Jump to content

Stars_Banner.jpg.843f9de1cf2bdcd4b91ede4312ecf0ca.jpg

The Diary of an amateur astrophotographer, from beginning to now......


Recommended Posts

PART ONE of THREE

Before I start, I would just like to say that I write this as a bit of a personal diary to get down what I have achieved in the last 9 months and also as a bit of a guide/head’s up to all those thinking of taking the plunge and imaging through their telescope. I am a 37 year old family man, with a full time job, other interests and family responsibilities which take up my time, but also someone who rediscovered a previous passion for the night sky and allowed it to morph and grow into some sort of wonderful affliction in my later years – a hobby which now dominates my clear sky nights and also my wallet to some degree. I have a wife and son who understand this passion and perhaps also encourage it as a way to set aside the pressures of everyday living and to regain some normality after a busy day – a bit like you, the reader ;)

Aside from my day job, I am also a semi pro landscape and wedding photographer, so know my way around cameras and to some extent, optics and although a great help at first, I quickly found this made only a modest difference to night sky imaging. The learning curve has been (and continues to be) steep, but worthwhile and the sense of reward which comes with that final image as DSS completes its wizardry is something we can all achieve. There is so much I could speak of, software, computers, cameras, scopes, mounts, books and the list goes on. But I will cover the basics here, as the answers all can be found on this superb website and the wider internet. Here’s how I personally did it.

1. Enthusiasm: required to fend off doubt with all the rubbish weather here in the UK. I decided about 12 months ago that I was going to engage astronomy a bit more and move away from occasional jaunts out with the binoculars at night (usually after a landscape photography session at dusk). There are still enough clear nights here to make it worthwhile, you just need patience. Chin up, stick with it and think of the feeling of awe as you spot Saturn for the first time, or manage to pick out M31 with averted vision. I live in suburban Staffordshire. Unless you are one of the lucky ones, you will have light pollution too. Guess what – you can still see stuff!

2. The first telescope: I decided that my old 40mm Tasco refractor I got down from the loft just wasn’t going to cut the mustard. I quickly resolved to buy a modern scope and did a lot of research before I parted with the cash. In all honesty, taking astro photos was not on my mind at the time, so my choices were made easier. I plumped for a Skywatcher 130 f900 Newtonian reflector with EQ2 mount. It came with standard eyepieces, but that first night out under the stars, looking at the Moon, M42 Orion Nebula and the Pleiades had me mesmerised! Oh dear, it’s all gone poorly for the bank balance since :Envy:

I will point out here that at that time, I had no idea what collimation was, how the equatorial mount worked, what ‘poor seeing’ meant and so on, but that didn’t matter. I joined SGL, did a lot more research and began to learn. I then spent several months getting out when I could, printing off star charts, downloading Stellarium and so on. I quickly learned what the more common Messier objects were, where they were and learned to navigate the sky with the EQ2 mount and a planisphere. Sometimes frustrating, never dull!

I genuinely enjoyed observing and began to keep a diary of what I had seen, what the conditions were like, which eyepiece was best and so on. I purchased a TAL x2 barlow lens and a couple of varied eyepieces and settled into the hobby. Then one night, I had this brainwave. What if I could rig up my Pentax DSLR to the scope and take a photo of the moon?? A Skywatcher 8-24mm zoom eyepiece and a Pentax fit M42 x 0.75mm T adapter later and I was off. T adapter into camera, screwed onto eyepiece for afocal photographing and off I went. This was my first effort.

post-22225-0-83569800-1369827116_thumb.j

Now, it does not look particularly special, but the sense of achievement I had is something I will remember forever. I had learned how to download and use Registax and noted here that I could capture AVI video with the DSLR and process it to make a single image. I had asked many questions here and read up on what to do and this was the end result. I was hooked forever! The next shot of the Moon quickly followed as did a picture of Saturn, although this was very poor and not worth even posting as an early effort. I was only able to have a shot at Saturn once and the atmospherics were awful (poor seeing – see I’m learning).

post-22225-0-12093000-1369827179_thumb.j

It was about here that I began to realise the limitations of my kit, and where ideally YOU should take note. Many people here will say that you should try to buy what you can afford and ‘future proof’ your kit. This is good advice! If you are thinking of going towards taking photographs of what you can see, DO NOT buy that telescope right now. DO NOT think too much about where you will store what you think you need and DO UNDERSTAND that the mount is GOD when it comes to astro imaging. It is easy to fail or at least disappoint yourself. It can be equally easy to get it right too. If you will be doing visual only, then crack on. If you will be taking photo’s at some point, read on

PART TWO TO FOLLOW.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

PART TWO of THREE

You only live once! By now you have realised that the hobby is for you and is important. You must adhere to the practicalities of storing a large scope and buying a lot of kit. I am by no means rich. I work hard for my money and spend it wisely, and have purchased mostly useful gear first off. Some less useful stuff I have since sold. It has been a whirlwind over these last months, but for you it doesn’t need to be. Part of the enjoyment is the journey, but I am just plain impatient. You need to get the kit, and as with most worthwhile hobbies, to partake can cost money, to partake in depth can cost a lot and to immerse yourself with expensive gear can be, well, expensive. Buy the best you can first time round and if you have to wait a while – do so. I have wasted a bit of money to be honest, mainly because I didn’t think I would turn to imaging. I am privileged to have storage space in our house, so the kit does not get in the way. I read all the time about ‘footprints’ and ‘where can I keep the dob’ etc etc. Did you find room for the baby, the dog, the mother-in-law?? Of course you did, so find room for the scope. It is there, just move something out that you no longer need/want. You only live once and the hobby is important!

