The Heart & Soul Nebulae – 20 Hours

Ever since I took my first images of the Heart Nebula last November, I wanted to return to this target. I did so in December of last year right after my hospitalization with COVID-19 and produced my longest / largest project up to that point. At the time, I thought 6 hours was a very large amount of data! Since then, I did 11.5 hours on the Rosette Nebula, 14 hours on the California Nebula and now 20 hours on the Heart & Soul Nebulae together.

Here we have the 20 hours of data processed “normally” – Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker and then processed in Photoshop how I normally do my narrowband filtered data. Previously, I had only beer able to shoot these targets separately:

Putting both of these in the same field of view without having to attempt a mosaic was a huge selling point for me with the Radian Raptor 61 telescope. Another good scope for this is the RedCat 51 – they both have similar focal lengths and both have the capability to produce wonderful images. Being able to get as much time on these targets over only a few nights under a dimly lit / new moon was a huge improvement over my previous attempts on these targets as well.

Here we have the same data processed in a simulated SHO Palette. This is done by stacking the images in Astro Pixel Processor and separating the Ha and Oiii channels out while simulating a Sii channel. Once the separation is done, I then use APP to combine those channels as well as do a background calibration and a light pollution removal to help neutralize the background. Once that is done, I then finalize the processing in Photoshop like I normally would.

I did two separate processes after my initial processing because I felt like I had over saturated the image, making it look more like a painting then a photograph. The only difference between these two processes is color balancing at the end.

Lastly, we have the data processed in the HOO palette, which is a little more “natural” for the filter I use – the Optolong L-eNhanced filter. Here we take the Ha and Oiii channels and combine them, using the Oiii channel twice. Processing is the same once that is done using both APP and Photoshop.

Equipment & Statistics

Radian Raptor 61
Canon EOS Ra
Optolong L-eNhanced Filter
Sky Watcher EQ6-R Pro
ZWO 30mm f4 MiniScope (guide)
ZWO asi224mc (guide)
.
184 x 360s (800 ISO)
20 x 300s (800 ISO)
Dark, flat, bias and dark flats calibration frames
Bortle 8 – Providence, RI

Site Update

Hello all – if you visit regularly you will notice somethings look different… as in, a lot of posts have been removed! Nothing to worry about, we are just going through a little rebranding season with a lot of cool stuff being added.

Please check back soon!

Astrophotography & Me – Getting Started – Part 3

So far I have gone over both my personal history with astrophotography as well as the equipment I currently us. As I have mentioned before, I am no where near an expert in the fields of Astronomy or astrophotography, I just have a love for both and have, what I believe, some practical advice in getting started. Note: This is not an “end all of end all” type of guide. This provides my personal philosophy on the best way to get started in astrophotography as well as a starting place to being experimenting what is best for you.

Series Posts:
Part 1 – A Personal Overview
Part 2 – My Equipment

In the Beginning…

What I recommend is to begin simple and basic. Have a digital camera, preferably a – DSLR – and a tripod. Next, have some sort of star chart – This one by Celestron is really good, or you can go with a simple one like this one from Orion, or simply download an app on your smart phone, plenty of free ones! I would also recommend getting a book, or even doing research online on basic astronomy. Knowing terms like Right Ascension and Declnation will make your journey a lot easier.

Take your camera out on a dark and clear night, use your star chart and find a constellation. Point your camera up to the sky in the direction of the constellation you want a picture of and… well, let’s setup the shot:

1: Manual Focus – on Infinity
2: ISO 200
3: Aperture: f4.0 (or so)
4: Exposure: 10 seconds
5: Timer: 10 seconds (unless you have remote)

… Press the button to take a picture. Most likely you will need to make a few adjustments. check your focus by zooming in, you may need to slightly adjust it around infinity. You may need to set the ISO anywhere from 200 – 1600 (any higher will create a lot of noise), you can mess with your aperture, especially depending on what type of lens you are using. Depending on your lens, you may be able to raise your exposure – wide angle lenses can go for longer with no type of tracking. The one thing we know will stay constant is your timer or lack thereof. One thing is for sure, your picture will appear dark, but never fear, if your focus and exposure are good, processing the image after you take it off the memory card will help with the appearance.

