Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Video Access to the 2021 NightScaper Conference


Defining Nightscapes. When you combine landscape photography with the cosmos, you get astro-landscapes or nightcapes — one of the newest and most exciting genres of landscape photography! Imagine the challenge and satisfaction of bringing together a starry night sky and an interesting foreground into a single landscape composition! The above image was taken in a single exposure, with a 15mm lens on a Canon 5D Mark III, using Low Level Landscape Lighting (photo by Royce Bair in the White Pocket area of northern Arizona).

38 Hours of Nightscape instruction. Recently, the 2nd annual NightScaper Conference brought together 40 legendary nightscape speakers from nine nations. These photography experts gave 69 program presentations for every skill level, from beginner to advanced. All this was recorded; over 38 hours of video content.

Get access to the recorded conference videos for as little as $14/month — Read on...

Scenes from the 2021 NightScaper Conference
Photos by Bethany Blair & Saunders Clark

Program Examples. You'll receive instruction on such things as "Making Panoramic Images of the Milky Way" by Yuri Beletsky. "The Importance of Planning" by Alyn Wallace. "Editing Techniques for Blue Hour Blends" by Jess Santos. "Photographing the Milky Way with Moonlight" by Brad Goldpaint. "Low Level Landscape Lighting by Wayne Pinkston.

For access to these, and 64 more programs, go to

ORDER ACCESS TO ALL THE VIDEOS: Those who attended the 2021 NightScaper Conference paid $599 for an in person ticket. You can ORDER access to the conference videos for $399.

Hear what others are saying about the conference and the video programs.

Get access to the recorded conference videos for as little as $14/month — Read on...

Our New PATREON Access to the Conference Videos

PAY AS YOU WATCH ACCESS via my Royce Bair PATREON account: Instead of paying $399 upfront to get access to all the program videos at once, you can select either my $14/month or $19/month membership and get access to the most popular programs, with new ones added each month, until you get access to all 69 programs. You can cancel your membership at any time, and still RETAIN ACCESS to ALL the VIDEOS your membership originally allowed you to view!

The $14/month membership currently gives you access to these 17 videos (see below), with at least 4 added each month. The $19/month membership currently gives you access to these seventeen additional videos (for a total of 34 video programs), with at least 8 more added each month. JOIN my PATREON now, and select your membership level.

A Quick Topic List of the video programs:

ORDER ACCESS TO THE ABOVE VIDEOS: You can ORDER immediate access to the conference videos for $399, or you can pay-as-you-watch them, for as little as $14/month (cancel at anytime) through your Royce Bair PATREON membership.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Low Level Lighting BLENDS

The Milky Way above Temple of the Moon in Capitol Reef National Park, photographed with Low Level Lighting, and then blended with an additional foreground exposure (using overhead starlight) to increase foreground detail in the shadow areas.

I love doing both Low Level Lighting and starlight blends. My colleague, Wayne Pinkston and I co-authored the Low Level Lighting technique (or LLL). LLL gives one the drama or character that one can achieve with moonlight, but without washing out or lower the contrast of your Milky Way sky. Starlight blends allow you to increase foreground detail (especially in the background areas) that one cannot achieve with LLL, and many think that starlight blends look more natural, even though they are "flat" due to the overhead lighting effect of starlight. By blending my LLL exposures with the foreground portion of a longer starlight exposure, one can achieve the best from both techniques. Let me explain in this tutorial...

1. A single exposure (15mm lens on a Canon 6D • f/2.8, 15 sec, ISO 8000)

2. Same EXIF, but with my LLL, and stacked 18 times to reduce noise. I like the drama and "character" one can achieve with LLL — it's similar to moonlight, but you get to control the direction of the light, and it doesn't wash out or lower the contrast of your Milky Way sky.

3. Longer foreground exposure, using overhead starlight (f/4, 120 sec, ISO 6400, with Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on), then blended with the sky exposure in number one. I like the detail I get in the foreground, but I often do not like the "flat" lighting this technique gives you. (One remedy is to do a Blue Hour blend rather than a starlight blend, as these twilight blends have more of from-the-side directional light.)

4. My LLL exposure (from 2.) blended with the foreground exposure from number 3. This gives me the best on both techniques: more foreground detail (from the longer starlight exposure) AND more "character" from the LLL.

