Images representing different hobbies

Astrophotography

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 over thr Isle of Skye in near-poerfect seeing conditions

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:

The Moon

The Sun

The Planets

Messier Objects

Star Clusters

Nebulae

Galaxies

Constellations

Meteors

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.

Conjunction of Moon and Venus seen ona slightly misty night, with teh moon partly behind trees

A Conjunction of Moon and Venus

 

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

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.

Ionisation Trails

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.

Meteor Ionisation Trail

The ionisation trail of the 'Staffordshire Fireball'

Originally, a 'nebula' was a word used to describe any misty thing in the night sky that couldn't be resolved into a more easily defined object such as a star, planet or comet. This meant that star clusters and galaxies later found to be made of smaller objects were included. What we call nebulae today are generally clouds of gas.

Some of these are irregularly shaped and other have a generally round appearance - called planetary nebulae as they were originally thought to be made of tiny proto-planets orbiting a star. To photograph such objects you will need a telescope or camera mount that can be polar aligned and track the night sky.

Planetary Nebulae

A planetary nebula is formed when an ageing star suddenly convulses and shrugs off a ball of hot gas. The Ring Nebula such an expanding shell of gas. Looking through a telescope it has the appearance of a delicate little smoke ring, but a 30-60 second exposure brings out rich colour. The blue areas are mostly oxygen III while the red outer shell is composed of hydrogen ions. It is also known as M57 as it is one of a list of objects that 'could be confused with comets' on a list compiled by the 18th century French astronomer, Charles Messier.

M57

The Ring Nebula M57, note both red and blue components

Most such 'planetary nebulas' do not appear as round as M57 (although the elusive bubble nebula is even more perfect!). The 'Dumbell Nebula', M27, has two lobes and in this shot you can make out the sphere of glowing red gas around the blue clouds. I think it looks like a BMW logo!

M27 Dumbell Nebula

The Dumbell Nebula, M27 - its outer hydrogen envelope is very faint, an astro-modified DSLR was used to help image it

Other Nebulae

The sky is full of other nebulae, from swirling skeins of gas to great clouds. Some of these are hot 'emission' nebulae, glowing by their own light. Reflection nebulae are lit by nearby stars. Dark nebulae appear as black patches masking the stars beyond. They are particularly dense along the plane of the Milky Way. The Great Rift in the constellation Cygnus is an example of a dark nebula.

Pelican Nebula

The Pelican Nebula (Right) is an emission nebula near the star Deneb in the Constellation Cygnus. It is near the larger North America Nebula (left) but is less bright and is best photographed using a DSLR that has been modified to be more sensitive to red light by removing it's IR filter. The photo below was done this way, also with a cheap (£10) light pollution filter, The modification of my previous camera was made following a step-by-step guide. Be aware that such a modification will void any guarantee on a new camera and may ruin an old one. This image is a stack of about 75 60-second subs.

North America and Pelican Nebulae

The Pelican Nebula and on the left is the 'Gulf of Mexico' region of the North America Nebula

The Heart and Soul Nebulae

This pair of emission nebulae lie in a rich part of the Milky Way, near the constellation of Cassiopeia. Through a telescope you are most likely to see just the two small star clusters at the centre of each nebula. As with the pelican nebula they are more visible when photographed using a camera that can detect near infra-red light.

The Heart and Soul  Nebulae

The Heart and Soul Nebulae

 

The constellations are really just random patterns of stars but, that said, some of the patterns are so distinctive they are recognised by different cultures around the world and through history.

Constellations and asterisms (a smaller patterns within constellations) do make it a lot easier to find your way around the night sky. Anyone with a digital camera with a 'night' or high ISO mode should be able to get reasonable pictures of constellations.

Bootes and nearby constellationsBootes, with Corona Borealis to the left and Hercules at top left. Near the bottom is Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the sky.

You can see the glow of light pollution affecting clouds at the bottom of this 'wide field' shot taken with a wide angle lens taken on a DSLR and 30-seconds exposure - no tracking. The U-shape above and left of centre is Corona Borealis and to its right is Bootes, with the bright star Arcturus at the bottom of the picture.