Now, you may be wondering, where is the telescope? Good question, and the answer is simple, at this point in the journey, for it is a journey, there isn’t one. First things are first, you need to learn your camera and how it operates at night and you need to learn the night sky, at least to some degree, or at the very least, how to use a star chart to find what you are looking for. You can also take this opportunity to learn how to process, and maybe even stack, images that you take with programs like PixInsight, DeepSkyStacker, etc. and then maybe using other software such as Adobe Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro by Corel. Note: The latter two programs are not designed specifically for astrophotography, while the first two, and several others, are. Some, like PixInsight are full fledged processing software, others like DeepSkyStacker are more for staking images to make one, higher quality picture. Starting out, Paint Shop Pro is adequate for post-processing, but as you progress, you are going to want to take your processing as far as you can.

*Sidebar: With long exposure astrophotography there are a lot of nuances and steps to help make the process easier as well as more fulfilling. As mentioned in the previous post, I recommend getting “Digital SLR Astrophotography” by Michael Covington. Dr. Covington is far more knowledgeable then myself and has decades of experience in astrophotography. Also, find a local astronomy club and join, they may be able to help as well, and probably a lot more hands on!

I feel like an astronomer…

You can find Orion’s Belt, Lyra and the Pleiades now without assistance from your star chart. You have impressed your friends with being able to name some of the craters on the moon and you are ready for the next step. In my opinion, you are ready for a telescope! You may already have one, but I am going to assume you do not.

There are three main types of telescopes: Reflectors, Refractors and Catadioptric, which is a combination, or compound of the first two. There are also essentially two types of mounts for telescopes: Equatorial and Altazimuth. All three types of telescopes and the two types of mounts have advantages and disadvantages. For example, telescopes mounted on an equatorial mount have the ability to track stars very fluidly right out of the box. The down side, which isn’t huge, is that they can be both complicated to initially set up and they need to be aligned to true North. Altazimuth mounts are really easy to set up and use, but tracking isn’t possible without making extra pieces separately to enable you to do so. Sky & Telescope has a good article covering all three types of scopes while High Point Scientific has a good article focusing solely on Catadioptric scopes.

What I recommend getting is a small scope with an equatorial mount that has some sort of GoTo tracking. You will want the scope/mount to be able to piggy-back your DSLR camera (for long exposure shots outside of the telescope). Obviously, your budget will come in to play here. Even a simple tracking telescope on an equatorial mount can cost $1,000.00-2,000.00. There are several cheaper options – an example is one by Celestron, the AstroMaster 130 EQ – which is not a bad scope for beginners on a budget (I personally own the 114mm version of this). It does have a motor for tracking, however it is not computerized which makes things a lot easier. Regardless, I do recommend getting a scope with a mount that can track. A) to learn how to align and track with a telescope is going to be key for really good images of deep sky objects, and even planets. B) having the ability to track from the get go is a huge advantage moving forward in your astrophotography journey. If you do not care about tracking (for the moment, because you will!) you can go the far less advantageous route that I did and purchase a Dobsonian mounted reflector, such as the Orion 6″ Classic. Though you will not be able to track, its ease of use and its ability to facilitate lunar, solar (with the proper filter) and even some planetary photography is very nice for a beginner. Its large aperture and decent focal length will continue to serve you even after you upgrade to a scope that tracks.

*Sidebar: Personally, I am still working on the tracking thing! I do know how to setup, align and use a telescope on an equatorial mount but for budget reasons I have yet to buy one that does what I want, how i want for what I can afford. So, if you do decide to go the Dobsonian route, do not despair!

