making it perfect for astrophotography. More light gathering can also translate into shorter exposure times or lower ISO settings for sharper astro photos with less noise.

Next, the f/2.0 aperture yields a shallower depth of field than f/2.8 or slower lens. This last point allows you to isolate your subject more for a dramatic perspective. In another review I will be doing an in depth comparison of the the AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX vs the slower AT-X 12-28mm f/4 PRO DX lens so stay tuned to my blog fort that.

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Handling and Ergonomics

The Tokina 14-20mm is a weighty lens for its size weighing 735g (25.9 oz.). It feels solid, well made and balances well on PRO APS-C bodies like the Nikon 7500 or Canon 7D mkII. It will feel a little front heavy on smaller, lighter APS-C bodies like the Nikon 5600 or any of the Canon digital Rebel cameras but not too much. The reason for the weight is the amount of glass needed to accommodate the bright f/2.0 aperture and the fact that Tokina uses more metal than other manufactures in the internal barrels of the lens making them heavier but more durable.

The lens has common 82mm filter thread so there are a wide variety of filters available for image enhancement and creative possibilities.

Like all other Tokina AT-X PRO lenses, the 14-20mm has a Tokina’s exclusive One-Touch Focus Clutch mechanism for switching between auto focus and manual focus. Just pull the manual focusing ring back toward the base of the lens, the ring will snap back to engage the manual focus and then push it forward to engage auto focus again.

The lenses barrel design makes it very intuitive to handle on location in the dark. The rings are large enough and set far enough apart that I don’t get them confused in the dark or move one ring accidentally while turning the other, even while wearing gloves.

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AF

Auto focusing on the Tokina 14-20m is fast and smooth, it won’t break any speed records but its accurate. The lens does emit a little motor noise if you rack the AF between a very close subject and something far away. It’s not enough for anyone standing around you to notice but it might be heard on video using the built in mic so I would recommend using it in manual focus for video. The lens has had no problems acquiring and locking focus in a wide variety of lighting situations.

At night under the stars you will need to focus manual but that goes for any lens. A trick for getting infinity focus at night. If you have a high-power flashlight point it at something you know to be at a greater distance than the infinity scale. With a super-wide lens like the 14-20 something more than 5 meters (more than 15 feet) away, put your AF point on what you are lighting up and AF on it. Then carefully pull the manual focus light back into MF and you should be focused at infinity for the stars. After that, take a test shot and use the camera’s screen to zoom in on the stars to make sure they are in focus. If its not, start by moving the focus ring just a little to the left or right and take another test shot and check it to see if the starts are more or less focused. Repeat until the starts are sharp.

Here’s a tip; painters tape or other adhesive tape that is designed to be temporary and removable. Once you have the lens focused at infinity use a 3-4 cm (1.5 inches) long piece of painters tape to tape down the manual focus ring. That way it wont move accidentally if you move the camera to recompose your shot.

Sharpness

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Simply put, this lens is sharp, even wide open the lens is sharp. Other than the fast aperture sharpness is where this lens shines. DXO Mark gave the Tokina AT-X 14-20m f/2 PRO DX lens an over-all score of 26 which is higher than either the AT-X 11-20mm or the old 11-16mm lenses. That has been my experience with the lens as well, its the sharpest of the lenses in this class. The lens does not disappoint and you will be able to make large prints if you are using a camera with a 24+ megapixels sensor.

As with any lens, it is sharper when stopped down and the lens’s critical aperture setting is f/4.5 - f/5.0, I could not see any sharpness difference between these aperture settings and stopping down to f/5.6 did not improve sharpness over f/4.5-5.0. But sharpness wide open is still very good which is necessary for low light photography.

Astrophotography is where this lens is really at home. The Tokina 11-20mm may have a wider angle of view but the f/2 of the 14-20mm allows more light gathering and that means more stars captured and more flexibility to change exposure time or ISO.

Coma is not bad at all and Chromatic Aberrations (CA) are well corrected. In some high contrast situations you will see a just a little purple fringing but it is easy removed in post.

Conclusion

The Tokina AT-X 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX lens is at the top of its class in both fast aperture and sharpness. The constant f/2 aperture is the fastest available in a super-wide zoom lens for APS-C lenses at this time. That coupled with amazing optics makes this lens a natural for low-light photography and a lens that anyone interested in astrophotography should seriously consider.

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Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Review

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by Joe Gilker

TRACKING THE SKY

For the last 3 years, my lightweight portable tracker consisted of an iOptron SkyTracker. It was my primary photography tool through the winters when hauling my scope outside wasn’t always feasible, and through the summer served me well for long exposure Milky Way photography and time lapse sequences.

But while this fine little tracker served me well and provided me with some really great shots of the sky, it left me disappointed about a month back when without warning, it decided to give up the ghost on me as chronicled in this blog post. [EDIT: it has since been repaired]  Winter is rapidly approaching and I needed to get a replacement stat! Enter the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer!

Why the Star Adventurer?

At first, I had considered replacing my SkyTracker with the new SkyTracker Pro. But looking into the different trackers a bit more in-depth, I realized the SkyTracker had several advantages over the SkyTracker series.

  1. It’s a true German equatorial mount vs a tracking platform whereas the SkyTracker series and Vixen Polarie are tracking platforms. While both provide the same function, the ability to have a counterweight to help keep tracking accurate under heavier loads was a big factor. The counterweight option is available on the SkyTracker Pro, but the Star Adventurer has a maximum payload of a full 2kg more. It seemed a better option, as I do have a couple of rather heavy lenses.

  2. The Star Adventurer comes equipped at an ST4 guide port to use with an auto-guider. This may be helpful down the road as I plan on getting a standalone autoguide (vs my current guide camera / laptop setup)

  3. It’s a multipurpose mount with pan effects for any type of time lapse photography. I’ve been getting more into time lapse photography since last summer so I figured this could be a useful tool for this purpose. I particularly look forward to using in this manner the next time I’m out shooting the Aurora Borealis.

The Bundles

The Star Adventurer is available in 3 different bundles at 3 different price points.

The first includes only the mount. While the price looks attractive, you need to provide all the extras needed to use the mount.  On its own, there’s not a lot you can do with just the mount. You can attach the mount to a normal tilt-pan head and properly align it, it’s not as easy or accurate as with the equatorial wedge designed for it.

Sky Watcher Star Adventurer.    The Astro Bundle pictured here provides you with everything you need for exceptional sky photography

Sky Watcher Star Adventurer. The Astro Bundle pictured here provides you with everything you need for exceptional sky photography

The second, the Photography Bundle, includes the equatorial wedge and ball head adapter. To me, unless you positively have everything else you need, this is the minimum bundle I would  recommend buying. You just supply the camera, a ball head and a tripod, and you’re in business.

The 3rd, the Astro Bundle, comes with everything in the previous bundle, but also includes an extra mounting bracket with a counterweight for mounting heavier loads or small telescopes. This is the package I opted to buy.

In the Box

With the Astro Bundle, you get everything you need except a ball mount and tripod. Included are:

  • Star Adventurer mount

  • equatorial wedge

  • 3/8″ ball head adaptor

  • Fine-tuning mounting assembly

  • Counterweight and bar

  • Polar scope illuminator

  • 1/4″ to 3/8″ thread adapter

  • DSLR shutter release cable

The mount body itself is a solid metal unit that feels hefty and looks to be very well built. It has very simple, easy to understand controls. On the outside is the mode control knob, a direction switch, 2 multi-function buttons, a USB port (for firmware updates and power in the field), an ST4 guide port, and a  DSLR shutter control port. Other notable features are a great right ascension clutch system that positively locks the right ascension axis, and that the unit accommodates standard Vixen-style doveplates.  Built into the body is a polar scope covered by a plastic end cap. The unit is powered by 4AA batteries or via the USB port.

While everything looked incredible and solid, 2 things stood out to me as being a little flimsy. The plastic cap that covers the polar scope is of a very stiff, but light plastic. The 2 prongs that attach it into place don’t seem very solid to me. I fear that this plastic will be terribly brittle in the cold and could potentially break easily. A softer plastic cap or an aluminium cap that screws on would in my opinion be a better choice. It would increase the cost of the unit a bit, but would be worth it.

The cover to the battery compartment is also made of this same plastic. To me, it feels cheap when comparing it to the solid aluminium the rest of the unit is made of. It seems to work and fits well. I don’t think it would fall out. But it just looks odd to have something feeling so flimsy on such a solid unit.

The equatorial wedge attaches to the bottom of the mount with a standard 3/8″ connector like most camera equipment. It also has a good weight and is built of solid materials to ensure there is no flex. It has standard locking altitude and azimuth controls with fine-tuning screws that make polar alignment very easy. Anyone who’s used an equatorial mount with a telescope will be immediately familiar with this setup.

Also included is an illuminator for the polar scope. It attaches to the front of the mount and provides a red light to illuminate the  polar scope during alignment.

The next 2 items are the mounting options. The first is a small ball head adapter used for tracking with just a camera. It attaches to any standard ball head with a standard 3/8″ connector. On this underside of this adapter are Vixen dovetail plate rails that allow it to be locked securely into the Star Adventurer. This option is used when you’re just tracking with a lighter-weight camera and lens combo.

The second is a Vixen dovetail plate with a “Fine Tuning Mounting Assembly” on one end. This is used for mounting heavier loads like cameras with heavy lenses or small telescopes. On one end of the plate is the fine tuning mount. It has a 1/4″ screw to attach it to a camera or small telescope. A 3/8″ adapter is also included for attaching to other equipment. This acts as the declination axis of the equatorial mount. Its clutch system is similar to the main RA clutch on the Star Adventurer and very solid. It also includes a knob that acts as a slow motion control on the dec axis to make framing your target even more convenient.  At the other end of the dovetail is a threaded hole into which the counterweight bar is screwed to balance out the load.

The package also includes a DSLR shutter control cable to allow the Star Adventurer to control your camera’s shutter. Cables are available to cover most of the popular camera models from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and so on.

What’s Not Included

While you get a great set of accessories with the 2 higher bundles, it doesn’t include everything you need to get started. You’ll need to supply:

  • a sturdy tripod

  • a sturdy ball head

  • a 3-way tilt-pan head if you only bought the basic unit

  • 4x AA batteries or an external USB power supply

Onboard Functions

The Star Adventurer has very simple controls for basic operation. A mode dial allows you to switch from 7 different tracking rates. You get Celestial (1x sidereal), solar, lunar, 0.5x, 2x, 6x and 12x tracking rates. The first 3 are for their intended purposes, whereas the other 4 tracking rates can be used for time lapse photography. Adjusting the wedge at 90º, the tracker can be used as an azimuth panner for landscape time lapse photography. The N/S direction switch controls the direction.

Although I didn’t use it, the onboard camera shutter control is a nice touch for someone traveling light. For deep sky tracking, it can be set for 50 or 100 second exposures in the northern hemisphere, but only 100 second in the south. I didn’t find the onboard shutter control terribly useful with only 2 selectable shutter times for celestial photography, but that’s more of a matter of personal preference. I prefer the programmability of my intervalometer and would rather use that instead. Switching the mode dial to alternate tracking rates change the shutter modes. These different rates and panning patterns are fully explained in the manual if you need more information on the subject.

It’s to be noted that only basic panning and shutter function is available with the stock firmware. By installing the advanced firmware, it’s possible to adjust different panning angles, shutter lengths, etc. This can be quite useful for some really creative motion time lapse.

As noted, the unit comes with an ST4 guide port allowing you to use the unit with an autoguider scope and camera. It will accept single axis RA guiding corrections from any guide camera / computer combo or standalone auto guiding unit. which makes this mount a potential deep sky monster that could potentially allow you to tracks 15+ minute exposures  without any drift.

But of course, all this is nice to have on paper. It means nothing if the mount doesn’t perform as expected in the field. And that’s where the true test is.

In The Field

After a quick scan of the manual, I knew everything I needed to know about how to set it up and use it for basic operation and was ready to take it for a test drive. I drove out to one of my favourite spots at Camden Lake near Moscow, Ontario, and set up my gear. I mounted the Star Adventurer on my trusty Manfrotto 055PROB mount, which is a pretty solid tripod. It should be noted that if you have a lightweight, wobbly tripod, you likely won’t get good results. Even without a camera, the SkyTracker is fairly hefty. Add the counterweight and fine-tuning mount, and you add even more weight before the camera is even added. I could trust my lighter duty Manfrotto 190PROB with my iOptron SkyTracker, but  I would consider my 055PROB to be the minimum I could get away with using the Star Adventurer. A lightweight tripod won’t cut it. If you plan on buying any tracker, invest in a solid tripod first.

