Photographing and Processing the Constellation Orion: Astrophotography Image Stacking and LRGB Processing

title-constellation-orion

Learn how to photograph and process one of the most colorful parts of the night sky.

Introduction

Most of the images that you see on Lonely Speck of the bright galactic center were made during the Northern Hemisphere summer. The best time of year to capture the brightest part of the sky is typically in June or July when the galactic center appears high in the sky almost the entire night. But every year, as we near the December solstice, the Earth moves into a position around the Sun where the Sun obscures our view of our galaxy’s central bulge. So from about October through April, we have the opportunity to view and photograph a different part of the night sky: the constellation Orion. This tutorial will walk you through all the steps to plan, shoot and process a photograph of constellation Orion and the colorful features in it.

nightskyseasons

Orion is positioned near the so-called “galactic anti-center” as seen from Earth. With some of the nearest, brightest stars in the sky like Betelgeuse, Rigel and Bellatrix, the constellation Orion dominates the night sky at the turn of the year. Although its nebulosity and colorful features are not nearly as bright as the Milky Way’s core, the view of our galaxy’s outer edge near the constellation Orion has some unique visual treats.

Orion contains numerous colorful features including the bright Orion Nebula, the faint pink Angelfish Nebula, Rosette Nebula, blueish Witch’s Head Nebula, Barnard’s Loop and many more features all known collectively as the Orion molecular cloud complex [wikipedia].

The Orion Molecular Cloud Complex

One of the cool things about the constellation Orion is that it takes up a relatively large portion of the sky so we can capture it with a regular camera and a standard lens like a 50mm, no telescope needed!

In this tutorial I’ll walk you through all the steps that I use to photograph the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. This tutorial is a little bit more complex than just making a single exposure of the Milky Way but it builds upon the same basic techniques. If you’re just getting started with shooting photos of the night sky, I recommend checking out my basic How to Photograph the Milky Way tutorial first.

Night Photography Equipment

Luckily we don’t need any kind of fancy equipment. At minimum, we need an interchangeable lens camera and a fast lens like a 50mm/1.8 prime and a tripod. We’ll be using two processing techniques to get the best results: image stacking for noise reduction and the luminance, red, green, blue (LRGB) processing technique for enhancing nebulosity. Let’s take a look at what we need:

  • Digital Interchangeable Lens Camera
  • A Fast Normal Prime Lens
    • ~25mm for 4/3 sensor cameras
    • ~35mm for APS-C sensor cameras
    • ~50mm for full-frame cameras
  • A Tripod
  • An Intervalometer (optional)
equipment-1

My equipment for this shoot was just a camera with a 55mm lens and a small travel tripod.

For the camera, I’ll be using the Sony a7S, my personal favorite camera for photographing the night sky.

For the lens, I used a Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T* prime lens which is the best performing lens that I could afford. I recommend any standard prime lens. Something close to 25mm for 4/3 sensors, 35mm for APS-C sensors or 50mm for full frame sensors should work well for this application. It’s best if the lens has a relatively low f/number rating (I highly recommend f/2.0 or lower). The lower the f/number, the more light the lens can collect at a time.

Nearly every current lens manufacturer has a fast standard prime. They come in all different price levels from the uber-expensive Zeiss Otus Distagon T* 55mm f/1.4 to the cheapo “Nifty-50” Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II.  For reference, here’s a list of some of the best, fast standard prime lenses for each of the most common sensor sizes. If you’re shopping for a lens, be sure to find one that’s compatible with your particular camera.

Fast Standard Prime Lenses for 4/3 Cameras:

Fast Standard Prime Lenses for APS-C Cameras:

Fast Standard Prime Lenses for Full-Frame Cameras:

If you care, I personally shoot with a Sirui T-025X tripod. It’s a smaller travel tripod that’s great for compact camera systems (like my Sony a7S).

Finally, the intervalometer, an accessory that plugs into your camera to allow it to take multiple photographs, one after another on a timer. It’s optional but helpful as we’ll need to take numerous separate exposures. Most Nikon cameras and some other cameras (like the Canon 7D Mark II or the Fujifilm X-T1) have a built-in interval timer feature. Check here for a nearly complete list of cameras that have built-in interval timers. If you need a plug-in accessory intervalometer, I recommend one of the cheap Neewer brand ones. Just make sure you find one that’s compatible with your specific camera.

