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
When I upgraded my tripod to a stainless-steel EQ5 one, I was left with a Skywatcher NEQ3 tripod with no mount to fit on it. I also had a smaller 'EQ2-ish' tripod for my 7omm Bresser refractor that was not particularly rigid.
As I had carried out some modifications to make the EQ3 tripod more rigid, it seemed a shame not to find use for it, so I decided to see if I could fit the small Bresser equatorial mount to it. It would certainly be possible, and I almost started turning up a large aluminium adaptor to fit between the EQ3 fitting and the Bresser mount.
A little reflection and I realised it would be easier to fit the Bresser tripod head (which combines tripod head and mount) to the EQ3 legs. the main task was to enlarge the holes in the Bresser head and make some thick, stepped delrin washers to make up the gap between the mounting lugs and head. I also had to remove a little plastic from two of the mounting lugs and add a shorter fixing bolt as some of the clearances were a bit tight.
Everything went together perfectly, leaving me with a an EQ3 tripod head that could be fitted on a static pier and the old Bresser tripod legs. Although the Bresser tripod can't easily be rebuilt I could restore the NEQ3 if I wanted to.
The end result? a light tripod with a compact equatorial mount that is much more rigid than the original tripod. It is not suitable for imaging but ideal as a grab and go mount for my smaller scope. I will probably add a right-ascension drive and it will then be great for sharing views of the night sky. I call it the Bresswatcher EQ2.5.
Bresswatcher NEQ2.5 Tripod and Mount
- Category: Astrophotography
Anyone who owns a reasonably sized telescope with an EQ3 mount and tripod (also known as NEQ3) has probably noticed that it is quite wobbly. There are a number of suggestions for reducing this wobble on the web, but what is the root cause of this problem so we can solve it properly?
Vigorous twisting of the tripod head soon shows that the main problem is how the central part of each leg is only clamped right at the bottom of the outer legs. Some users over-tighten these bottom clamps in a vain attempt to firm things up, so you will see reports of various repairs for broken clamps, such as using a jubilee clip. The real solution is to add some form of clamping for the upper end of the inner legs.
I found the most effective solution was to use short pieces of stainless steel M6 and wingnuts, but this does mean drilling the tripod which could affect manufacturer guarantees and resale value - so do it at your own risk! These simple clamps pull the two outer legs together and very firmly clamp the top of the inner legs. I only use the tripod at one height, but if you use it at different heights you may need to add extra sets of holes lower down.
A second simple modification that greatly helped was epoxying the plastic lugs at the top of the outer legs into the tubes, as they are only fixed on one side which means they flex easily. Other, less effective, steps I took were filling the inner legs with sand and putting extra weights on the accessory tray, but everything helps!
The extra clamping fitted to an EQ3 tripod
- Category: Astrophotography
One of the biggest challenges I found when starting out with astrophotography was getting sharp focus. The simplest way to do this is just to use live view or take trial pictures until the 'dots' of stars are as small as possible.
A really simple solution is a 'Bahtinov Mask'. This is a simple device that has a pattern of 'slits' at three different angles. Each set of slits diffracts the light that passes its edges and smears the light from each star into a double ended and rainbow coloured spike. This is my home-made Bahtinov mask (although i am now making my own 3D printed masks - download the STL files here).
A home-made Bahtinov mask cut from a plastic folder
Focusing with a Bahtinov Mask
Naturally three sets of slits create three 'spikes' and the clever bit is that, when the scope is in perfect focus the three spikes cross at a single point. It is best to use a very bright star like Vega, Sirius or Capella and ideally in the same part of the sky as the object you want to photograph. If you have a live-view camera or are focusing for visual observing, just find the bright star, fit the mask over the end of the scope, and twiddle the focus until three colourful spikes appear. The central spike will move up and down across the two diagonal spikes, so keep twiddling until you get an image like this:
Focus is achieved when the central spike crosses the other two at dead centre. It is slightly low in this picture, a shorter exposure would give sharper but fainter spikes.
If the seeing is poor, the spikes may move slightly, so just aim for the best position. Bear in kind that VERY TINY movem,enmts of the focuser can be detected using the mask so be patient and get rewarded with spot on focus.
For a camera without live view I find an exposure of about 4 seconds at ISO8 gives a bright clear image.This has the advantage that any wobble of the lines caused by poor seeing is averaged out. Naturally you have to take several trial shots until you get it right. As the movement of the spikes is roughly proportional to the movement of the focuser, it usually only takes five to eight tries, assuming the scope is roughly focused to start with.
Getting the Best results from a Bahtinov Mask
The first rule is to make sure your scope has cooled down - this can take roughly five minutes for every inch of mirror or lens diameter. We are worrying about getting focus accurate to tiny distances (say a hundredth of a millimetre) and a steel-bodied scope a metre long will shrink by over a tenth of a millimetre for a ten-degree cooling down, this is to say nothing of how a mirror or lens will not focus accurately until is has cooled evenly.
When observing or photographing planets or even the moon, I get better results focusing on a nearby bright star as the mask should be used with a point source.
Some folk will tell you to always fit the mask the same way round so you know which way to turn the focuser. As it's so quick to use anyway, I don't bother.
If you swing the scope to look at distant parts of the sky or the temperature changes significantly, it's worth taking five minutes to refocus. If you are taking pictures, zoom in and check that your smallest stars really are tiny points.
If you want to get the very, very best results from wide field images, then the advice is to position the star at a point one-third in from the edges of the image or field of view, rather than the centre as you might do if you were photographing planets, for example.
