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.
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  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.
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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 (current Holiday Sale price is $239.98). 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 thru Cyber Monday - November 30, 2020
Get an extra 11% off at checkout when you use the code "ROYCE" (instead of "BLK")

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Focusing Aids for Astrophotography


A review of focus magnification aids, including two Bahtinov (mask) filter products to achieve precise infinity focus for astrophotography or nightscapes.

Obtaining a sharp infinity focus is the keystone to good astro-landscape photography. If your stars are not in focus, your shot is ruined, no matter how beautiful and well planned! I cannot tell you how many times in my early nightscape adventures that I've come back from an amazing night photography shoot only to be disappointed when I enlarged my photos on the computer screen—discovering that the stars were slightly out of focus, and that I'd never be able to make a decent size print out of my efforts.

What do out-of-focus stars look light? These two beautiful photos were taken last month by R. Craig Lefebvre in Arches National Park (left) and Dead Horse Point (right), Utah. Because the Arches image was taken with a 15mm lens, the four stars shown below Jupiter, in the Sagittarius constellation, should be about 40% smaller than the same stars shot with the 24mm lens, yet they are actually larger. And, the reason they are bigger is because they are slightly out of focus. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to see this problem until the images are projected to 100% on a computer monitor—or by using some of the advanced techniques below. Note: This image is only very slightly out of focus. It still can be used for social media and possibly for prints up to 16x20 inches. Out of focus stars that are twice this large (even blurrier "circles of confusion") are often not detected until it is too late. In these cases, the image is worthless for any practical use.

Start with You Camera's Live View: Miss-focus still happens to me occasionally, and I continue to see and hear about this disappointment and frustration from my fellow nightscapers, especially those who are just starting out. On page 53 of my Milky Way NightScapes eBook I use three paragraphs on how to manually focus and find your true infinity with the camera's Live View function. I then end with, "Once you’ve found your lens’ true infinity, mark it for future reference, or tape down the focus with a piece of gaffer’s tape. You’ll have one less thing to worry about in the dark."

Temperature Affects Focus: That advice works most of the time, but I've found that you can't always rely on it because the tape can loosen or the focus mark become meaningless due temperature changes. Changes in temperature can cause considerable focus shifts in your lens, so it is best to redo your focus each time you go out shooting at night. And, if temperatures are considerably different than the last time you were shooting, wait several minutes for your lens to adjust to the new outside temperature.

Zoom lenses often have a different infinity focus for each focal length, so no single infinity focus setting will give you accurate results throughout the zoom range of the lens.

Additional magnification to your Live View image: As we get older, it becomes much harder to see if a star is sharply focused on a 3-inch LCD camera monitor, even when the image has been magnified to 10X. For this reason, I carry an inexpensive pair of +3.0 diopter (power) reading glasses from my local drug store. This, or a Hoodman Loupe (with the Hoodman Cinema Strap) allows for hands-free, enlarged views of your little camera monitor.

Aaron King of Photog Adventures continues to promote his favorite focusing aid: The $5 Carson Lumiloupe 10X magnifier (shown in the above middle photo). Here's his 13-minute video tutorial. I've used this method for years, and I highly recommend it!

The Bahtinov mask focusing aid
The Bahtinov mask is a device used to accurately focus small astronomical telescopes. This distinctive pattern was invented by Russian amateur astrophotographer, Pavel Bahtinov, in 2005. The telescope is pointed at a bright star, and a mask is placed in front of the telescope's objective. The mask's three separate grids are positioned in such a way that they produce three angled diffraction spikes at the focal plane. As the telescope focus is changed, the central spike appears to move from one side of the star to the other. Optimal focus is achieved when the middle spike is centered between the other two spikes. If you like DIY projects, you can even make your own Bahtinov mask.

Bahtinov mask limitations and new product solutions: The problem with most Bahtinov masks is that they work well for small telescopes and medium to long telephoto lenses on cameras, but their use with wide angle lenses that are often used in astro-landscape photography is not as decisive.

Reviewing the SharpStar2 and the Focus on Stars filters

Improvements on the Bahtinov mask design: These two commercially available Bahtinov mask "filters" attempt to provide a more accurate and easier-to-use focusing tool for nightscape photographers. Unlike the typical Bahtinov grid or mask, these are more like true photographic filters. In the case of the SharpStar2 filter, the Bahtinov mask pattern is finely etched by laser into the clear plastic filter. The Focus on Stars filter goes even further with multiple Bahtinov mask patterns contained in a film that is sandwiched between tempered glass sheets.

