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Happy Friday!

I'm just starting out with astrophotography and, whilst painfully waiting for my HEQ5 to arrive, I'm trying to prepare a setup checklist to make my first few sessions as focused as possible and not spend half of my time trying to remember what to do. Clear skies are a precious commodity in the UK so I want to use wisely 😆

The idea is this list will cover all the steps from setting up my equipment to all the individual steps to follow in the software.

Do any of you kind souls have such a checklist to share so I can borrow and compare?

I have N.I.N.A as my image acquisition software. PHD2, Stellarium, (can't remember the plate solver 😊

My gear: SW Evostar 72ed, Evoguide50ed with ASI 120mm, ZWO ASI 183MM Pro GT, (HEQ5 pending)

 

Thank you!

-Thingy-

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Hi,

One piece of advice I can give (I'm not that experienced myself but this is advice I've previously been given & also heard many times) is forget about guiding to start with. There's enough to learn to start  & guiding can come later.

With a good polar alignment you should be able to get 3 to 5 min subs with no problem. Concentrate on the basics first, polar alignment, framing & focusing etc & get used  to  been able to use the capture software efficiently . Trying to jump straight in at the deep end can lead to frustration (I know this from past experience). 

Once you've mastered these & your happy with your procedure then think about adding to it with guiding etc. That's just my opinion anyway.

Good luck.

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Checklist is a great idea. Before I made one (albeit a mental one), I had a couple of sessions where I made some mistakes which cost a lot of valuable observing time. For what it's worth here's mine:

  1. Take out tripod, extend legs so it's roughly waist high, get it more or less level (not essential but helps with polar-alignment).
  2. Take out mount and attach it to tripod.
  3. Take out the tripod spreader and put that in place. Carefully, lift each tripod leg off the ground for a moment to make sure it's been spread and won't move later.
  4. Polar align, using an app to tell me where Polaris should be in the polar scope.
  5. Take out counterweights (for me 2) and put them on the bar roughly where I know balance will be. Make sure clutches are engaged.
  6. Take out scope and attach it to mount.
  7. Take out imaging train/visual back and attach to scope.
  8. Attach any other accessories (e.g. DSLR piggyback, finder scope).
  9. Balance in Dec
  10. Balance in RA
  11. Get my power supply to the mount and plug it in.
  12. Attach handset or wire up my raspberry pi depending on what I'm using.
  13. Check polar alignment now the mount is loaded (not necessary unless you're doing long exposures). This can be done with the polar scope or in some software.

I have a dew heater coming so that'll probably fit in somewhere, probably around 11/12. The most important thing for me was getting everything balanced before starting to plug things in. Also if you adjust the payload, make sure to rebalance.

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Hello Thingy, once you have your HEQ5, you will have a very nice set-up. That's a pity, because you'll have no option to blame your kit for any poor results! To get the best out of it, this would be my suggested set-up. I would add that practice is all-important, as there are a lot of techniques that need to be understood and mastered and all of that takes time.

Earlier in the day, connect everything together and make sure it's working. Set up all devices in your light path as they will be later. Focus on a distant object and lock the focuser. Make sure your PC has all drivers etc. installed and working correctly. Pick a target and create an imaging plan. It's easier to do this when you're not cold and tired. Be specific about filters - don't start the imaging plan using 'No Filter Change' unless you're absolutely guaranteed the correct filter will be in position. Check and confirm binning levels for all steps (just go with 1x1 for everything!).

Put your equipment out well ahead of your planned starting time, to let the scopes cool down.
Level the mount. Attach the spreader, adjust the tripod legs and check level again. Tighten the spreader, and the loosen it slightly again.
Attach all equipment and cables, and balance in RA and Dec. Tidy and tie your cables to stop them hanging or dragging. Check your scope for orientation, to make sure that it won't hit the mount as it tracks your target through the night.
Power everything up except the mount. Turn on dew heaters and camera cooler.
Polar Align - I use Sharpcap and it works a treat. Tighten the tripod spreader fully as you get close to Excellent alignment (on the HEQ5 you can't adjust azimuth with the spreader locked). Don't forget to rotate your scope back to home position when you're finished. Power up the mount.
Close SharpCap, and load Stellarium, PHD2 and NINA (I use APT, but I assume the steps for NINA are similar). Make sure cameras are connected properly (imaging to NINA, guiding to PHD2).
Check that everything is connected correctly in NINA - mount, camera, filter wheel, focuser if you have one. Test everything to make sure they're responding. 
Take off all lens caps! Select a filter that is good for focus - clear, IR cut or Luminance - that has good light transmission.
Adjust focus as best you can. A Bahtinov mask is practically essential.
Take a test exposure through the main camera, plate solve and sync.
Goto Vega (or some other bright star) and fine-tune your focus. Take the time to get it as close as possible. Plate solve and sync.
Goto your imaging target, take a test exposure, plate solve and sync.
Pick a guide star in PHD2 and start guiding. If calibration is required, let it run (takes quite a few minutes). You might also want to run the Guiding Assistant for 2 minutes to test everything out.
Back in NINA, do a final check that everything is in order, then start your imaging plan.
Go back indoors, boil the kettle, and wait!