Night Sky Observation Pre-Planning

It’s always helpful to do some preparation for your shoot. Pre-planning is the same as photographing the Milky Way but I’ll just review it quickly here:

Dark Location

The first, most important thing you’ll need is a dark location. Check darksitefinder.com or blue-marble.de for light pollution maps to find a dark location. The darker the place, the better. National Parks, Preserves and Monuments tend to be good locations to choose for nice dark skies. For my example here, I traveled to Red Rock Canyon State Park in California, a two hour drive from Los Angeles.

darksitefinder

Where to Look

I also almost always use Stellarium to pre-visualize the night sky. Stellarium is an excellent planetarium software available free for download from stellarium.org. Stellarium allows us to set the location, date and time of our planned photoshoot and displays a simulated version of the night sky. Orion tends to be visible from October through April depending on the time of night. For Example, in October, Orion will rise in the pre-dawn hours but in April, Orion will quickly set a couple hours after sunset. In this example I have used Stellarium to find out where Orion will be in the night sky on my planned date of December 13, 2014 near Los Angeles, California. Here it starts in the southeastern sky and then traverses across towards the south and finally the southwest before the end of the night.

stellarium-orion-2

It’s also helpful to have a planetarium software available on your smartphone. I recommend Stellarium Mobile for Android or SkyGuide for iOS. Even without the help of one of these apps, Orion is a relatively easy constellation to find. I always look for the three stars of Orion’s belt, the three stars are aligned evenly in an almost perfectly straight line. If you can find Orion’s belt, you’ve found Orion.

Just like any other night, photographing the faint details in the night sky will be best on a night close to the time of the month with the new moon. The closer to the new moon, the more time we will have during the night with dark skies.

So now you should have everything you need to start shooting:

Night Photography Camera Setup

Setup of our camera is nearly identical to photographing the Milky Way but just to review here are some settings unique to this shoot that I will use:

  • Manual Exposure (See the next section for determining exposure settings)
  • Raw Recording
  • White Balance: Daylight, Tungsten or Custom set to 3500K to 4800K
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction: On (This will double your camera’s processing time to reduce noise.)

Night Sky Exposure Settings

Manual Exposure mode is a must for shooting the stars. We’ll need to carefully select our shutter speed and aperture f/number to gather the most light possible. Here’s how:

Shutter Speed

With a long enough exposure, depending on your lens, the rotation of the earth will make the stars appear like streaks or trails. We want to find the longest shutter speed that will produce an acceptable image without too much star trailing. As a general guideline for night photography, the 500 Rule rule will help us find a suitable shutter speed.  Here’s how it works: take 500 and divide it by your lens focal length to determine your shutter speed. If you’re using a camera with an APS-C sized sensor or 4/3 sensor, be sure to multiply your focal length by the crop factor of your camera’s sensor (which is usually 1.5x or 1.6x, for APS-C sensors or 2x for 4/3 sensors).

With a standard (50mm) lens, an 8-10 second exposure will prevent star trails.

With a standard (50mm) lens, an 8-10 second exposure will reduce star trails.

500 Rule:

Shutter Speed = 500 ÷ (Focal Length × Crop Factor)

Example: 50mm Lens, Full Frame Camera (1.0x Crop Factor)

Shutter Speed = 500 ÷ (50mm × 1.0) = 10 seconds

Example: 25mm Lens, 4/3 Camera (2x Crop Factor)

Shutter Speed = 500 ÷ (25mm × 2) = 10 seconds

For lenses with a 50mm equivalent field of view, a shutter speed of 10 seconds is usually a good starting point. If the stars still look like streaks with a 10 second shutter, I recommend shortening your shutter speed. I really wanted to prevent the smallest effect of star trailing in my images so I actually lowered my shutter speed to 4 seconds for the example.

Aperture f/number

To start I recommend trying this exercise with the lowest f/number that your lens will support. The lower the f/number, the larger the opening of the lens and the more light that the camera will collect. The more light that the camera collects, the less noisy the image will be.

One caveat of using your lens’s lowest f/number is that it usually makes lens imperfections (aberrations) more apparent. Many of you will already know about coma and astigmatism aberrations from my How to Pick a Lens for Milky Way Photography article. Aberrations like coma and astigmatism will smear the shape of the stars. To prevent this from happening, it might be necessary to stop down the lens a little bit to a slightly higher f/number.

For my example, I set my lens nearly wide open to f/2.0 for a good compromise between light gathering and aberration levels.

ISO

For the ISO, we just need to adjust it such that the camera is creating a relatively neutral exposure. Don’t be afraid to bump your ISO up past 1600. Many photographers will hesitate to do so because they are afraid of noise but in practice, selecting too low of an ISO in this type of shooting can actually make noise worse on certain cameras. For my example I actually used an ISO of 25600.

Many digital cameras have a certain ISO threshold below which noise from the camera’s post sensor electronics will dominate the image. We need to try to get the ISO high enough so that the signal and noise recorded by the sensor is boosted to at least above the level of this post sensor noise. A safe ISO range so use for most cameras is about 1600 to 6400. Once again, don’t worry too much about noise from using a high ISO, we will be using a stacking technique to reduce noise in post processing anyway.

Focusing on the Stars

Focusing in a dark environment is always the hardest part. If you’ve never done it before, I outline several methods for focusing your camera at night in my How to Photograph the Milky Way article. Basically you’ll want to point your camera at a bright star or a distant light and use the Live View feed on your camera screen to focus. Check and double check your focus. Sometimes I’ll even tape my focus ring in place with a strip of gaffer tape once I’ve got it properly set so that it has less chance of being bumped in the process.