Is a star focusing filter really necessary? Some may think there is no need for gadgets like this to aid photographers in getting a sharp focus on their stars, considering the available focusing tools I've already mentioned. I admit, that I was one of these people (I don't need more stuff cluttering my camera bag). However, as I've helped hundreds of students in my nightscape workshops over the years and seen them struggle to get a correct focus on the stars, even with these other tools, I'm beginning to think there is a need for a better focusing tool, and one or both filters of these might be it—especially as we get older and we struggle reading the small print (the stars on your LCD screen are even smaller, even at 10X!

Consider this: Many professional photographers resisted auto focus when it first appeared on pro SLR cameras back in the 80's—now, few of us would think of being without it! When articulating LCD camera screens first appeared a few years ago on low-end digital cameras, many scoffed at these as this gimmick. Now, they are fast becoming a "necessary"' feature in professional cameras.


SharpStar2 by Lonely Speck

SharpStar is a simple tool created by Lonely Speck to help astrophotographers achieve critical focus on the stars with their camera lens and filter holder. SharpStar claims to help astrophotographers achieve perfect focus on the stars, every time.

SharpStar uses the properties of optical diffraction to create a set of three fine spike lines around a bright star. These diffraction spikes will shift position as you focus your camera. Adjusting focus so the central diffraction spike sits evenly between the other two diffraction spikes will ensure perfect focus. Once you’ve verified the focus pattern on your test shot, you can simply remove the SharpStar and shoot like normal — knowing that you have perfect focus. The diffraction spike pattern that SharpStar creates is a precise visual reference of focus success. If the central spike is off to the left, focus is too far, if it’s off to the right, focus is too near. If it’s in the center, it’s just right. Here's a 3-minute video tutorial.

Lonely Speck’s SharpStar2 is made of precision laser etched optical plastic and comes in a square filter shape, made to fit into the most popular square filter systems. SharpStar2 requires a square filter holder and the appropriately-sized system adapter ring to fit your lens (both items sold separately). The SharpStar2 works with the Lee, Cokin, Formatt-Hitech and other similar filter holders that come in 85mm, 100mm and 150mm sizes. If you don’t already have a filter system, Lonely Speck personally recommends the Formatt Hitech system because of its price and its modular design that works well with wide angle lenses. October 9 update from Lonely Speck: "The SharpStar2 is made in the USA. We offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee (refund or replacement if the customer isn't satisfied for any reason). All they need to do is email us." ~ Ian and Diana

PRICING (filter only - filter holder not included):
  • 85mm $64.00
  • 100mm $69.00
  • 150mm $94.00
Filter Pouches are optional (soft-lined semi-rigid pouch with magnetic closure)
 ~ 85mm $12.00 • 100mm $14.00 • 150mm $20.00 ~

The Focus On Stars high precision device fits into standard size square filter holders available on the market. At first glance, it looks like a filter.

In fact, it has a grid structure based on the Bahtinov mask known in astronomy, but it is much more complex. A multitude of Bahtinov masks in a special mosaic layout ensures that all three diffraction spikes are obtained quickly and easily with a maximum of two small movements (horizontal rotation, vertical slide). You only need to place it in front of the lens to fine-tune the focus, and you can remove it before the final exposure. According to the rules of diffraction, 3 pairs of bright spots appear on the LCD live image around the brighter stars.

Focus On Stars developer, Gabor Takacs, claims that his filter works better with the wide angle lenses most commonly used in astro landscape photography: "During my research, I found a promising device that the manufacturer recommended also for lenses with shorter focal length. It is a plastic sheet in which the grid lines of the Bahtinov mask known from astronomy were densely etched with laser. I have tested it. Using wide-angle lenses common in astro landscape photography, I have found that this device gives me a diffraction pattern that is too faint and too small to ensure a sharp focus. ...After more than a year of research and development, I develop a device that works well even with ultra-wide-angle lenses."

