You are never too old to learn, and one of the thing that has opened my eyes has been discovering the quality of astronomical images that can be produced by amateurs with very modest equipment. By using digital cameras and image processing software it's a realistic ambition to produce images that compare favourably with those produced by the world's biggest telescopes fifty years ago - right in your back yard!
This website does not showcase the best astronomical pictures on the internet! It's a selection of pictures I have taken myself with basic equipment and free software. Producing images like these below, or even better ones, is within your reach!
Most importantly, you don't have to spend a fortune. My first serious scope, mount and tripod cost £180 on Ebay. I spent £40 on a more solid tripod, and about £200 on various bits and pieces including books and an ancient Canon EOS DSLR and a seconhand Microsoft HD Webcam. The results shown before are some of my best so far, and will be updated from time to time.
Perhaps the easiest target in the sky is the moon. You can get good pictures with any long or zoom lens, this is a 'stack' of six pictures taken with an ordinary bridge camera:
A gibbous moon photographed on the isle of Skye.
Follow the links below for introductions to some of the other things you can image in the night sky:
Have a go!
I hope I have convinced you to have a go at photographing the night sky - these photos may not hold a candle to some of the work of professionals like Damian Peach or even dedicated amateurs, but I hope you are surprised what can be done with kit that has cost me well under £500.
There are lots of places to find out more on line, but perhaps the easiest place to start is the StargazersLounge webiste.
As well as the subjects covered above there are all sorts of other things to look out for - comets, asteroids, meteors, aurorae, noctilucent clouds and various metereological effects such as sundogs and lunar halos. And sometimes there are just picturesque events such as this near conjunction of the Moon and Venus.
A Conjunction of Moon and Venus
Here's the home of 2018's 'Image of the Month' pictures. Enjoy!
Image of the Month for October 2018: The Garnet Star and the Elephant's Trunk
Seriously, who gets to make up all these names? Actually the Garnet Star, Mu Cephei, is possibly the reddest naked eye star in the sky and was described by William Herschel, who stated it has "a very fine deep garnet colour". The Elephant's Trunk, a dark wiggly patch near bottom right, requires more of a stretch of the imagination.
Image of the Month for September 2018: Nebulosity around Sadr in Cygnus
This image combines a one-shot-colour DSLR image taken on 4 August with a narrowband Hydrogen Alpha image taken on 31 August as the red channel..
Image of the Month for August 2018: The Planets - Sweet!
Over the summer I have been imaging these four planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn as they have all been in the favourable positions in the last few months. That said, Mars and Saturn have been very low, making imaging a challenge. A major dust storm has also stripped Mars of much of its detail, despite this being the closest approach it will make to earth for a century or so. Click the image for more detail.
Image of the Month for July 2018: Meteor!
Something rather different this time, a meteor trail detected by picking up the return from the Graves Space Radar in southern France. The horizontal axis is frequency and the vertical is time. The 'blob' is the static trail left behind by the meteor, and the thin trail is the 'head' of the meteor moving across the sky and dropping in frequency due to doppler shift. This was probably an 'Arieted' meteor coming in low from west.
Image of the Month for June 2018: Io transiting Jupiter
The moon Io pases in front of Jupiter, casting its shadows on the clouds below, on 5 May 2018.
Image of the Month for May 2018: Markarian's Chain
Revisiting the subject of an earlier image of the month, with much more natural colour and greater detail, delivered by a combination of cooling, guiding and longer total exposure.
Image of the Month for April 2018: The Lunar X and V in Colour
In February it was almost perfect observing conditions for the two well-known ‘lunarisms’ the ‘X’ and ‘V’. These are both effects caused by crater rims/ridges that reach up above the lunar shadow. They can both be seen along the lower part of the lunar terminator (the line between light and shadow).
I used my astro-modded and cooled Canon 450D (although the cooling was switched off) with a Celestron C90 Maksutov on a hybrid bresser/skywatcher EQ mount. Despite being a small scope this gives a near ideal match of resolution with sensor so works well for the bright moon, with the advantage that distortion due to poor seeing is minimised compared to my larger newtonian.
98 RAW frames were pre-processed in PIPP using AHD debayering and preserving the colour information to give centred and cropped 16-bit TIFFs.
