Blog, Prints & Photography Lessons from Edinburgh and the Lothians

Astrophotography

Why I’m finally calling it a day on telescope astro-photography

It’s been a long, at times frustrating journey. Certainly, the lows outweigh the highs by quite some number and when a hobby starts to feel like that it’s maybe time to re-examine it and why you’re doing it.

When I first got a notion for astro-photography I was under no illusions. A quick initial bit of research showed it to be a complex discipline with a lot to learn so I don’t think I underestimated it but what I did do was seriously underestimate the financial aspect and the worse still for a photographer, the lack of creativity.

I first noticed the writing was on the wall when I started to ignore clear nights and not feel like I was missing something. Before the new year any clear night I was out, imaging the Moon, Jupiter and anything else I could get too. By this time though I had already realised that with the kit I had deep space objects were going to be beyond reach but I figured I’d be happy trying to get as good as I could with lunar, solar and planetary images.

This was true for a while but once you’ve done the best you can with Jupiter 20 or so times it’s gets slightly “samey”. You see, one of the main issues with astro work is that there is no opportunity to be creative. Astro-photography is all about capturing what it there, as it is. It’s about making the most of every available photon of light. There’s no opportunity to try and be creative with what you have, it’s more a never ending fight to get more light.

It’s hard to explain.

If you were to take a picture of a flower, how many ways could you take that picture? There’s an almost infinite number of ways to interpret the scene, be it with different lenses, artificial light, angles etc etc etc… You simply cannot do that with astro work.

And now we come to telescopes. I’ve had 3 in the last year and I’ve never really liked any of them. They are fiddly to set up, tempremental to operate and lets be honest here, in all but the biggest of scopes, the views of anything other than the moon or planets is shall we say, disappointing. Those pictures you see of majestic clusters or colourful nebula are visually just grey fuzzy patches. The knowledge of what you are looking at is far more exciting than the actual view in reality.

Now we come to cost. It’s a bottomless pit. Even at the bottom end of the market it’s a massively expensive hobby. Don’t be fooled either into thinking you can do it on the cheap, you simply can’t. If you can be happy with poor to average results then yes, you can but if you really hanker after those wonderfully detailed images of planets and deep space objects be prepared to re-mortgage the house. Nothing is cheap and if it is, then it’s not up to the job. Simple. You hear of people getting “wonderful” results with £3 webcams. The results are not wonderful, they are acceptable for a £3 webcam. Wonderful is what Damian Peach puts out and he simply does not use a £3 webcam.

I can look at landscape images taken with say, a Nikon D4, Lee filters, expensive Nikon lenses and I don’t think, wish I could do that. I can do it, and at a fraction of the cost too. If you look really close, and I mean really close then yes, the image maybe isn’t quite as good but you can as near as damn it do as good as the pro kit for a lot lot less. The difference between the pro kit in astro work and what might be termed as “reasonably affordable” is massive. Don’t even think of looking at the planet images in the Astro-photographer of the year competition and think you will get to within even a million miles of that on cheap kit, you simply won’t, the best you can ever hope for it something YOU are content with.

And at the end of the day, therein lies my root problem. I wasn’t happy with the results I could get. I wasn’t prepared to plough in any more money so I hit a brick wall. Lets be honest too, the British weather didn’t help either!

So what next?

Well, I’ve steadily found I get more enjoyment if I can take astro pics using just normal photographic kit using normal photographic processing techniques. None of this Registax or Deep Space Stacker stuff, just Photoshop, nice and simple. So that leaves me with lunar, solar, comets, widefield, ISS to name but a few. Really the only thing I’m going to miss out on is deep space which I’d already decided wasn’t for me and planets, and talking of planets, only Jupiter and Saturn and really worth looking at anyway.

For now, the binoculars will keep me satisfied and at some point in the future I might look to get a 10” dobsonian scope but I’m in no hurry to do that. The sale of the astro kit will hopefully fund a nice big Sigma 150-500mm lens which I’ll be able to use to good effect on the moon and sun as well as a myriad of other uses!

I suppose this post seems like the whole thing was a very negative experience and it’s wasn’t. There were times of great excitement and feelings of satisfaction. I’ve learned so much too but I also learned that in the end, I’m a creative photographer at heart and that’s where I’m happiest. I’ve also gained massive respect for the guys who do produce these great space images, I’ve dipped a toe in there and know just how hard it is and can now fully appreciate what they do.

So, if after that, anyone fancies a full lunar, solar and planetary imaging kit in Edinburgh, get in touch!


Comet Pan-STARRS, we meet at last…

So, since the 8th of March Comet Pan-STARRS has been gracing the Northern Hemisphere skies and true to form for any notable celestial event, it’s been largely clouded out in the UK and especially up here in Scotland. Thankfully this comet isn’t just a blink and miss it event, there were at least a few days to try and catch something.

By Tuesday 12th March the first shots of PANSTARRS were coming in from other parts of the UK, the comet easy to find next to a very young crescent moon. I had to wait till the night of the 13th though for a first attempt. Stood on top of Blackford Hill in what can only be described as Baltic conditions I searched in vain for the comet, despite a reasonably clear sky to the west and only actually spotted it in one shot after I got home and it’s hardly the clearest view of it, which was disappointing as other people seemed to have got some reasonable efforts.

Comet Panstarrs March 2013

The night of the 15th brought an unexpected chance though. The forecast was predictably wrong although for once in a good way. The skies started to clear around 5pm and just after 6 with still clear sky I figured it might be worth a try, this time from Newhaven Harbour, which has a fairly clear view to the West.

Arriving at Newhaven it looked reasonable but for one patch of dark cloud moving in slowly from the West. This time I decided to wait until 7.15pm before searching for it and made the most of the tail end of a nice sunset in the meantime.

Newhaven Sunset 15 March 2013

By 7.15pm I was out by the lighthouse with a clear view over to Granton Harbour, using a compass I found exactly where West was and started to take shots of the sky with a 200mm lens, ISO400 and shot exposures. First sweep across the West turned up nothing, 2nd attempt and around 12 shots later, there it was, higher than I expected and very visible in the photograph. With an idea of where it was now I could try for a few wider scenic shots. The last thing I wanted was just pics of the comet with no context. I wanted this to be recognizable as Edinburgh.

The comet isn’t that visible in this shot, but it’s there dead centre towards the top of the image.

Comet Panstarrs over Granton 2

Switching to my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM and 2x teleconvertor I went for a closer look still trying to keep the Granton flats in the frame, this was probably the best shot of the night.

Comet Panstarrs over Granton

Finally, it would have been rude not to have a go at the comet at the full 400mm reach and what a stunning sight it was. By this time it was visible in the viewfinder and I swear it was naked eye visible once you knew where it was.

Comet Panstarrs 15 March 2013

I finished the night with a peek at Comet Pan-STARRS through my 15×70 binoculars, a truly stunning first encounter with a comet. It’ll be about for a few weeks yet so if you get the chance, do some research as to where it is in the sky and get out and give it a go!


The Astro-photography Learning Curve – The Green Dot of Inspiration

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned with this astrophotography journey it’s that above everything else, patience is the deciding factor as to whether you’ll progress or not. Without it you’ll become a frustrated gibbering wreck with a badly dented telescope in next to no time at all. You’ll question your abilities, you’ll come to hate the Met Office with a passion and you’ll start to spilt words in two just to get an extra expletive in there to properly express your feelings.