The Focus On Stars diffraction pattern has some similarities to the typical Bahtinov mask, but is also has some unique differences that help the user determine focus with more precision. When focusing, the center spot around the targeted star moves between the lateral spots. When the center spot is just equidistant from the lateral ones, i.e., the resulting pattern is symmetrical, the focus adjustment is perfect. The position of the intermediate spots also shows the direction of the required correction: If the spot is shifted to the left, the focus is in front of the target, if it is shifted to the right, it is behind the target. October 12 update: "Focus On Stars is made in Hungary (EU) and we also offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee (refund or replacement if the customer is not satisfied for any reason)." ~ Gabor Takacs.

PRICING (filter only - filter holder not included):
  • 100mm $113.00
  • 150mm $154.00
Each filter comes with a protective, hand-sewn pouch with velcro closure :

My OUT OF THE BOX Experience


I ordered the 100mm SharpStar2 for $69.00, with economy shipping from California (U.S.A.) to Utah (U.S.A.) for a cost of $3. I received a notification the next day that the product was out of stock. Two days later, the product was available and I received another notification that it was shipping. The package arrived three days later, and included a filter pouch (a $14 value) that I didn't order. When I questioned (via email) the inclusion of the pouch I didn't order, they said it was free because my order had been delayed due to stocking problems (nice gesture!). Total cost for filter with shipping to the U.S.A. was $72. However, if I lived in Australia, my USPS Priority Mail Express International shipping cost would be $82.75, for a total cost of $151.75.

All-in-all, the products were just as described, and nicely packaged. The filter was enclosed in a clear plastic envelope (blue product description printed on the outside), which could be used a storage pouch for a while, but the real filter pouch (made of suede leatherette material), with its magnetic enclosure, was much nicer and more substantial. The filter seems to be finely etched with the Bahtinov mask pattern into a sheet of clear plastic.

Focus On Stars

I ordered the 100mm Focus On Stars for $113.00, with DHL Express shipping from Hungary to Utah (U.S.A.) for a cost of $32. The FOS filter comes with its own padded pouch. I received a notification the next day that the product was shipping. The package arrived four days later. Total cost for filter with pouch and shipping to the U.S.A. was $145 — about twice as much as the SharpStar2 (however, you do get a pouch include). I noticed that high international shipping cost outside of the United States for the SharpStar2 tend to raise its total costs closer to that of the FOS filter. For instance, if I lived in Australia, my DHL Express shipping cost for the FOS filter would be $42, for a total cost of $155 (making it only about $2 more in total cost than the SharpStar2).

All-in-all, the FOS filter and pouch were just as described, and nicely packaged. Unlike the SharpStar2, the Focus On Stars filter is made of tempered Gorilla 3 Glass, not plastic, and claims to be very scratch resistant. It was also much easier to clean off my fingerprints and dust, due to a special coating that is applied to the glass.

150mm versions of SharpStar2 and Focus On Stars

I was also able to obtain the larger 150mm versions of these two filters, which I've hung on a clothes line for a visual comparison so you can quickly see the density differences of these two filters. Because of its complex mosaic pattern, the FOS filter is about one to two stops darker than the SharpStar2 (about 0.3 to 0.6 optical density). Will this extra density hinder in your ability to see its star focusing pattern at night, when compared to the more transparent SharpStar2 filter? It didn't seem to be a problem in my field tests (see below).

Actual Field Tests


In order to use the SharpStar2 or the Focus On Stars filters, you need to have a filter holder. There are filter holder systems for 85mm, 100mm and 150mm square filters. The most common square filter size is the 100mm. I use the popular LEE100 Filter Holder. You'll also need a lens adapter ring. Many of my Canon and Rokinon astro lens take a 77mm filter size, so I use LEE's 77mm Wide-Angle Lens Adapter Ring for the 100mm System Holder (here are links for 82mm, 72mm, 67mm, 62mm, 58mm and 55mm filter sizes). The Formatt Hitech 100mm Aluminum Modular Filter Holder is also a good system, and is slightly less expensive than the LEE system.

Unless you already have a Cokin P or Formatt-Hitech filter holder system for 85mm square filters, I would avoid this system size, since it has limitations for the more serious amateur or professional photographer; and the Focus On Stars filter is also not available in this size.

Ultra wide-angle lenses in the 14mm, 15mm and 16mm focal lengths typically do not have filter threads because of their huge front elements. These lenses usually need 150mm square filters and special square filter holder systems like the LEE Filters SW150 Mark II Filter System Holder. Another popular solution for super-wide lenses is the Haida 150mm Filter Holder (which is often backordered). Here are Haida holders for the Tamron 15-30mm, Nikon 14-24mm and the Samyang-Rokinon 14mm.

