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 2019's 'Image of the Month' pictures. Enjoy!
Image of the Month for January 2019: Comet 46/p Wirtanen
Something a bit different this month, an animation of Comet 46/p Wirtanen taken on the 13 December 2018. Stacked using Deep Sky Stacker. Skywatcher 130P-DS telescope on HEQ5 mount, Canon 45D astro-modded and cooled.
Image of the Month for February 2019: M1, The Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula, M1, the remains of a supernova recorded as a 'guest star' in 1054 and given its name in 1840 by William Parsons. The object is expanding so fast that differences can be seen in images taken 10 or 20 years apart. Skywatcher 130P-DS telescope on HEQ5 mount, Canon 45D astro-modded and cooled.
Image of the Month for March 2019: The Hickson 44 Galaxy Group
The snappily named and rarely imaged Hickson 44 Galaxy Group is located in the constellation Leo, at the 'back' of the lion's head. It is a small collection of interacting galaxies.
Image of the Month for April 2019: M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy
The Pinwheel Galaxy played an important step in our understanding of galaxies as separate 'island universes' beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, when Lord Rosse was the first person to identify its spiral structure.
Image of the Month for May 2019: NGC4631, the Whale Galaxy
Also known as the Herring Galaxy this is a spiral galaxy, seen almost edge-on with a small companion galaxy. Taken using Skywatcher 130P-DS scope on HEQ-5 mount with a cooled and astro-modded Canon 450D. 63 two-minute exposures.
Image of the Month for June 2019: M13 The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules
M13 is bright enough to be seen as a small fuzzy patch in dark skies, through a medium sized telescope you can start to see the stars that make it up. Taken using Skywatcher 130P-DS scope on HEQ-5 mount with a cooled and astro-modded Canon 450D. A combination of many 30-second exposures taken in 2018 and about 40 120-second exposures taken in May 2019 has helped in resolving stars to the centre of the cluster.
Image of the Month for July 2019: Jupiter
Jupiter is very low down in the sky this year, making imaging a real challenge. In this image from 20 June 2019, the moon Io passes in front of the planet leaving a clear shadow, although the moon itself is a barely visible yellowish patch to the right of the shadow. Below, the Red Spot is unmistakeable, but this 300-year-old storm is shrinking. Will it disappear soon? Taken with a Skywatcher 150PL telescope and ZWO ASI120MC camera and a ZWO Atmospheric Dispersion Corrector, to offset the 'colour smearing' caused by the planet being so low in the sky.
Image of the Month for August 2019: Partial Lunar Eclipse
The partial Lunar Eclipse on 16 July 2019 took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, so gathering with fellow members of Rosliston Astronomy Group was a great way to mark the occasion. Despite early cloud, satellite imagery from online weather websites showed that we would probably be lucky, and the moon appeared from behind cloud about twenty minutes after it rose. We were able to view about an hour and a half of the spectacle, as scattered cloud came and went, before another big bank of cloud moved across, so we saw the point of deepest eclipse. This image is from fairly early on, taken with a Canon D1000 mounted on a Celestron C90 Mak, and stacked from about fifteen images that were clear of cloud.
Image of the Month for September 2019: The Swan Nebula, M17
The Swan or Omega Nebula is a rich and complex area of hydrogen-alpha emission nebula in the constellation Sagittarius. This is one of the richest parts of the night sky, as the centre of the Galaxy with its supermassive black hole lies in this direction. It is hard to image this part of the sky well from the UK as everything is close to the horizon, but on 25 August 2019 there were almost perfect conditions combining exceptional transparancy and seeing - in other words the sky was clear of clouds and dust and very steady, a combination that minimises light pollution and the sharpness of image you can achieve.
Image of the Month for October 2019: The Crescent Nebula, NGC6888
The Crescent Nebula is a complex emission nebula formed by the emissions from Wolf-Rayett star WR136 interacting with gasses it lost in the past, forming multiple shock waves. Although a fairly small target for photography, it lies against fainter but huge emission nebulae in the constellation of Cygnus making it an excellent choice for wide-field photography, especially for narrowband imaging as here, where a Baader 7nm Hydrogen Alpha filter was used.
Image of the Month for November 2019: The Heart and Soul Nebulas
This well-known pair of nebulas lying between the constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus are huge clouds of hydrogen. Young stars near their centres have pushed the gas outwards away from them and the 'shock waves' themselves have become nurseries for even younger stars. These two images were taken using an Optolong L-Enhance tri-band nebula filter using a Canon 450D and a 66mm ED telescope. The individual images were stitched together in Photoshop.
- Category: Astrophotography
Here's the home of 2018's 'Image of the Month' pictures. Enjoy!
Image of the Month for December 2018: Bubble Nebula and Friends
Not a great month for astro imaging, unfortunately. One reasonable night under the moonlight caught the Bubble Nebula and the nearby M52 "Cassiopeia Salt and Pepper Cluster".
Image of the Month for November 2018: Blue Moon
This month a nice straightforward image - or is it? A stack of fifty images of the moon early one morning.
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
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