The alignment was fairly simple, but not as smooth as I hoped it would be. I had assumed the larger teeth and controls on the wedge would perform better than the SkyTracker. The azimuth controls work flawlessly, but I found that locking the altitude axis will cause the mount to shift a bit from polar alignment. I had to fiddle with it a bit to get it perfect. It takes a bit of over or under adjustment at times so that Polaris will be at the right position after the axis is locked. The effect is less pronounced than it was on my SkyTracker, but it exists here as well. I was hoping that a mount that was way more solid wouldn’t have this type of loose tolerance in the wedge. It’s not a show stopper, and once locked into place, it’s solid. But it is an annoyance when aligning.

Another sore point I had during the alignment process was the polar scope illuminator. It’s a removable part that clips into the top of the mount when you align. And in terms of providing light, it works well. Its design, however, is rather cheap and not well thought out. There’s no power switch. Switching it off requires unscrewing the battery cover. You have to unscrew it  almost 100% of the way out in order to turn the light off. This means the cap can easily fall off and be lost. Failing to unscrew it enough means the illuminator battery will be dead the next time you use it. Why Sky-Watcher thought this was a good idea as opposed to a small power switch boggles my mind. In my opinion, it wouldn’t have been hard to illuminate the mount internally, which would have done away with this nuisance of a part and been far useful.

A minor gripe I have with the polar scope and alignment is that you align the mount without a load, which can cause a slight shift after you mount your equipment. When using the fine-tuning mount and counterweight, you can still look through the polar scope to check for alignment, albeit without the illuminator (I used a red flashlight for the job). When using the ball head adapter, the polar scope is completely obscured. But despite this, within a few minutes, I was aligned, my camera was attached, and I was ready to start shooting.

Beyond this, operation of the Star Adventurer was simple and effortless. There’s nothing really really more to say here. If you’ve done your alignment properly, you’ll have accurate tracking for exposures up to several minutes, depending on the focal length of your lens.

Performance

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. While I wasn’t able to shoot under ideal conditions, the results posted above do show that tracking is accurate and the mount performs as advertised for night sky photography. As with any equatorial tracking mount, good polar alignment is key. Once you’re aligned, the Star Adventurer is a solid mount capable of tracking the sky accurately. And that’s what really matters.

CONCLUSION

The Good

  • solid build quality

  • impressive maximum payload of 5kg (11lbs)

  • ease of use

  • superb tracking

  • onboard control for camera shutter

The Bad

I’ll preface this list by stating that these points aren’t anything necessarily wrong with the mount, but rather things that could have been done better.

  • the wedge could be made to better tolerances so that tightening the lock doesn’t cause the mount to shift position

  • plastic scope cover feels cheap and weak

  • plastic battery cover seems to cheapen the overall feel of the unit

The Ugly

  • the polar illuminator is utter rubbish in build and design. Yes, it works, but it’s an inconvenience in so many ways I would rather not use it.

Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a a solid equatorial tracking mount for your camera, then the Star Adventurer will provide everything you need. It’s an easy to use system that will have you up and running in minutes. It has some impressive features and modes for night sky photography, and even more to offer for other forms of motion time lapse photography. That’s even truer if you install the advanced firmware.

If you’re looking for a solid tracking mount for you camera, the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer should be one of the top contenders on your list.

THE SCIENCE AND ART OF PHOTOGRAPHING METEORS Marsha Kirschbaum and Rick Whitacre

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INTRODUCTION

Of all the night sky phenomena to watch and photograph, a meteor shower is among the most exciting. The anticipation and surprise of those tiny bits of cosmic dust streaking

across the sky is thrilling. To capture them in camera is even more amazing. This article gives the photographer, whether beginner or advanced, the tools necessary to take amazing meteor shower images. We will also provide ideas on how to incorporate meteors into compelling compositions.

WHAT IS A METEOR SHOWER?

When earth’s orbit takes it through streams of cosmic debris from a disintegrating comet or asteroid (in case of Geminids or Quadrantids), we have a meteor shower.

These showers occur the same time each year as our earth revolves around the sun. When the earth passes through the greatest debris field of a given shower, it is called the Peak. Some showers are better seen in the Northern hemisphere; others in the Southern hemisphere; and some worldwide.

A following table lists the major meteor showers for 2019. Not all meteors come from the annual meteor showers. They can show up randomly at any time. For purposes of this article, we will focus on photographing the major, annual showers.

Meteors often appear to be coming from a single point in the sky, called the radiant point. Meteor showers are generally named after the constellation they appear to come from.

(Perseids from constellation Perseus; Geminids from constellation Gemini, etc.) Most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, throwing off intense streaks of light as they burn

up in the earth’s atmosphere. Meteors enter the earth’s atmosphere at speeds ranging from 25,000 to 160,000 mph. That’s fast!

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HOW DOES A CAMERA CAPTURE A METEOR

In order to capture those flying bits of cosmic dust, the settings in our cameras must be optimized to ensure success. This means the optimum sensitivity to light: Wide enough

aperture (small F-stop) to allow the most light onto the sensor as possible; Enough sensitivity (ISO) to record the meteor streak in its entirety, but not blow it out either; and

sufficient time (shutter/exposure) to capture the complete streak without clipping it.

These settings will be discussed in detail under Camera Settings.

Another factor for success in capturing meteors is to have the meteor pass within the camera’s field of view! That is why using a wide-angle lens is also recommended. It is unfortunately a very common refrain to hear, ’’Oh, if only my camera was pointed in the other direction.“

GEAR

Camera related equipment.

• DSLR or Mirrorless Camera that allows for interchangeable lenses. Since most meteors are fairly faint, ISO settings of 3200-6400 are common. For best results, you need a camera body that can shoot at those ISO values with manageable noise levels. Since you want to cover as much sky as possible to increase your chances of capturing meteors, you also want a wide field of view. Full-frame cameras are often best for both their ISO capabilities as well as their field of view with any given lens, but many fantastic images have been captured with crop-sensors.

• Sturdy tripod – The tripod should be sturdy enough to hold your camera and not shake in a breeze or light wind. If conditions are very windy, a heavy bag – like your camera bag – is useful to weigh it down.

• Wide, fast lens (2.8 or faster) – A 14 mm lens allows for a nice wide field of view, which increases the probability of more meteors in your frame. While one can go wider, know that the meteor streaks will be smaller relative to the

size of the frame. Faster (wider aperture) lenses allow for more light to reach the sensor. If shooting with a longer lens, say a 24mm, then the wider the aperture should be, to allow for more light and pinpoint stars. (see camera settings discussion)

• Intervalometer / Remote Timer – This device will allow for setting the exposure time and to continuously fire one exposure after another at intervals of 1 second (to allow the camera to write to the memory card). This ensures the probability that most meteors that fly in front camera will be captured.

• Large memory card - Meteor showers at Peak can last for more than a couple of hours. In fact, daylight often terminates the ability to see the meteors and that’s when to call it quits. Make sure to start with a cleanly formatted, empty

memory card that will hold several hour’s worth of exposures for your particular camera.

• Spare batteries or battery pack – The colder the temperature is, the quicker the batteries run down. This is particularly true for the Sony cameras. In colder temperatures, keeping batteries in a warm pocket next to your body will extend their life a little more. Even better is a battery pack, which will allow for longer uninterrupted exposures (more meteor capture potential). Speaking from experience, usually the biggest meteors fly past when one is changing the battery.

The battery pack becomes even more important if one is planning to compile images into a timelapse, where gaps are problematic.

• Headlamp / red light – A headlamp is a good way of keeping hands free for camera settings, foreground focus or safely wandering off to the bushes for some private time. A red light is recommended so that night vision is kept intact. However, please, please be courteous with your light so as not to destroy fellow photographers’ night vision or image capture. Try to ask if light is ok before turning it on.

• Planisphere or Apps (TPE, Photopills, Stellarium) These tools are very helpful to guide and familiarize the photographer with the night sky. The Planisphere is a round wheel with the map of the stars in the night sky. It can be adjusted

by month, date and time to show the stars at that time. The beauty of the Planisphere is that it is accurate and does not need batteries. I keep one in my car at all times. That said, there are many apps for desktop and mobile devices that assist in planning for meteor captures or any astro landscape

photography for that matter. These are particularly helpful if one cannot scout the location before hand. The more you learn to recognize the stars and constellations the easier it becomes to make last minute on-site adjustments. This recognition comes the more one looks at the stars.

PLANNING

• Calendar – The most important item on the planning checklist is the Meteor Calendar. When do the major meteor showers occur and when is the peak (when the earth passes through the heaviest part of the debris field). This is when most of the meteors are likely to occur and is measured in meteors/hour. Most meteor showers are best seen after midnight, when the radiant point of the shower is high in the sky. When planning the best night to go out, be aware that some sites give the date as the “night of” the peak, and others show the actual date of the peak, which is typically after midnight: ie. the next morning.

A list of the major meteor events is listed below (showing the night of the peak):

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• Moon phase – No matter how dark the skies, if the moon is up, the skies will be too bright to see all but the brightest of the meteors. The light from the moon can be mitigated somewhat by photographing at a site where there is a large hill or mountain between you and the moon.

• Dark skies – The darker the skies are, the better chance your camera has of capturing a meteor. There are mobile device apps and websites that will let you know about light pollution and how dark the skies are at or near the area you wish to photograph (see Handy Links at the end of this article) . Clear Dark Sky (www.cleardarksky.com) is a desktop web page I use all the time for forecasts regarding weather and seeing.

They have maps showing many astronomy sites. I bring up their maps and click on the site closest to where I

want to photograph to obtain information about seeing (how clear the sky is based on moisture, light pollution, etc.) Another mobile app, I just started using is called Astrospheric (www.astrospheric.com), which combines the Clear Dark Sky info with satellite maps showing cloud cover and forecasted

movement of those clouds. Dark Site Finder (www.darksitefinder.com) has good maps showing light pollution.

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• Weather – Of all the variables not under our control, the weather can quickly put a stop to all meteor photography. Even after you have chosen your meteor shower, found a dark enough sky site, the weather has to be constantly

monitored right up until you walk out the door to photograph. Anything that obscures the sky (clouds, fog, smoke) makes photographing meteors very difficult.

PRE-VISUALIZATION EXAMPLE

The easiest way to address these subjects is to walk through a real-life scenario in which we collaborated to photograph the 2018 Geminid Meteor Shower. Checking the meteor calendar for the year, the peak of the Geminid Shower was

predicted for the 12/14/2018. Both of us live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is pretty light polluted. To find darker skies, we would have to travel. A weather system

was incoming and clouds were predicted along the coast during the Peak of the Geminid shower.

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This meant that we would have to turn our dark sky search eastward to try and get ahead of the weather system. According to Dark Sky Finder, Death Valley National

Park, a seven hour drive away seemed like a good spot. (See Figure 1) Checking weather, particularly for cloud cover, there was a window of a couple of hours for mostly clear skies during the time needed. The hourly weather report indicated that later in the morning the percentage of cloud cover would increase. This would have to be closely monitored for changes right up until we got ready to depart.

Next, we checked Stellarium for the radiant point or where the meteors would appear to come from. Both of us knew at the time of the peak, the radiant would be high (See Figure 2), nearly overhead. Since we both love astro landscape photography, we wanted a foreground in our images. This would be a challenge with the radiant point so high in the sky. We came up with the idea of using tree canopies as our foreground, similar to what Marsha had done previously with the Milky Way.

As luck would have it, Comet Wirtanen would be visible during the peak as well. Could we get the comet in the same field of view as the radiant point? Stellarium showed us

that we could. Figure 2 below shows the night sky and the field of view with a Rokinon 14 mm 2.8 lens. The Geminid Radiant and Comet Wirtanen, would easily fall within a 14

mm. frame (on a full frame camera). You can also see that the Radiant for the meteors would be nearly straight up at midnight!