Focusing Procedures with the Filters

The following steps were used in the field with both the SharpStar2 and Focus On Stars filters:
  1. Turned off the autofocus and rotated the lens focusing ring to the infinity mark.
  2. With the camera on a tripod, pointed it at the brightest star in the sky, so that it was in the center of the camera's field of view. The brightest "star" was often the planet Jupiter.
  3. Turn on the camera's "live view" image and magnify the star to the maximum.
  4. Insert the focusing filter into the filter holder.
  5. Manually adjust the focus to cause the middle diffraction spike or diffraction spots (in the case of the Focus on Stars filter) to center between the outer spikes or spots. The symmetry of the pattern ensures perfect focus.
  6. Take a "confirmation" test shot and review the image under magnification.
  7. Make focus adjustments until perfect pattern symmetry is achieved.
  8. When the center spikes or spots are evenly centered, remove the focusing filter and point the camera optics at the scene you want to capture.
These steps worked fine with my 70mm, 50mm, 35mm and 24mm lenses; however, with the 15mm and 14mm ultra wide-angle lenses, even the brightest stars were so small, I had to take these additional steps to get the best pattern symmetry:
  • I often had to rotate the camera a few degrees horizontally on the tripod head until I saw at least two pair of spikes or two rows of dots.
  • I then had to arbitrarily slide the focusing filter, in the holder, up and down until all three pairs of spikes or spots became visible.
Using these additional steps, with the 14mm and 15mm lenses, gave me beautiful diffraction pattern symmetry and perfect focus with the Focus On Stars filter. Seeing and achieving a good diffraction symmetry pattern with the SharpStar2 filter was much more difficult when using ultra wide-angle lenses, as you'll see in the following images.

Field Test Comparisons

Both the SharpStar2 and the Focus On Stars filters produced excellent symmetrical diffraction focusing patterns when using a 70mm lens (a 24-70mm zoom @ 70mm). They both produced good patterns using a 50mm lens (a Samyang/Rokinon 50mm f/1.4). The colorful Focus On Stars pattern is more distinct to my eyes, and easier to judge when it has reached symmetry (perfect focus). However, both products performed well in the 35mm through 70mm range.

Using a 24mm lens (Samyang/Rokinon 24mm f/1.4), symmetry was much easier to see with the Focus on Stars filter than the SharpStar2; however, the SharpStar2 was acceptable as long as you used a very bright star, i.e. the planet Jupiter, and you used a loupe to help you magnify the camera's LCD screen.

The Focus On Stars easily out performed the SharpStar2 when using an ultra wide-angle 14mm lens (Samyang/Rokinon 14mm f/2.8). Even with a 10-power loupe to magnify the back of the camera's LCD screen (already magnified to 10X), it was difficult to see when there was spike pattern symmetry using the SharpStar2. Several image confirmations and slight focus adjustments had to be made in order to get the best pattern. I had virtually the same frustrating results using a 15mm ultra wide-angle lens (Irix 15mm f/2.5).

You'll notice that with the same confirmation exposure, the Focus On Stars image is about a stop darker than the SharpStar2 image. As I mentioned earlier, the Focus On Stars filter is darker due to its complex mosaic pattern. I didn't find that this extra density hindered being able to see or obtain a good symmetrical focusing pattern. Besides, the filter is removed before starting your creative astro photography.

A Work-Around Method to Improve Your Results

The brighter the star (or planet) you use for your Live View focus, the better will be your results with both filters, especially when using the SharpStar2. Even though the SharpStar2 performed poorly with ultra wide-angle lenses like the 14mm, I discovered that using a brighter, man-made "star," such as a Lume Cube 2.0 light, allowed me to produce more acceptable results with the SharpStar2.

My procedure was to place the Lume Cube light about 100 paces from the camera (and aim the light back towards the camera). You can place the light on a rock or use a light stand. This creates a distance of at least 200 feet (61 meters) from the lens—more than enough for any wide angle lenses to optically be at an "infinity" distance. I use a diffuser filter over the light, so that it is no longer a focused light, and I reduce its intensity down to about 10% (go higher, if you still have trouble getting a good focusing pattern).