The constellation of Cygnus lies across part of the Milky Way

The constellation of Cygnus lies across part of the Milky Way

This picture of the big cross-shape of Cygnus the swan is slightly spoilt by clouds at the right, but it shows how dense the stars of the Milky Way are. Also visible are the 'great rift' and the North America nebula.

Our sun is one of a small number of stars in the 'local group', which includes Alpha Centauri, for example. Within our galaxy, especially away from the more densely packed centre, many stars are grouped into into much larger 'clusters' of two types: open and globular.

Globular Clusters

Globular clusters are a concentration of stars in a relatively small area of space. This is M13 in the constellation Hercules which contains a thousand or more stars. The huge distances create the illusion that the stars are closer than they really are, but even so, if the Sun was in such a cluster the night sky would be far fuller of bright stars.

The Hercules Cluster

The globular cluster M13

Open Clusters

By contrast, an 'open cluster' is a more widely separated collection of stars that are still held together by gravity. To be honest, it can be very hard to pinpoint such objects. A computerised 'GOTO' telescope makes it relatively easy, but the traditional (and more rewarding?) way is to 'star hop' from a known star or constellation.

The Pleiades, M45

The best known open cluster is the Pleiades or 'Seven Sisters' which is bright enough to image using a basic camera (as here). In the winter they will return together with the magnificent constellation Orion - something to look forward to getting in the scope as the autumn nights draw in.

This close up of part of the Pleiades taken with a telescope and a longer exposure reveals that it contains much nebulosity lit by the blue light of hot young stars.

The Pleiades and the Merope Nebula

The Plieades taken using a DSLR ona tracking mount and showing blue nebulosity

M103

A rather better photograph is this one of the open cluster M103 which lies in the constellation Cassiopeia. A couple of the brighter blue stars are not in the cluster, just lined up with it. The beautiful red giant in the centre shines like a ruby among diamonds.

Open Cluster M103

M103 is a beautiful open cluster in the constellation Cassiopeia

To the Romans, Jove or Jupiter was the head of their pantheon of gods. It certainly dominates the night sky, sometimes being bright enough to see while the sky is still blue.

Galileo's Moons

When Galileo Galilee pointed a telescope at the sky and discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, he helped prove Nikolai Copernicus' theory that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Here we see (left to right) Ganymede, Jupiter, Callisto and Io. Europa is out of shot - probably behind Jupiter.

Jupiter, ganymede, callisto and io

Jupiter with Ganymede and Io

This image, stacked from the best of three minutes worth of video taken with a Microsoft HD Lifecam Cinema shows what can be achieved with inexpensive kit. You can see how the moon Ganymede is significantly larger than Io. As well as the Great Red Spot there is a very large white storm on and several smaller white storms visible on the belts.

Ganymede, Io and Jupiter with the Great Red Spot

Jupiter and three of the Galilean Moons

Just to prove you don't need to spend a fortune to see or photograph Jupiter and its moons, this shot was taken using a £70 Bresser telescope from Lidl and a £25 webcam off Ebay. It isn't perfect, but gives you an idea what you can see or image with even a modest telescope. Some people have got pictures like this by holding a smart phone to the eyepiece of a telescope.

Jupiter and three moons

Jupiter and three moons through an inexpensive 70mm Bresser refractor

And who needs a telescope anyway? This picture shows Jupiter and the four Galilean moons before the sky has even gone fully dark - taken with a Nikon P520 bridge camera, admittedly one with a 42x zoom, but not bad, eh?

Jupiter and four moons in a blue sky

Jupiter and four moons in a blue sky

With patience and the help of online calculators which tell you where the moons of jupiter are, it's possible to get images like this, showing the moon Io and its shadow on Jupiter. When you see images like this, you start to get a feel for the planets as huge three-dimensional objects rather than just bright dots in the sky.

Jupiter and the moon Io, casting its shadow on the gas giant.

Jupiter and the moon Io, casting its shadow on the gas giant.