It's worth installing Teamviewer so that you can monitor your PC from inside, as the imaging plan progresses. 

Don't expect to get all of this done the first time you set up. You might even spend a few nights just getting polar alignment working, then the next few nights on focus etc. It can be very frustrating wasting all of that imaging time tinkering with kit, but there really is no point rushing your set-up to get some quick captures, as they will most likely be out of focus, blurred, star-trailed or off-target. It really pays off to take your time with the checklist, and practice each step repeatedly until you understand what you're doing, and know how to do it right first time. What's REALLY frustrating is waking up the next morning to realise you've just taken 6 hours of images through the wrong filter etc. There is a lot of science/engineering that really must be done before you can get to the art/creativity part.

HTH, I'm sure everyone's checklist will be slightly different.

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First job, if you plan on using it, calibrate your polar scope. 👍

Then, as above, take small steps, make sure everything is working good and learn each of your tools. I am 3 months in and just starting to learn guiding. 

It's a fantastic hobby, when the weather allows you to indulge in it. 

😁

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4 hours ago, Padraic M said:

It's worth installing Teamviewer so that you can monitor your PC from inside, as the imaging plan progresses. 

 

I presume TeamViewer is some kind of remote desktop. Great idea! Totally didn't think about doing that.

 

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You might want to make notes on steps in your chosen software, too. These are specific to the packages you use but many of them have little traps to avoid. Classics are to restore full frame capture after subframe focusing and to autosave all captures!

If you use a Bahtinov mask to focus (a good idea) remember to take it off for the imaging run!  

Not that I'd make any of these mistakes, of course... 🤪

Olly

Oh, another thing: set your camera along RA and Dec, not at a random angle. Your camera has a round body so mark it on the rear (eg with tape or permanent marker) to show the orientation of the chip. When you put it in the scope make that line parallel with the dovetail or at right angles to it. Two main reasons: it's easier to come back to the target and add more data if the camera is at a repeatable angle and you know which axis is misbehaving if you have a guiding-tracking issue.

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Yes - there's a free version that will probably do the trick for you. Makes for a warm and toasty imaging session! I use my Samsung tablet indoors, with the laptop outside.

Also fwiw, most people use one of those plastic storage boxes to protect the outdoor laptop from mist, dew and any rain that might fall. Just drill a hole in the side to allow power and USB cables to enter. Where I'm from, dew can be a real problem, so I wouldn't dream of doing much without dew straps and a box for the laptop. See this thread here, but there are simpler solutions. 

 

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Glad I asked this question. Loads of valuable tips. Thanks muchly.

No doubt I'll focus so much on the details that I'll miss the obvious, like forgetting to take the lens cap off, but I'm looking forward to getting stuck in.

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21 minutes ago, Grierson said:

Just picking up on item 5 of randomics’ list. Don’t forget to replace the screw on the end of the weight bar!

Not done that one... Yet.

I keep my rig set up and lug it into place when needed but that leads to my favourite trick of bashing it against something and playing the "which expensive thing did I just break" game.

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I would find it really hard to visualize all the steps without missing any, lacking the equipment in front of me. I would concur with doing a dry run or two, slowly and carefully, perhaps in the daylight so that you're not pressured to get imaging. After you've been through the whole thing once or twice, then write the steps down. For example the excellent detailed list from Padraic would be useless to me. Set the scope outside? Hah -- my RGB imaging site is 45 minutes away!

If you're in the same boat, a packing list is absolutely crucial, at least until it becomes second nature. I have been stymied more than once by forgetting spare batteries, for example, or failing to charge my phone or whatever device I'm using to control the imaging.

I recommend that you keep a field notebook and write down what sorts of things you tried, settings you used, and what seemed to be a problem. Future You will thank you. 

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Thanks for all the superb advice.

My checklist is going to be wonderful now and a great starting point to guide me through my first few nights. 

Whilst waiting for my HEQ5 I plan to play around and shoot some static images of Andromeda to get a feel for the software and camera settings. 

Now I just need those clouds to part...🥺

 

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