Because this artificial, man-made "star" is such a higher "magnitude" than real stars, your exposure will only need to be a few seconds, using a low ISO of about 200. This exposure will typically give you greater contrast (a darker background) than real stars in the sky, which should also produce a larger and crisper focusing pattern, even with the Focus On Stars filter—albeit this extra effort is something I find is rarely needed with the FOS filter.

My Conclusions

It may seem ridiculous to spend an average of $108 for a focusing aid (and even more if you don't already have a square filter holder system), but missing one great Milky Way shot due to inaccurate focus will cure you of this opinion, especially when you consider the travel costs you spent to get to a great location.


PROS: Less expensive than the Focus On Stars filter. A good focusing aid for all lenses up through as wide as 24mm (or 16mm when using an APS-C cropped sensor).

CONS: It is difficult to achieve good results with ultra wide-angle lenses i.e. the 14mm and 15mm lenses (I suspect that 20mm and 18mm lens users will also have some difficulties). Plastic construction makes the filter more susceptible to scratches, and is harder to keep clean. A protective filter pouch will cost you an additional $12 to $20.

Focus On Stars

PROS: It is easy to obtain a decisive symmetrical focusing pattern with this focusing filter (apparently due to its more complex mosaic mask), especially with ultra wide-angle lenses in the 14-16mm range. Construction quality is excellent. The filter pattern is sandwiched and sealed between tempered Gorilla 3 glass, making it easier to resist scratches and to clean. A protective filter pouch is included.

CONS: More expensive than the SharpStar2 filter (U.S.A. purchasers will spend almost twice as much for the FOS, with shipping costs, than buyers of the SS2); however, pricing becomes closer for many international purchasers due to less expensive shipping costs (Australian FOS purchasers will pay almost the same total price as SS2 purchasers and European FOS buyers will actually spend less). The inclusion of filter pouch also helps to even out the price difference.

Disclosure: I am NOT receiving any income from the sales of the SharpStar2 or Focus On Stars filters. The links to the LEE filter holder systems are being monetized through B&H. Other than that, this blog post is purely for educational purposes.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Sony Alpha a7S III is THE Camera for Night Photography

High Sensitivity: "Bigger pixels are better" has long been the motto of the a7S series. The original Sony a7S, which was first introduced in April 2014, has always been Sony's "High Sensitivity" digital camera, with native ISO up to 102,400 and expanded ISO up to 409,600. This camera can literally see in the dark, which also makes live-view focusing much easier than any other camera!

The a7S has been highly regarded in professional video production work as the low-light leader, where it has been used in many famous movies and documentary films that required high quality (low noise) night scenes.
Bigger Pixels mean better nightscapes: Except for knowledgeable "nightscape" photographers, only a limited number of still photographers use the a7S series because its full-frame sensor has a modest resolution of only 12.2 megapixels (4240x2832). Those that use this camera for their astro-landscape images claimed that those large pixels are so clean and free of noise that their 12MP images often looked better than other cameras with twice the resolution, when both cameras were shot at the same high ISO's needed for starry night photography.

Most Anticipated Upgrade: The a7S Mark II followed less than 18 months later (Sept 2015) with only a few improvements, i.e. better autofocus and a larger LCD monitor, but the main upgrade was from 1080p to 4K video, which had just become the industry standard. Almost 5 years later, the Mark III is the Sony a7S series' most anticipated upgrade, and most experts feel it was well worth the wait.

Articulating Touchscreen
Optimized for Video — amazing still camera performance, too
: Although the new Sony Alpha a7S III is truly optimized for video, which is its primary application; the still photographer should consider its super fast autofocus performance, sharper viewfinder, articulating Touchscreen, improved noise reduction, wider dynamic range and better image stabilization — especially since the vast majority of still image uses today are for electronic media, not print.

Consider the new Mark III's fast 10 fps continuous shooting for up to 1000 consecutive raw frames and its 5-axis SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift image stabilization, which minimizes the appearance of camera shake by up to 5.5 stops. Combined with its increased low-noise sensitivity, and this new camera is capable of hand-held Milky Way photography! Imagine all the low-light night photography possibilities!

Watch this "Behind-The-Scenes" ~ Shot on a7S III

(Expected availability is Sept 24 at $3,498.00)