NOTE: As of May 25, 2021 there is no longer any artificial lighting allowed in Capitol Reef National Park due to a new Superintendent’s Compendium.

This includes LLL (Low Level Lighting) — even though the intensity of LLL on the monument is equal to the light coming from a Quarter Moon that is about to set.

Capitol Reef now joins Arches, Canyonlands and Grand Teton National Park (and Natural Bridges Nat'l Mon.) in this artificial light restriction.

ALTERNATIVE BLENDS: Where LLL is not allowed, a blended exposure of the starry night sky (as in #1), with a longer exposure of the foreground lit by overhead starlight (as in #3), produces beautiful results. Many feel this has a very natural look. I agree; but I also think it has a flat, and somewhat drab look.

An alternative is to use a Blue-Hour blend from a twilight exposure that is taken about 30 minutes to an hour after sunset, or a similar period prior to sunrise. The advantage of a twilight exposure is that it has directional light: the west side of the sky (after sunset) is brighter than the rest of the sky, and the opposite is true for a morning twilight. When these brighter portions of the sky are perpendicular to your foreground landscape features, they produce shading and sculpturing to your landscape, giving it more interesting "character." The disadvantage of this technique is the waiting: You have to shoot your Blue-Hour exposure and wait until the Astronomical Dusk to shoot your starry night sky exposure (or shoot your starry night exposure and then wait for the morning twilight exposure). With a starlight foreground exposure, you can take that foreground shot immediately after doing your starry sky exposure. Here is a tutorial for doing a Twilight Blend...

A Blue-Hour exposure of three obelisk spires in Capitol Reef National Park. Photo taken about an hour after sunset with a Canon 6D, using a 15mm Irix lens • f/4.5, 25 seconds, ISO 800, Daylight White Balance.

Same image processed to a warmer, more natural color balance. (Some people like to keep the bluish or purplish color balance that come with a twilight or Blue-Hour exposure. I do not.)

Milky Way sky exposure taken about 1-hour later, during the Astronomical Dusk: f/2.8, 15 seconds, ISO 8,000 • 8 exposures stacked to reduce noise.

Last two images blended together in Photoshop layers. Click on any image to enlarge.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Remote Utah Nightscape Workshop


Natural Obelisks "Mom, Pop and Henry" in Capitol Reef National Park

The same Cathedral Valley spires photographed, using a Blue Hour blend. These features were first photographed in 1854 by Solomon Carvalho, during a John C. Fremont expedition to the area. The spires have since been largely ignored by modern photographers due to their remote location in the park.

Utah Badlands and Capitol Reef Nightscape Workshop - led by Royce Bair and Robert McKendrick - October 4-8, 2021 - limited to only 6 participants.

Why this remote area of Utah? The "badlands" between Hanksville and Cainesville, and the "Cathedral Valley" area of Capitol Reef National Park are far away from the crowds you see in other popular central and southern Utah locations, yet they have stunning beauty and some of the darkest skies in the world. There may be some days you will not see another person, other than our group!

Why in October? October 4-8 is during a new moon period. The temperatures are more moderate. May and October are the two best months for this area. The Milky Way is more diagonal in May, whereas it is more vertical in October. The core of the MW doesn't rise until about midnight in May, with the best images during 1:00 to 3:00 in the morning (allowing for very little sleep)! In October, the MW core is ready for photography by 9:00 PM and stays up for almost two hours — allowing for both great nightscapes and better sleeping cycles (as well as sunrise photography)!

A November Milky Way "erupting" over Factory Butte, Utah badlands

A November Milky Way over "Thumb Butte" - Utah badlands

Spring panorama over Needle Mountain in Upper Cathedral Valley by R. McKendrick (Note: October Milky Ways do not arch like this, but remain vertical; however, skies are so dark in this area, that very little post-processing is required for either season!)

Why only 6 participants? Robert and I want your experience to feel very personal and not crowded. Our attention will be on you and your needs. We will only use our cameras when it necessary for instructive examples.

Will we be doing any daytime photography? Absolutely! Because of the October night cycles, we will be able to do photography before and during the sunset periods; and we'll have several sunrise opportunities for photography. If you have a drone, you may wish to bring it, as there will be several opportunities to fly and photograph with it.