Anyway, back to taking photographs and if you are still with me, thanks for reading!! I hope the mods have not deleted this lot and also might think it may prove useful to some. I guess if you’re reading this, the answer is ‘YES’ to all the above :)

1. The scope and mount need upgrading (already)!! : I decided to turn my attention on the DSO’s and took this image of the Orion Nebula (M42).

post-22225-0-40580000-1369827389_thumb.j

The telescope is ok is suppose – brilliant for visual and I would recommend it to anyone, but not so good for deep space. It’s not overly ‘fast’ at f6.92 aperture (not to be confused with f900 which is the focal length or ‘reach’ of the scope. Aperture is the amount of light it lets in – a bit like a camera lens). The mirror is not parabolic, so it lacks critical sharpness. I also decide to invest in a laser collimator and after yet more reading up on the subject, decide to collimate the scope. It is slightly off, but not much and the improvement is marginal. Timely to say here that collimation is not a dark art or something to be scared of. Pay attention to what you’re doing, print some instructions off if needs be and just do it. It isn’t that hard, trust me ;) I knew when I started to take pictures that the mount would cause me issues and now it was boldly evident. I needed something which could track the stars, something which could be autoguided at some point, and something which would take the weight of my set-up, be portable and ideally affordable. It was a choice between some form of alt/az GO TO mount, EQ5 SynScan GO TO (or HEQ5 to be more accurate) or the EQ3 PRO SynScan GO TO. I plumped for the EQ3 Pro. Until very recently, the best choice (and still proved to be for me) but I will expand on this later. I did think about an alt/az at first but knew this would limit me again in future, so I decided to go for an EQ variant. If you will be serious about astrophotography, you will need to do the same.

post-22225-0-85178700-1369827460_thumb.j

This was the first outing with the EQ3 and the SW 130 f900 mounted onto it with afocal Pentax DSLR through the eyepiece again. The difference was immediate and positive. More learning to come though ;) ....

Why was accurate polar alignment so important? Why did the polarscope need to be adjusted/collimated? What on earth is Periodic Error? and is Backlash painful? My scope needed to be upgraded also and I had a lot to take in with regards to properly balancing the scope on the mount, polar alignment and star alignment with the mount. How come I could do a three star align and it would still miss the first thing I slewed to??

FINAL PART THREE TO FOLLOW ....

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

PART THREE of THREE

OK, this is where things hot up.I’ve purchased the EQ3 Pro mount, just upgraded to a smaller and lighter Skywatcher 130 PDS f650 which has a better parabolic mirror and is better for widefield work and I can now prime focus and do away with the limitations of afocal.It’s also ‘faster’ too being an f5 (so it gathers a bit more light than the previous f6.92 tube).I’ve sold some eyepieces that I know I no longer need, and correctly adjusted the polar scope, balanced the imaging rig on the mount and collimated the new scope, andI have learned how to polar align properly.I am now able to take exposures of up to one minute unguided, but mostly stick to 30 seconds so my ‘keep’ rate is 100%.DSS software is my best friend, and although I’ve spent probably the best part of £800 on kit (not taking into account odd bits and EP’s I’ve sold off) I am now taking successful images of the cosmos and making myself feel very pleased indeed.

post-22225-0-38578500-1369827613_thumb.j

post-22225-0-20926800-1369827642_thumb.j

But it’s not enough! My human desire for more and my own personal impatience is rearing it’s head again.I knew the time would come, just not so soon!I needed to autoguide.I was pleased with my efforts and the improvement was evident, but compared to other people’s images here and elsewhere, I was not doing overly well in comparison

Now, as I mentioned before I had considered the HEQ5 mount along with a larger scope, but I plumped for the EQ3 for portability and although it would have less future proof value than the HEQ5, it was less expensive, would handle the weight of my rig (I don’t want to go above 130 PDS, again for portability and I’m also too lazy to lift a bigger tube about) and was still capable of autoguiding.I had not realised at the time that it’s motor resolution was half that of the HEQ5, and until last week, I had believed I had perhaps made a mistake, although the cost of the HEQ5 had put me off a little in the first place.I have since autoguided successfully with the EQ3, albeit perhaps down to personal effort, attention to detail and a bit of good fortune rather than good judgement.

post-22225-0-10191300-1369827696_thumb.j

This is my latest effort.Still not up to the standard of some folks here, but an improvement again and also now getting to where I want to be for a casual astro imager.Over £1000 later (with the cost of the autoguider now) I am taking decent pictures of deep space objects, with 5 minute exposures with a 100% keep rate (so far)! I have learned how PHD guiding software works and taken almost an hour to focus the guide camera to perfection first before I started.This hobby is an investment in time as much as cash, but as before, you get out what you put in and it
is
worth it!