Shooting the Constellation Orion

Once we’re focused, we can frame up Orion and start shooting. For a good framing, try positioning Orion’s belt in the center of the image as if dividing the frame in two halves with the line of the stars. Keep the center most star in the belt roughly in center in the frame. I recommend shooting a collection of multiple images, anywhere between 32 and 64 frames is usually plenty. This is where an intervalometer is helpful: you can just set it to make the camera take all of the photos automatically. Be sure to take into account the extra processing time for long exposure noise reduction if you have it enabled. Either way, I recommend shooting the constellation for a minimum of about 10-20 minutes. If you have an intervalometer, it’s a good time to sit back, relax and look for shooting stars.

The more frames we capture, the more total signal and the cleaner the appearance of the final stacked image.  Once again, it’s OK if your individual images are noisy because the stacking process will help reduce that noise.

Here’s an example of a straight-out-of-camera single frame from a total of 64 frames that I photographed for my example image of Orion. You can see that there is quite a bit of orange glow from light pollution, the image is mildly noisy and there is only a limited amount of nebulosity detail visible. Expect your image to look rather dull straight out of the camera too.

raw-orion-exposure

You can see the three stars of Orion’s belt in the center of the image. The bright spot you see just right of center in the image is the Orion Nebula (M42), the bright yellow star toward the left is Betelgeuse and the bluish white star to the right is Rigel.  If you look really closely you might just be able to make out some of the pinkish glow of Barnard’s Loop but it’s very very faint in this raw image.

Once you have finished shooting a minimum of 32 images, we’re pretty much done with the shooting process. Check and double check your frames for quality of focus, exposure brightness and star trailing.

Post-Processing in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop

We’ll process our final images in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. Check out the video below for a complete walkthrough of my processing of 32 images of Orion. Post processing happens in two main steps: stacking and LRGB enhancing.

Stacking

Single exposures of the faint details in the night sky will usually have a lot of noise. Stacking multiple exposures will will help eliminate random noise in the image. There are are numerous dedicated star-stacking software packages available including DeepSkyStacker, Registax, Regim and others. I personally prefer to use Adobe Photoshop but if you don’t have the Adobe Suite you can use one of those dedicated software packages to perform the same basic function, too.

stack-example

Comparing the noise levels of a single 4 second exposure and a 32 exposure stacked with a median filter

By combining many separate exposures with a median filter, it’s possible to nearly eliminate the random noise in the image. Check out the video below for a complete walkthrough and also check out our Noise Reduction Image Stacking for Landscape Astrophotography Video Tutorial for more details.

LRGB Processing

A method called LRBG (Luminance, Red, Green, Blue) processing allows us to enhance the nebulosity in the image. The technique is relatively simple: we combine an enhanced black and white image as a luminance layer with an enhanced color image to get a final result that has increased contrast and brighter colors.

lrgb-graphic

LRGB Processing: Combining a black and white image with a color image gives an enhanced result

Complete Post Processing Walkthrough Video

Check out the video below for the complete walkthrough of LRGB Processing. I step through the entire process from image stacking all the way to making the final composite.

Conclusion

With some patient planning, shooting and processing, it’s possible to photograph the faint detail in Orion with a standard lens and a tripod. The method I show in the walkthrough here is similar to what professional astronomers to do to process photographs of deep sky objects. Shooting large parts of the night sky is a great way to practice advanced techniques for processing without the need for expensive astronomy equipment.

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Ian Norman

Creator at Lonely Speck
Ian Norman, co-founder and creator of The Photon Collective and Lonely Speck. Ian is a full time traveler, photographer and entrepreneur. In February 2013, he called it quits on his 9-to-5 to pursue a lifestyle of photography. Follow Ian's photography adventures on Instagram.

100 Responses

  1. j.d. September 19, 2016 / 12:40 pm

    Hi Ian, if I take 32 long exposure photos are the stars still going to be aligned when I stack them?

  2. Drew August 10, 2016 / 9:00 pm

    Thanks for this how-to Ian. I’ve been deep diving into your site and absorbing all I can.

    Last night I took a quick nip up the hill and got some shots of the M7 Ptolemy cluster with my Canon 550D and 50mm 1.8, replicating what you did here with a different target.
    Mine came out a lot less detailed and way too punchy but the advice you give here is solid and I’ve learned a lot. This was my first foray into using Photoshop for astrophotography and I’m pretty satisfied with the results. I’ve only got CS2 and Deep Sky Stacker so I had to fudge a few features.
    http://i.imgur.com/vAb0Y2F.jpg

    Thanks again mate.

  3. J May 7, 2016 / 5:18 am

    Hi Ian. I was wondering how the Sony rx100 iii will do with photographing Orion. From a rural/suburban area can I still get Barnards Loop, Flame Nebula, and Anglefish Nebula, or is the Sony rx100 iii not powerful enough?
    Thanks!!!