Factory Butte at dawn by R. McKendrick (yes, this sky is real!)

Skyline Overlook (Utah badlands) by R. McKendrick

Temple of the Moon and Sun, Capitol Reef National Park by R. McKendrick. This is a drone photo. Note that truck in bottom right corner is just outside park boundaries.

Drone aerial abstract of bentonite hills near Mars Research Station by R. Bair

North Cainesville Mesa by R. McKendrick

Upper Cathedral Valley sunrise by R. McKendrick

What is the physical exertion level for this workshop? Moderate. Most photography locations will be within 1/4 mile of your car or less.

Will transportation be provided? No. We suggest that each workshop attendee bring or rent a high-clearance vehicle. 4-wheel drive is usually not necessary, but preferred. Much of our daily workshop travel will be on gravel or dirt roads. Your airline flights can be into Grand Junction, CO (2.5 hours/159 miles to Hanksville), Salt Lake City (3.5 hours/231 miles to Hanksville) or Las Vegas (6 hours/370 miles to Hanksville).

Will lodging be provided? No. You will need to arrange lodging in Hanksville, Utah (our base). We suggest you book at least 5 nights (October 4-8, checking out on Oct. 9). We recommend Duke's Luxury Cabins (about $149/night) or the Whispering Sands Motel (about $129/night, with a 10% discount for AAA or AARP/seniors).

Will meals be provided? No. There is at least one good restaurant in Hanksville, a fast food burger spot, a grocery store (The Bull Market), a pizza spot (inside the grocery store)  and a couple of convenience stores. We will be providing snacks and bottled water.

Daytime post-processing sessions will be included for those who want this instruction.

The cost of this workshop is $1995 per person, with a deposit of $900 to hold your spot. Full payment is due at least 30 days before the workshop. You may cancel by August 3rd and receive a full refund. You may cancel by September 3rd and receive a 50% refund. There are no refunds after September 3, 2021.

To REGISTER for the workshop, eMAIL ME and I will send you an invoice for $900 to secure your workshop spot. You can use this same email to ask any questions. June 17 update: This workshop sold out two hours after it was posted! However, feel free to email me and put yourself on our waiting list.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

2021 NightScaper Conference goes virtual


The 2nd annual 2021 NightScaper Conference is now virtual. After having been postponed for almost a year due to the covid pandemic, 150 held-over registrants from the 2020 conference will meet in the Kanab Center and be joined virtually by hundreds more on May 10-12. Join us by registering today. For a limited time, save $200 by using the VIRTUAL200 discount coupon code at checkout (net ticket cost of $399).

BREAKING NEWS (April 26, 2021): Several in-person tickets are now available due to recent cancellations. If you'd like one of these spots in the Kanab Center, just register now and pay the regular $599 registration price. Once you place your order, you will receive a confirmation, and you can then book your travel and lodging.


Over 40 night photography speakers will be presenting at the conference. Most will be presenting live and in-person. All speakers programs will also appear virtually and be video archived (up to one year) for your review. Additional international nightscape legends will be joining us virtually, i.e.:

Over 70 night photography programs and panel discussions — something for every interest and learning level, from beginner to advanced. "Deepscapes" is just one example — a new genre of night photography that combines deep space objects and an earthly landscape foreground, all taken from the same tripod position! This program will be taught by the trio of Paul Schmit, Ralf Rohner and Dheera Venkatraman. Below this are 5 more program examples...

Miles Morgan - “Twilight Photography
and Photoshop Techniques”

Wayne Pinkston - “Low Level Lighting

Michael Zayne - aka blntpencil
"Milky Way Seasons"

Brad Goldpaint - "Photographing
the Milky Way with Moonlight”

Mike Shaw - "Astronomy 101 for Nightscapers:
Navigating the Night Sky" (this is a pre-conference
interview video interview with Mike)

Your Virtual Conference Ticket Registration includes:
  • 3 days of LIVE, virtual "NightScape" photography seminar instruction
  • LIVE, virtual access to 40 speakers ~ over 70 programs
  • LIVE, virtual round table and panel discussions
  • Networking with like-minded photographers
  • Video recorded access to ALL programsarchived in the "cloud" for one year
  • Ability to review all archived programs, including the ones you missed LIVE, because they were scheduled during the same time slot
REGISTER TODAY ~ For a limited time, save $200 by using the VIRTUAL200 discount coupon code at checkout (net ticket cost of $399).