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Since the Radiant and Wirtanen were both going to be nearly straight up, we needed to find tall trees to get under to shoot up from. Now, where do you find trees in a desert, like

Death Valley National Park, where we wanted to shoot? The Mesquites are too bushy to see through and the Joshua Trees were too far away to travel to from our base ofoperations in Furnace Creek. Palm Trees would have to do, and they presented a nice silhouette.

This is where Google Maps is a useful tool. We turned on the satellite view and zoomed in looking for likely Palm tree groves. (See Figure 3) These groves, of course, would have to be investigated when we were actually on site.

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We now had the beginnings of a plan of action for the 2018 Geminid Meteor Shower. I say beginnings, because, once on site, many variables, like fences, No Trespassing signs, dead trees, etc., would make adjustments necessary. If at all possible, it is very important to scout in the day time. In this case, the palm trees at this location were bathed in landscape lights and not ideal. Since we gave ourselves time to scout, however, we did manage to find some trees nearby that worked very well!

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CAMERA SET UP RECOMMENDATIONS

A. Set camera to “RAW” for greatest flexibility in post processing.

B. Set ISO to 3200 or 6400 depending on how well your camera handles noise.

For cameras like the Sony A7S, you can even use ISO12,800.

C. Install a large, empty memory card. You need room for 120-180 images for

every hour of shooting.

D. Set the exposure mode to Bulb and connect your intervalometer (remote timer). If your caera has a built in intervalometer that will take back-to-back 20-30 second exposures for many hours, you can use that. Unfortunately, most cameras do not yet have built-in intervalometers capable of doing this. Test it before leaving home!

E. Use a wide angle lens to capture more of the sky. Focal lengths between 14-24mm (full frame equivalent) are recommended.

F. Set the Aperture to its widest setting; ideally f/1.4 - f/2.8 for capturing meteor streaks. You may want to stop down 1-2 stops for a sharper foreground image for blending in later, but shoot wide open for the meteors.

G. Intervalometer settings:

a. Delay: 2-5 seconds to give you time to secure the intervalometer. b. Exposure: 15-30 seconds to avoid clipping any meteors while not streaking the stars too much. We use the 400/Equiv Focal Length rule. Others use the 500/FL rule, which is a little looser: https:// shuttermuse.com/how-to-avoid-star-trails/ c. Interval: 1 second between shots. d. Number: Set to “- -“ which is below 1 and stands for infinity. The timer will continue until you stop it.

e. Beep: Off. Please don’t disturb others with the constant beeping.

H. Set the lens to Manual Focus and focus manually on the stars using Live View.

I. Set White Balance to something between 3500-4000K (or Incandescent) so the images will look natural when viewing on the LCD. When shooting RAW, it really doesn’t matter, but that is what we do.

J. Use the lens hood to reduce dew buildup on the front element and minimize impact from stray lights.

K. Make sure that LENR (Long Exposure Noise Reduction) is off.

L. Remove any lens filters to reduce stray light bouncing around.

M. Turn off Image Stabilization (IS, VR, OSS) since you are on a tripod.

N. If using a DSLR, turn off mirror lockup.

O. Install fresh battery or connect your extended battery pack for all-night shooting. If using batteries, have 1-2 spares warming up in your pocket.

COMPOSITION

As in most photography, composition is the most important aspect. Compose your scene with a strong, interesting foreground with as much sky as possible. While meteors can be

seen in all portions of the sky during a shower, most will originate from the radiant. If you want to create a composite image with several meteors aligned to the radiant (as in

the first image of the 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower), you will want to include the radiant in your composition. Since the radiant will appear to move during the night due to the

earth’s rotation, you will need to visualize where the radiant will arc through your chosen composition and make sure it stays in or near your field of view for most of the night.

There are many desktop and smart phone apps that can help you with this. Additionally, to help with aligning the meteors around the radiant in post-processing, try to include the

North Star (Polaris) in your composition if possible. The North Star will not move significantly during the night in the Northern Hemisphere. Your foreground, movement of

the radiant, and location of the North Star are important considerations when selecting the camera orientation if planning to do a radiant composite(See Time Shift Comparison). If

you plan to collect random meteors, the position of the radiant and the North Star is less important. Both vertical and horizontal orientations can be used.

Since the camera settings for meteors are very similar to those used to capture the Milky Way, you can combine the Milky Way with meteors very effectively. The Perseids, for

example, originate in the northern arm of the summer Milky Way. With a little luck, you might be able to capture a meteor with the Galactic Center of the Milky Way.

TECHNIQUE

Once a composition has been determined, take a test shot at high ISO to confirm. Make sure your camera is level and the tripod stable. Focus on the brightest stars using 10X

LiveView, or set the focus manually on the lens at the pre-determined infinity or hyperfocal locations. Confirm sharp star focus on a test image. Zoom in and use a Hoodman or or magnifier if available.

With composition and focus set, we recommend you take a low-ISO, long exposure shot to have for possible future compositing in Photoshop. The stars will streak, of course, but

this will give you a low-noise, well lit foreground image to composite into your meteor shots in post-processing. This is especially effective if the moon is just setting or just

before twilight begins and the sky is still providing light on the foreground.

Confirm your camera settings for meteor capture (Bulb, high ISO, wide open aperture) and set your intervalometer to take an infinite (or very large) number of shots of 15-30 second duration (400 / FL rule) with 1 second between exposures. Put a fresh, full battery in the camera or hook up an external battery pack for all-night power. Insure that you have a large, empty memory card in your camera.

Start the intervalometer and insure that camera is functioning and taking successive images. Check the lens periodically for dew buildup and gently wipe it off if it appears. Periodically check your battery level and swap in fresh batteries as required. Lay back and enjoy the show!

After your sequence is done, it is always a good idea to take another low-ISO, long exposure image to use for blending in post-processing. This is especially true if your camera may have been bumped or if the moon has risen and provided some light on the foreground.

POST PROCESSING

Post processing your meteor images breaks down into the following steps:

A. Import your images from the meteor shower into your favorite image processor (like Lightroom). Select one of the images from near the middle of the night and process it

like you would a Milky Way or star image (white balance, highlights, shadows, noise reduction, clarity, etc). Copy these settings to all of the other images in the series.

B. Review every image in the series and mark those that contain meteor streaks. You can use the Lightroom “star” system or any other system that allows you to separate the

images with meteors from all the others that do not contain meteors.

C. Export all the images with meteors into Photoshop as Layers. From Lightroom, this is done by selecting all the images that have meteors and going to Photo > Edit In >

Open as Layers in Photoshop...

D. Change the Blend Mode of all the layers to Lighten Mode. This will result in a very messy image, but one that shows all the meteors. This will start to give you an idea of

what your image might look like. The image is messy because the stars from each layer are showing through and since the stars moved from one exposure to the next, they appear over and over again in different spots. We will get rid of all but one of the star fields in the following steps.

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E. Choose one of the layers to be the Base Layer. This can be the layer with the best meteor or a layer where the Radiant is in the best spot, etc. Try to pick a layer that

does not have any airplane trails for your Base Layer. It makes life easier. We recommend picking one from near the middle of the shoot if possible.

F. Change the Blend Mode of the Base Layer to Normal Mode and rename it to “Base Layer” so you don’t get confused. Move it to the bottom of the Layer stack.

G. Decide if you want to composite all the meteors as they occurred during the night or “time-shift” them so all of the meteors point back to the radiant of the Base Layer.

Time-shifting can create a more uniform image, but non time-shifted images will have more meteors (because some will get time-shifted out of the frame). Perform the timeshifting if desired (see section below for instructions).

H. Make all the Layers invisible (turn off the eye ball) except for the Base Layer and the first meteor layer you want to work on. Click the "Add Mask" icon or go to menu

Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. Get a small, medium edge brush, and using black "ink" paint over the meteor in this layer mask until it disappears. With the layer mask

still selected, do an Image > Adjustments > Invert (Shortcut Cntr/Cmd-I) to invert the layer mask to reveal only the meteor.

I. Correct for any halo that might show up around the meteor. Depending on what time of night, or what portion of sky the meteor came from, you may need to adjust it to get to blend into the Base Layer properly. The biggest problem is usually a bright halo around the meteor. To fix this, add a Curves Adjustment Layer as a Clipping Mask to the layer (go up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar and choose New Adjustment Layer, select Curves, and check the box “use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask”). Then, adjust the black point on the curve until the halo disappears.

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J. Repeat Steps H and I for all the other meteor layers. When complete, you should have only one star field (from the Base Layer) with all the meteors showing up from the

other layers. Take a good look at your image and decide if any of the meteors are distracting (like they cross each other) or are too close to the edge, etc. Try turning their layer visibility on and off to see if your image is helped or hurt by having it.

Leave the eyeball off if you don’t like it.

K. Once you are completely happy with your meteor composite, Flatten the image and Save it. An image with 30-50-meteor layers is too large to save without flattening it.

L. Blend in one of your lower ISO, longer exposure, images for a cleaner, brighter foreground if desired.

M. Finish processing the image by dodging, burning, cloning, and adding clarity, contrast, noise reduction, etc as desired in either Photoshop or Lightroom.

TIME-SHIFTING METEORS

If your composition includes the North Star, locate it. This will be the reference for timeshifting all the other layers to match the Base Layer. If the North Star does not appear in your composition, estimate where it is and use that side or corner as a rough approximation. If you are comfortable with adding more canvas to your image, you can add enough canvas to include a "virtual" north star for reference and use that.

Turn off all of the layers except for the Base Layer and the first layer that you want to time-shift into place. With the first meteor layer highlighted in the Layer Palette, go to

menu Edit / Free Transform (shortcut Ctrl/Cmd-T). In the middle of the layer is a rotation mark. Move that mark to the North Star and drop it there. Now, when you rotate this layer, it will rotate around the North Star, similar to what happened during the meteor shower. Rotate the layer until the star pattern of this layer lines up with the star pattern of the Base Layer. It won't be exact due to lens distortion, but you should be able to get close. Double check by seeing that the meteor on the layer you are rotating points to the same area as the one on the Base Layer. When happy with the alignment, click the checkmark symbol near the top to complete the Transform. Now add a mask to that layer, use a black brush to paint over the meteor (make it disappear) and then invert that layer mask to make the meteor re-appear, but hide everything else from that layer. If there is a halo around the meteor, use a Curves Clipping Mask as detailed above.

Once satisfied with the first meteor, make the next meteor layer visible and repeat the Transform process to time-shift it into place. Mask out the meteor, invert the layer mask so that only the meteor shows, and use a Curves Clipping Mask to blend if necessary. Repeat for all the rest of the meteor layers.

It is not uncommon to have meteors that get time-shifted right off the edge or get placed on top of mountains and trees. Unfortunately, you will have to delete these layers and move on to the next one. If you find that you are throwing too many meteors away, you may want to start over and pick a new Base Layer to align all the other meteors to. This is the reason it usually works best to pick a middle image as your Base Layer if possible.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Marsha Kirschbaum is a San Francisco Bay Area fine art landscape and astro landscape photographer. She says about her night photography “The mystery and magic of night

photography is especially powerful for me. I would like to awaken the viewer through my night photography to its visual possibilities, the excitement and wonder of a meteor

shower, the joy of the sparkling stars reflecting in a mountain lake or the quiet serenity the night’s dark silence can bring. The natural world and its connection to the universe at

large fills me with wonder and gratitude. We have been given the gift of this amazing planet and through my photography, I hope to share its beauty, inspire a hike, or entice a relaxing moment gazing skyward at the stars.”

Marsha’s photography can be found at:

https://www.marshakirschbaum.com and

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkirschbaum/

Rick Whitacre is also based in the San Francisco Bay Area and focuses on landscape, night, and astro landscape photography. Rick was drawn to night photography both for

the technical challenges it presents and the ability to photograph scenes that have been shot over and over again in the daytime, but become completely different at night. In

addition to shooting meteors, Rick has been known to chase solar and lunar eclipses and other amazing astronomy events.

Rick’s photography can be found at:

https://www.whitacrephotography.com

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricoshanchez/

iOptron SkyTracker Review

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by by Ben Lawry

DSLR astrophotographers must strike a delicate balance between ISO sensitivity, aperture, focal length, and exposure time every time they take a shot. The greatest single factor influencing all of these variables is the rotation of the earth. The iOptron SkyTracker attempts to relax these variables by cancelling out Earth’s rotation. Is it worth the price?