Making a Bahtinov Mask
If you put 'bahtinov mask' into your favourite search engine, you will find dozens of people happy to sell you one, but it isn't hard to make your own. First, you need the layout for your mask, the easiest way is to use a pre-prepared pdf template, but if you want to customise the layout and size of your mask you can use an online generator, however the one linked to produces SVG files so you will need a suitable editor as printing it from your browser may not give you one the right size.
For my masks I printed out my template and taped it to a sheet of heavy-gauge black plastic from a document wallet. using a very sharp craft knife I cut out the slits (children of a certain age should use round-ended scissors and ask an adult to help).
I then cut a strip of foam from a camping mat and adjusted the length of this so it was close fit on the end of my scope. Off the scope I superglued the ends together. Back on the scope, I overlapped the end with a length of black gaffa tape which i then cut little slits into so it became a ring of sticky tabs. It was not too hard to drop the masks inside the ring and neatly(ish) fold over the tabs. Jon done!
Use a Bahtinov mask and you will see an instant improvement in your imaging:
The Charles Atlas of Planetary Imaging (your mileage may vary, simulated image, serving suggestion)
- Category: Astrophotography
Look into the night sky at a nice, dark site and you will see a glowing band that, if it is a truly dark site, appears to pass right across the sky. Known by the clumsy name of the Milky Way this is the view across the disk of our own galaxy.
The Milky Way
Look at the Milky Way through a telescope and the sheer number of stars on view can be overwhelming. This is the Milky Way near Cygnus, and although light cloud has affected the picture you can see how the whole view is full of stars. The slightly darker patch running diagonally down from top right is the 'Great Rift' where a cloud of cold, dark gas and dust is masking part of the Milky Way.
The Milky Way near Cygnus
Andromeda Galaxy, M31
The Andromeda Galaxy is our nearest neighbour in intergalactic space that isn't part of or orbiting the Milky Way. It is a huge spiral galaxy with two smaller galaxies gravitationally bound to it. To the naked it can be seen in dark skies as a fuzzy spot between Andromeda and Cassiopeia. You should be able to see that although it appears like a dim star, it is more 'spread out' than a star.
To the naked eye, the Andromeda Galaxy is just a fuzzy spot
Turn a telescope on Andromeda, and it is transformed. In a really dark sky it becomes obvious that it is several times the size of the full moon, and its companion Galaxies appear.
This photograph only covers about the central one-third of the Andromeda Galaxy, Messier Object number M31.The faint dark lines above the core are dust lanes, just like the Great Rift. The 'fuzzy blob' at bottom right is galaxy M32, M101 is outside this picture.
The central part of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) also showing Galaxy M32
This second shot shows M32 and M110. The image has rather more detail as it is comprised of 66 80-second exposures taken with a 400mm lens and stacked in DSS.
A wider view of the Andromeda Galaxy. Satellite galaxies M32 and M101 are also in shot.
The Pinwheel Galaxy, M101
My personal ambition is to photograph other galaxies, but to do this successfully for fainter galaxies than M31 really means I need to improve my tracking. But though galaxies are faint, they aren't necessarily small - this is the Whirlpool Galaxy M101 above the tail of the Great Bear, it covers an area of sky about half as wide across as the full moon! You can see how much I have had to over-process this shot, but at least the spiral galaxy has been captured. But that's the best thing about astrophotography - even basic kit can get you rewarding results, but there is always something out there to stretch your abilities and equipment to the limit!
The Pinwheel Galaxy, M101, a stack of 30-second images at ISO 1600, longer subs will bring out more detail!
Mirach is a star in the constellation of Andromeda. A typical star chart will show a small object 'overlapping' Mirach, but actually this is a dwarf galaxy, NGC404 that is slightly to one side of Mirach and rather further away. Mirach's Ghost is actually a 'dwarf galaxy circuiting our own galaxy like the two Magellanic Clouds visible in the southern hemisphere, but further away. I did rather better with this than M101 and was pleased to capture a somewhat difficult object.
Mirach's Ghost, NGC404, is the small fuzzy up and to the left of bright Mirach itself.
- Category: Astrophotography
A meteoroid is a lump of, well, stuff drifting through space. It could be a bit of comet, material that never quite formed a planet or even a rock or dust hurled into space when two objects collided. Each day thousands of meteoroids, most tiny, are captured by Earth's gravity and burn up in the atmosphere, becoming meteors. Some of these are large enough to reach the ground intact, usually as metallic or glassy rocks - meteorites.
Unlike many objects in the night sky, larger meteors are fast and spectacular. Although 'meteor showers' happen on regular dates individual meteors cannot be predicted, so the techniques is to point a camera at the sky and take lots of long, say 30-second, exposures.
Even a wide-angle lens can only 'watch' a small part of the sky, expect to see far more meteors than you capture in pictures. This Perseid meteor below was one of a handful captured from 250 exposures, yet I saw going on for fifty individual meteors. Ideally a fish-eye lens that covers the whole sky can be used, but then the trails are rather short.
A Perseid meteor seen through light cloud
The name 'Perseid' for this meteor shower is because all the meteoir apopear to come from a single point in the constellation Perseus, called the radiant of the shower. the best view is at about right angles to the radiant. The Perseids appear in early August, peaking about the 13th, when the Earth is passing through the track of a disintegrated comet.
Meteors leave a persistent ionisation trail in their wake, which can be used to 'bounce' radio waves around the Earth. Big meteors can leave an ionisation trail that is visible for some time after the meteor has passed. Here's one from that Perseid shower that was also photographed by at least two other observers, also in Staffordshire.
The ionisation trail of the 'Staffordshire Fireball'
- Category: Astrophotography