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 scope, mount and tripod coast £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
Conjunctions are not necessarily rare events in the heavens, The moon whirls round the whole sky every month and passes all the planets in that time, so that's several dozen a year!
Even so, when two planets or the moon and a planet are close to each other it does create some photo opportunities. On this occasion, broken cloud undermined the opportunities for ideal astronomical photos, but gave the chance for some nice atmospheric ones.
Let's start with a composite to put a bit of detail into the moon.
I like this, it's nice and moody with the moon in the heart of the clouds
Jupiter to the left of the moon, right click, choose view and zoom in to see the (rather faint) moons.
The photos below, taken with a longer lens setting, show the moons more clearly
A telescope would have split Europa and Io, in the images here they are just a slightly elongated blob.
- Category: Astrophotography
Comet Catalina was a comet that was discovered in 2013, but only visible in the northern hemisphere in the autumn of 2015 and then into 2016 as it swung away from the sun. It was not very bright, and light pollution made it difficult for me to photograph it when it passed through an interesting area of sky in the Plough early on 16 January 2016.
The main image combines the stars and comet (processed separately so neither is blurred) from the same set of 92 images, each 30 seconds at ISO 800. In the picture, Mizar is top left, Alkaid top right, M101 at the bottom and the comet is half way between Alkaid and M101. This comprises 92 exposures stacked in DSS, once tracking the stars and once tracking the comet. The images of the background and the comet were then combined.
Comet Catalina, with Mizar, Alkaid and the galaxy M101
This smaller image is the comet with the blurred background unadjusted, giving the most accurate picture of the two tails, a long thin one and a much shorter 'fat and fuzzy' one. The picture shows how far the comet moved over a period of exactly an hour and a quarter.
A close up view of Comet Catalina
- Category: Astrophotography
On 4 July 1054 Chinese Astronomers first observed a 'guest star' or supernova. Fast forward to 1731, and an ovoid nebula was discovered by John Bevis. The Fuzzy patch, visible in quite small telescopes and even binoculars nearly caught out Charles Messier when he was looking for the return of Halley's Comet - and became the first on his list of 'comet-like objects'.
It wasn't until the early 20th century that examination of photographs over the years showed the cloud was expanding, and some simple maths suggested that it must have started from a 'dot' in the 11th century. From there it wasn't a huge leap to tie up the nebula with the supernova, a link that is considered proved by the presence of a pulsar, the remains of the exploded star in the centre of the nebula. Incredibly, using the Hubble space telescope it is possible to observe changes in the centre of the nebula on a scale of months.
The nebula is the slightly coloured 'fuzzy' patch near the top of the photo graph below, this is a stack of 37 two-minute subs taken using an astro-modified Canon 450D and a 400mm lens. The bright star at bottom right is Tau Tauri, which marks the end of one of Taurus the bull's horns.
M1, the Crab Nebula
Blowing up the above picture starts to show the beginnings of structure in the nebula, but I hope to be able to capture far more detail in the future my more powerful scope instead of a telephoto lens.
A close up of M1 from the larger picture
- Category: Astrophotography
The inconspicuous little constellation Delphinus has a the shape of a diamond with a short tail. Although unlike many constellations it at least vaguely resembles its namesake - some people think it is more like a kite than a dolphin. Once seen in the sky, there is little reason to keep staring, especially as the riches of the Milky Way are nearby.
But the two brightest stars, alpha and beta Delphinus have an interesting history, being named Svalocin and Rotanev. To me the names suggest a hero of the Russian Revolution, but they were named far earlier, and they have a much more interesting story.
Admiral Smyth is the great forgotten British astronomer whose contribution not just to astronomy itself but also widening its understanding was immense. his obituary noted:
As President of the Astronomical Club, he was always genial & courteous, ever keeping things in happy order, and by his ready wit and flow of humour compelling the maintenance of good fellowship. He used to fill his pockets with new half-pennies to distribute to any children he met in his daily walks. Whatever he did, he did it with his might
It seems that, like the elder Herschel he was a 'nice chap'! But Svalocin and Rotanev tested his patience. He thought they were ridiculous names with no foundation saying they were:
cacaphonous and barbaric ... no prying into the black-letter versions of the Almagest, El Battani, Ibn Yunis, and other authorities enables one to form any rational conjecture as to the mis-reading, mis-writing or mis-application in which sostrange a metamorphosis could have originated.
He said that Rotanev "putteth derivation and etymology at defiance" . He appears to have thought they were made up nonsense, but couldn't prove it.
An even less famous British Astronomer was the Rev. Thomas W. Webb, though he was a populariser of amateur astronomy his book Celestial Objects of 1859 was very successful (and well worth reading). In Celestial Objects he wrote of Smyth's confusion with thinly disguised smugness: "Where so eminent and accomplished a scholar and antiquarian has not succeeded, it would seem presumptious to offer a solution". But, unable to restrain his delight at having cracked the puzzle of Svalocin and Rotanev, that's exactly what de did.
He simply reversed the names to get the words Nicolavs Venator, which he easily recognised as a latinised version of the name Niccolo Cacciatore (venator in Latin and cacciatore in Italian both mean 'Hunter' - I'm sure you recognised versions of 'Nicholas'). He also knew that Italian astronomer Niccolo Cacciatore was an assistant at the Palermo Observatory at the time the catalogue in which these stars were first named was being prepared.
There aren't many mortal beings who get to have a star that can be seen by the naked eye named after them. Rotanev Svalocin AKA Niccolo Cacciatore, you are officially a dude - respect!
- Category: Astrophotography