Overview

The SkyTracker (v2) is a tripod-mounted accessory that allows a DSLR to track stars as the earth rotates about its axis. The rectangular body of the SkyTracker can be tilted from 0 to 70 degrees, allowing pretty much anyone not living near the equator to polar align it. The front side features a circular mounting plate with a 3/8″ bolt that allows most larger ball heads to be attached. The large hole in the corner is precision-machined for the insertion of a polar scope (included).

On the back side are several switches (on/off switch, Northern/Southern mode switch, and 1X or 0.5X sidereal tracking rate mode switch), as well as a battery cover plate. You can either run the SkyTracker using 4xAA batteries or a 9-12v DC adapter (sold separately). All in all, it’s a fairly simple design. One nice feature unique to the “v2” version of the SkyTracker is a locking azimuth adjustment wheel. The original SkyTracker does not come with this adjustment wheel, but is otherwise the same.

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Made mostly of metal, the SkyTracker feels solid, coming in at 2.6 lbs without batteries. The components are reasonably high-quality. The polar scope is all metal on the outside. The glass provides a clear view of your polar alignment stars and includes etched alignment guides that glow red when the SkyTracker is turned on.

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There’s very little play in the polar scope when attached and locked, and the camera mounting point is solid too, when properly tightened. The azimuth adjustment ring (in versions that include it) locks down solidly as well. The elevation adjustment is a little loose all on its own, but comes with a silver clamp that can be used to eliminate play here too. All in all, it’s a pretty solid piece of equipment if you remember to lock everything down.

Figure 4: Left, we see the elevation adjustment knob(black, middle), latitude degree markings, and elevation clamp (silver-barred knob on the left). On the right is the azimuth wheel (rotates along the silver line) and azimuth wheel lock.

Figure 4: Left, we see the elevation adjustment knob(black, middle), latitude degree markings, and elevation clamp (silver-barred knob on the left). On the right is the azimuth wheel (rotates along the silver line) and azimuth wheel lock.

Where the SkyTracker loses a couple stars is in the battery compartment and power switch. The battery box is made mostly of rigid plastic and the wires connecting it to the electronics inside are very short, which makes swapping batteries difficult. Another minor annoyance here is that the battery box can almost be re-inserted rotated 90 degrees from the way it was intended to be inserted. If you forget which way it’s supposed to go, there’s a good chance you’ll try to do it wrong at least once in the field. The only indication you have that you did it wrong is that the back cover will fit back on, but VERY tightly. I ended up breaking off one of its two teeth this way. Lesson learned.

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The power switch is solid, but it can be turned on inadvertently even when the SkyTracker is packed away in its plush carrying case. On two occasions, I’ve arrived at a site only to find that the batteries had been completely drained before I got there because of this issue. You can avoid this by removing the batteries after each use, but because of the aforementioned battery box issues, it is kind of a pain

Despite my gripes about the power switch and battery box, the SkyTracker is still reasonably well-built. I really like the mostly-metal construction, and the whole thing feels reasonably solid.

Build quality verdict: 3 out of 5 stars.

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The whole premise of the SkyTracker is pretty simple: keep the stars in the sky from trailing in your pictures. To do this well, you really only need to be able to polar align it and then track at at the sidereal rate.

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Minimally, you could run this all on batteries and get away with a good illuminated polar scope and a solid elevation adjustment knob. The SkyTracker comes with a few extra bells and whistles beyond this minimal set of features that really come in handy:

Built-in compass

AC/DC adapter compatibility

0.5x tracking rate mode (great for shooting nightscapes)

Azimuth adjustment wheel (v2-only)

Aside from the azimuth adjustment wheel, my favorite added feature is the 0.5x sidereal tracking rate option. For nightscapes with a lot of foreground detail, this option lets you expose the sky twice as long while still having an acceptable amount of star trailing. Shooting this way does impart trailing into your foreground, but if you’re careful, doubling your exposure time can really make your nightscapes pop.

The single biggest reason why I can’t give the SkyTracker’s feature list a five-star rating is because it lacks a level bubble. Unless you’re pushing the limits of the SkyTracker with a 200mm long lens, most of the time you can get away with just eyeballing it, but it still feels a little kludgey to work hard at getting good polar alignment without knowing whether the whole setup is really level or not. This won’t matter if your tripod comes with a level bubble, but neither of my moderately-expensive Manfrotto tripods came with one, and I’d just as soon sacrifice the built-in compass for a level bubble if I could.

Another feature common to telescope mounts not present in the SkyTracker is an autoguider port. Autoguiding is essential to long focal-length tracked imaging. The lack of such a port doesn’t affect the final score here because it’s frankly not something you’d ever need when imaging at the short focal lengths the SkyTracker was designed to be used with.

Features score: 4 out of 5 stars.

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The SkyTracker is about as heavy and just a little larger than most of the lenses I bring to the kinds of shoots I use it on (100-135mm maximum focal length), so it doesn’t represent much of an increase in effort to bring it along.

Setup is fairly simple. You just put the SkyTracker on top of your tripod and then your ball-head or pan-head on top of the SkyTracker. After you’ve attached your camera body and lens, the polar alignment process is pretty simple. I use the free PolarFinder app from the Google Play Store, which has an iOptron-style reticle display that makes alignment very simple. A similar iOS app called Polar Scope Align is also available for free on the App Store.

Things that could be improved are the polar scope design and overall size of the main body of the SkyTracker. For some southern-facing targets (if you’re in the northern hemisphere), you will only have so long before the camera lens runs into the SkyTracker body. The polar scope can also get in the way of the camera, so it’s best to remove it before you start your imaging sessions. A final issue is that, if your pan-head or ball-head friction is set too high, it’s pretty easy to knock the SkyTracker out of polar alignment. For these reasons, I can’t give the SkyTracker a five-star rating.

Ease of Use score: 4 out of 5 stars.

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Brand new (at the time of this writing), the SkyTracker goes for about $300. Oddly enough, the updated SkyTracker Pro,

which is better-designed, more compact, lighter, and comes with far more features, goes for $290. If you’re going to buy brand new, the Pro version is hands-down the better option.

However, used SkyTrackers can be found for $150, sometimes less. If you’re on a tight budget, knocking half the price off is definitely worth it, in my opinion.

Value score: 3 out of 5 stars, if buying used.

Final Thoughts

The iOptron SkyTracker was one of the first compact, affordable tripod-mounted trackers available to DSLR astrophotographers and continues to turn out good tracked images of the night sky. It probably isn’t the right choice for someone who has already invested in a tracking setup (look to the “SkyTracker Pro” or “SkyGuider” models if this applies to you), but if purchased used for the right price, the SkyTracker can still provide an excellent introduction to tracked astrophotography. If you’re still not convinced one way or another, take a look through the example images I’ve made with the SkyTracker below and decide for yourself!

Final score: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Lighting a Milky Way Scene with a Drone: Abducted By Aliens

Alien Abduction. D850. 10 second exposure. f/2.8. 10000 ISO. Lit with the Mavic Pro 2 landing light for just a fraction of a  second as the drone flew straight up. Photo by Christopher V. Sherman

Alien Abduction. D850. 10 second exposure. f/2.8. 10000 ISO. Lit with the Mavic Pro 2 landing light for just a fraction of a

second as the drone flew straight up. Photo by Christopher V. Sherman

by Christopher V Sherman

Christopher V Sherman is a commercial and fine arts photographer. In February 2018 he put 99% of his belongings in storage in Austin, Texas in order to travel. He tries to post a photo a day on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And when he has something more in depth to share you can find it here. More about Chris can be found on the about page.

Early one morning, while gazing at our amazing Milky Way galaxy, on a beach, on the shore the Tasman Sea in eastern Australia, I was swiftly and briefly beamed up and then returned. It was caught on camera in this epic photo. No, that’s not a drone with a light under it. And no, no alien probes were used during my brief captivity. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

…. Okay, yes, that is that is a drone. This was my first attempt at lighting a scene with a drone.

The image was shot with a Nikon D850 on a tripod with a Tamron 15-30mm lens.

The drone used was the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. The red lights are the Mavic’s rear lights. They’re red because I had less than 30% battery remaining at the time. Usually they’re green. The main beam is the Mavic’s landing/takeoff light.

I kept this simple, using the Mavic 2 Pro’s built-in landing/takoff light. The light goes on automatically in dusk or night situations, during takeoff and landing.

A light sea fog stretched along the beach, creating less than desirable astro shooting conditions. It wasn’t thick, but it was enough to significantly reduce sharpness in the stars. At the same time it gave off an interesting hazy glow with the white drone light on.

Since I wanted to capture this in a single image with the Milky Way in the background, I had to time the shutter with the drone so that the drone light was only lit for a fraction of a second while the shutter was open otherwise I’d blowout the entire beach.

At the time I didn’t know if these lights were controllable by the pilot or if they were automatic only. I’ve since discovered that they can indeed be turned on and off by the pilot in the DJI app.

Not knowing this at the time, I had to rely on the Mavic lights being automatically activated by the bottom sensors when it was near landing or take off. And with that in mind I had to time the drone’s climb or decent with the Mavic controls in one hand and the D850’s remote shutter trigger with the other. Not knowing exactly when the landing light would come on meant this took several takes before I got the timing right and an even exposure.

I would have liked to have taken the drone higher to light more of the beach but it would automatically shut off on it’s own at it’s predetermined altitude. Now that I know that the pilot can control these lights in the app, I look forward to additional experimenting as time permits.

DODGE Astrophotography

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by Murray Fox

murrayfox.com.au

The astro photography season is back for Australia! Actually it's been back for a while now but we simply haven't had any clear nights around home.

Finally, the predictions were looking good for a clear window. I met up with a very good friend Craig Bachmann and we had a hit list of subjects to photograph. The first subject for the night was an absolute ripper as well! This stunning 1978 Dodge D5N 600 series V8 Petrol truck. Over the years it has been used to cart various produce from spuds and onions to the Rocklea Markets in Brisbane, to watermelons and lucerne for local supply in the Lockyer Valley. You don't get fresher than that, and I couldn't think of a cooler way to transport the goods!

We had the truck perfectly positioned in front of the farmers current lucerne crop and starting out, we spent our time light painting the truck with our torches as we waited for the core of the milkyway rising behind to be in perfect position.

Finally after an hour of painting and tweaking the composition it was time to photograph the core, and OMG the result was simply amazing! Not a single puff of cloud in the night sky, the temperature was absolutely perfect, just at the point of chilly, but not cold enough for fog, mist or warm enough for haze. The clarity was the best I can remember ever seeing to be honest. When I finished editing this, I immediately sent this to Craig and said "SHOW YOUR DAD!!". Honestly, I was gob smacked myself.

This is without a doubt, the best astro photograph I've captured to date. Everything I wanted to achieve in this photograph I did. From the complete lack of noise, to amazing sharpness, detail and colour, absolutely perfect to me. I've never seen the dust lanes of the core like that! Blown away. However, the night was only just getting started and our second target was a beauty as well. This is a 270hp Case Optum. With 4 massive rear wheels on this sucker, it has no issues getting through the fields. The farmer grows Cauliflowers, sugerloaf, and red & green cabbage.

It was a little tricky to get the right framing on this. Ideally I wanted the tractor a little more front on but that wasn't to be this night. I ended up with my camera on top of pallets next to the shed, and had to be extremely careful not to bump anything, always fun when your doing long exposures. I do want to shoot this beast from head on as well, really emphasise those rear wheels, so we'll be back one night soon to go again.

A lot of work has gone into these photograph. There was the initial planning, going over google maps, checking the direction and timing of the milky way using apps like Photopills and the photographers ephemeris. Constant watching of weather apps to see what the clouds were doing. At home when I left to head out, it was cloudy, but on location, it was perfect, so don't trust what is out your window, do the wider research and checking and take the shot. Post processing time was lengthy as well. Blending the light panting photographs with the sky took time and then working through my finishing steps was the final step.

It's funny when I take a photograph like this. I work and learn my techniques. I visualise what result I can get. I shoot on location with that visualisation and my technical knowledge to ensure I have the best chance of getting a good result. But during post processing, it's not about editing to get that result. Instead I let the photograph take me on a journey. This photograph really led me along, each step was just bringing out the best of each part, making sure things were technically correct (for me) but not knowing where I was going to end up.

