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!
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.
Double Cluster, I’ve added some diffraction spikes to this one in Photoshop, not sure about the effect but I think I like it.
The Ring Nebula, just a single RAW in the end but pleased at how clear the nebula is!
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.
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.
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.
Which is a vast improvement on my best with the D90 attached to the telescope:
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!
Well, I knew it was going to happen. This tale kicks off back in early December when I made my first ever attempt at a star-trail image, it never happened that night as cloud rolled in but I did get a natty shot of the Forth Bridge and the Big Dipper next to it in the sky. That was the start of the near obsession with the night sky.
Winter is a difficult time for me photographically, especially a winter with little or no snow like this year. Sunsets are difficult, due to working when the sun in setting and the position of the winter sunset is tricky in Edinburgh to so I typically resort to night-time shots and to be honest, I get a bit fed up with photographing the city at night so I needed something new. That something new turned out to be the oldest thing I could photograph, our universe.
Since that night I’ve progressed though star-trails, photographing star fields, the Milky Way, the planets the ISS and anything else astro related I could manage with my current photography equipment but I still lacked one thing, mega zoom!
I needed a telescope. So I bought one for the exorbitant fee of £30 from Jessops. Now, I didn’t expect much from a £30 Jessops junior telescope with a 50mm front on it. What I didn’t reckon for was how bad it actually was. This spindly thing was dreadful and nearly put me off a telescope all together. It was so frustrating to use. I went off the idea since then and started looking at a Sigma 150-500mm lens instead, which combined with my Sigma 2x teleconverter would have gave me a 1000mm lens, 1500mm on the crop sensor. To be honest I’d have bought this but I lacked the £800 or so I needed to get one.
Then Gumtree happened. Up popped a Meade 4504 114mm Newtonian Reflector and motor-driven equatorial mount. The usual Googling was done and off I went to see it. As soon as I laid eyes on it I knew I was buying it. It was huge and that’s what matters right? £80 paid and off I went with my bazooka sized new toy. Satisfyingly filling the boot and back seat of the Mondeo it looked perfect, there was even a camera adapter with it. Glorious up close moon shots were just around the corner, or so I thought.
If you’ve never used a telescope on an Equatorial mount before then you are well unprepared for how difficult it is to get the thing pointing where you want it to. Then when you discover that your 2nd hand bargain has had a harder life than you first thought the bubble slowly starts to burst. Over the next 2 days I discovered that the mount won’t lock in place, a real pain, once you located an object it requires little more than a gnats fart to move the scope and lose the object. Not that bad with the moon but a real bollock ache with the planets.
No matter thinks I, it’s got a motor drive that’ll fix the problem! 10, yes 10 AA batteries later and the motor drive whirred into action. It works, yes. But wait, shouldn’t the mount actually move when I tell it to? Scratch that, it doesn’t work. So, I now have this massive malfunctioning telescope sat in my shed, the wife wont let me keep it in the living room. To be fair, it’s that heavy I don’t really want to carry it from the house to garden to use, 8ft out the shed is much better so there it lives under an old blanket.
Much as I was disappointed by the mount I still figured I could at least get some moon shots with this setup. That’s when I got a stark lesson in focal lengths of telescopes. No matter what I do I cannot get the D90 to focus when attached to the telescope, either using the prime focus or eyepiece projection methods. It seems as if the camera is too far from the telescope mirror. I tried every combination but nothing worked. I’ve since read that using a 2x Barlow lens might correct the issue, I’ve got one of them so that’ll be the test for tonight.
All in, it’s been a frustrating and disappointing experience so far, I didn’t expect to jump right in and be photographing details on Saturn or distant galaxies from day 1 but I had hoped at least for a sharp shot of the moon filling the frame. I’m treating this as part of the learning curve for now, I had similar issues when I first delved into proper long exposure photography but with a little dedication I did get there in the end.
But, and there has to be a but. This post sounds fairly negative, it’s not been the best of experiences but there has been a massive positive. Even with the scope not perfect, I’ve managed to observe the moon really close up, right into individual craters and even a view of the moon on the lowest magnification is awesome, it’s so sharp. A truly breathtaking sight. If that wasn’t enough I’ve also observed Jupiter and close enough in to pick out the moons and the coloured bands around the planet. Something which amazed my youngest son too. I’ve also seen Saturn and the rings around the planet, a sight so awesome it’s hard to describe. When you think about the distances involved in where these objects are its mind boggling.
Even if this telescope never takes a picture for the views I’ve had so far it’s been worth it alone. I’ve seen things that relative to the amount of people on the planet, few have seen. I get fairly awestruck seeing historic landmarks you’ve only heard about of seen pictures off, places like the unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, the leaning tower of Pisa, Pompeii to name a few but seeing Jupiter and Saturn? That’s quite a special feeling and one you can get from your back garden with an £80 investment.