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

2021 NightScaper Conference Schedule

Page 1 of 7 (click to view and download all 7)

View and Download our 7-page Conference Schedule PDF.  More information about the 2021 NightScaper Conference can be found on our conference website. This conference is slated to be the most comprehensive, diverse and knowledgeable group of nightscape speakers ever assembled for an event!

Virtual Attendees will be able to see live broadcasts from all 6 rooms: Ballrooms A, B,  & C, the Sage Room, the Ponderosa Room and the Virtual Track "room".

COVID-19 Adjustments: The Kanab Center is currently limited to 150 people (following social distancing and mask wearing guidelines) These tickets have already been sold. All new new ticket sales to the conference are for virtual attendance only. This will be a "hybrid" conference (in-person and virtual attendees).

Video Recordings of all conference programs and will be available in the "cloud" (for one year) to ALL conference ticket holders shortly after the conference. This will allow you to review speaker programs and see other programs that were scheduled during the same time slot.

Kanab Conference Center map (Sage, Juniper and Ponderosa rooms are for overflow):

Click to enlarge

Conference parking and location in Kanab, Utah:
Click to enlarge

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

"Thumb Butte" CONTEST

"Thumb Butte" ~ Utah Badlands - photo by Royce Bair

A Contest sponsored by the NightScaper Conference

1 PRIZE: One (1) virtual ticket to the May 10-12, 2021 NightScaper Conference, valued at $399.

This view of the Thumb Butte is about 170 miles from our May 10-12, 2021 NightScaper Conference in Kanab, Utah—where 190 pre-registered in-person attendees and speakers will meet and broadcast to hundreds more attending virtually across the world.

eMail Your Name. to be entered into a random drawing to WIN one (1) free virtual ticket to the conference.


  1. Email to
  2. Use "THUMB BUTTE" as your email subject.
  3. Include your name.
  4. Your email entry must be received not later than Midnight Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021 Mountain Standard Time (UTC -7).

NOTE: Submitting your email address means you agree to receive occasional email offers from Royce Bair about night photography. You may unsubscribe at any time.

A Random Drawing will be done by Royce Bair, director of the conference. One (1) randomly selected contest winner will be announced on the @roycebairphoto Instagram account on February25 (the winner will also be emailed, directly).


  • Contest begins at 12:01 AM MST on February 23, 2021 and ends at 11:59 PM MST on February 24, 2021.
  • Contest winner will be announced on the @roycebairphoto Instagram account on February 25 (the winner will also be emailed, directly).
  • Employees the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo), and their family members are not eligible for this contest.

Additional contest rules:


  1. Eligibility: This Campaign is open only to those who are 18 years of age or older as of the date of entry. The Campaign is only open to everyone of legal age, and is void where prohibited by law. Employees of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) its affiliates, subsidiaries, advertising and promotion agencies, and suppliers, (collectively the “Employees”), and immediate family members and/or those living in the same household of Employees are not eligible to participate in the Campaign. The Campaign is subject to all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Void where prohibited.
  2. Agreement to Rules: By participating, the Contestant (“You”) agree to be fully unconditionally bound by these Rules, and You represent and warrant that You meet the eligibility requirements. In addition, You agree to accept the decisions of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) as final and binding as it relates to the content of this Campaign.
  3. Campaign Period: Entries will be accepted online starting on 12:01 AM MST on February 23, 2021 and ending 11:59 PM MST on February 24, 2021. All online entries must be received by 11:59 PM MST on February 24, 2021.
  4. How to Enter: Email your guess of the photo location (in the above photo) to
  5.  The entry must fulfill all Campaign requirements, as specified, to be eligible to win a prize. Entries that are incomplete or do not adhere to the rules or specifications may be disqualified at the sole discretion of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo). If You use fraudulent methods or otherwise attempt to circumvent the rules, your submission may be removed from eligibility at the sole discretion of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo).
  6. Prizes: The Winner(s) of the Campaign (the “Winner”) will receive [list prizes and approximate retail value]. Actual/appraised value may differ at time of prize award. The specifics of the prize shall be solely determined by [your company name]. No cash or other prize substitution shall be permitted except at the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) discretion. The prize is nontransferable. Any and all prize-related expenses, including without limitation any and all federal, state, and/or local taxes, shall be the sole responsibility of Winner. No substitution of prize or transfer/assignment of prize to others or request for the cash equivalent by Winner is permitted. Acceptance of prize constitutes permission for the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) to use Winner’s name, likeness, and entry for purposes of advertising and trade without further compensation, unless prohibited by law.
  7. Odds: The odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received. Entering more than once will not increase your odds of winning. Using more than one email address with a "DEEPSCAPE CONTEST" will be considered a fraudulent entry.
  8. Winner Selection and Notification: Winner will be selected by a random drawing under the supervision of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo). Winner will be notified online and email within five (5) days following selection of Winner. The Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) shall have no liability for Winner’s failure to receive notices due to spam, junk e-mail or other security settings or for Winner’s provision of incorrect or otherwise non-functioning contact information. If Winner cannot be contacted, is ineligible, fails to claim the prize within 30 days from the time award notification was sent, or fails to timely return a completed and executed declaration and release as required, the prize may be forfeited and an alternate Winner selected. Receipt by Winner of the prize offered in this Campaign is conditioned upon compliance with any and all federal, state, and local laws and regulations. ANY VIOLATION OF THESE OFFICIAL RULES BY WINNER (AT [your company name]‘S SOLE DISCRETION) WILL RESULT IN WINNER’S DISQUALIFICATION AS WINNER OF THE CAMPAIGN, AND ALL PRIVILEGES AS WINNER WILL BE IMMEDIATELY TERMINATED.
  9. Rights Granted by You: By entering this content (e.g., email, text, etc.), You understand and agree that the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo), anyone acting on behalf of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo), and the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo)'s licensees, successors, and assigns, shall have the right, where permitted by law, to print, publish, broadcast, distribute, and use in any media now known or hereafter developed, in perpetuity and throughout the World, without limitation, your entry, name, portrait, picture, voice, likeness, image, statements about the Campaign, and biographical information for news, publicity, information, trade, advertising, public relations, and promotional purposes without any further compensation, notice, review, or consent. DESPITE THE FOREGOING, STOCK SOLUTION, INC WILL NOT KNOWINGLY USE YOUR ENTRY FOR ANY PUBLICATION OR PROMOTION THAT IS NOT DIRECTLY RELATED TO THIS CONTEST. By entering this content, You represent and warrant that your entry is an original work of authorship, and does not violate any third party’s proprietary or intellectual property rights. If your entry infringes upon the intellectual property right of another, You will be disqualified at the sole discretion of the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo). If the content of your entry is claimed to constitute infringement of any proprietary or intellectual proprietary rights of any third party, You shall, at your sole expense, defend or settle against such claims. You shall indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo). from and against any suit, proceeding, claims, liability, loss, damage, costs or expense, which the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) may incur, suffer, or be required to pay arising out of such infringement or suspected infringement of any third party’s right.
  10. Terms & Conditions: the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to cancel, terminate, modify or suspend the Campaign should virus, bug, non-authorized human intervention, fraud, or other cause beyond the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo)’s control corrupt or affect the administration, security, fairness, or proper conduct of the Campaign. In such case, the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) may select the Winner from all eligible entries received prior to and/or after (if appropriate) the action taken by the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo). the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo). reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to disqualify any individual who tampers or attempts to tamper with the entry process or the operation of the Campaign or website or violates these Terms & Conditions. The Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) has the right, in its sole discretion, to maintain the integrity of the Campaign, to void votes for any reason, including, but not limited to: multiple entries from the same user from different IP addresses; multiple entries from the same computer in excess of that allowed by Campaign rules; or the use of bots, macros, scripts, or other technical means for entering. Any attempt by an entrant to deliberately damage any website or undermine the legitimate operation of the Campaign may be a violation of criminal and civil laws. Should such attempt be made, the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) reserves the right to seek damages to the fullest extent permitted by law.
  11. Limitation of Liability: By entering, You agree to release and hold harmless the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) and its subsidiaries, affiliates, advertising and promotion agencies, partners, representatives, agents, successors, assigns, employees, officers, and directors from any liability, illness, injury, death, loss, litigation, claim, or damage that may occur, directly or indirectly, whether caused by negligence or not, from: (i) such entrant’s participation in the Campaign and/or his/her acceptance, possession, use, or misuse of any prize or any portion thereof; (ii) technical failures of any kind, including but not limited to the malfunction of any computer, cable, network, hardware, or software, or other mechanical equipment; (iii) the unavailability or inaccessibility of any transmissions, telephone, or Internet service; (iv) unauthorized human intervention in any part of the entry process or the Promotion; (v) electronic or human error in the administration of the Promotion or the processing of entries.
  12. Disputes: THIS Campaign IS GOVERNED BY THE LAWS OF the United States of America AND the State of Utah, WITHOUT RESPECT TO CONFLICT OF LAW DOCTRINES. As a condition of participating in this Campaign, participant agrees that any and all disputes that cannot be resolved between the parties, and causes of action arising out of or connected with this Campaign, shall be resolved individually, without resort to any form of class action, exclusively before a court located in the State of Utah having jurisdiction. Further, in any such dispute, under no circumstances shall participant be permitted to obtain awards for, and hereby waives all rights to, punitive, incidental, or consequential damages, including reasonable attorney’s fees, other than participant’s actual out-of-pocket expenses (i.e. costs associated with entering this Campaign). Participant further waives all rights to have damages multiplied or increased.
  13. Winners List: To obtain a copy of the Winner’s name or a copy of these Official Rules, mail your request along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: STOCK SOLUTION, INC, 6640 South 2200 West, UT 84084 USA. Requests must be received no later than 11:59 PM MST on February 24, 2021.
  14. Sponsor: The Sponsor of the Campaign is STOCK SOLUTION, INC, 6640 South 2200 West, UT 84084 USA.
  15. The Campaign hosted by the Stock Solution, Inc. (Royce Bair Photo) is in no way sponsored, endorsed, administered by, or associated with Instagram or Facebook. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Improving Your NightScapes Through Tracking