When I finally stopped and sat back, not a word of a lie, my jaw dropped. I couldn't quite believe I created this photograph. It's on the printer now, it's going on the wall, I don't care whether it gets a bazillion or no likes, this was about my art, my photography. I had a vision, and I exceeded it, and I'm simply ecstatic.

The gear used for these photographs, if purchased today, is is by no means expensive. Camera used is a Sony A7, easy to pick up for under $800 used these days. The lens is an old Minolta 45mm F2.8 medium format film lens (for the 645 series of film cameras) that can be picked up used on Ebay for around $200. With a cheap $20 adapter. This lens has an equivalent focal length of 28mm on a full frame camera like the A7. Not exactly super wide, but with a full frame camera, and the amazing sharpness of this lens, it really works for this kind of photograph.

Both photos are a panorama. Shot horizontally starting at the bottom I initially take a light painted exposure, focused on subject, settings around ISO 500, F5 (for depth of field) and 20 seconds. We run around with torches during the exposure painting the subject with light. Then I adjust my settings being very careful not to move the camera. Increased ISO to 6400, Shutter to 8 seconds (at 28mm this is as long as you can go without stars starting to blur from movement), aperture at F2.8 (wide open) and refocused on the stars. I take a photo, then move the camera up, taking 2 more photos panning the camera up each time. Total of 3 images to create the panorama. In post processing I blend the bottom two photos (stars and subject) together then stitch with the other star photos and begin my final post processing.

I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing what comes out the end of all of this process. I grew up in the city, never really saw the stars much less farm equipment. Now, I actively seek out these subjects and locations, as they are truly amazing.

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Nightscapes using AstroTrac Tracking Mount

Nightscapes using AstroTrac Tracking Mount

by Steve Perry

Like most landscape photographers, I look forward to amazing clouds at sunset. There’s just nothing quite like a dramatic sky and a successful image to close out the day. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite as discouraging as facing a bland, barren sky as the sun slides towards the horizon. Or at least that’s the way I used to think… Everything changed one crystal clear night in the backcountry of Northern Michigan. I had been plagued by a week of cloudless sunsets and out of sheer frustration to get something on the memory card, I finally decided to attempt some star trails. That did it – I was hooked. Little did I know star trails were the gateway drug for nighttime landscape photography! However, it didn’t take long to figure out that star trails can get tedious if they are the centerpiece of EVERY nighttime shot you make. (A conclusion arrived at, in part, by my family grumbling, “Seriously, star trails AGAIN??”)

 

 

I came to a point where I wanted to capture the night sky the way I saw it – without trails and maybe with the long arm of the Milky Way reaching through the frame. I started without the aid of a tracking device but quickly discovered the stars would trail ruthlessly on my 24MP Nikon D3x – and the high ISO wasn’t so hot either. I soon graduated to a D800, but its tightly packed pixels happily showed trails for any exposure over 20 seconds – even with wider lenses.

On top of that, I really wanted to keep the ISO to 1600 or less. Many of my clients purchase large prints, and heavy noise just wasn’t an option. Even more importantly, I also wanted to gather more luminance from the night sky. I envisioned crisp stars normally invisible to the naked eye making appearances in my frame, as well as galaxies and even an occasional nebula from time to time. Sure, some stellar phenomena might be tiny in the final photo, but I wanted the viewer to “discover” them when they were viewing a large print.

So, I did a little research and decided I needed a tracking device of some sort. Options varied wildly from expensive mounts for telescopes to DIY kits that could (allegedly) be put together for lunch money. Then I stumbled upon the AstroTrac TT320X-AG Kit. While it isn’t cheap, (coming in at just over $700) it seemed easy to setup and it was designed specifically for photography.

Before long, I was the proud owner of the following kit:

  • AstroTrac TT320X-AG

  • AstroTrac Illuminated Polar Scope

  • AstroTrac 12v car adapter

  • AstroTrac 12v “AA” Battery Pack

If you decide to purchase one of these for yourself be sure to get all the accessories listed above. I discovered some companies sell them separately and you really need everything listed to pull this off (except for maybe the 12v car adapter which, ironically, was the only accessory that was included with my AstroTrac.)

The unit itself is built really well and much more robust than I expected. When I ordered it I anticipated a frail device that would need significant cushioning every step of the way. And though I’d hesitate to let it bounce around in my truck and I certainly wouldn’t want to drop it, I’m very impressed with the overall build quality.

Using the AstroTrac was surprisingly easy. Initially I was intimated by all the talk of proper polar alignment, adjusting azimuth and altitude, but it’s actually pretty simple as long as you have a rudimentary knowledge of the night sky. The first challenge was mounting the thing to my tripod – Here’s that setup in detail. First, keep in mind that with the entire rig put together and a camera perched on top, it’s not exactly a featherweight. I highly recommend starting with a very solid tripod paired with a very sturdy ball head (if your ball head “drifts” under load this will NOT work). I use a Gitzo 3 series and a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head.

(Note on the ball head – I think if you happen to have a dedicated tripod for this, mounting the AstroTrac to a pan head or geared head would make alignment a much easier proposition. I just don’t want to carry yet another tripod when I travel!)

I also wanted the ability to quickly mount the AstroTrac to my tripod head, so I needed some sort of quick release that would fit the 3/8” socket on the unit. The folks at RRS had a solution – a TH-DVTL-55 quick release plate. That’s when I came across the first problem. The AstroTrac is a narrow device and the screw that comes with the RRS plate is just a bit too long, bottoming out before the plate is tight. A large washer was all it took to save the day.

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The next glaring problem is that you actually need a way to mount the camera to the rig, now that your tripod head is being used to support the AstroTrac.

My solution was a retired – but good quality – ball head that had been collecting dust in my closet. I mounted this to the AstroTrac then the quick release to the camera so my setup looks like this:

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Once you’re to this point, it's time to get ready to shoot!

I recommend waiting until at least an hour and a half after sunset before you begin. I quickly discovered when I first started doing stars that just because you can see them doesn’t mean it’s dark enough for long exposures. I’ve had the sky blow out to completely white on some “impatient” evenings when I thought it was dark enough.

Next, you need to do a polar alignment. In the simplest terms, this just means pointing the AstroTrac squarely at Polaris, the North Star. The instructions go into great detail about the procedure, so I’ll just note some highlights and pitfalls below.

To get started I recommend sort of “squaring up” the AstroTrac so it’s pointing roughly north and angled toward Polaris. I also suggest doing your alignment without the extra weight of the camera on the rig.

Mount the scope to the AstroTrac, noting that it comes in from the bottom, and that it’s VERY susceptible to falling out. The magnetic base is just enough to hold it, but no more. Mine has already hit the ground a time or two, so now I remove it after I get everything aligned. It’s just too easy to bump it unintentionally in the dark. (I might assemble some sort of “safety line” for it down the road.)

At one point in the procedure you’ll need to get Polaris into a little “notch” in the scope. I found that it helps to start by spotting along the top of the scope to make sure you’re in the astronomical ballpark. Also, I found it helpful to turn down the illumination a bit once I start using the scope to actually align the unit (can’t see the stars with it turned all the way up). The closer you get Polaris to that notch, the better the tracking. 

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In my experience (shooting wide angle with 4 – 8 minute exposures) as long as I was close to the notch I was getting acceptable tracking. The longer your exposure and focal length, the more accurate you need to be with your placement. There’s a “fine tuning” section in the instruction manual to help.

Once everything is set, carefully mount the camera to the rig (if you bump the tripod, you get to start over – a lesson I learned the hard way one 20 degree below zero night at Bryce Canyon!)

From there, it’s time to experiment. I like to start with a high ISO shot (6400) for 30 seconds just to make sure the stars are sharp and I’m getting what I want in the frame (one of the first things you learn with astrophotography is that composition at night can be a bit tricky when your viewfinder is pitch black).

Once I’m happy with my test shot, I lower the ISO to 1600 and shoot for about 4 minutes at F/2.8. Of course, you can experiment with different combos until you get the look you’re after. Some areas of the sky seem to need longer exposures than others. Keep in mind that your exposure can render a fairly bright image, so be sure you aren’t actually blowing out areas of the night sky (like nebulas). The horizon can be especially troublesome if you’re near a populated area.

Oh, and get ready to grin. When you glance at your LCD and see the sheer volume of stars and celestial detail this rig can capture it will literally blow you away! I remember just standing there with my jaw gaping over the first image – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Crisp stars, nebulas, and even galaxies were all right there. Pretty amazing.

Here are a couple samples from my first night experimenting with the AstroTrac (the second one had better Polar alignment than the first). These are just quickly processed in Lightroom with not much adjustment beyond a blackpoint and a little contrast. Note that I have not done any real color correction or noise reduction in these images. Both at ISO 1600, F/2.8. The first is around 4 minutes, the second a half stop longer at 6 minutes.

Once back on the computer, I pull the exposure back and / or set a black point. This gives a more realistic version of the sky plus lowers the noise level quite a bit.

While out in the field you might also consider shooting a “dark frame” or two while you’re there to help reduce noise. I've not done a lot of dark frame subtraction, so I’ll let you Google that one. (Hint – a free program called “Deep Sky Stacker” can help a lot.)

That said, even at ISO 1600 once I pulled the exposure down I was very happy with the noise level - no dark frames required. (Note: I’ve also been shooting in winter where noise from excess heat isn’t a big problem, your warm summer shootin’ mileage may vary.)

As a final caution, keep in mind that the camera is moving during the exposure, so the ground and anything anchored to it is going to end up blurry. If you’re trying to include a landscape with the stars you’ll have to shoot it separately.

 

AstroTrac TT320X-AG

 

Introduction:

Like most landscape photographers, I look forward to amazing clouds at sunset. There’s just nothing quite like a dramatic sky and a successful image to close out the day. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite as discouraging as facing a bland, barren sky as the sun slides towards the horizon. Or at least that’s the way I used to think… Everything changed one crystal clear night in the backcountry of Northern Michigan. I had been plagued by a week of cloudless sunsets and out of sheer frustration to get something on the memory card, I finally decided to attempt some star trails. That did it – I was hooked. Little did I know star trails were the gateway drug for nighttime landscape photography! However, it didn’t take long to figure out that star trails can get tedious if they are the centerpiece of EVERY nighttime shot you make. (A conclusion arrived at, in part, by my family grumbling, “Seriously, star trails AGAIN??”)

 

 

I came to a point where I wanted to capture the night sky the way I saw it – without trails and maybe with the long arm of the Milky Way reaching through the frame. I started without the aid of a tracking device but quickly discovered the stars would trail ruthlessly on my 24MP Nikon D3x – and the high ISO wasn’t so hot either. I soon graduated to a D800, but its tightly packed pixels happily showed trails for any exposure over 20 seconds – even with wider lenses.

On top of that, I really wanted to keep the ISO to 1600 or less. Many of my clients purchase large prints, and heavy noise just wasn’t an option. Even more importantly, I also wanted to gather more luminance from the night sky. I envisioned crisp stars normally invisible to the naked eye making appearances in my frame, as well as galaxies and even an occasional nebula from time to time. Sure, some stellar phenomena might be tiny in the final photo, but I wanted the viewer to “discover” them when they were viewing a large print.

So, I did a little research and decided I needed a tracking device of some sort. Options varied wildly from expensive mounts for telescopes to DIY kits that could (allegedly) be put together for lunch money. Then I stumbled upon the AstroTrac TT320X-AG Kit. While it isn’t cheap, (coming in at just over $700) it seemed easy to setup and it was designed specifically for photography.

Before long, I was the proud owner of the following kit:

  • AstroTrac TT320X-AG

  • AstroTrac Illuminated Polar Scope

  • AstroTrac 12v car adapter

  • AstroTrac 12v “AA” Battery Pack

 


If you decide to purchase one of these for yourself be sure to get all the accessories listed above. I discovered some companies sell them separately and you really need everything listed to pull this off (except for maybe the 12v car adapter which, ironically, was the only accessory that was included with my AstroTrac.)

The unit itself is built really well and much more robust than I expected. When I ordered it I anticipated a frail device that would need significant cushioning every step of the way. And though I’d hesitate to let it bounce around in my truck and I certainly wouldn’t want to drop it, I’m very impressed with the overall build quality.