    • Ian Norman May 7, 2016 / 9:51 am

      It might be possible but I honestly have never tried. I think it’s worth a shot but I would probably do everything I can to make the conditions as good as possible. Go to a very dark place, shoot a lot of frames and stack for the noise reduction.

    • J May 7, 2016 / 5:19 pm

      Ok! Thank you for the quick response!

  4. David Williams March 29, 2016 / 5:34 am

    Ian,

    Great tutorial with tons of useful information! I have collected about 100 exposures of 10 seconds each at ISO 3200, 34mm, and f/4.5 on my Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera. I am in a mostly rural area near a small town with moderate light-pollution – certainly not dark skies, but better than being in a city. The main problem I am having in processing in Photoshop seems to be in the curves adjustment layers you make several times to pull down the shadows and increase the highlights. In your video, the histogram clearly shows a lot of signal for you to work with. My histogram, however, shows far less, and the data on the histogram is a skinny curve all the way to the left. This does not allow me to have any noticeable effect by “pulling down the shadows and increasing the highlights.” What are your suggestions?

    Thanks.

    • Ian Norman March 30, 2016 / 11:12 am

      If your curve is all pushed to the left, push it back to the right by increasing the brightness of the image. A good way to do this by increasing the exposure slider in lightroom, adjusting the levels in Photoshop, or dragging the upper right most point of the curves to the left against the top of the curves graph.

  5. Awni Hafedh January 20, 2016 / 10:59 am

    Hi Everyone,

    I have canon 100D and I am tempted to take a photo of Orion Belt, but I am confused between two lenses, can anyone help me please. The lenses are
    Rokinon 35mm F1.4
    Sigma 30mm F1.4

    Thanks

    • Nate February 3, 2016 / 6:15 am

      Both are great lenses, with the Sigma probably topping the Rokinon. On your 1.6 crop camera the 35mm will give you a view equivalent to 56mm, and the 30 would be equal to 48mm. Can’t go wrong with either, but I’d go with the sigma.

  6. Arun January 17, 2016 / 2:31 pm

    Awesome tutorial, thanks!

    One question though – is there a reason for using the long lens like 50mm? Is it because a wide angle like a 14mm will make Orion look too small in the frame?

  7. Lauren the Human December 15, 2015 / 8:48 am

    Hello!
    I spent the weekend up in Scotland, and decided to give this a shot. I was excited with the shot, but when it came down to the final image after processing, I was a little disappointed. This was my final shot https://flic.kr/p/CddME8
    I think it’s to do with a couple of things, the fact that I had my camera balanced on a car instead of a tripod, and that due to this, I was pointed and a very busy section of sky. And that the stars are a little blurred, due to not being able to use a remote shutter at the time. In terms of processing, is it a case that I’ve done the best with what I’ve got, or can I get better results using this photo?

  8. Michael MacDonald December 8, 2015 / 9:57 am

    Hi Ian, great tutorial.
    I am having issues getting a properly exposed image across the board. I get a lot of digital noise in the bottom right corner, and vignetting in the top left. I also can’t seem to stretch any of the data out from the surrounding nebulas. http://imgur.com/WKkKtso
    Even after I exported it i lost even more data. (as a jpeg though)

    What am I doing wrong, or what can I do differently?
    I know you are using a zeiss lens which can make the difference.. but I still think I should be yielding better results.

    • Ian Norman December 8, 2015 / 10:50 am

      Are you shooting in an area with low enough light pollution? Orion’s features are quite faint and the presence of moderate light pollution will make it much more difficult, or impossible. Looking at your photo, it seems you have too strong a light pollution source towards the side of the brighter part of the image.

  9. Todd Vogel November 6, 2015 / 9:46 am

    I’m finding your tutorials to be well done, informative and inspiring – thank you!

  10. Awni Hafedh October 19, 2015 / 6:39 am

    Hi Ian,

    First of all thanks for this amazing tutorial, second is your Sony a7s astro modified or not please. I am asking because all this H-alpha emission is usually blocked by the sensor builtin filters.

    Thanks
    Awni

    • Ian Norman October 19, 2015 / 10:16 am

      My a7s is unmodified. I have also made very similar images with an unmodified Canon 6D.

  11. rrm111 September 27, 2015 / 9:41 pm

    Hi, I tried to do it and I live in the city. I can’t seem to make the Barnard’s Loop and other faint objects appear. Only the Great Orion Nebula and Flame Nebula can be seen. Does the noise pollution have something to do with this? or is it because I use a lower ISO (1600) and slower aperture (2.8 due to CA).

    • Ian Norman September 27, 2015 / 9:58 pm

      Orion’s features are very dim so even a little light pollution will make it much harder to photograph things like Barnard’s loop.

  12. Diego Rodriguez September 20, 2015 / 6:28 am

    What an amazing tutorial and site Ian, thank you so much for sharing!

    I just wanted to ask you what are your thoughts on dark frame subtraction for astrophotography, is it not necessary when stacking, or maybe using a combination of both to reduce noise even further could work?

    Thanks!