So why is patience so important? Let’s do a little list to illustrate…

1. Clouds. Days and days of endless clouds, usually worse after you’ve just bought a telescope or indeed, any item of astro equipment. Clouds stop everything, there’s no middle ground. Cloudy and it’s a night in front of Coronation Street for you rather than the wonders of the Universe.

2. Wind. I’m not talking hurricane force here, just an average little wind with some mild gusts can totally ruin any imaging session with a telescope. The slightest movement means wonky stars nobody wants wonky stars now do they?

3. Clouds and wind. Welcome to Scotland where you’ll be able to use your telescope at least 2 or 3 times every year!

4. Polar alignment. Also used as a basic instrument of torture in developing countries.

5. Astrophotography processing software. There are times I think actually writing the software would be easier than trying to figure out how it works. This one stacks RAW files, oh wait, this one needs jpg’s, darks? flats? bias?, and WTF are wavelets? Are we even still talking English here? At least most of it is free…

6. Focusing the camera on deep sky objects. Most focusing from removal of the eyepiece to connecting the camera goes thus… Just a little turn, just a wee bit more, nearly there, back a bit, back a bit more, wtf?, put eyepiece back in, focus, put camera back in, did I turn that the right way, bit more, bit more, back a bit, back a bit, other way, what way did I turn it last, fuck it.

7. Tripping over things in the dark. 5m USB leads, webcams and power leads in the dark lead to much fun and strange dancing while trying to untangle.

8. Neighbours security lights. Just as your eyes have adjusted to the darker environment you’ve managed to nurture in your back garden so sooner than the stars become nicely visible then your are guaranteed a passing cat will trigger a light that has the intensity of 10 suns to ensure it’s safe passage across the neighbours garden and you can see purple spots for the next 20 minutes.

9. Met office weather forecasts. DO take note of the Met Office forecast, you’ll need to know what it said so you can complain about it being wrong at length later. As a good rule of thumb though if the Met Office say it’ll be clear skies it’ll be raining, if they say overcast it’ll be raining, if they say rain, it’ll be clear. In fact if the MO say it’s night it’ll probably be day.

10. Telescope GOTO dictatorships. Your telescope GOTO can, and will make every attempt to piss you off. If you go for a 2 star align it simply won’t give you the star you want.
You – I’ll go for Arcturus and Capella.
GOTO – No you won’t, you can’t use Arcturus.
You – Why?
GOTO – Just because that’s all.
You – *sighs*, ok I’ll go for Altair and Capella then? OK, Altair synced, why can’t I have Capella now?
GOTO – I don’t feel like giving it to you. Try Vega?
You – I dont want to try Vega, it’s like straight up and it’s a pain looking through the finder at those stars?
GOTO – Use Vega bitch…
You – But…
GOTO – VEGA!
GOTO – “Align failed, please try again…”

BUT, apart from all this once in a while it all goes right or you see something that’s makes you realise it’s all worthwhile, this week I seen Uranus (please stop making jokes about the name!) and Neptune for the first time ever, very small but a personal triumph to actually see for me.

I’ll leave you with my first image of Uranus (stop sniggering at the back), it’s very small, in fact, just a little green dot but it meant the world to me to be able to image it.

Uranus 30 September 2012


Basic astro-photography from light polluted areas

This whole astro-photography thing is a pain in the cheeks at times. There I was sat in the cold with the telescope last night, tripping over wires in the dark, cursing the GOTO for not being spot on and finally chucking it all in after 30 minutes because the wind was an even bigger pain and it was impossible to get anything worthwhile at all.

I was this close → ← to chucking the whole lot on Gumtree and packing it in totally. Such was the severity of the huff. Thankfully I didn’t but what it’s taught me is not to attempt this stuff when the conditions aren’t perfect.

Less than perfect conditions though don’t stop you having some fun with a nice clear sky, never mind how windy it is and the even better news is that you can do this stuff with some nice basic photographic gear; this post from here on will be a telescope free zone!

All you’ll need is a camera you can control the exposure on (variable zoom will help too), a tripod and a remote control for the camera or at least one with a self-timer. The hardest part is getting the clear sky but even the odd cloud can add to a shot as long as your intended target is still visible.

To demonstrate what’s easily possible, these 4 shots were taken in central Edinburgh, in light pollution with a Nikon D90 fitted with a Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens.

The technique is simple enough, keep the ISO fairly low, around 400 to 640 otherwise the light pollution will run away with your shot. Exposure times will vary maybe from less than 1s in the case of a planet to a few seconds on a star cluster, even as long as 30s on a wide field shot. The whole idea is to get enough light in to give you the shot but avoid stars trailing to get a decent shot.

Finding interesting targets is your next challenge. The sky just now is best after midnight and even with the moon out the way there’s some nice stuff you can get. After midnight the Pleiades open star cluster will be getting higher in the sky and below it will be the brilliance of Jupiter, a nice photo opportunity, especially if you can include some ground interest to give some perspective.

Jupiter and the Pleiades

The Pleiades itself is a very nice target and fills the frame nicely at nothing more than 200mm. Keep the exposure shorter when you’re zoomed in like this. The diffractions spikes on this shot were added in Photoshop with a plug-in, it’s not the natural look!

The Pleiades Sept 13 2012

Sticking with 200mm try Jupiter as well! You’ll really need a shorter exposure with the planet so bright take a few at differing exposures and you should also be able to pick up the planets moons.

Jupiter 14 Sept 2012

Winter skies usually provide the best targets but at this time of year you can also get the summer triangle, an easily visible triangle of the very bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb.

Summer Triangle 14 Sept 2012

Light pollution needed be a killer but if you do get a chance to get out under really dark skies you might be lucky enough to catch this, the fabulous sight of the Milky Way rising in the sky above…

Milky Way at Harlaw 11 September 2012


Another one of those mixed Astro-photography nights

Ah, the dark nights are coming and for once I’m over the moon about it. Dark nights and colder days mean longer dark clear nights with means longer to check out the celestial displays above. I’d always viewed the summer nights are preparation for the winter when I’d really be able to get into the astro-photography and after what seems like the worst summer in living memory it’s just about upon us.

For once Edinburgh had a rare happening. A weekend night with a clear sky. Normally the sky clears when I’ve got to be up at half 6 in the morning so it was nice to see it on a Saturday night for a change. So, out went the scope about 9.15 to cool down, this time, I was going to do everything right.

I even had a go at EQ aligning the NexStar SE5. This telescope has a built in basic wedge (I mean really basic but it’s better than not having one!). The alignment process seemed like something from the Krypton Factor but thanks to this blog (http://astroadventures.wordpress.com/) I found I was able to figure it out and it’s not really that hard!

So, with scope levelled, aligned and the precise GOTO working while the sky was getting darker I let my nephew play about with the skytour on the handset, you have to encourage potential young astronomers don’t you?

Encourage maybe but little did I realise what the half hour of near constant slewing of the scope was about to do. All was well until we homed in on M57, the Ring Nebula. There it was nice and clear. Camera onto the visual back, couple of shortish exposures to get the focus and all was good. Started ramping up the exposure times with the D7000 tethered to my MacBook, even better I was getting 30s exposures with no trailing and loads of stars so I set the MacBook to keep taking shots and walked away and left it.