These were stacked in Autostakkert3! using rather large (200 pixel) boxes. 60% of frames were stacked. The resulting image was duplicated. One was processed as a ‘conventional’ mono image with a relatively light hand – adjustment of curves to reduce the contrast between the rim and terminator, noise reduction was unnecessary, followed by Lucy-Richardson deconvolution. As the image was already sharp a combination of a small kernel with stronger than usual deconvolution was successful and did not create artefacts, notably no ringing was created along the rim, often a problem with deconvolution.
The second image was also adjusted to reduce contrast and using a temporary high-saturation layer the colour balance was adjusted, the main requirement being reducing the red content to compensate for the astro-modification of the camera. The high saturation layer was then removed. Cycles of a soft light + luminance layers process to gently increase saturation were applied – this approach is less likely to ‘blow out’ colours and keeps them more faithful than simply increasing saturation.
The mono version of the image was then applied over the colour one as a luminance layer and merged down.
I am very pleased with the final image as it captures one of the classic moments in the moon’s monthly phases and faithfully demonstrates the faint colours of the lunar surface without over exaggerating them.
Image of the Month for March 2018: The Horsehead and Flame Nebulas in Ha
This is a 7nm hydrogen alpha narrowband image taken using a cooled and astromodified Canon 450D with a special Baader filter.
Image of the Month for February 2018: The Rosette Nebula
Revisiting one of the most remarkable objects in the sky, blending a 7nm hydrogen alpha narrowband image with a one-shot colour image, both taken with the modified and cooled Canon 450D. Using the Ha layer reduces the stars (small ones disappear) and highlights the nebula which is composed of hot hydrogen.
Image of the Month for January 2018: The California Nebula
The California Nebula, a narrowband Ha image combined with a one-shot colour image.
- Category: Astrophotography
Tracker Tester is a simple BBC BASIC for Windows utility for testing telescope tracking and guiding setups using a laptop computer.
Simply extract the exe file from the zip folder and save it in a sensible place.
Just click the exe file and it will introduce itself, then change to a black screen and ask you for the screen width in millimetres and the distance of the screen from your scope.
The star will appear as a single white pixel at middle left, just in from the edge. Focus your scope on the 'star'.
When you are ready press a key and the star will move across the screen at approximately sidereal rate as seen from the scope. Depending on screen size and distance it should take half an hour to an hour to cross the screen.
To exit the program, press ALT-F4 (the screen will carry a message to remind you of this).
Tracker tester comes with no warranty of suitability for any purpose whatsoever.
- Category: Astrophotography
Here's the home of 2017's 'Image of the Month' pictures. Enjoy!
Image of the Month for December 2017: Orion's Sword
M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, together with de Mairan's Nebula and the Running Man Nebula.
Image of the Month for November 2017: Copernicus Crater
The crater Copernicus, named for the astronomer who set the sun at the centre of the solar system. It has three central peaks, clearly distinguished in this image.
Image of the Month for October 2017: Andromeda Widefield
Image of the Month for September 2017: The Sadr Region
Image of the Month for August 2017: The Bubble Nebula
This image combines one-shot colour with an astro-modded DSLR from 2016 with narrowband Hydrogen Alpha (Ha) from 2017.
Image of the Month for July 2017: Saturn
The challenge this year is that from the UK Saturn is approaching its lowest elevation for the next thirty-two years. Next year it will be slightly lower again, and it will be around 2021 before it rises high enough to make imaging easier.
Image of the Month for June 2017: Jupiter, Io and Europa
Image of the Month for May 2017: M86 Galaxy and Markarian's Chain
Image of the Month for April 2017: M51 The Whirlpool Nebula
Image of the Month for March 2017: The Rosette Nebula
Image of the Month for February 2017:The Flaming Star Nebula
Image of the Month for January 2017: The Jellyfish Nebula, a supernova remnant in Gemini.
- Category: Astrophotography
Sometimes (perhaps always!) you can go back and take a second look at your images and get more out of them. At the very least it pays to save the stacked but unprocessed data, if not all the RAW images. In December 2015 I took what I thought were some very beautiful but rather sparse images of M42 and the Running Man nebulas in Orion. the nebulosity was mostly purple in colour.