So, now you have a telescope… lets start taking… Learn how to use your scope! Your scope should have a finder scope, a focuser, and include a couple of eyepieces. Learn how to find object with the finders scope, focus with your eyepieces and follow along in the night sky. While doing this, research a couple of things that you will need for photography with your scope. If you ended up buying a scope with a motorized/computerized equatorial mount, make sure to pop your camera on the piggy-back moutn and try some longer exposures then you were able to do while on your nortmal tripod. This is also the time to take several 10-30 second exposures while tracking back to back (to back to back.. as in like 50) and try your hand at image stacking. While you are learning how to explore the night sky with your telescope, as well as it’s functions and capabilities, look for and order the following:

1. Adapter ring for your DSLR – attaches where your lens does

This will enable your camera to fit to many types of adapters:

2. Telescope / Eyepiece Adapters

  • Prime Focus Adapter (this also includes an extension tube for eyepiece projection)
    Note: Your telescope and camera combination may not be able to focus at prime focus because the focuser will not seat far enough in based on the focal length of the tube. There is some math here, but worse case you include in your purchase a 2x Barlow which you can then screw in the lens on the barlow to lengthen your focus
  • Eyepiece Projection (one above is a very simple version)
  • “Digi-T” Rings
    These attach to your eyepiece allowing them to be screwed into the adapter ring for your camera, or if you get the lens filter adapter (which is the next one), directly to your lens for afocal photography
  • Lens Filter Adapter – aka “Digi-Kits”
    These enable you to attach an eyepiece directly to your lens or point and shoot camera at the filter ring

3. Eyepieces (for telescope)

  • Plossl eyepieces that will fit in your telescope:
    • 40mm
    • 32mm* (second if choosing two)
    • 25mm* (first if choosing one)
    • 15mm
    • 10mm
  • These will enable you to get a wide range of views and magnification to play around with both while observing and while doing photography
    • Note: Depending on what type of scope you have as well as the adapters you end up getting, some eyepieces simply will not work due to focal length or because the field of view is too small to do something like afocal photography.

Now you have placed your order, you are learning your scope, so when the shipments come in you will at least have a decent understanding of how your telescope works as well as your camera works for long exposure.

The Full Package…

You have a camera, a telescope and the adapters needed to couple your camera to said telescope, now what? First, you can do the math to determine if your scope can do Prime Focus. I can save you the trouble if you ended up buying the 6″ Classic Dobsonian from Orion, it wont. Bummer right? Not so fast! Attach your prime focus adapter to your camera, then unscrew your lens off your barlow lens, and in turn (a pun!) screw the barlow lens into the bottom of your prime focus adapter. Boom, you can do “prime” focus, or at least a modified version of it. Now set your sights on the moon and… you know what comes next!

1. Focus – Manual, must do it by hand at the telescopes focuser
2: ISO 200 – 400
3: Aperture: Telescopes f/stop – if 6″ Classic Dob, f8.0 (irrelevant to the process)
4: Exposure: 1/500 (to start)
5: Timer: 10 seconds (unless you have remote)

Now press that button, wait ten seconds and now you have a picture of the moon. Congratulations, you have now taken a picture through your telescope! Zoom in to see how your focus was. Not “perfect” (it never will be)? Use small adjustments (Note: many newer DSLR cameras have a live view, use it and zoom in to 10x and check that way. Will be clunky at first but it can help a ton). How dark is your photo? You can adjust both your ISO and exposure. Most of my moon pictures from quarter to full moon are at either 100 or 200 ISO and 1/125 exposure. Remember, you can play with the photo when your process it to change your contrast, histogram, etc.

You can do this same process by afocal photography, the main difference is instead of the prime focus adapter (an barlow if needed) you will connect your eyepiece to your camera lens. Remember you will need to take your eyepiece, remove the rubber eye guard and attach your little t-ting to the eyepiece. Once done, screw it into the camera filter ring adapter and put it in the scope. Now follow the same procedure as above, adjusting settings as needed. Couple of notes: Set your lens to Infinity focus just like you would with long exposure. It is possible to connect the eyepiece without the lens, just like you would with the prime focus adapter (results may very). Just like with prime focus, you will focus at the eyepiece, not the camera lens.

Depending on the type of lens you are using, a 25mm or 32mm eyepiece will give you a full view of the moon or sun (with proper filter!) that almost fills the viewfinder. I do not recommend using a wide angle lens because you will most likely get a lot of vignetting. Also, if you have the right filter ring adapter for your point and shoot camera, you can do afocal astrophotography the same was as with a DSLR!