5 shots in I noticed a problem. Those nice stars were more like lines, not just elongated stars, lines! What the hell? Figuring a possible alignment issue I realigned the scope and pointed towards the Double Cluster in Perseus. Same problem. So, I flattened out the wedge and aligned in Alt-Az mode, same problem.

At this point I was getting irate. Nasty words were floating around in the dark and the telescopes parentage was being questioned. With not a lot else to try I ran the mains power out to the scope and plugged into that instead of my Maplin’s power tank and guess what? Yes, everything was fine. So I’d undone my EQ align for nothing, it was down to my crap cheap power tank being ran down with constant slewing with the skytour earlier.

With proper power restored, I managed to get 20s exposures in Alt-Az mode on the Double Cluster and also had another go at Jupiter once I cleared the neighbours tree. Jupiter was a revelation, last time I tried it on the webcam it was a disaster, and this time I could actually see banding on the planet on the capture programme. I didn’t get many shots at it until the not forecast clouds rolled in. I’m sure the met office had a random weather selector, their forecasts seems to have little in common with the weather in the real world.

By this time it was near 1am so I packed up figuring the clouds would hang about all night. An hour later I’m back in the garden taking the dog for a piddle and guess what, a fantastically clear night again. Typical.

Still, I’m reasonably pleased with the modest haul of shots I got, certainly one of my better nights to date.

Jupiter, top shot is 2 AVI captures processed at merged to show the planet and the moons. Bottom is a 2x Barlow AVI capture of just the planet.

Jupiter x2

Double Cluster, I’ve added some diffraction spikes to this one in Photoshop, not sure about the effect but I think I like it.

Double Cluster in Perseus w:spikes

The Ring Nebula, just a single RAW in the end but pleased at how clear the nebula is!

Ring Nebula 8 September 2012


An Astro-photo plan comes together for once!

Plan last night was to head down to Marine Drive in Edinburgh which is right on the coastline next to Cramond where there was a chance of photographing the moon rising over the water. Using The Photographers Ephemeris on the Mac it was possible to see where the moon would rise and there was nothing but water in-between last night. Better still, it was a fairly clear night so off I trotted.

Marine Drive is a funny place. Actually pretty dark, has great views over to Fife and is a prime spot to look for aurora, the only downside is that is seems to be a popular dogging spot which means you get random cars drive up, park, check what you’re up to and head off back up to the dark part of the road!

If you can put up with that though it’s a prime photo spot with a few possible shots, doggers not included.

When I got there the eastern horizon was so dark you really couldn’t tell if there was any cloud there or not but with 10 minutes to go before the moon came up I used the view west for a few shots. Over an hour after sunrise there was a fantastic colour in the sky on the western horizon, too good to miss in fact when you also take into account the slowly receding high tide catching the last of the golden light.

These shots were the result, no filters, just a bit of PP work and that’s about it. The 2nd shot looks closer in towards the Cramond Island causeway.

Cramond Sunset 5 Sept 2012

Sunset over Cramond Causeway 5 Sept 2012

By this point though, it was clear there was cloud on the horizon as the moon hadn’t appeared but there was some hope, a very faint orange glow so worth hanging about for.

In the meantime I took a few shots of the planes on final approach to Edinburgh Airport. This is right under the main flight path and in the dark you can get some pretty dramatic trails.

2 things stood out on the sky at this point, the bright red star Arcturus to the west and the constellation of Cassiopeia, that distinctive W shape. After watching a few landings I got the compositions right and this was the result. 1st shot is past Arcturus and 2nd is past Cassiopeia.

Plane passes Arcturus

Plane passes Cassiopeia

Finally though the moon had started to show, that faint orange glow was now very obvious so on went the bigger lens, after some playing about I got the shots I was after. This might be better with a thinner crescent moon, as the exposures might be closer, as it was I had to really overexpose the moon to get any detail in the foreground.

Moonrise over the Forth 5 Sept 2012

Moonrise over the Forth 5 September 2012

Just a wee bonus, I was back in the car heading for home to get the telescope out when I spotted a plane heading right for the moon, a chance to get that elusive plane in front of the moon shot. With everything packed away I had about 20s to get the tripod out, extended and the D7000 adjusted and on top. No time for the remote so I had to press the shutter button and hope. This was the result, really not clear but I’ll get it next time now I know roughly where and when I can get it from.

Plane in front of the moon

All in, a good night for the 40 minutes or so I was there, much better than the dreadful night had with the telescope later but that’s a story for another day…


Astro-photography success at last?

Who’d have thought that within a week of buying a new telescope I’d have had 3 clear nights to try it out? It’s almost unheard of, especially in Scotland this year but not being one to miss a decent chance out came the new Celestron NexStar 5SE.

First impressions of this little scope are it’s incredibly well built. Everything about it is solid and the tripod it comes on isn’t a million miles away from the EQ5 I had previously, it’s even got a basic built in wedge. The Alt-Az mount is very different however and must be powered up to use, once you get used to it though it’s pretty easy to use and the GOTO is pretty accurate as long as you take time to align it properly.

First night out I made a schoolboy error and didn’t use a dew shield, the result was a dewed up scope once I had it aligned and ready to take a pic or 2. A roll of thin camping mat and some Velcro has done wonders to address that particular issue!

2nd night out was more about getting a decent alignment and trying to get at least one usable shot. Aligning the scope is easy enough. I’ve not managed to get the SkyAlign 3 star method to work yet but the Auto-2 star works fine and if I sync with another 3rd star it seems pretty accurate, in as much as I can see objects in the field of view if not dead in the centre of the 25mm supplied eyepiece.

One thing I have noticed is that placing the wedge hinge (even if you are not using it) facing north and making the mount totally level really pays off and it worth taking time to setup properly.

Using Artucus and Altair as the alignment stars and then syncing with Vega seems to work fine and since these 3 are visible in the twilight it lets me get setup for the fainter objects in good time.

From the first attempts at photography the real pain I discovered was finding the focus point with the camera. It’s a fair bit away from the focus point with the 25mm eyepiece and unless there’s a really bright star in the field of view you won’t be able to focus through the viewfinder. The solution is to use a really bright star and focus with the eyepiece. Switching to the camera you can note which direction to focus and how many turns it takes to get there with the camera. For the 5se, around 1 full turn right is the starting point and from there you can fine tune.

First target of night 3 was the Double Cluster, Caldwell 14 in Perseus. This looks great in the eyepiece and the stars are nice and bright so it was a good first target. Alignment was reasonable and I was able to stretch exposures to about 8s with no star trailing. The end result showed a lot of stars and some nice colours in the stars too. I’ve not attempted stacking yet so these are all single shots in RAW and processed in Photoshop.

Double Cluster, Caldwell 14 8 August 2012

Next target was the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, or M13. In the eyepiece M13 is just a grey fuzzy patch and there’s not a lot of bright stars around it so I had to go with the one turn right method of focus and fine tune from there. It took a good few goes but I got a reasonable result, which I’m pretty happy with for a first attempt.

M13 Hercules Cluster 8 August 2012

The next target I tried was the Ring Nebula. This was visible in the viewfinder using averted vision but very faint. As it was nearly straight up though there wasn’t enough room to fit the camera on the scope with the mount base being in the way so that’ll have to wait for another night when it’s better placed.