November Milky Way "erupting" over Factory Butte, in the Utah Badlands. Although the core of the MW is gone until Spring, there is a lot of MW still left to shoot!

Improving Your NightScapes Through Tracking

Photographing astro-landscapes is both exciting and challenging because of the extremes this type of night photography presents to the photographer. For over a decade, 30-seconds, at f/2.8 and ISO 6400 has been the "gold standard" in nightscape style photography:

Enlarged segment of a high ISO image
The NightScape Exposure Standard: Although these exposure settings may not be optimum, they will almost always produce acceptable starry night sky during the darkest period of the night. Many photographers start with these settings to confirm their composition, then continue their in-the-field tweaking processing to improve quality. Those improvements can include exposure stacking, panorama exposures and star tracking.

Reducing ISO speeds: High ISO speeds can produce noisy, grainy and pixelated images, where the noise patterns are almost as large as the smaller stars! High ISO's reduce dynamic range and lower image resolution. Although modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have sensors that can easily handle high ISO speeds and produce acceptable results, lowering the ISO speed will always produce better images. The two ways to reduce high ISO speeds are to either lengthen your exposure time or increase your aperture size, such as going from f/2.8 to f/2.0—both of which can cause other problems, which must then be addressed.

Same stars, with and without coma aberrations
Changing the aperture
f/2.8 is often the fastest (largest aperture size or smallest number) on most high-quality lenses. Increasing the aperture size is usually not an option, unless you purchase a much more expense lens that is highly corrected at f/2.0, f/1.8 or f/1.4. Even these very expense lenses can suffer from some lens aberrations and light fall off (vignetting) near the edges of the image. Stopping down to a smaller aperture will eliminate most of these "wide open" aperture problems, but that requires either an increase in ISO speed or exposure time.

Click to enlarge and compare star trailing
Changing the exposure time
When using a wide angle lens, 30 seconds is an acceptable exposure time for small to medium size prints or images displayed on social media. At these smaller sizes, most people will not notice that the stars are slightly blurred or trailing due to the rotation of the earth during the exposure. When printing to larger sizes, most wide angle (14mm to 24mm) images will benefit greatly from a shorter exposure, such as 20 to 13 second exposures. 35mm to 50mm lenses will do better at 10 to 6 second exposures. These changes will require wider apertures or higher ISO speeds.

