For most people, night photography started with a digital camera… following in the footsteps of others who inspired us to get out and shoot in the dark. Our images were a little noisy and that reminded us that the higher ISO settings can give us more noise. With that, we accepted that nightscape images are generally more noisy (than daytime landscape images) because of the limits of the cameras we have available.
Introducing Stacking To The World
Astronomers have had some ability to "stack" multiple exposures to reduce noise for years. This is where we take advantage of the fact that the location of the noise dots on each exposure is different and this allows us to sort of "average" them together to get the noise dots to disappear where the points of light just reinforce each other. The result is significant noise reduction - although the software that does this is generally very expensive and overly complicated.
I looked at a few options including Deep Sky Stacker, Registar, Photoshop and others but through about 2014, none of the options were effective, affordable, and easy to use. We knew the value in capturing multiple exposures even if the capability to stack them wasn't quite there yet - so we continued shooting multiple exposures and watching closely for this capability to get better.
I think we owe a lot of thanks to Ralph Hill who first released Starry Landscape Stacker back in 2012. Sure, dedicated astronomers have been using stacking software for years, but none were affordable or easy to use or most importantly… built for the mainstream user until Starry Landscape Stacker was released as an app for the mac. As a PC user, it was easy to dismiss SLS for a while but eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I grew determined to try it. So in 2016, I tested Starry Landscape Stacker on a mac and Sequator on a pc (an even newer alternative I found). In testing, I found SLS to be very good while Sequator was not acceptable. So for the next 2 years, we recommended that mac users use SLS but we knew that only dedicated pc users could take advantage of it because doing so meant buying a Mac - often a Mac Mini. During this same time though, Sequator improved to become a very good option for the pc - which changes a lot.
Night Photography 2.0
With both SLS and Sequator, the mainstream public now has access to software that's effective, easy to use, and affordable. With capable options on both mac and pc sides, we're very excited! What we really like though is that this new breed of stacking software programs are made for wide-field astro-photography where we have a foreground and a sky. In the past, we had to separate the sky from the foreground, stack, and then blend back together - which discouraged the beginners. Now, both stackers we looked at handle the separation of sky and foreground within the app and this was a truly welcome surprise! This makes the whole process a lot easier and this opens up stacking to a lot more people.
Now everyone has the ability to create nightscape images with significant noise reduction - which means we can all print bigger with even better image quality. And to make this happen, I don't need to carry any more heavy photo gear or buy any expensive software… I just shoot for 10 clicks of the shutter instead of 1 - and then I combine them later in post-processing.
5 years ago, we struggled to stack 4 exposures so we could cut our noise in half. By comparison, we now have an easy, affordable, way to just about eliminate noise by stacking multiple exposures in either mac or pc. Wow! That's a big change!
Think Beyond Stacking
As photographers, we're excited about having a good way to get really high quality results in our own photography. This capability doesn't just mean less noise, it means more details, shorter star trails, more nebula colors. It means I can print bigger. And as workshop instructors, we also like having a good option we can recommend to all our students - whether they're a mac or pc user. We truly believe this capability means that everyone is now able to reach a higher level of quality in their night photography. How much of a difference? I've heard some say that stacked results with ISO 6400 can have the same noise (or lack of it) as a single exposure captured with ISO 200. Even if you don't agree that it's quite that much better, that's still a really big deal! Welcome to Night Photography 2.0 everyone!
If you haven't gotten on board the stacking train yet, now is a great time to give it a try!
Recommended Star Stacking Software
- Starry Landscape Stacker - Mac
- App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/starry-landscape-stacker/id550326617
- Website: https://sites.google.com/site/starrylandscapestacker/home
- Cost: $39.99
- Sequator - PC
- Website: https://sites.google.com/site/sequatorglobal/
- Cost: Free
Is There A Best Option?
They're both very good but I would give the slight edge to Starry Landscape Stacker. In my eyes, SLS has a bit more flexible masking and a slightly better quality output (although that's debatable).
I'm happy to say that this decision is a tough one and I view this as great news because it makes going with the option that fits your preferred computer platform (mac or pc) an easy decision as well. If you're a pc user, go with Sequator. If you're a mac user, go with Starry Landscape Stacker.