Next target was the Andromeda Galaxy. I was biting off more than I could chew here and the result shows. We’ll try that one again in the winter nights!

Andromeda Galaxy

I ended the night up on the Moon as it rose about the houses around midnight and considering it was behind thin cloud the result was pretty good.

Moon 9 August 2012

All in though, a pretty good night and I made more progress with the NexStar 5se in 2 nights than I made with the 200P/EQ5 in 4 months which has to be good. As an aside I should also point out that this is what a rank beginner can achieve with a modest investment in a light polluted area.

If that’s not enough to spur you into giving it a go, while out last night on what was a warm and still night I also caught sight of the International Space Station twice and at least 8 meteors from the Perisids which peak this weekend.

Space quite simply, is awesome!


The Astro-Photography frustrations continue…

My aspirations in Astro-photography finally bit the dust last week or at least licked the dust. After a frustrating night attempting to find the Andromeda Galaxy by star hopping, or more like star limping it has to be said I all but packed it all in. All I had to show for 2 hours out with the scope was a sore back and heightened blood pressure. What had I seen? Stars, by the bucket load but I had no idea what I was looking at and therein lay the problem.

I’d bought my scope at entirely the wrong time. I got it as the darkness retreated and potentially even worse; all the planets departed the night-time sky into the early morning. When I first got it a few hours just attempting to image Venus, Jupiter, Mars and the Moon was more than enough to keep me interested. Take all those out the equation and I was left floundering trying to find deep space objects, which in the lighter summer skies was even harder.

So, something has to change. I needed a GOTO mount otherwise I’d never see anything. I also decided the Skywatcher Explorer 200P on the EQ5 wasn’t for me. It took too long to setup, was too big and too heavy and I was already starting to skip clear nights through simple couldn’t be bothered-ness with all the mucking about to get setup.

The solution therefore was to sell the 200P and EQ5 and look for something different and so last week the scope and mount went to live with its new owner and I started a hunt for a replacement. I had decided against the GOTO upgrade for the EQ5 as it wasn’t addressing the issue of the scope size and weight.

I eventually settled on a Celestron Nexstar 5SE on the full GOTO Alt-Az mount. I know the Alt-Az isn’t the best for photography but its fine for me just now and the mount has a basic built in wedge. I won’t be doing any minute’s long exposures but I should be able to get something out of it. At F10 nowhere near as fast as the 200P at F5 but it’ll suffice for what I want to do initially. What’s important here is I get a scope that easy to handle and easy to setup so I can learn. Any images I can get that come along will be a bonus. In fact, when Jupiter come back to the night sky it might even be better than the 200P.

The new scope arrived yesterday and I have to say from first impressions I’m very pleased with it. The whole package seems better built than the Skywatcher stuff. The stock 25mm plossil eyepiece is nice and bright and much better than the Skywatcher 25mm item.

Setup was easy enough, as was the align once I realised I had my position set at Louisiana USA, not Edinburgh, Scotland and I actually got to see some stuff! My align was far from perfect just using a 2 star align but I did find the Double Cluster, Ring Nebula and Great Cluster in Hercules, a massive improvement on what had gone before.

Sadly dew was a major issue and I didn’t have a dew shield fitted which ended the session earlier than I would have liked so I never hooked up the camera but that’s now sorted and I’ll have the D7000 hanging off the scope at the first opportunity next time around.

In a true Astro-photography sense I’ve taken a step back but in doing so I’ve rekindled interest and that above all is what’s important. It’s pointless having a million pound setup if you can’t be bothered to use it. They say the best scope you’ll have is the one you use and for now at least, I’ll be using the 5SE at every opportunity!

I’ll leave you with a few shots from last night, none of these where through the 5SE after the dew got to it, these were all with my D7000 fitted to a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele, Samyang 500mm reflector lens or my mates Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS on an HEQ5 Pro mount.

Full Moon with Skywatcher 200PDS 2 Aug 2012
Moon with a Nikon D7000 and Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS

Full Moon with 70-200mm 2 August 2012
Moon with a Nikon D7000 and a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele

Full Moon with Samyang 500mm Reflector 2 August 2012
Moon with a Samyang 500mm reflector lens

Ring Nebula Skywatcher 200PDS 2 August 2012
Ring Nebula with a Nikon D7000 and Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS

Hercules Cluster Skywatcher 200PDS 2 Aug 2012
M13, the Great globular cluster in Hercules with a Nikon D7000 and Skywatcher Explorer 200PDS


Photographing the sun with standard photographic equipment

The sun, the giver of life on this planet and so important to photography. It provides the natural light photographers crave after but it’s a subject in itself that few other than astrophotographers ever attempt. Loads of people will have a crack at photographing the moon but few will take on the dangers of the sun but it’s not as hard as you might think even with some standard photographic equipment.

Of course, using a telescope with a solar film filter or a dedicated solar scope will provide the best results but you can still capture those sunspots with possibly, what you have already.

Before we proceed though, a warning. Photographing the sun is dangerous, I cannot stress this enough. Blindness can occur in seconds and photographic equipment can be ruined just as quickly but proceeding with some caution you can minimise risks and catch pictures of the surface of the closest star to Earth. I accept no responsibility for any lack of sight or melted cameras that may result from the following, you try this at your own risk.

OK? Not freaked you out? Let’s get started!

Firstly you will need:

DSLR camera (preferably)
As big a lens as you have (I use a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele giving 400mm)
Tripod
At least one 10 stop photographic filter or enough filtration to get as much as 10 stops.

The 10 stop filter is essential. If you don’t have one, can’t get access to one or can’t replicate with other filters DO NOT proceed. Some filter sets come with 3 standard ND filters, 0.9, 0.6 and 0.3 which stacked will give you 6 stops, which is NOT ENOUGH but if you can add others in there to get to 10 stops on you go.

For extra safety I like to shoot with the DSLR tethered to my MacBook pro using the Nikon only Sofortbild software to control the camera but you can get away with a standard remote control on the camera, it’s just not quite as easy.

To get started, mount your camera on the tripod and add the 10 stop filter to the lens, set your focus to infinity and using the live view feature on your camera or laptop preview, locate the sun. Once you have it, cover the lens to stop heat build up. Now, switch on Exposure delay mode if your camera has it, close the lens up as much as you can, f22 or higher, I use f32 on my own setup. You should be in manual exposure mode, so set your exposure to as high as it will go, typically around 1/4000th and your ISO as low as it will go, typically ISO100.

Now, you’re good to go, uncover the lens, take the shot and cover the lens again. Now you can check what you have. You should have a white-ish disc, sunlight is white not yellow and if sunspots are visible then there will be darker areas on the disc. From here you can adjust exposure to get the best possible shot but DO NOT exposure for any length of time, keep the exposures in the region of thousandths on seconds, you do not need to go any higher at all.

If no sunspots are visible it may be that the side of the sun facing us has no activity on it at the moment, check http://www.space-weather.com for an up to date listing of active visible sunspots. If there are sunspots and you cannot see them on the shot you may be overexposing, dial in a faster shutter or up the f setting to as high a number as it will go and try again.