    • Ian Norman September 20, 2015 / 7:27 am

      Dark frame subtraction can be very helpful and when used in combination with Stacking can be helpful. The best method would be to shoot your subframes and then an equal number of darks. Average/median filter both sets separately and then subtract the darks from the lights.

  13. Talha August 28, 2015 / 9:47 am

    Great tutorial, Ian!

    I followed it and was able to come up with this image (32 x 5s exposures from a 45mm 1.8 lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera).

    http://imgur.com/BY4cdDB

    The problem I had was – given the focal length I was working with – each individual frame was pretty underexposed, so I boosted exposure in Lightroom before merging in Photoshop.

    Do you think it’s better to leave exposure untouched in Lightroom, and adjust it post alignment in Photoshop, or is it better to have the images coming in to Photoshop be properly exposed?

  14. Daniel van Driel June 17, 2015 / 10:53 pm

    Issues aligning images in photoshop.

    This doesn’t always happen, but very often it does! “Some images could not be aligned” – basically code for when Photoshop can’t align anything and then stacks the photos in a massive panoramic with white bars separating the images. I’ve cried increasing the contrast with an S curve and contrast slider and even using the highlights, shadows, whites and blacks.

    Is there anything I can do? I’m using a Sony FE 55mm F.8.

  15. Wayne Collamore April 9, 2015 / 5:08 pm

    Great tutorial…..but I had 8 Orion images and a dark frame and stacked in DSS since my CS6 is not extended. I took the file and followed your tutorial, but there is no color anywhere. Plenty of stars but no nebulosity to be seen. Any ideas? Is it that I just do not have enough images? I shot at 60mm, 15 sec, f2.8, ISO 2500. Thanks.

    • Ian Norman April 9, 2015 / 6:11 pm

      Wayne,

      What happens if you take a single frame into lightroom or photoshop and try to boost the saturation? Is there any color present? Seems like your settings should be fine. I’m wondering if somethings being lost via DSS.

      -Ian

    • Wayne Collamore April 10, 2015 / 9:12 pm

      May I post/send you my autosave.tif file from DSS and see if there is anything there? I can’t seem to pull anything out of it. Let me know how to get ou the file. I would appreciate it. Thanks.

    • Wayne Collamore April 12, 2015 / 10:21 am

      I tried to work with a single RAW image and I can’t pull anything out of it. Your single image you used seems to have a lot of information in it. I took more Orion images last night with a D600 full frame and the ISO was 6400, 10sec, 50mm f1.8, and still there is nothing there. What methods to use to stretch the image to get some nebula detail?

  16. Andrew Kulin March 18, 2015 / 5:10 pm

    I tried out the method using about 30 images of the belt and sword taken using a 5D3 and 300 mm f/4 lens (1 second exposures at 12800 ISO). When I merge to panorama in Photoshop, I get a pop-up tat says not all the images aligned??? It carries on and gives me an image that has the 3×2 image at the left end of a huge arrow file (probably something like 15:1 aspect ratio), with everything empty to the right of the actual image. Stacking with median results in a blurred mess.

    Any thoughts as to why the merge to panorama is not working as advertised?

    Thanks,

    Andrew

    • Ian Norman March 25, 2015 / 2:49 pm

      Andrew, if Photoshop is failing to align it is usually due to a lack of contrast in your photos. Try pre-editing the photos and increasing contrast before trying to align, that may help.

      Ian

  17. Brett March 17, 2015 / 7:58 am

    Great tutorial and yet a new method for shooting the night sky that can work in winter when the MW has it’s back to us or our back on it! I did want to know though as someone who does not own a full PS version, can this be done on any other software for the layer adjustments? I can stack them on free software I am aware but the PS stuff get a wee bit cumbersome for a newbie. I do have Oneone suite as well as Elements 9 but not sure I can get the same amount of options with those as straight PS. Just curious if this is even possible without full version of PS. Thanks! Love the work.

  18. Judson Graham March 9, 2015 / 12:26 pm

    How did you set stellarium to bring out barnards loop so vividly?

    • Ian Norman March 9, 2015 / 2:35 pm

      In the view options, there’s the “Milky Way Brightness” setting. Turn that one up to like 6

    • Judson Graham March 12, 2015 / 12:01 pm

      ok, that got me pretty close, but now all the nebula are blown out

  19. Kevin February 24, 2015 / 11:34 am

    Just wanted to say thanks for the really helpful processing tips. I went to dark site and got my own shot of Orion last week. I’m just learning Photoshop, so the LRGB technique really helped pull out data I wasn’t able to get with just straight curves adjustments. My processed image: http://i.imgur.com/hRRAOC1.jpg

    • Ian Norman March 9, 2015 / 2:36 pm

      Damn that looks great! well done!

  20. David February 11, 2015 / 8:39 pm

    Is there a stacking program for mac users?

    • Ian Norman March 9, 2015 / 2:36 pm

      I’m not familiar with any good native stacking programs for mac so that’s why I ususally stick with PS.