Using the AstroTrac was surprisingly easy. Initially I was intimated by all the talk of proper polar alignment, adjusting azimuth and altitude, but it’s actually pretty simple as long as you have a rudimentary knowledge of the night sky. The first challenge was mounting the thing to my tripod – Here’s that setup in detail. First, keep in mind that with the entire rig put together and a camera perched on top, it’s not exactly a featherweight. I highly recommend starting with a very solid tripod paired with a very sturdy ball head (if your ball head “drifts” under load this will NOT work). I use a Gitzo 3 series and a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head.

(Note on the ball head – I think if you happen to have a dedicated tripod for this, mounting the AstroTrac to a pan head or geared head would make alignment a much easier proposition. I just don’t want to carry yet another tripod when I travel!)

I also wanted the ability to quickly mount the AstroTrac to my tripod head, so I needed some sort of quick release that would fit the 3/8” socket on the unit. The folks at RRS had a solution – a TH-DVTL-55 quick release plate. That’s when I came across the first problem. The AstroTrac is a narrow device and the screw that comes with the RRS plate is just a bit too long, bottoming out before the plate is tight. A large washer was all it took to save the day.

 

 

The next glaring problem is that you actually need a way to mount the camera to the rig, now that your tripod head is being used to support the AstroTrac.

My solution was a retired – but good quality – ball head that had been collecting dust in my closet. I mounted this to the AstroTrac then the quick release to the camera so my setup looks like this:

 

 

Once you’re to this point, it's time to get ready to shoot!

I recommend waiting until at least an hour and a half after sunset before you begin. I quickly discovered when I first started doing stars that just because you can see them doesn’t mean it’s dark enough for long exposures. I’ve had the sky blow out to completely white on some “impatient” evenings when I thought it was dark enough.

Next, you need to do a polar alignment. In the simplest terms, this just means pointing the AstroTrac squarely at Polaris, the North Star. The instructions go into great detail about the procedure, so I’ll just note some highlights and pitfalls below.

To get started I recommend sort of “squaring up” the AstroTrac so it’s pointing roughly north and angled toward Polaris. I also suggest doing your alignment without the extra weight of the camera on the rig.

Mount the scope to the AstroTrac, noting that it comes in from the bottom, and that it’s VERY susceptible to falling out. The magnetic base is just enough to hold it, but no more. Mine has already hit the ground a time or two, so now I remove it after I get everything aligned. It’s just too easy to bump it unintentionally in the dark. (I might assemble some sort of “safety line” for it down the road.)

At one point in the procedure you’ll need to get Polaris into a little “notch” in the scope. I found that it helps to start by spotting along the top of the scope to make sure you’re in the astronomical ballpark. Also, I found it helpful to turn down the illumination a bit once I start using the scope to actually align the unit (can’t see the stars with it turned all the way up). The closer you get Polaris to that notch, the better the tracking. 

 

 

In my experience (shooting wide angle with 4 – 8 minute exposures) as long as I was close to the notch I was getting acceptable tracking. The longer your exposure and focal length, the more accurate you need to be with your placement. There’s a “fine tuning” section in the instruction manual to help.

Once everything is set, carefully mount the camera to the rig (if you bump the tripod, you get to start over – a lesson I learned the hard way one 20 degree below zero night at Bryce Canyon!)

From there, it’s time to experiment. I like to start with a high ISO shot (6400) for 30 seconds just to make sure the stars are sharp and I’m getting what I want in the frame (one of the first things you learn with astrophotography is that composition at night can be a bit tricky when your viewfinder is pitch black).

Once I’m happy with my test shot, I lower the ISO to 1600 and shoot for about 4 minutes at F/2.8. Of course, you can experiment with different combos until you get the look you’re after. Some areas of the sky seem to need longer exposures than others. Keep in mind that your exposure can render a fairly bright image, so be sure you aren’t actually blowing out areas of the night sky (like nebulas). The horizon can be especially troublesome if you’re near a populated area.

Oh, and get ready to grin. When you glance at your LCD and see the sheer volume of stars and celestial detail this rig can capture it will literally blow you away! I remember just standing there with my jaw gaping over the first image – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Crisp stars, nebulas, and even galaxies were all right there. Pretty amazing.

Here are a couple samples from my first night experimenting with the AstroTrac (the second one had better Polar alignment than the first). These are just quickly processed in Lightroom with not much adjustment beyond a blackpoint and a little contrast. Note that I have not done any real color correction or noise reduction in these images. Both at ISO 1600, F/2.8. The first is around 4 minutes, the second a half stop longer at 6 minutes.

 

 

 

 

Once back on the computer, I pull the exposure back and / or set a black point. This gives a more realistic version of the sky plus lowers the noise level quite a bit.

While out in the field you might also consider shooting a “dark frame” or two while you’re there to help reduce noise. I've not done a lot of dark frame subtraction, so I’ll let you Google that one. (Hint – a free program called “Deep Sky Stacker” can help a lot.)

That said, even at ISO 1600 once I pulled the exposure down I was very happy with the noise level - no dark frames required. (Note: I’ve also been shooting in winter where noise from excess heat isn’t a big problem, your warm summer shootin’ mileage may vary.)

As a final caution, keep in mind that the camera is moving during the exposure, so the ground and anything anchored to it is going to end up blurry. If you’re trying to include a landscape with the stars you’ll have to shoot it separately.

I personally use twilight or moonlight (or both) for the “landscape” portion of the shot, and then blend the stars and the land together in Photoshop. That's what I did for my first "real" photo using the AstroTrac:

 

 

Overall, I’m thoroughly enjoying the AstroTrac setup and I’m anxious to get out and use it at more locations. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that a clear sky at sunset is a welcome site for me now!

Milky Way Lens Shootout: Nikon, Zeiss, Sigma, and Rokinon compared

by Greg Benz

Capturing sharp stars and the Milky Way is one of the few genres in photography where special lenses are really a make or break deal. If your lens can’t shoot at f/2.8 or wider, you’re at a huge disadvantage (though you can always shoot log exposure star trails with such a lens). Those wide apertures are required to shoot with shutter speeds fast enough to keep the moving stars sharp.

I’ve used a Nikon 14-24mm for years with great results, including 40×60″ prints. But I’ve always had a nagging feeling that I could get better nighttime image quality with another lens. So I borrowed a few well-regarded lens and put them in a head to head test.  Below, see how the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Zeiss Milvus 15mm f/2.8, Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4, and Sigma Art 14mm f/1.8 compare in a field test shooting the Milky Way and night sky.

But first, I’d like to thank Brent of BrentRentsLenses.com for loaning the Sigma lens used in this test, and B&H for loaning the Zeiss and Rokinon lenses.  Brent runs a super-convenient rental business where he ships the lens directly to you along with a return shipping label.  The process really couldn’t be simpler.  And I’ve bought the majority of my camera equipment from B&H for years, and always been happy with their prices and service.

I’m posting a quick summary and some 100% crops from the top-right corner of each lens below.  For a much more thorough comparison of image quality, be sure to see the video. There’s much more to the story than this single group of images can tell, including: performance across the full width of the image, color quality, vignetting, and focus performance.

This test is designed to reflect real-world image quality based on performance in the field. My conclusions below are based on shooting each of the lenses under the most comparable settings I could. I shot each at the exact same settings at f/2.8 in the same lighting conditions, and additionally shot the Sigma and Rokinon at their maximum apertures to test their unique capabilities. All lenses were manually focused on bright stars via the LCD on a Nikon D810, which is the method I most use in the field. As manual focus is an imperfect method, I took several shots (refocusing several times) to help minimize the risk that my focusing technique would skew the results. But ultimately, that’s the best gauge of the results I can truly expect with this lens.

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8

This has been my go-to lens for years. It’s great, and I’m definitely keeping it. But for wide-angle night skies, it can’t achieve the excellent stars that the other lenses can.

dark sky travels nightscape photography magazine

ros:

  • Autofocus for daylight shooting

  • Can zoom to 24mm

  • Quality/Durability:  Rubber weather seal between lens and camera and some seals inside for better dust and moisture protection.

Cons:

  • The most difficult to manually focus at night. Manual focus extends well beyond infinity, making it hard to even find bright stars to start focusing. And the f/2.8 maximum aperture does not offer as good a live view as the Sigma and Rokinon. There’s also a bit of slack in the focusing ring, which can make precision adjustments a little more tricky. Focusing on stars manually is always difficult via live view, but I found the Nikon was most difficult. That’s a real detriment to image quality, as some images will likely be focused imperfectly. Reviewing the images carefully on the LCD is important with this lens to make sure you got the shot in the field. Thankfully focusing is easier with the new Nikon D850 (due to lower LCD noise), but I felt much more confident focusing the other lenses in this test.

  • Image quality is good across a broad range of conditions. But lack of sharpness and coma in the corners puts it behind the rest of the lenses in this group for astrophotography. On overall image quality, I would say that all three of the other lenses outperformed in this test.

  • Weight:  2.26lb.  Fairly bulky, but then you are shooting with the capabilities of an autofocus zoom lens, and it is lighter than the Sigma.

  • Available for Nikon only.

Price in US: ~$1897. Aperture range:  f/2.8-22.

Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4

This is the lens to get if you want to save money or weight. I would shoot this lens at f/2.8 for best image quality, unless you need a little more speed for the Aurora.

dark sky travels nightscape photography magazine

Pros:

  • Excellent value for the money and the cheapest of the group.

  • Weight: 1.73lb.  The lightest of the group, and it feels quite nice.

  • Image quality is generally excellent, but the vignetting is a bit heavy.

  • Manual focus stop just past infinity helps quickly find stars.  The focusing ring is fluid, which helps manually focus precisely. The f/2.4 aperture provides a slightly improved ability to evaluate focus on the LCD.

Cons:

  • No lens profile support in Lightroom or Photoshop. Third party profiles are available for Canon, but I have yet to find one for Nikon. Given this lens has noticeable distortion, it’s an import consideration, especially if you also wish to shoot architecture or other clearly straight lines.

  • Significant vignetting, but not as bad as the Zeiss.

  • Manual focus only.

  • There is no weather sealing, but this lens feels solidly built (and you aren’t going to run into a lot of water on most Milky Ways shoots).

  • No 16-24mm coverage.

Aperture range:  f/2.4-22.

Price in US: ~ $999 for Nikon or $799 for Canon mount. (While I didn’t test it, the non-SP version of this lens is generally well-reviewed and outright cheap).

Available for Nikon and Canon.

Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art Lens

I love everything about this lens, except the weight. I found the image quality was the best of the bunch, if you shoot at f/2.8 for best image quality. It also offers the ability to shoot at f/1.8 for faster shutter speeds, which would be beneficial for shooting the Aurora Borealis. Note that the Sigma showed a slightly smaller angle of view than the Nikon or Rokinon, even though they are all 14mm lenses

dark sky travels nightscape photography magazine

Pros:

  • Excellent image quality, the best of this group at f/2.8. (However, image quality suffers at f/1.8, and shooting wide open should be reserved for situations where shutter speed or image noise is a high priority.)

  • Minimal vignetting.

  • Manual focusing at night is relatively very easy with the wide f/1.8 aperture.

  • The f/1.8 aperture is a huge advantage for shooting the Aurora, which requires faster shutter speeds than stars.

  • Autofocus is very responsive and accurate for daylight shooting.

Cons:

  • Weight: 2.53lb.  The heftiest of the group, you really feel it.

  • No 16-24mm coverage.

Price in US: ~$1599. Aperture range:  f/1.8-16. Available for NikonCanon, and Sigma.

Zeiss Milvus 15mm f/2.8

This is a great lens, but I see no compelling reason to buy it at this price. It just doesn’t stand out for astrophotography, and the vignetting was disappointing.

dark sky travels magazine

Pros:

  • Image Quality is very good to excellent, but there is significant vignetting in the corners.

  • Manual focus “lock” makes it easy to initially find stars for focusing.  Zeiss is known for the “lock” at infinity focus.  Zeiss even warns in the instruction manual that the focus is designed to allow over-travel (beyond infinity focus) to allow for temperature camera flange distance variations.  In other words, there is no single lens that could guarantee proper infinity focus on all cameras in a variety of temperatures.  However, the tighter range of over-travel is still useful, as it gives you an easy way to quickly get close to proper focus – so that you can at least see the stars well enough to manually focus.

  • Weather sealed.