All going well, this is what you should end up with:
Sun 28 April 2012

The darker dots are the sunspots. I’ve also added a little false colour to make the shot look a little more like what people expect the sun to be.

It’s possible using http://www.space-weather.com to identify the sunspots and label these up on your shot.

Solar disc 14 May 2012

Solar Disc 21 May 2012

That’s all there is to it, it’s not that difficult with some pretty normal bits of photo equipment and take the proper precautions and you’ll be fine. Do please remember though, never look at the sun through the camera viewfinder, even with the filter on place and never leave your camera focused on it for long periods of time. Have some respect for the subject and you’ll be fine and get a shot of something not that many ever attempt.


This astro stuff DOES get easier, slightly…

Equatorial mounts, Newtonian reflectors, refractors, registax, counterweights, polar alignment, autostakkert, wavelets, webcams, tracking motors, collimation, Saturn, Venus, avi’s, sharpcap… Astro photography, it’s enough to put you off just thinking about the bewildering array of stuff to learn. What the hell are those things, where are they, what do they do, how do I use them? Well, with a little perseverance it DOES get a bit easier.

Take the telescope and mount to start with. When I first got it I had no idea what I was doing, Even now the EQ5 mount seems more like an instrument of mental torture than something to mount a telescope on but I am getting used to how it works. I’ve never attempted an accurate polar alignment yet mainly due to how late it is in summer until I can see Polaris but even a rough alignment is enough to get you moving. Simply set your latitude on the mount, 55 degrees for Edinburgh point the North leg funnily enough North and make sure the mount is level. It’s not perfect but it’ll allow you a go at some planetary imaging at least.

Just doing the above steps I’ve found that it’s adequate enough to keep a planet in the field of view for ages with the tracking motors engaged. It wouldn’t be any use at all for imaging deep space objects but for now, for planets and moon its working ok.

The tracking motors too came with the vaguest of instructions, now though I’m confident enough to find my target, lock the clutches and start the tracking and it works fine.

So, as I’d got hold of a Philips SPC900 webcam, all ready to be used with the scope and the skies had cleared it was time to give this planetary imaging a shot.

There’s not a lot of targets at this time of year, Venus is rapidly heading for its appointment with the Sun in June and Jupiter is long gone is the twilight sky. Saturn is getting higher and Mars to be honest has never been my favourite subject so Venus and Saturn were to be the targets.

When I setup, only Venus was visible in a still twilight sky. I can’t wait till dark as it’ll be lost behind the neighbourhood roofs. It’s so easy to locate in a twilight sky and the crescent shape is very visible in the scope and it’s quite a thin crescent now too. After centering Venus in the eyepiece I slipped in the 2x Barlow and made sure it was centered and then switched to the webcam.

Luckily for me, Venus was still there with the webcam and using the free capture software, SharpCap I was able to get it centered on the camera and adjust the settings till I got a clear view. I got a couple of short captures with the webcam until Venus was lost to the shed roof. I then ran the avi file through another free bit of software, Autostakkert which stacked the best frames from the movie.

The resulting image was saved as a TIFF and then opened in Registax 6 where you can adjust the wavelets. I have no idea what a wavelet is but it certainly works and greatly brings out the image detail and sharpness. I then finally opened the image in Photoshop CS5 for some final tweaks and this was the end result.
Venus 19 May 2012 Cropped

A million times better than I’ve managed with the DSLR, the webcams much smaller sensor gives a much bigger final image which in turn lets you get more detail. Using a webcam also lets you capture those microseconds of clarity through the atmosphere where the viewing is at its clearest and the stacking software puts all these together to get your final image. It takes a bit of getting your head around but it does work!

Saturn was next up and this was the AVI file I processed to get to the final image:

It’s probably way too long but after processing this in the same way as the Venus image I got to this final shot.

Saturn 19 May 2012

Which is a vast improvement on my best with the D90 attached to the telescope:

Saturn

As you can see, there’s a lot more detail in the stacked image, some colour too.

For a first shot with this style of imaging I’m pretty pleased especially as the seeing was pretty bad. There’s a lot of room for improving especially with the software end all of which I’ve hardly even scratched the surface of yet. I also need to get hold of a quality 5x Barlow lens to get a larger image. Lots to do, I just a few more clear nights!


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s SUPERMOON!

Supermoon fever seemed to grip the online communities on Saturday night. Twitter was buzzing with it as people who would normally pay no interest in our nearest celestial neighbour peered upwards trying to see if the moon was indeed 14% bigger than usual and 30% brighter as the news websites reported. Of course if you hadn’t seen the moon for a few months then suddenly caught it on Saturday it would have looked different, if you look for it all the time you didn’t see much since the move to a big moon is gradual and not all at once.

The Supermoon, or perigee moon, is not a once in a lifetime occurrence as the media would have us believe, it actually happens a few times a year as the moon’s orbit gets closer to Earth and then ebbs away again, it’s just some are closer than others, this year’s wasn’t as close as the March one last year but it was still impressive.

With the moon’s latest close approach to Earth the timing wasn’t great with regards to the moonrise time still falling in daylight. The moon came up over the horizon from Edinburgh at 20.37 and to that ends I was stood on Blackford Hill with a good view to the South East with a Nikon D7000, Sigma 200mm f2.8, 2xtele and photographic tripod and the MacBook pro so I could try some tethered shots. However, as with all good astro plans the weather got in the way dumping a low bank of cloud on the horizon spoiling the fun. The sky was still very light too so gave up and went home in a huff.

It didn’t take too long though for the moon to get over that cloud bank and around an hour after moonrise I got my first shot at it from home. Sadly, it was so low I had to shoot from the front garden in-between passing Lothian Buses double deckers and glaring sodium streetlights. This was shot tethered to the MacBook pro with Sofortbild which lets you get a real handle on the focus, the golden glow of the low moon still very evident.

Supermoon 5th May 2012

Remember those buses I had to try and avoid, I didn’t manage it every time…

About an hour later with the moon higher in the sky I tried again, not tethered this time due to where I had to stand to get the shot (half way up the neighbours stair to avoid a telephone cable). The golden glow has lessened but there’s more contrast and detail.

Supermoon 2 5th May 2012

It might have just been imagination but even at midnight the sky still looked almost twilight to the south with that moon shining so brightly.

The following night with a later moon rise and more cloud about I wasn’t hopeful of anything at all but it did peek out from between the houses over the road very low down and very orange. Pretty impressive even though it wasn’t a “Supermoon” any longer.

Not quite so supermoon

The reality here is that any phase of the moon, near or far is a delight to photograph. Despite it being the same subject it’s a challenging subject to get right and atmospherics and cloud play their part too. It’s probably my favourite photographic object and it’s not out of reach for those even with basic photographic equipment. Supermoon or not, give it a try on the next clear day, daylight, twilight or night time it’s always worth a go.


First time photography with a telescope

After only a mere 3 days of frustration of owning a telescope and not being able to use it for the purpose it was designed, I finally got a clear night to try out a bit of photography with my newest photography acquisition, my Skywatcher Explorer 200P on an EQ5 mount.

With a clear sky looking almost certain the hardest part of waiting till it was dark enough to actually see anything in the night sky on Friday night. The moon was coming up frustratingly low and was steadfastly refusing to peek over the top of the house from my back garden so I was forced to wait until the sun had at least waved goodbye for the day.