And so here I am.In less than 12 months I have purchased a 5” reflector telescope on a standard EQ mount, sold it, bought another faster 5” scope with a GO TO mount, sold the original one to my next door neighbour, downloaded and learned how to use a shed load of software, bought all sorts of books and bits and bobs, and topped it off with an auto guider.After all these ramblings I can say from my own personal experience that I have, and continue to enjoy the journey, and I make the following observations which, are not law just my own thoughts and advice.Some may disagree, or think otherwise, but this is what I reckon, as an amateur astrophotographer:

Buy a good EQ mount
. EQ3 Pro works for me, although the majority will say minimum of HEQ5. Who am I to argue, but my EQ3 Pro does the trick with spot-on balance, spot-on adjusted polarscope and spot-on polar alignment each time. Also a good trick is to do three star align and when the first one misses (and it will) manually adjust the scope by unlocking the RA and DEC axes and moving the star into the centre of the eyepiece. With number two and three, use the handset to centre the stars. This works every time (for some reason?!)

Buy a good scope
and something which will not be too heavy for the mount (or for you). The type is down to what you want to use it for but get a decent make from a reputable seller.

Balance everything properly
and spend time adjusting the polarscope. Mine only needed a bit of adjusting to centre it properly, but it makes a huge difference.

Put the effort into learning
how to use everything. The equipment can be technical I agree, but I am no expert and I’ve cracked it!

You will need to autoguide
for anything longer than perhaps a minute. Some people will manage around 2 minutes unguided. I couldn’t even get close to that. For anything of 3 minutes or above, you will need the ability to track accurately (and a laptop and also not mind having a garden full of cables and wires).

Finally, enjoy it!
If it becomes a chore or the expense is prohibitive, then it’s possibly a battle already lost. If there’s one thing I’ve come to accept is that the UK weather is terrible and I spend many nights frustrated by it, but when I get out and immerse myself in the night sky, it is always the most profound and awe inspiring spectacle that one can witness and to look up with one’s own eyes is FREE!

And so what does the future hold for me as an amateur astro imager?Maybe a HEQ5 mount ( so I can push for 10 minute plus exposures – I’m not convinced the EQ3 will stretch that far).Probably a mid range SCT so I can have a proper go at planetary work. Probably a planetary webcam or similar, as the DSLR will do planets fine, but a dedicated camera will do them better. And most likely a full astro modification to the DSLR (Pentax Kr) so those Hydrogen Alpha emission targets can be imaged. I continue to learn all the time, but the adventure is
so
worth it.

Hopefully, you have read to the end and taken something from this.I feel better for writing it and if it helps or inspires then that’s brill
;)

Clear skies.

Scott
:) Edited by Welrod50
  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

the trials and tribulations of an astroimager :grin: thanks for posting your diary! it is nice to read a "blow by blow" accout of your journey. i am sure it will resonate with a lot of us who at various stages of the journey. enjoyment is the most important part of the journey, but i have to say my experience of guiding to begin with definitely was NOT enjoyable! it was worth it though as the results are getting better, even if the weather isnt!

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi, Scott,

It's nice to read how much you have enjoyed your voyage of discovery.

Your diary resonated with me- my oldest son, when doing his A-levels included the GCSE in Astronomy and chose astroimaging as his project. It was nice to see him pick it up and as the months went by, it was obvious in the captured images he was progressing.

It will be interesting for you to re-visit some of your earler targets and take another go at them - a great test of your improving imaging skills. (and software skills)

Keep it up, keep looking for new targets to image

Gordon.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

This all resonates with me and I suspect will do for a good many people. In my imaging experience - all five months of it - I have had many joys and many frustrations. Sometimes the only thing I take away from a session is a problem encountered and a lesson learned. The most important thing to remember is that we are doing this for fun, sometimes when everything is going wrong, the best thing you can do is pack all the gear away, sit back with a cup of tea (beer, vodka...) and look at the night sky.

I think it is healthy to be self-critical. Already i have revisited some of my targets three times and have taken better images each time. Maybe next year I will throw all my images out and re-do them with the benefit of a years experience. I also find it helpful to show my images to as wide an audience as possible, which is why they are on Flickr. Sometimes you can get a really useful steer from other people. One of the nicest experiences I have had was to have a complete stranger select one of my images as a favourite. When I looked at his images I was blown away by the quality and also the imaginitive settings of his work. So I gained a little ego boost and stole some good imaging ideas all at the same time.

I also find it interesting to see what people can do with "the wrong kit". My 200P (not PDS) and EQ5 (no goto, no guiding) are, in many peoples' opinion, sub-optimal but they are working for me at the moment. One of my regular observing buddies is getting some pretty neat deep space images with a Mak on an alt-az goto mount. I am certainly still at the stage where the weakest link in my current setup is the bloke using it, so I will keep trying and keep learning, and upgrade the kit when it becomes the limiting factor instead of me. Actually that's something I am really enjoying, at 50 years old it's a long time since I had to learn something completely new, I'd forgotten how much fun that can be.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue. By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.