  • Offer threads for filters (95mm). However, given existing vignetting without a filter, I have some reservations about how useful this feature may be.

Cons

  • Expensive

  • Significant vignetting at f/2.8. Deep enough to cause color issues with the Nikon D810 (the D850 should perform better, and the color cast can be corrected). If you are shooting with this lens, be sure to capture an extra frame for the foreground. That’s generally a good idea anyhow, but noisy corners could be problematic with this lens under night sky conditions if you don’t blend images.

  • Manual focus only.

  • No 16-24mm coverage.

Price in US: ~$2699. Aperture range:  f/2.8 to f/22. Available for Nikon and Canon.

Conclusions:

All of these lenses were great for astrophotography, and I’d happily shoot with any of them. They all feel high quality and offer very good to excellent image quality. While I have some strong preferences when pixel peeping the results side by side, I would be proud to print images from any of them – including my Nikon, which was ultimately showed the least impressive results. Looking back on things, I wish I had also tested the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8, as that lens is likely also a good choice. However, I’d be shocked if it beat that zoom lens could beat the image quality of the prime Sigma Art lens, and I prefer its wider 14mm field of view. But it’s definitely an option to consider if you’re leaning towards a zoom like the Nikon.

It’s important to note that test focused specifically on shooting the night sky. I did not get a chance to shoot the Zeiss and Rokinon in sunrise/sunset conditions, so I can’t say how they might hold up for flare. I assume the Zeiss is excellent in that regard, and I wish I’d had an opportunity to test the Rokinon for flare. I found the Sigma was consistent with the level of flaring from direct sun that I see with the Nikon (or better). I captured a beautiful sunrise image with the Sigma that has me impressed that this is an excellent all around lens for landscape photography.

I would recommend the Sigma if you’re looking for the best wide-angle night image quality, the Nikon if you want the flexibility to shoot up to 24mm, and the Rokinon if you’re on a budget or want a lightweight lens for hiking. I really can’t think of any reason to choose the Zeiss – its image quality did not outperform the Sigma, and the price is substantially higher.

Personally, I ended up buying the Sigma after this test. I love it. The image quality was my favorite of the group, the wide aperture gives me lots of options for shooting auroras, the wide aperture helps get manual focus at night, the autofocus makes it easier for daytime shooting, and the price was reasonable. I’ll definitely be keeping the Nikon for for situations where I expect to zoom to 24mm. And I’ll always be a little envious of the light weight of the Rokinon.

 

Note:  All weights listed above were measured on a postal scale and may not match official manufacturer specifications.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. See my ethics statement for more information.

Astrophotography 101.

Expectations and Preparations

by Eric Benedetti

dark sky travels nightscape photography magazine

Sweet, you’ve spent $1,000, pictures will be flowing from your Ethernet cord onto the world wide web tomorrow, right?! Settle down tiger, it’ll come, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of doing this it’s….be patient. And read/learn as much as you possibly can. And when you think you’ve read and learned everything there is to read and learn….go find more to read and learn (hint: there’s always more).


Before we delve into making super awesome amazing pictures, let’s talk about what astrophotography is and is not. It is a rabbit hole and you are Alice, what you get out of this will depend on how far you chase the rabbit. If you are expecting amazing results out of the gate and being an awesome astrophotographer from day one you are going to be disappointed, sticking your face up to the rabbit hole will only yield mediocre returns. Astrophotography is NOT a simple or easy endeavor. You will spend long nights out in the dark, stumbling around, making stupid mistakes because you’re tired/cold/distracted, you’ll spend even longer hours reading tons and tons of articles/tutorials online and trying different editing techniques with your own photos. It IS addicting, it really really is. You’ll snap your first picture, a preview will pop up on your camera screen, and you’ll be addicted, I guarantee it. And when you finish your picture you’ll look at it and think “damn, I made that and THAT is awesome”. In my lightroom catalog I have about 20,000 pictures listed in the last 20 months, that’s not even including the thousands of shots I’ve taken for timelapse purposes. To this day, every single time I’m standing out in the dark and I’m looking at the star filled sky or at my camera screen after an exposure is done, my mind is blown. I love it, I’m addicted, I don’t think I’ll ever give it up (nor would I ever want to). It IS challenging, every single time you go out you will be presented with a different challenge, I promise you. Eventually you will figure out the recurring things that create those challenges and when you get good you will overcome those challenges faster, but they will always be there. One thing I’ve discovered is that other types of photography don’t interest me as much anymore, in fact I’d say many are borderline boring now, and I believe it’s because astrophotography (from taking the shot on location through editing the final image) presents such a unique challenge that once you figure it out the “challenge” of other types of photography isn’t as rewarding. But that’s also what makes astrophotography so addicting and why I keep going out at night to do it.

dark sky travels nightscape photography magazine

Before you ever push the shutter release button and take your first astrophotograph you should do your homework, prepare yourself for the unexpected. Be aware of the phase of the moon, each month presents a roughly 14-17 day window of shooting the Milky Way based on the moon phase, and the time of the year, the Milky Way core is visible in the Northern Hemisphere from March to October. You will be going out at night, first and foremost buy yourself a headlamp (especially one with a red-light), I bought a $20 headlamp, broke the battery cover the first night I used it, taped it up and I’m still using it….2 years later. Don’t use a regular flashlight, you’ll want both hands free at all times, especially if you’re hiking around in the dark. Before you head out do some scouting, at a bare minimum you should be using something like Google Maps to find an area to shoot. Also, understand light pollution, use this website to find locations to shoot at to limit the impact of light pollution on your shots: http://darksitefinder.com/maps/world.html I find that you CAN get images of the Milky Way in orange zones (Bortle 6, Google the Bortle scale), but no worse. Also, pick a location where you are shooting away from light pollution, even if you are 60+ miles away if you are shooting into major sources of light pollution it will be readily apparent in your images and challenging to deal with while editing.


Ok, you’ve got a location picked, it looks good on google maps (use the earth feature and pull up the images while hovering over a spot to get a sense of the geography), what are some of the other things to take with you? Warm and some waterproof clothes, even if it is summer, ESPECIALLY if you are going to the mountains. In Salt Lake City it will be 100 degrees in the summer, 70-80 at night, when I go up into the mountains it will be 40-50 at night. Wool socks, thermal base layers, a nice pair of gloves that allow you to use your fingers for fine movements, a light rain jacket, a beanie/warm hat…these are things that you should take just in case. Even in places like Arches, Zion, and desert places throughout Utah I’ve found myself putting on long sleeve shirts at night, temps can fall 40+ degrees from the day and you’ll want to do everything to stay comfortable during a long night of shooting. Wear good boots or comfortable shoes, you’ll often find yourself perched in awkward positions on uneven ground not sure if the drop off in front/behind you is 6 inches or 60 feet. Comfort is important, if your feet are cold, or your legs are tired, or your ears are frozen, you’ll be distracted and not thinking about composing your shot or even just taking in the beauty of the stars. In the mountains of Utah the weather can change in an instant, it’ll be clear skies and 10 minutes later a downpour, a rain jacket is usually a safety must.

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Water and snacks, pack plenty of water and don’t pack crappy snacks (fruit snacks and junk food, things that will give you a sugar rush and terrible crash later). Nothing worse than packing in a bunch of camera gear and getting that energy crash at 3am when you have to pack it all out. I find things like granola bars and mixed nuts to be invaluable for long lasting energy. As for energy drinks, I’m a coffee drinker and I’ll drink a cup before heading out, I’ll also take a total zero red bull (or any energy drink with zero sugar and zero carbs) so if I’m getting sleepy late I can keep my eyes open until the end of my shooting. If you don’t like coffee/energy drinks, don’t take them, stick to what makes you feel alert and awake. And don’t forget to drink water, water, water while you’re out there, you’ll be burning a fair amount of energy and you need to stay hydrated.


Take extra batteries (double A and triple A) for things like flashlights and your intervalometer, make sure your cell phone battery is charged (you’ll need it for aligning the polar scope on the tracking mount, even if you are out of cell range), make sure your car is in good running condition and that you have basic car things like jumper cables (I have had to get jump starts no less than 3 times…ya, it sucks). If you’re camping make sure you have all your gear and what-not. Buy yourself some hand/toe warmers (I’ll explain why later, not just for keeping your fingers/toes warm).


Ok, you’ve got all your stuff packed and ready to go, one thing I’ve found that makes my life 100 times easier is scouting the location during the day. When I first got into this hobby I’d just rely on photos/google maps posted online for scouting, I’d think about my perfect shot all day long, go out once it got dark, stumble around to find the spot I imagined, and ultimately have to settle for something less than ideal. Now I have a process, I go to my location in the early afternoon, scout my angles (there are also apps to help with this like PhotoPills for iOS and The Photographers Ephemeris for Android) at my spot(s), then go back and take a good nap. I try to sleep for 1-2 hours before I shoot, this allows me to unwind from the day and clear my mind for a long night of shooting, plus give my body a break if I’ve been hiking a bit. I wake up, eat some food, drink my coffee and then go to my location and setup my equipment during astronomical twilight. Then I’m ready to start shooting after astronomical twilight or I can make changes if my angles/location or something just isn’t right.

dark sky travels nightscape photography magazine

The last thing I want to discuss in this section is the weather and provide you with some resources. You obviously can’t shoot the stars if there is cloud cover, you should prepare your plans for shooting based on what the skies look like now and what you think they’ll look like overnight. I use this website to get regional views of the current cloud cover and trends of the clouds over the last 12-96 hours in the United States: http://www.aviationweather.gov/satellite?gis=off on the little map you can select one of the 3 digit names and it’ll pull up the current satellite image of the area. You can select Visible, Infrared (IR) either black and white or color, and water vapor. I mostly use Visible and IR, I use color IR in the summer to get more cloud contrast and B/W IR during the winter. Select a long timeframe in the drop down box and watch how the clouds move, try to get an idea of where the cloud breaks are now and where they could be in hours from now. Also, in places like the desert southwest we get monsoonal moisture, this means afternoons during the summer thunderstorms will pop up and the sky will fill with clouds. Usually by night the clouds dissipate though, so look for patterns of cloud development, don’t just see a single image full of clouds and think “oh I can’t shoot tonight, it’s cloudy now.” In 2015 I mostly operated with that mindset and only went out shooting maybe a dozen times, in 2016 I told myself I’d go out no matter what and probably 90% of the time I end up being able to shoot at least some shots. Some of my best shots this year have come after I’ve decided to head to my shooting location while the sky is completely cloud covered, only for the clouds to clear at night and be full of bright stars.


A few other things you’ll need, especially for the tracking mount, you’ll need an app to give you the precise location of Polaris (the north star) in order to align your tracking mount to the earth’s axis. I use “PolarFinder”, it gives you options for tracking mounts which will display where you need to put Polaris in your polar scope. Once downloaded, make sure you have the mount set to iOptron, and take a look through your scope to get an idea of what it looks like. I also recommend downloading Stellarium, either to your computer or your smartphone, it’s a fantastic app which will show you exactly what is in the sky at a given time and date at your location. You’ll need your GPS location for the polar finder and Stellarium (if it doesn’t set automatically), there are free apps that easily give you that, once you have your GPS coordinates you can enter that info into those apps.

Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

Article by Joe Gilker of   darkartsastro.ca

Article by Joe Gilker of

darkartsastro.ca

Full frame, crop sensor DX, APS-C, FX, full frame equivalent… These are terms that get thrown around a lot when it comes to digital cameras and lenses. And rightfully, it can also be a source of confusion for novice or intermediate-level photographers who don’t know what they mean or how it affects their photography. In this article, I’ll attempt to introduce these concepts in simple terms and how they can affect your images when they’re applied to astrophotography.

Let’s simplify the terminology

In order to understand what’s what, we first need to define these terms in a simple way. 

On 35mm film, the imaging area was 36mm (wide) by 24mm (high). There really wasn’t much more to it. You got a 35mm SLR and went about your business of taking photos. There were many options available in terms of features the camera offered like auto-focus and such, but you had 1 image size when it came to an SLR. Nowadays, we find there are far more choices available, but when speaking about DSLRs and in some case, mirrorless cameras, there are 2 basic categories that cover the vast majority of all cameras used by astrophotographers – full frame and crop sensor (the latter also known as APS-C [Advanced Photo System type-C]).  Although implemented differently by different camera manufacturers, the concept is the same. These sensor sizes are based on 35mm film camera. Crop sensors come in various physical sizes but most offer crop factors of 1.5 or 1.6x.