  21. saiful February 11, 2015 / 7:40 pm

    it is an amazing tutorial Ian, but i have one slight problem that keep me stuck at stacking process…after editing in LR..i exported selected images to photoshop via photomerge. and i convert all aligned images to smart object. the problem start here. my all three photoshop version, CS5, CS6, and CC cannot go to stack mode ( greyed out) after converting process. did you have any work around solution to this..

    • Ian Norman March 9, 2015 / 2:38 pm

      Have you made sure to update your photoshop CC to the latest? The options should be available in CC and CS6 Extended

  22. Tom Raithby January 26, 2015 / 11:37 am

    Ian – an amazing tutorial and lots of great information on your website. Thanks for sharing!

    I’m still working towards a good capture (my Canon 50mm 1.8 II gave me lots of coma at 1.8, plus light pollution from a nearby city), but I have a question. In your video at 2:06, I see “Brightness Value” listed in your Develop Module. I have the up-to-date version of Lightroom via Adobe CC, but I can’t find “Brightness Level”. I also notice your camera serial number is not displayed. How do you modify what metadata displayed?
    Thanks!

    • Ian Norman February 5, 2015 / 4:30 pm

      Tom, I think Brightness Value is an EXIF tag that’s unique to the Sony camera I was using.

    • Judson Graham March 9, 2015 / 12:27 pm

      me too. try something like 2.2

  23. Julien January 18, 2015 / 7:04 pm

    Great, thanks !

  24. David January 18, 2015 / 3:56 pm

    AWESOME! thanks a lot for sharing this!!

    • Ian Norman February 5, 2015 / 4:32 pm

      My pleasure!

  25. Nicklas Westberg January 18, 2015 / 1:20 pm

    Hi Ian,
    Thanks for a great tutorial, its really awesome!
    I have a question about stacking. if you shoot 32 exposures with a shutter time of 10-20sec
    the stars will move quite a bit during that time. Don’t that affect the sharpness when stacking? since they can’t be perfect aligned. Also why are you using 32 expos, do you use 8 or 64 or something else time to time?
    Thanks in advance and keep up your brilliant work!
    //Nicklas

    • Ian Norman February 5, 2015 / 4:32 pm

      You are right in your thinking Nicklas. We do, however correct it: The first step upon importing to Photoshop is to use the Photomerge function to re-align the images.

  26. Karsten Qvist January 18, 2015 / 4:07 am

    Thanks for a great article, Ian. I’m not even into astro-photography, but it gave me several good ideas that I apply to what I do :-)

    • Ian Norman February 5, 2015 / 4:31 pm

      My pleasure Karsten

  27. Hi Ian, thankyou for the tutorial!
    I ran into one problem where I had stacked, aligned and compiled the layers into a smart object, but when I go to Layers>Smart Objects stack mode is greyed out. I have the smart object enabled.

    • Rob Jones January 18, 2015 / 10:52 am

      I’m running into exactly the same problem. Photoshop CS6. Up to that point, I’ve followed all the steps as described. Not sure why it’s greyed out and no idea how to get around/fix it.

    • Rob Jones January 18, 2015 / 4:13 pm

      Problem solved. I’ve discovered that the Stack Options are available only in Photoshop Extended or in the latest version of Photoshop CC.

      New problem: Photoshop refuses to align my images. Photo merge won’t work (it just lines them up one above the other on a giant canvas) and Edit > Align Layers says there isn’t enough overlap.

    • db January 19, 2015 / 9:57 am

      Same issue as noted here — photo merge fails spectacularly with each image lined up one above the other. So, it’s back to DeepSkyStacker for me.

    • Ian Norman January 20, 2015 / 2:02 am

      It can be rather dependent on the content of the image; sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. If you’re getting better stacking results in DSS, it’s always good to stick with what works!

    • Ian Norman February 5, 2015 / 4:41 pm

      This problem can occur if you’re not using CS6 Extended or CC.

  28. Eduardo January 11, 2015 / 8:44 pm

    Hi Ian! Thanks fot this tutorial! I write from Argentina, I have a problem with my Fuji X-T1 + 56 f1.2, I´ll try to follow this tutorial, but when I try take the photographs, every frame is out of focus. The camera is on M mode, focus is in manual, I focus carefully the stars, but when the intervalometer star to capture the frames every single shot is out of focus. When I take a single photo manually the picture is properly in focus, but not if I use the intervalometer. I try with my Canon 24-70 lens + adapter and the intervalometer works very well. What´s the problem? (Is the first time I use the intervalometer in the X-T1, I always take astrophotos with my DSLR)

    • Ian Norman January 12, 2015 / 2:37 am

      Eduardo, I’m not sure what the problem may be. Something to try: when you have achieved focus, carefully untwist the lens as if to remove it but only a small amount so that it stays attached but the camera no longer recognizes it. Then try starting the intervalometer. Hopefully then it should be impossible for the lens to shift focus because it will be electronically detached. I never had issues with my 14mm or 23mm but those lenses use a different style focus ring (push pull clutch).