While still in a twilight sky I obviously couldn’t properly polar align, not that in a dark sky I’d probably have had any more luck either if I’m honest! I did make an attempt though, first finding north using the iPhone compass, so it was probably east or something knowing the accuracy of the iPhone compass and I did level out the mount properly too. With this being the best I could do in a twilight sky I made an attempt at balancing the telescope and that was me ready to go.

I’d spent time earlier in the day setting up the finder scope so with Venus bright in the sky that where I headed. Centred nicely in the finder scope I looked through the eyepiece to find… nothing at all. After some searching I did find Venus and even in the 20mm eyepiece it was a brilliant sight. The crescent clearly defined and even better, the tracking motors seemed to be keeping it in the field of view as well. So far so good.

With Venus in my sights I setup the MacBook pro and tethered it to my Nikon D90, fitted the t-ring and the 2x Barlow (which is needed to get the prime focus) and switched out the eyepiece for the camera and watched the scope drift off on a tangent with the extra weight fitted. Re-balancing and trying again finally I got Venus in the D90 viewfinder and switched the live view on the laptop. This gave me a chance to play with some settings and get a few shots, none of which I’d be willing to stick up online…

By this time Saturn had peeked over the top of the house so that’s where I headed next. Despite a glaring moon just below it the view wasn’t bad at all. Easy to find, find the roof and move up, Saturn was an awesome sight, the rings and some of the moons clearly defined in the eyepiece. With the tracking more or less working I got a good chance to try out some single frame shots of the ringed planet before youngest son walked into the 5m USB cable between the D90 and MacBook pro knocking everything out of line again.

This was the best I got of Saturn, not exactly epic but I was pleased enough for a first go.

Saturn

Next up was Mars which was… unexciting so I skipped Mars and went in search of the Moon which was still hiding around the front of the house. Moving the scope I got a view of the Moon and within mere milliseconds of getting it in the eyepiece I realised the importance of having a Moon filter. There’s no way you should be looking at a nearly full moon without one. I worried for a bit I had damaged my left eye, the black spot the Moon left in a field of vision a bit of a worry to be frank! Thankfully it subsided and I won’t be doing that again. I did however hook up the camera and use the live view to the laptop to focus and get a few shots, the best of which is below although I’m frustrated at the lack of sharpness in the shot.

Moon 4th May 2012

The list of questions and things to learn is still massive. Among these…

1. How can I get the whole moon in a single photograph with the camera, the 2x Barlow means only bits at a time and when I tried eyepiece projection the result was more like a lensbaby shot with selective focus!

2. How the hell do you find deep space objects without a GOTO? I’m really thinking I’ll need to invest in the SynScan controller soon.

3. The tracking motors SEEM to work but I’m not convinced, Skywatcher seem to be overly vague in their operation.

4. How the f**k do you balance a telescope for the eyepiece and camera without having to adjust where the scope sits on the rings?

5. Where the hell did all these eyepiece caps come from? As the night wore on I seemed to have more than I had places to fit them?

6. Why do I need a woolly hat, scarf and big jacket in May!

7. Why did I buy such a heavy unwieldy telescope in the first place!

These, and not doubt many more questions may or may not be answered in the coming months…


The Astrophotography learning curve begins…

I wouldn’t call what I’ve been doing up until know as “actual” astrophotography. Sure, I’ve been snapping away at all manner of astro related subjects, planets, moons, sun, star clusters, conjunctions, earthshine, aurora, milky way, ISS to name but a few but it’s all been done on a photographic tripod and with the restrictions that brings. Not that it hasn’t been highly enjoyable, it has and it was quite cool to get into this utilising the camera kit I already had but I really wanted to get deeper into the hobby.

With that in mind I started to seriously look at getting a telescope around February. What I found though was an utterly bewildering array of kit on offer that made my head spin every time I looked at it. I spent hour pouring over telescopes on Amazon having to go off and Google all manner of things. What the hell was an alt-az mount, en EQ mount, what’s the difference from an EQ2 to an EQ6, focal lengths, aperture, motor drives and what’s this? Using a webcam???

It was too much to take in initially and with a fear of buying crap I backed off and bought nothing. I put the thoughts of telescopes out my head totally and thought about getting hold of a Sigma 150-500mm lens instead. Coupled with the 2x it would make it a 1000mm lens and I’d have other uses for a lens that size but then by chance I spotted a 2nd hand Meade 4504 telescope on an EQ mount for £80 for sale locally.

The Meade was a disappointment and a revelation at the same time. When I got it home on closer inspection it had had a hard life. The mount wasn’t working properly; it couldn’t be locked in place at all. The motor drives didn’t function either but the OTA was fine. I couldn’t get the camera to focus with it either so I sold it on quickly. What it did do though was take my breath away when I simply used it for observing. From that first night when I properly used it and saw Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and the Orion nebula I knew I had to get something better.

It took another few months of research until I fully understood what I needed. I had a rough budget of £500 and had to get the best from that I could. Initial plans for a Skymax 127 Mak on a GOTO alt-az where discounted when I realised that the alt-az would be great for getting going fast but it would end up frustrating me. No, I had to do this right. It had to be a heavy EQ mount; it seemed pointless going for anything else if I was going to try this properly.

Finally I settled on a Skywatcher Explorer 200P, an 8″ Newtonian reflector sat on an EQ5 mount. It gave me a nice mixture of sturdy EQ mount and a decent sized telescope. At £400 it wasn’t cheap and the SynScan goto version would have bust the budget by a lot so I also got the Skywatcher dual drive motors for the EQ5, all in just under the £500 budget.


Not the best pic, I’ll get better soon but it gives the idea!

Setup, it’s huge and pretty heavy. It’s certainly not a scope you’ll drag out for a quick 5 minutes viewing but I’m safe in the knowledge I’ve got kit that’s capable, once I know how to use it, to deliver what I want. Coming into summer there wasn’t a worse time to buy such an item but I hope to use the next few light months to get to grips with the new toy, learn that EQ mount and get used to the software that goes with astrophotography so when the winter rolls in again I’m prepared and ready to really start learning to image properly.

I’m in this for the long term now, prepared for the fact that it’s going to be a long and at time frustrating learning curve but I’m looking forward to it. If Edinburgh ever clears a clear night again I might even get my first shot of the moon through a telescope.

Here’s a quick artists impression of how I expect the sky over Edinburgh to look for the foreseeable future…

Keep following this blog for the forthcoming astrophotography related highs and more likely lows!


Moon shots with a tethered DSLR

One of the things that really frustrates me about photographing the moon is getting the camera settings right. OK, it’s not that big a deal but every time you touch a big zoom lens to make an adjustment there’s a degree of shake introduced, even with exposure delay set to on there’s still a chance the camera won’t have settled by the time you take a shot. It’s tempting when experimenting with exposures on a subject like the moon just to quickly change the shutter speed and hit the remote, especially if there’s cloud in the equation where exposure times can change from second to second. What you invariably get are shots that look ok on the preview but on closer inspection are slightly blurred. No good to anyone.

The solution I’ve found, where it’s convenient anyway, is to tether the camera to a laptop. Most modern DSLR’s should be capable of being controlled remotely from a laptop and there’s a range of freeware out there to help you along. For this example I’m using Sofortbild on a MacBook Pro tethered to my Nikon D7000.