And, so the "dance" continues! Changing one of the three effects the other two. Exposure stacking will solve some of these problems. Tracking will solve all of these issues, as I will explain...

Exposure Stacking is referred to by some as the "poor man's solution to tracking" as it costs little to nothing (zero to about $40 for the software app), compared to a star tracker. I find the Mac app, Starry Landscape Stacker, to give me the best results (see my tutorial here). With stacking, you use shorter exposures and higher ISO speeds to make up for shorter exposure times, in order to obtain proper histogram levels. In practice, you take about a dozen exposures as quickly as the images will write to your memory card. Back home, those images are "stacked" by the software to significantly reduce the noise between the stars. This is because every exposure has a different noise pattern. The patterns cancel each other out (smooth) via what is called "median filtration". The software (especially SLS) aligns all the stars (which move with each exposure), masks out the foreground (which does not move), and then brings both the sky and the foreground back into the final stacked image! The previous image (8 seconds @ ISO 10,000) was a 12 exposure stack. Here's another example of stacking's magic, using only 8 exposure stacks:

Each image enlarged to 200% to show detail. Click to enlarge further.

Why is Tracking is Better Than Stacking? With stacking you control only one of the exposure variables: the exposure time. You are allowed to reduce the exposure time by increasing the ISO, which noise is partially eliminated by the stacking of additional images. While stacking reduces high ISO noise, it does not recover the loss of dynamic range and sharpness due to the higher ISO speeds.

Tracking allows you to control all the exposure variables. Instead of reducing the exposure times as you do with stacking, tracking allows to increase the exposure time as long as you want, enabling you to lower your ISO speeds or stop down to better quality apertures, or both.

Trackers are not that expensive anymore. Many of the ones for astro-landscape photography are under $500. The one I recommend is typically under $300. Many photographers are purchasing trackers instead of upgrading to more expensive lenses and cameras, because the end results are better!

New tracker designs are smaller, lighter, more portable and less intimidating to set up. Some use a laser pointer for quick alignment, rather than a polar scope — which is only necessary for use with telephoto lenses (or for use in the Southern Hemisphere).

My basic MSM 2-in-1 tracker is about one-half the size and weight (1.01 lb / 450 g) as the basic Sky-Watcher Star Adventure tracker (2.2 lb / 1.0 kg), with its built in polar scope.

Note how my Move Shoot Move 2-in-1 tracker/rotator increases the number of smaller visible stars in this 30-second exposure track, which allowed an ISO drop from 8000 to 4000. Even more noticeable is how much star movement is still in the 15-second image, which is even more apparent in the 200% enlargement below it:

Increasing the tracked exposure time from 30 seconds to 120 seconds (2 minutes) allowed me to reduce my ISO from 4000 to 1000, for even less noise and more definition:

Here's my personal set-up, using the MSM 2-in1 Tracker/Rotator (see my review). I used my own MeFoto ballhead, but MSM's basic "Starter Kit" comes with a similar ballhead (actually better quality than my MeFoto Q1) and a laser Star Pointer for $310.00 (your special pricing is $259.00). Although you may already have a ballhead lying around like I did, I strongly recommend going with the "Starter Kit" option because these orders are shipped from a U.S. warehouse, and only take about 4 days to get to most continental U.S. locations. Other kit options ship directly from the factory in China and my first order took over two weeks to arrive to my Utah address.

Approaching deep space astro photography: The core of the Milky Way with the Dark Horse Nebula and the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex in the top right. Taken with a 50mm lens. Tracked on a MSM 2-in-1.

The compact and light weight Move Shoot Move 2-in-1 Tracker/Rotator is designed for portable astro-landscape photography. It is perfect for backpacking! It's laser pointer allows to quick and easy alignment when using wide angle to 50mm lenses for nightscape photography. It can also be used for deep space photography; however, alignment accuracy is improved if the laser pointer is replaced with the Polar Scope, when using telephoto lenses like the 70mm to 200mm. Longer telephoto lenses may be too heavy for the MSM's 6.6 pound (3 kg) load capacity. If you need a tracker that can carry heavier loads and has more available counter balance accessories, I'd recommend the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, with its 11 pound payload capacity—however, be prepared for a more intimidating set up (my first experience took me over half an hour).