  29. Ying Chyi Gooi January 11, 2015 / 2:08 am

    So I used your LRGB method and it actually produced similar results. It didn’t come out as detailed and punchy as yours but I’m quite satisfied with the results. I’d still prefer using Lightroom for post-LRGB contrast and color adjustment since for me it’s a lot faster to do that.

    Here’s the final processed image:
    https://500px.com/photo/95320837/lrgb-orion-constellation-by-ying-chyi-gooi

    Except that I was using a vintage 50mm f1.7 on a Fuji X-M1 since I don’t have a 35mm.

    Ian, thanks for your videos and techniques, I didn’t have trouble learning all of them.

    • Ian Norman January 12, 2015 / 2:30 am

      Ying Chyi Gooi,

      Awesome job! Thanks so much for sharing!

  30. Alexander DiMauro January 10, 2015 / 6:30 pm

    I get so jealous from seeing things like this. When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronomer, and now that I’m a photographer, I’m just aching to try night sky photography. But, I find myself in a location with no dark skies for many hundreds of miles around me. Living in NJ and looking at the map on darksitefinder is really depressing…maybe some year I’ll finally get to try it. Until then, I’ll live vicariously through posts like this one! Thanks!

  31. Nathan Remington January 9, 2015 / 8:27 pm

    Thanks for posting this! I remember I asked how you got shots like this when you started the 101 series – thanks for following through! I tried this in my back yard tonight with tons of light pollution and am not getting good results – will have to get out of the city to try this soon. I’ve barely done any astrophotography since I got my XT1 – think I’ll try with both the 23mm and 56mm (don’t have the 35mm) and see which composition looks better.

    • Ian Norman January 9, 2015 / 9:24 pm

      Yeah, I made this one almost specifically because you prompted it Nathan! I think a trip to some dark skill will help enormously. Try that 56mm on the X-T1. I think stopped to about f/1.8 it might exceed the quality of the 55mm/1.8 I use on the a7S now… I’m really impressed by Fujifilm’s 56mm. Obviously your FOV might be a bit smaller but it should get you lots of detail.

  32. Simon Kinzner January 9, 2015 / 2:51 am

    Hey Ian!

    Great Tutorial!

    I have a question. I tried to shoot the Orion Constellation myself and it worked pretty well despite I had a lot of lightpollution and a bright moon.

    The Problems startet, when I tried to align the Pictures in Photoshop CS5 with the photomerge tool like you did. After 10 min of waiting, i got a message “Einige der Bilder konnten nicht übereinander gelegt werden” in german. If i translate this to english “Some of the pictures could not be align automaticaly”.

    Did you also have this Problem or did you ever hear about this Problem?

    Thanks!

    • Ian Norman January 9, 2015 / 3:13 am

      Simon, it sounds like some of your images might not have enough contrast (perhaps from the light pollution) for photoshop to align. Recommend checking alignment manually by showing/hiding layers and aligning them manually if possible with the transform tool (ctrl/command+T).

  33. Rémi January 8, 2015 / 11:32 pm

    Ian,
    That’s a very interesting article again, thanks for that.
    You have tested a lot of lens by the look of it.
    Have you done some test with old ones like the Canon FDs ?
    With hybrid cameras like all the Sony’s it is possible to install those all manual lens. Just like the Samyangs they are just fine for this kind of pictures where we do not need AF nor stabilisation. And they are ship.
    I am in possession of a 24 f/2.8 and a 50 f/1.4, but I do not manage to get a sharp image of the stars. Am wondering if this is because they are not that great wide opened, or if this is because there is a problem once installed on a digital camera, especially an ASP-C.
    If you have any to recommend that you have tested, I would be happy.

    Was thinking of buying one of those big 300mm f/2.8 for some deeper sky pictures, but if it is not sharp on a NEX, it is pointless.

    For info I am also using a Samyang 12 f/2 following some of your recommendations and am loving it.

    Regards

    • Ian Norman January 9, 2015 / 2:37 am

      I have not tested any of the old FD mount lenses. They are older designs that have been much improved upon in newer lenses. Glad you’re liking the 12mm/2, one of my favorite lenses ever for mirrorless.

  34. wayne seltzer January 7, 2015 / 8:08 pm

    Thanks for all the great info on shooting Orion and your processing flow.
    Do you use Mirror Lockup mode and a intervalometer to get the 32 images?
    Or do use internal timer and not worry about Mirror lockup? Do you enable Long Exposure noise reduction for these 10 sec exposure times?

    • Ian Norman January 9, 2015 / 2:33 am

      I use a mirrorless camera so no mirror lockup necessary. I do use an intervalometer but it’s definitely optional. I recommend enabling long exposure noise reduction for this particular type of imaging.

  35. Jonatan January 4, 2015 / 7:57 am

    Hi Ian, thats an incredible tutorial! thanks for sharing :) you rock dude!

    • Ian Norman January 6, 2015 / 10:49 pm

      My pleasure Jon!