Since then I have found out about ways of making the fainter parts of a nebula appear in an image, and also got better at balancing colour. This has enabled me to find the browner dust clouds in M42 while still controlling noise. Here's the reprocessed image, with a smaller version of the old one for comparison. Which do you prefer?
The 2016 reprocessing of older data for M42 and the Running Man (at top)
This is the smoother and purpler original version.
- Category: Astrophotography
One of the requirements for most astrophotography is a mount that can follow the rotation of the heavens - without this, all your stars will be little (or even long) streaks unless you are using a wide angle camera lens. It obviously follows that your mount needs to be capable of doing this with a reasonable standard of accuracy.
If you visit an astronomy forum and ask for advice on equipment for imaging, you will probably be told that you can just get by with an EQ5 mount or ideally an HEQ5 or EQ6 mount.
Now this is not welcome advice for a beginner as the prices of these mounts are not insignificant, and they often ask if the much cheaper EQ3 mount can be used for imaging instead (there is no EQ4 available). The answer will almost certainly be that the EQ3 is OK for cameras used with relatively short lenses or short exposures on bright objects with light telescopes.
This is NOT true. Most of the people giving this advice have larger, heavier duty telescopes and are used to taking long exposures through narrowband filters. If they have any experience of an EQ3 mount they will remember it as rather smaller and very wobbly.
Now there's the rub ... the EQ3 tripod is very wobbly, but the mount itself is capable of imaging deep space objects very well, at least well enough to keep a beginner happy over their first few seasons. So if you can't afford a more expensive mount or already have an EQ3 tripod all is not lost. You have two cheap options: either stiffen up the EQ3 tripod or replace it with an EQ5 tripod. Stiffening the tripod may set you back a tenner for some M6 studding and wingnuts and an EQ5 tripod will sell for about £50 second hand or around £90-100 new.
Let's look at the cheap solution:
There you go! It does mean drilling holes in the tripod, but it will make it a vastly more rigid by preventing the bottom parts of the legs flapping about. Naturally you have to make sure you have all the other screws done up securely (not over tightened!) Also, keep the tripod as low as you can, it will be much more rigid, the extension shown in the photos is about right.
If you can get an EQ5 tripod, then the EQ3 mount should drop straight on:
All those gears are my home-made RA drive, the thing that makes the scope follow the stars around the sky -you will need to buy one of these if you don't have a goto version of the EQ3 mount. A single axis motor for EQ3 will set you back about £70. I also recommend a polarscope to simplify and speed up polar alignment, about £33 but this is not essential as you can 'drift align'.
Ok, now you are thinking this is up to £200 of extra kit! Why not buy a fully-loaded HEQ5?
Good point - If you are buying new from scratch, get the best mount and tripod you can afford, but if you are skint or like me you start off with a second hand scope that comes with an EQ3-2 mount and tripod attached, this is a way to get started for less.
So, if you already have an EQ3 tripod and mount you only need the studding and motor to get started. If you have an EQ3 pro-synscan goto scope - in which case you just need to stiffen or replace the tripod.
But I've made a bold claim - that the EQ3 mount is up to deep-space astrophotography. Well all the astrophotos on this website to date were taken with my NEQ3 mount (just one flavour of EQ3). The mount has not been modified internally or even disassembled and regreased, all I have done is put teflon grease on the wormwheels and take a reasonable amount of care to get a good balance between backlash and freedom of movement of the RA and DEC adjustments. I should say that 'good balance' is more in favour of free movement than backlash as you can balance the mount 'east side heavy' to eliminate the effects of backlash in RA.
Here's an image of the North America Nebula taken using a 130P-DS reflector with coma corrector on the EQ3 mount. This is a stack of the best 90% of 60 one-minute long exposures:
Finally, many people will say the EQ3 is only up to imaging using camera lenses as telescopes are too heavy for it. The 150PL reflector weighs about three times as much as the 130P-DS and has over twice the focal length, making it it far more pernickity about the quality of tracking. This image is from the 53 best of 60 one-minute exposures. I'll leave it to you to decide if whether or not you can photograph deep space objects with an EQ3 mount.
- Category: Astrophotography
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