Let’s Make a Planetarium Show: Part 6 – Fulldome Photography

One thing I like doing is adding a local segment to a Sky Tonight show.  What better way to do that than to show the audience an actual image or timelapse from a well-known location that they can actually go to.

About a year ago, I bought myself a Nikon D810 with an 8mm fisheye lens to do local timelapse sunsets.  Like I said before, the vast majority of my Sky Tonight shows kick off with a sunset and I try to choose a local location that’s easy to find, accessible, and memorable.  I’ve shot timelapses at the State Capitol, right outside the planetarium building, the lakes by LSU, on the Mississippi river by the Atchafalaya Heritage Area, etc.

I also go out to a dark location to take a full image of the night sky that will be used at the end of the show.  It’s nice to sum up what we went over by looking at an actual image of the sky taken from a local location.  I’ve gone out to LIGO in Livingston, the outskirts of Watson, LA, and soon I’ll be going out to somewhere in Whiskey Bay—in between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, LA.

For my fulldome timelapses and photos, I use a Nikon D810 fullframe DSLR camera with a Nikon 8mm lens.  This is the fisheye lens I’ve mentioned before.  Whenever you take an image with an 8mm lens and put it on the dome, it looks correct and no longer has that fisheye look.

For the timelapse photography, I attach a Galaxy tablet to my camera using an app called QDSLRdashboard.  This app effectively controls the camera, allowing me to making micro adjustments to the camera as my timelapse is clicking away.  As the day turns into night you have to make changes to your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO as it gets darker and darker.  These tiny adjustments can create a flicker effect in the final timelapse.  There are settings in the camera to reduce flicker but the best way I’ve found to get a flicker free timelapse is to use the LRTimelapse app that’s nestled within the QDSLRdashboard.

The LRTimelapse feature lets you program the timelapse intervals and helps along in the process.

Once the timelapse is done, I take all my stuff home and import everything onto my PC and open up Adobe Lightroom and the desktop app of LRTimelapse.

I’ll use LRTimelapse in conjunction with Lightroom to not only process all the images—adjusting the color, brightness, saturation, etc.—but to create metadata information that LRTimelapse can use to adjust and ramp the data that exists in between those micro adjustments I made while recording the timelapse.  That way, instead of having a quick jump in exposure as I make this adjustment as it gets darker, LRTimelapse will smooth these transitions out, creating a flicker free end result.

It can be quite tricky at times to get it just right and it’s quite a time consuming process, but the end result is worth it.

The final PNG image sequence is then rendered and brought to my work office and placed in its own scene file location to be used in the final composition within After Effects.

A local image of the night sky with all the stars and Milky Way is also captured in a very similar way.  However, instead of taking thousands of images to create a timelapse, I’m only taking a few.  Sometimes even one image will suffice. Other times I’ll have to take several photos and combine them to create brighter stars and/or a clear foreground image.  A lot of the times when I take an image of the night sky I’ll have to focus on the stars and do a long exposure just for the sky; then I’ll have to take a second shot, exposing for the foreground with a smaller aperture.

It’s tricky, and to be honest I’m still working and practicing at it.  I probably always will be.

But after all this is done, we get to move on to After Effects and assemble our final Sky Tonight sequence.

One thought on “Let’s Make a Planetarium Show: Part 6 – Fulldome Photography

  1. Hey Jay, local amateur photographer here looking to get into astrophotography. I really appreciate this series that you are doing! Keep up the great work! My inspiration to get into astro photography has largely been through the planetarium’s sky shows, so it’s so cool to see articles like these where you break down the behind the scenes elements! Thanks again!

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