  36. Dan Lesovsky January 1, 2015 / 5:52 pm

    Nice work Ian. Your website and reviews of Sony A7s is why I now own one. I live about 20 min south of Red Rock Canyon and love that place, but can be difficult at times with cars coming in/out of the park spoiling images. I need to get up there during the week when its less busy.

    Never tried stacking images yet, but will give it a try sometime. Keep up the great work!

    • Ian Norman January 2, 2015 / 12:01 am

      Ah, yes, the cars driving by were a real annoyance for my Geminid shots. Even during weekdays, I have had a hard time finding even a few minutes without at least one car driving by at that location. Definitely give stacking a try. Even the a7S, which is spectacular on its own will see some benefits to stacking.

  37. Ricardo Faria January 1, 2015 / 3:21 pm

    Great tutorial, very detailed and informative 😀
    I just have one question, how do you deal with earth movement? Do you let photoshop track the stars, stack them and then crop to the common area (resulting in a smaller image) or do you use a motorized tracker.

    • davide January 1, 2015 / 3:48 pm

      Hi! Same question..thank you!

    • Ian Norman January 2, 2015 / 12:03 am

      I just let the the image drift across the frame. The stacking procedure in photoshop uses the program’s built-in photomerge function to re-align the images. This whole tutorial is meant for everyone that doesn’t have a tracking mount. All you should need is a tripod.

  38. Jim January 1, 2015 / 2:54 pm

    Great article and tutorial as usual! However, I am curious as to why you choose to use a 25mm or greater as opposed to a Rokinon 14mm or similar astrophotography lens. I’m assuming the longer focal length is to zero-in on a specific area of “the belt”? Thanks!

    • Ian Norman January 2, 2015 / 12:05 am

      Yeah, this is mostly a matter of nicely framing the “good” parts of the constellation. A “standard” lens usually gives us a field of view of 40-50 degrees which is just about as large as the whole of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex.

  39. walter January 1, 2015 / 1:17 pm

    Hi Ian, another great video! Do you ever take and subtract dark frames?

    • Ian Norman January 2, 2015 / 12:08 am

      Walter, I do. I however wanted to keep this tutorial a little bit simplified so I chose to leave out the technique. My suggestion to leave long exposure noise reduction on will help in this regard although it does double shooting time.

  40. chris December 31, 2014 / 11:29 am

    I plan on going out to the Bonneville Salt Flats the night of January 17. No moon, plenty of jet-black dark sky … should be a great shoot, assuming reasonable weather. I can’t wait to try your tutorial with my shooting results. thanks!!

    I’m assuming this works well for constellations like Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, etc as well. Yes? No?

    • Ian Norman December 31, 2014 / 6:48 pm

      Chris, Orion is the real treasure trove of the night sky so definitely start with Orion first, you’ll find the most interesting nebulosity there. Honestly Ursa Major is a pretty boring part of the sky but Cassiopeia, Cygnus, and Auriga will have more interesting detail. Orion though is the real treat of the (northern hemisphere) winter sky.

    • chris January 1, 2015 / 4:48 pm

      oh i completely agree on orion being THE constellation to capture. i’ve been infatuated with it since 1995. The more I read, the more convinced I am that my camera was just amazing. I wish I still had it. It was this Olympus PS, but it had a lot of manual control options. I captured this amazing image of Orion as it was setting in the early-April sky. It came back with this lovely pink dot in the belt. I had no idea what it was, so I consulted my Astronomy professor. After that, I was hooked. I’ve been trying to capture that same “pink dot” with various digital cameras, all to no avail. Now I’m starting to understand why.

      Do you use any color-correcting filters (IR and/or UV filtered, light passable)? I’m looking at some on maxmax.com. Thoughts?

    • Ian Norman January 2, 2015 / 12:12 am

      Chris, I really want to explore more into using a filter for light pollution and I’ve been very seriously looking at grabbing an extra Sony a6000 to convert to full-spectrum. All these things take time of course and I can only keep one project going at a time so it will be a bit before I go down that road. I, of course, will be sure to post all about shooting with a full-spectrum camera if I do pick up the project.

    • Bothwalien January 14, 2015 / 7:39 pm

      Your website has troves of great information.

      I accidentally took some pictures of Comet Lovejoy while trying some of your techniques. It’s approaching the Pleiades the next few days (Jan 15-17 ish). I am astonished how well it and its very long tail appear (with my skills in Lightroom and Photoshop mostly limited to what I’ve learned from you). Very exciting.

      Many thanks!

  41. albertdrosl December 31, 2014 / 5:57 am

    wow, GREAT tutorial. Very detailed. Thanks Ian.

    • Ian Norman December 31, 2014 / 6:49 pm

      Thanks Albert!

  42. Lars Broberg December 31, 2014 / 2:10 am

    Top notch!
    Thanks for writing this article, and producing an excellent video.
    The quality just oozes from everything that you do.

    • Ian Norman December 31, 2014 / 6:49 pm

      Thanks Lars!

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