Here’s a pic of the setup with a bonus can of beer in the background…

When connected to the laptop the camera show’s this on its top screen and all settings are now changeable directly from the app window on the Mac.

Sofortbild is a Nikon only Mac based app but there’s stacks of options out there for all models. Other than the laptop and software all I needed was a mini-USB to USB cable. I bought a 5m one from eBay for less than £2. This lets me have a certain freedom from the camera, i.e. I can sit in the car with the laptop or in my shed etc. Sounds like overkill but when the winter comes around and the temperatures drop I’ll be the one sat with a heater on taking pics from the garden shed!

In this example I’m setup on a photographic tripod but it would be fine with the camera connected to a telescope or piggybacked. The downside to the photographic tripod is no tracking so you do have to keep adjusting it to keep the moon in view.

With the setup done in Sofortbild there’s a live view option so I can see what the live view screen on the camera will see although, bigger on the laptop screen. You can zoom in on this too so you can really nail that focus. Much easier than peering at the 3″ screen on the back of the DSLR.

With optimum focus in place now you can take a shot. Within seconds the final image, not a preview, is viewable within the app, you can zoom in and carefully check exposure and focus with much more accuracy than you ever could on the camera preview screen. If you need to adjust all the settings are there in drop down menu’s easily accessible and more importantly, you are never touching the camera at all. Even at 400mm the moon takes a couple of minutes to travel through the FOV so you have a good few opportunities at settings before you’ll have to adjust the camera’s position.

With Sofortbild I can also set it to auto import into iPhoto where I catalogue all my RAW files. All shots are stored on your laptop not on the memory cards which for me is a win situation. At the end of the day all the shots will end up on the MacBook for processing anyway so it cuts out a step of my workflow process.

I’ve certainly found this a cheap and highly functional alternative to using a normal camera remote. It might not be suitable in all conditions but if you can use it it will provide benefits the traditional methods won’t. For the outlay of an extra long USB cable it’s transformed the way I’ll be taking astro pics in the future and it’s yet another part of the astro photography learning process ticked off!

Here are a few shots of the moon taking with this method.

This is a blend of 3 exposures blended in Photomatix Pro.
HDR Moon 28 April 2012

Moon in a twilight sky
Moon in a twilight sky

And just to finish with, here’s a shot of the solar disc taken with the same method and setup with the inclusion of a 10 stop filter on the lens.
Sun 28 April 2012


Preparing to photograph the ISS

I have to say, the International Space Station is an engaging photographic subject. Hundreds of miles above the planet traveling at 17500mph it wouldn’t be the first thing you’d think of nipping out with the camera to capture. However, once you figure out roughly where it’s coming from, what you’re looking for and when it’ll be there it’s almost addictive.

If you happen to be on Twitter try following some of these accounts and you’ll be amazed at how many retweets they send out of images after every visible pass over the UK.

@VirtualAstro
@PeoplesAstro
@NewburyAstro

Planning for the ISS makes a huge difference. The @VirtualAstro twitter account is a good place to start, there’s a wealth of info for every pass from that particular source. The website, http://www.heavens-above.com is also good for working out the directions, altitude and brightness of the ISS for any given pass. The free astro programme, Stellarium for Mac or PC is also very helpful, it’ll show you the exact path the ISS will take and from this you can work out in relation to the planets where it’ll be which makes planning a lot easier. The iPhone app StarWalk also allows you to do this.

Here’s a screen dump from Stellarium and from it you can see the ISS path for tonights pass in relation to Sirius and Mars, two of the easier night sky objects to spot.

This is a screen dump from the iPhone Star Walk, from here you can see the ISS and you can advance the time with the bar on the right to watch the path it’ll take over the sky.

Typically the nearer to sunset the longer the ISS will be visible, approx. an hour to 1.5 hours after sunset you’ll get a very bright pass almost from the western horizon to the east later in the night, it’ll disappear into the earth shadow quicker.

So, with this info in mind the temptation is to sit in the house watching the telly and nip out just as it’s about to pass. I’m guilty of it too. But if you apply a little landscape photography principals to the astro info you can totally change the shot you get.

Photographing just the sky is fine, and even better if you can get something significant in the sky to reference the ISS path, i.e. passing Mars, or Saturn. However, get the land in the shot and you’re starting to tell a story with your shot, you’re showing the whole event. The pass of this object over the scene you’re looking at. So tell me whats better here…

The ISS crossing over my back garden, passing just over Saturn

ISS flies over Saturn 14 April 2012
Or this image taken on the Cammo Estate in Edinburgh

ISS over Cammo Edinburgh

The 2nd image took a stack of planning to get. All the info above plus looking at Google maps to find a location with good views to the west, south and east. The only issue I had with this image was the clouds were obscuring Mars so I couldn’t get a reference for how high the ISS would be in the sky, with hindsight I should have used a wider lens but we can all be great in hindsight can’t we?

Using Star Walk I figured out roughly where on the horizon the ISS was going to emerge from and composed the shot to catch it as quickly as I could as it rose, also keeping in mind I wanted Cammo Tower and the copse on top of the hill in the shot. Ground was kept to the bare minimum required and the sky was the main focus.

The sky was still quite light so I went for a balance to catch the ISS. I used ISO320 and f4.5 and limited the exposures to 10s, this gave a nice balance in the shot but meant enough sensitivity to get the light from the ISS.

In the end I got 12 frames of 10s each until the ISS left the field of view, being an early pass I had time to recompose and get another few frames before it disappeared.

The 12 raw images I took into ACR and processed them all exactly the same and saved as jpg files. These 12 jpg’s were loaded into StarStax and blended on lighter mode. This was fine, the ISS trail was night and bright but the cloud movement was nasty and not smooth. To get around this I stacked the 12 images again using the “average” method which gave a much more pleasing image with the clouds but a faint ISS trail. I then blended the first image into this on lighten mode and decreased the exposure until only the bright ISS trail and stars remained. The resulting image was flattened and tweaked in photoshop to produce the final image.

If I were to process again I may patch in the gaps in the trail between the exposures and as a personal preference I would also try to lose the star trails by blending in another image and selectively deleting the trails.

With a location like this though and a nice (nearly clear sky) it’s worth taking time for a few other shots before you back up.

This was a single from from the composite image. Notable objects in the shot are the ISS, Mars, Regulus, Sirius, and Orion.

Mars and ISS over Cammo Tower

In this shot, the ISS can be seen behind the clouds passing just over Saturn and Spica.

Saturn Spica and ISS over Edinburgh

In this final shot taken just after the ISS pass, Venus is nestling on the branches of this particularly creepy tree!

Venus in the spooky tree

A little planning can work wonders, it’s all just about planning and crossing your fingers for the weather to play ball. It won’t work out every night but for that odd one it does you’ll be well pleased you put in the effort.

Get out and look up tonight and for the next few nights before it disappears under the horizon for another few weeks!


Stars, Planets, Snow, Hail and Wind!

One thing about Astro-photography, you’re totally at the mercy of the weather. No matter what’s going on in the night sky, you can only see it if the clouds let you see it. There’s nothing you can do about it other than cross your fingers and hope that as darkness falls the skies clear. Which predictably they don’t 9 times out of 10. The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter last month being a perfect example. The night the 2 planets were at their closest in the sky thick cloud hung about all night over Edinburgh spoiling the celestial display.