The MSM 2-in-1 Tracker/Rotator use a green laser pointer (left) for fast and simple alignment with the North Star. It is quite accurate for lenses up to 50mm. Telephoto lenses will benefit from the increased alignment accuracy of a polar scope, but alignment is a little more complicated to perform, usually taking a couple of minutes (the laser pointer detaches from the tracker and the scope attaches via a nylon thumbscrew). The polar scope is also necessary for those living in the Southern Hemisphere where Polaris is not visible.

My STEP-by-STEP procedure for taking tracked astro-landscape images with the MSM tracker:

  1. Take a few quick "NightScape Standard Exposures" to find the right position for your best composition with the foreground and sky. Do this without the tracker. I like to use two tripods—one for these quick set ups where I explore my composition, and another tripod that I can mount my tracker onto (one tripod for both is fine—it just takes a little more time for the setup).
  2. Once your best composition is found, move your other tripod (with the tracker) into the same position—replacing the tripod that has your camera on it (leave the camera on the tripod for now).
  3. Release the ballhead below the tracker and aim your laser pointer at Polaris (the North Star). Once the laser beam is on target, tighten your ballhead. (By the way, that pitch angle will be the same as your current latitude.) For best results, try to keep the tracker's "roll" as level as possible while pointing the laser up to Polaris.
  4. Your tracker is now aligned with the North Star! With practice, you can do this step in about 30 seconds. The MSM tracker with a polar scope, instead of a laser pointer, can take about 3 minutes for alignment. The first time I used the scope on a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, it took me over half an hour. One of my friends was so intimidated by his, he gave up (and he's a commercial airline pilot). He has never used his tracker since!
  5. The tracker should already have another ballhead (with a quick release) mounted to the rotator. Mount your camera's L-bracket to that quick release. The MSM's basic "Starter Kit" comes with a similar ballhead, if you don't already have one.
  6. Loosen the controls on this second ballhead and aim your camera to your predetermined composition.
  7. Tighten your ballhead controls and take a quick NightScape Standard Exposure. Make ballhead adjustments and repeat until you have duplicated your original composition.
  8. Before you take you first tracked exposure, you'll want to take an exposure for the foreground (with the tracker still off). Since the foreground does not move, you can make your exposure as long as you want (with a lower ISO). Do not turn on your tracker until you are satisfied with your foreground; however, don't take too long or your Milky Way may move out of position. Remember, the stars are rotating at 15 degrees per hour!
  9. You can now turn on your tracker and it will begin to rotate you camera in sync with the earth's rotation so that the stars stay perfectly still!
  10. Adjust your camera's exposure for optimum quality. For instance, if you decide to reduce your ISO from 6400 to 1600 (two stops), and your original exposure was 30 seconds, you'll now need to expose for 120 seconds. If your original aperture setting was f/2.8 and you wish to stop down to f/4.0, you'll need to go another 120 seconds, for a total of 240 seconds (4 minutes).
  11. Take your exposure! You are done, except for post processing. Total time for steps #3 thru #10 (not counting exposure time for the foreground and sky) will probably be less than three minutes. You can now shut off your tracker, so it doesn't run down the battery—which can typically run for about 5 hours of tracking.
  12. Combining the non-tracked foreground and the tracked exposures in post: When you review your last exposure, you'll notice that the foreground has moved (rotated) and blurred, especially where it meets with the sky. That's because the tracker was tracking and rotating for the sky. It's also why you should alway photograph the foreground first, before turning on your tracker! In post, you will take your sharp foreground exposure (#8) and layer it over your tracked exposure for the sky. Note: you sometimes have to slightly enlarge the foreground to cover up the blurred foreground portion on the tracked exposure. This post processing procedure is usually done in Photoshop layers. Kamil Pekala has a great YouTube tutorial for this. Another tutorial from Milky Way Mike shows how to combine a foreground with stacked image —but, the procedures are similar to combining with a tracked image. Mike's Photoshop techniques are just slightly different than Kamil's (you decide which works best for you).

on the MSM 2-in-1 Tracker/Rotator
(Use the Discount Code ROYCE at check out
for an additional 5% off your order)