Full Frame is the equivalent of 35mm film producing an image with a 3:2 aspect ratio. The physical sensor size is 36 x 24mm, the same size as a 35mm film cell. This is the base standard for all DSLR cameras. Nikon refers to their full frame sensor size as FX.

Crop sensor, or  APS-C offers smaller sensor sizes that are a subset of the full 35mm sensor size, or a “crop” of that. The physical sensor size is smaller than a full frame (1/1.5 or 0.67x for 1.5 crop factor, 1/1.6 or 0.625x for 1.6 crop factor), but retains the same 3:2 aspect ratio of their full frame big brothers. Nikon refers to their crop sensor size as DX.

The term “full frame equivalent” is used for lenses used on APS-C cameras. The smaller sensor size affects the magnification and field of view you get from a particular focal length compared to a full frame. This will be explained in greater detail further in this article.

There are other sensor sizes like APS-H, Micro 4/3 and Medium Format. Dedicated CCD and CMOS astro-cameras come with various sensor sizes and formats as well, but for the sake of this article, we’ll be sticking with the sensor formats used by the majority of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that are popular for astrophotography; namely, Canon and Nikon DSLRs and Sony and Fuji mirrorless.

Why does any of this matter?

So now that we have the terminology simplified, we can get to the meat of this subject. For any examples, I’ll be using a hypothetical 24 MP sensor in the various formats as my example, as this seems to be a common size many current model DSLRs are produced in today, even in entry-level models. Keep in mind that a sensor’s MP (Megapixel) count really means nothing in this case. We’re comparing different size sensors with the same pixel count in all cases unless specified.

The size of your sensor determines 2 things – how much light it can capture, and how wide your field of view will be using the same lens. The sensor itself is covered in “pixels”. The individual light collectors on your sensor chip are called photosites.  A 24 MP sensor will have 24 million colour photosites which collect the light focused on them by the lens. Like the sensor itself, the size of the photosites matter. On a full frame sensor, the individual photosites are larger to fill up the larger physical dimensions of the chip, therefore gather more light. And inversely, fitting 24 million photosites on a smaller physical chip requires making each individual photosite smaller.

One of the advantages of full frame sensors is their lower noise than crop sensors. This is because photosites will generate heat when actively collecting light. Larger photosites and larger sensors means that they’re able to dissipate heat better whereas the smaller, mode densely packed photosites on the  smaller chip are more sensitive to heat. Sensor heat is the biggest contributor to digital noise when using high ISO (gain) settings or doing long exposures – the 2 things that we do most in astrophotography. This is the reason why full frame cameras will have better noise tolerance and better low light performance than a crop sensor camera with an equivalent pixel count sensor.

The second affect of sensor size is field of view or viewing angle. This is where the aforementioned term “full frame equivalent” comes into play. With an equivalent lens (a 20mm, for example), a full frame sensor will produce a wider field of view. Depending on the crop factor of the sensor, the magnification will be increased by the crop factor of the sensor. In the case of Nikon and many other brands with a crop factor of 1.5, the full frame equivalent will be 30mm (20mm x 1.5).  On a Canon ASP-C sensor, the crop factor is 1.6x. So the lens will give the full frame equivalent of 32mm (20mm x 1.6).  The image at Figure 1 below will show how the different fields of view vary with sensor size. But the basic thing to keep in mind is that the higher the crop factor, the narrower your field of view and the higher magnification you will get from the same optics.

ark sky travels magazine

Figures 2-4  below display the different in the field of view  in the same image when rendered at the different crop values. The difference in size between the 2 APS-C sensors is noticeable, although not drastically. However, the difference between the APS-C images and the full frame is quite remarkable. A lot of the field of view is lost. This can be compensated for on an APS-C camera with a wider lens. In this case, a lens of about 8mm would have to be used in order to produce the same wide field of view the 13mm lens produced on the full frame camera.

Figure 2 – Full Frame field of view

Figure 2 – Full Frame field of view

Figure 3 – 1.5 crop APS-C field of view

Figure 3 – 1.5 crop APS-C field of view

Figure 4 – 1.6 crop APS-C field of view

Figure 4 – 1.6 crop APS-C field of view

You said pixel count doesn’t matter. Then why is this a selling point for cameras?

Pixel count does matter, but not the way people tend to think it does. High pixel count cameras are often touted as being better, but that’s not the case. A high quality, full frame 10MP camera will produce images orders of magnitude better than a low end 24 MP APS-C will. In terms of camera performance for low light and high ISO, ironically fewer pixels are better, as the individual photosites are larger on the lower pixel count. With all other things being equal (sensor technology, processor, camera features, etc), a 24 MP full frame sensor will have better low light performance and be more noise-tolerant than a 36 MP full frame sensor, as the higher resolution sensor will have smaller, more densely packed photosites. With a bit of simple math, you’ll find out that the 36 MP full frame sensor has the same pixel size and density as a  16MP ASP-C camera in order to pack that many of them onto the same sensor. The trade-off will be the high MP count sensor will be able to resolve finer details in the scene being photographed than the lower pixel count sensor.

Whether that trade-off is worthwhile for you really depends on you and what your target audience is. If you regularly print large poster size images, submit your images to agencies that require a certain pixel count,  or use smaller cropped subsections of your images, the higher pixel count is likely the better option as you’ll be able to resolve finer detail. If you photos are for print or online publication or you produce smaller prints (under 20″ wide), then the lower pixel count and better performance are likely the best choice.

Do I need a full frame camera for astrophotography?

If only there were a simple answer to this question. The debate on this issue rages on constantly. It’s difficult to get a consensus on which is better. Undoubtedly, your photography in general will benefit from a full frame sensor. Wider vistas, better low light performance and cleaner images are the obvious benefits. But there are pros and cons, just as using an APS-C camera.

For astrophotography using a telescope or a long zoom lens on a tracker, an APS-C sensor is often preferable. The smaller sensor means you’ll be able to get extra magnification and a tighter field of view. On small galaxies, planetary nebulae and globular clusters, you’ll get a larger image (1.5 or 1.6x larger) and be able to resolve finer detail than a full frame camera with an equivalent pixel count. The narrower field of view also means you’ll experience less vignetting than you would using a larger sensor. Many APS-C cameras are smaller and lighter than their full frame counterparts. The payload you have on your mount is always an issue for astrophotography, so being able to shave off some extra weight is always helpful and it will generally make your rig easier to balance.

And there’s also the cost benefits that need to be considered. Outside of a few high end models, APS-C cameras are significantly less expensive than full frame. Their lenses require significantly less glass to produce, so they also tend to be significantly cheaper as well.  You can often find top shelf  wide aperture crop format lenses for the same price as less capable mid range full frame lenses. On a side note, you can also use full frame lenses on a crop sensor camera, so if you plan on eventually getting a full frame camera, you can start buying your full frame lenses and using them with your crop sensor camera.

On the flip side, large galaxies like the Andromeda Galaxy or large clusters like the Pleiades or Double Cluster in Perseus may not fit into your field of view when your camera is paired with a higher focal length telescope, requiring you to do a mosaic in order to get the full object in one final image. When shooting widefield landscape images like Milky Way or aurora, you’ll have a narrower field of view and not be able to expose your images as long as with a full frame on equivalent lenses (see the Rule of 500 in my  How To Shoot The Milky Way And Night Sky With A DSLR Camera article for more information). Although as mentioned above, this last point can always be remedied by using a shorter focal length lens.

For widefield landscape astrophotography, it’s hard to beat a full frame camera. The superior low light sensitivity and more robust noise of full frame sensors mean you get cleaner, brighter images. Your use through a telescope will also benefit from the wider field of view and better noise tolerance, particularly if shooting long, guided exposures. A series of long (5+ minute) exposures at ISO 1600 will reveal details you won’t be able to capture as easily with an APS-C sensor without adding significantly more integration time at lower ISO settings to maintain the same low noise levels.

However, on many telescopes, the vignetting you experience may be quite significant. As an example, the vignetting I experience using my my Nikon D750 on my 8″ Meade LX90 optical tube with a 0.63x focal reducer is so bad that I only get a usable image area the same size I would if I were using an APS-C camera. This can be partly correct by shooting flat frames, but is still an annoyance. But this really depends on the telescope used. When I use the D750 on my ED80 refractor, the vignetting is negligible. Your results will vary.

Another disadvantage of shooting deep sky through a telescope with a full frame sensor is shooting smaller objects such as planetary nebulae, globular clusters and small, distant galaxies. Your targets will be tiny in your final image compared to APS-C. Unless you’re looking for a wide field of view, you’ll have to crop your images to get them larger, which will give you a final result with less fine detail than if shot with an equivalent APS-C camera. This, however, is an area where high pixel count (like 36MP) sensors can help significantly. They won’t perform as well in terms of noise and sensitivity, but they’ll be able to resolve finer details that lower pixel count sensors won’t.

Which is right for me?

As with most things in life, budget will often be the single biggest determining factor that guides your purchase. While it may be nice to rock the latest and greatest Nikon D5 or Canon 1D, the harsh reality is that not everyone can afford to spend as much as a small car on their camera, not to mention their lenses and other equipment required to complete the kit. When buying new, even mid-range enthusiast-grade full frame camera bodies run the $2000-$3000 range, which is a large sum of money, particularly to someone just starting out.

In reality, most of us mere mortals have to follow a budget in order to make ends meet. Therefore, splurging for high end equipment, particularly when just starting out, is overkill. And someone just starting out often overlooks other essential equipment required. Spare batteries (not cheap, and 1 battery is NOT enough!), memory cards, a sturdy tripod, a tripod head, intervalometer, extra lenses, and of course, a bag that you can carry all this stuff in all add up very quickly. There’s more to photography than just the mere camera body.

So this is my recommendation; I won’t give you any specific brand or model to choose, but I will point you towards the right type of equipment that you need.

If you plan on buying new, my personal recommendation for a DSLR for astrophotography would be a mid to high-range APS-C camera. It’s hard to go wrong with something in this price range. You can get something good from Canon or Nikon in the 500-1000 USD range that can potentially last for years and perform admirably. There are other brands as well, but these 2 will likely be your best performers for astro. For widefield or landscape astrophotography shots like the Milky Way or aurora, add a Rokinon / Samyang / Bower 14mm f/2.8 lens (300 USD) and it will be your best friend. There are few lenses this good in this price range. It’s all manual, but a pure gem that you’ll continue using even if you get more expensive lenses.  If you plan on using your camera on a telescope, I highly recommend a camera that has a flip-out screen. It’s really nice to be able to easily tilt your screen to see what’s going on when your telescope is pointed at high angles that would otherwise have you on your knees and straining your back and neck to view your screen.

If your pockets are bit deeper but you’re still on a limited budget, the lower end full frame cameras will cost you about 1500 USD range. Add the same 14mm lens mentioned above (yes, it’s a full frame compatible lens) and you’ll have an incredible camera for landscape astrophotography. If you plan on using it with a telescope, just be aware of the vignetting issue you may experience. This will be totally dependent on the scope you’re using.

If you’re ok with buying used you can often get incredible deals on barely used equipment. You may be able to get a fairly recent model full frame camera for roughly the same price as a high end new APS-C camera. Or you can just get a used APS-C camera body and use those extra dollars you saved on the required accessories.

Really, with current state of sensor and camera technology, it’s hard to go wrong with any DSLR made in the last 5 years. It all comes down to what suits your requirements best and what you can afford. There is no “right answer”. Only what’s right for you.

Final words

In an ideal world, having both formats available to you is best. I use both crop and full frame cameras regularly, depending on the requirement at hand. Having this flexibility has become essential to me. I honestly couldn’t imagine having to shoot with only 1 format at this point. But if I had to choose 1 only, I would likely go for a high end APS-C, because to me, it offers me a level of versatility for astrophotography that I can’t simply get with a full frame. It may have marginally worse noise and low light performance, but overall, the differences are minimal enough that I can easily work around them in post-processing.

The biggest thing to take away from this article is that your camera is just a tool. The camera is only as good as the photographer using it. A better camera won’t automatically take better pictures. It will just open up some possibilities you didn’t necessarily have before.

So until next time, clear skies, and keep those eyes and lenses pointed up!