With the weather rollercoaster central Scotland was experiencing yesterday I held out little hope of even seeing, let along photographing 2 meetings of night sky objects last night. All afternoon the weather swung from heavy snow/hail showers to broken cloud and back again. As the twilight approached this was still the case so getting anything was going to take timing and a hefty dose of luck.

With this in mind, I set up the camera and tripod in the garden shed. This is the kit I’ve been using until I finally get my telescope. It’s a Nikon D7000, fitted with a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM and 2x tele converter which gives me a 400 f5.6 lens, 600mm on the Nikon crop sensor. The D7000 is fitted with a Hahnel Giga T Pro remote receiver so I can use the powerful IR remote to trigger the camera. Exposure delay mode is on the try and minimise any shake. At 400mm the slightest movement will be obvious, more so when the subject is many thousands of light years away.

The first object to try for was the conjunction of the planet Venus and the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as M45 or the Seven Sisters. Venus has been steadily getting closer this month and on April 3rd it was sat right on the edge of the cluster to our view. 400mm fills the frame nicely and even though M45 wasn’t visible in the twilight sky, the camera could see it. There was just the small issue of the passing torrential hail shower to wait out first. As the dirty ominous clouds passed I got my first few shots at the target which was made difficult with a biting strong wind. 18″ long lens setups and strong winds don’t go too well together.

So, high ISO of 1600 and 1s exposure to try and keep the stars as dots rather than oblongs and the full 400mm was the order of the day. The wind affected a lot of shots but this was the pick of the bunch. Venus is of course very bright and the star cluster much dimmer, so I exposed for the stars and let Venus appear as an attractive starburst. Exposing for Venus would leave the stars not visible at all.

Venus Pleiades M45 3 April 2012

This shot was taken later on in the night with a darker sky and the 2x teleconverter removed to try and combat some of the “wind wobble”. ISO1600, 200mm and f5.6, 0.8s exposure time.

Venus Pleiades M45 April 3 2012 2

The 2nd object of the night was the close proximity of the Moon to Mars and the star Regulus forming a celestial triangle in the constellation of Leo. The clouds hadn’t parted at all over this part of the sky and it took a while to get any hope of photographing it. With the 2x tele removed due to the distance between the objects around 9.45pm the clouds moved and I got my first shot at the Moon. The final shot had to be a blend of 2 shots, one for the Moon and one for the planet and star. To expose for the very bright Moon left Mars and Regulus nearly invisible, to expose for Mars and Regulus burned out the moon totally and worse still caused huge lens flares.

Moon Mars Regulus in Leo

As the clouds rolled over again the final shot of the night was a closer shot of the moon with the clouds looking all atmospheric. ISO800 at 400mm, f5.6 and 1/25th exposure time done the damage. It’s hard to get decent focus with clouds moving over the moon so I consider this a fairly lucky shot.

Cloudy Moon 3 April 2012

An enjoyable, if cold, night but hammers home the need for a telescope again, even just for tracking purposes it would be invaluable. I’ve pretty much decided on a Skywatcher Explorer 150p Newtonian on an EQ3-2 mount which I’ll fit with the optional motor drives. Hopefully I’ll have it soon when the real fun and steep learning curve will start.


An Evening of Astro-Photography

I’m obsessed with the night sky just now. Which is unfortunate as now we’re into BST the night sky is coming at a more unsociable hour. Who’d have thought after a long winter I was going to miss the dark nights? I’ve enjoyed my recent journey into some low level astro-photography, even without a telescope to really start on deep space and planets, with some modest photography equipment it can be an engaging subject to photograph.

A crystal clear sky on any night is a joy to behold, especially if you’re away from heavy light pollution, and it’s even more enjoyable once you get an idea what you’re looking at. Last night (March 26th) was one of those special nights with a conjunction in the night sky, where 2 or more celestial bodies appear close to each other in the night sky. Last night was the turn of a nice thin crescent Moon and Venus to take centre stage.

Unlike the night before when Jupiter and the Moon were in conjunction the sky had finally lost that misty haze of the last few days and the seeing was very good indeed. Without a cloud in the sky it was too good an opportunity to miss.

We’ve all seen the proper astro-photography stuff, those striking coloured images of distant nebula or close in shots of planets which is specialised stuff but with a basic camera setup you can have a great night working these special night sky events into your pictures.

All pictures were taken with a Nikon D7000, on a tripod and fired using a wired remote control, but most cameras would do a decent job with a mid range zoom lens.

This close in shot of the Moon and Venus show’s just how close they were in the sky. This was taken with a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x teleconverter, and it filled the D7000’s frame perfectly. 1/60th, f5.6, ISO400 and 400mm. The moon needs a fast exposure to stop the detail burning out as it’s a very bright object, a full moon requires a even faster shutter, luckily Venus is so bright its fine with the faster shutter speed too.

Moon Venus conjunction March 26th 2012

Switching now to a Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens, a general purpose mid-range super zoom, we get a wider view of the same scene. This time though I’ve slightly lengthened the exposure to 1/2s, f5.6, ISO400, -2/3ev and 200mm. The result is lost detail in the bright part of the moon but I’ve picked up the Earthshine instead, the light reflecting back of Earth lighting the shadow portion of the moon.

Moon Venus conjunction with ES 26 March 2012

Pulling back the zoom even further it was possible to include Jupiter in the shot as well. Same settings as the previous shot, but at 135mm. Jupiter is on the lower right of the shot.

Moon Venus Jupiter conjunction March 26 2012

It’s all very well shooting the moon and planets on their own, you could do that from your own garden probably, but sometimes it’s nice to get a little context to the shot as well. I was at Blackford Pond in Edinburgh, not long after sunset when I was taking these so a bit of playing about got the 2 planets and the moon with the tail end of the sunset over the pond. 1/8th, f5.6, ISO400, 18mm, -4/3ev.

Conjunction Blackford Pond March 26 2012

With the pond so still there were a lot of reflections from the trees but where was the moon reflection? Moving right to the edge of the pond revealed where it was and with a little playing about with the composition and waiting for a swan to move away which was causing ripples I got a respectable shot of the reflection in the pond.

Same settings as the previous shot but -2/3ev and ISO3200. The super high ISO was required to get as fast a shutter as possible to freeze the movement of the gentle ripples in the water to stop the reflection distorting. This isb’t a major problem with high end DSLR’s these days but some old cameras will give very noisy shots at this high an ISO.

Reflected Conjunction

Final shot of the night was a closer in view of the reflection, again a high ISO was required and I also switched on the VR on the lens, which you wouldn’t normally do on a tripod but it did help. After many goes, I finally got a shot with a proper moon shape and pin point stars.

Reflected celestial triangle

To finish up with, here’s a quick shot of the Jupiter Moon conjunction the night before, if you look very close next to Jupiter and around 4 o’ clock there is 2 tiny pin pricks of light, 2 of Jupiter’s moons.

Moon, Jupiter conjunction, earthshine and Jupiter moons

Next time you find a nice clear night and you’re looking for something new to photograph, why not see how you get on with the stars? They are far from the easiest subjects to photograph thanks to the Earth rotation but with a little practice you could be adding extra depth to night landscapes.


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