The one thing you may get, especially with doing afocal astrophotography with a DSLR, is vibration. Your camera may have ways of mitigating it – experiment and see how it goes. If it ends up being too much, you can remove the camera from the eyepiece, place it on a tripod and set the camera as close to the eyepiece as possible. You can also try the handheld method, but just don’t shake!

What’s Next?

Depending on what type of telescope you have and what kind of mount, the sky is literally the limit. Can you track? Point towards a nebula and take a lot of short 2-5 second exposures and stack. Can’t track? Keep on going with the moon, switching out eyepieces or use eyepiece projection to try and zoom in. Buy a solar filter for your telescope and get some shots of the sun (and maybe some sunspots!). Note: Never look at the sun through anything that is not properly filtered (includes your own eyes!). Keep messing around with your settings, find out how your camera interacts with your telescope and the night sky, and send me a link to your Instagram, or wherever you decide to post your pics!

This little guide is not all encompassing. It is based on my own experience, which limited, has given me a lot of pleasure in taking pictures of the night sky. There is always room to improve and progress, and remember, there is no perfect astronomy pictures, but what is important is that they are perfect to those who take them.

The TL;dr

1. Learn your camera / tripod
2. Learn the night sky and how to navigate it
3. Buy a telescope that fits you
4. Learn your telescope
5. Get the adapters you need for photography
6. Attach your camera and experiment with your settings
7. Keep taking pictures and keep growing

Astrophotography & Me – Equipment – Part 2

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, I started out with a 6″ Dobsonian from Orion Telescopes, a Canon A75 point and shoot camera, and a Canon EOS 350D DSLR camera. I eventually “splurged” and got a Scoptronix eyepiece projector.

 

I would end up losing everything but my eyepiece case and my solar filter when I had my fire in 2009. So, flash forward to 2020 and here is my current equipment:

Telescopes –
Celestron AstroMaster 114

20200514_153544
Orion 6″ Dobsonian & Celestron AstroMaster 114

– An extreme beginner scope with an equatorial mount. If I am honest, I don’t really use this but I may begin to use it simply for medium exposure piggy-back photography

Orion 6″ Dobsonian (Intelliscope)
– A good beginner Dobsonian mounted Newtonian telescope. I have used this, or a very similar model for years for lunar and some planetary photography. The one linked is the classic version, which is what I started with 12-13 years ago. I currently have the Intelliscope version which isn’t currently available. I only used the “tracking” once or twice, and it worked as intended, but I typically just find what I want manually.

Skyling 10″ Dobsonian
– Let’s in around 175% more light then the 6″. This size is probably the largest most people would want to go, both for weight and price. Again, it is a Dobsonian, so no tracking (unless you build or buy a EQ platform) but the views are really good.

Cameras –
Nikon d610 – DSLR

nikond610
With this camera I can effectively do afocal photography through my telescope (with the proper adapters and lens) as well as long exposure.

Nikon p950 – Point & Shoot

nikonp950
Afocal is hard with this camera simply because the view angle is always wide. However, with it’s 2000mm zoom and its aperture (at 2000mm) of around f6.1 to f8.0 this camera, on a tripod, is like a telescope in it’s self. Great for shots of the moon and planets, you can also do some long exposure shots but you are limited by your zoom rates, etc. The camera will save in RAW format, which is helpful for processing.

Smartphones: Samsung Galaxy S9 & Google Pixel 4

Amazingly, you can get some really, REALLY good shots by simply taking your cellphone and putting the camera up to your eyepiece and taking a picture. Really effective for lunar and solar (with a filter) photography through an eyepiece.

Accessories –

First and foremost with astronomy and astrophotography, accessories can be the key to success. Everything from your eyepieces to adapters to tripods, a little bit can go a long way.

For my adapters, I almost exclusively buy from TelescopeAdapters.com. The have everything you will need for eyepiece projection and afocal photography. Some items can be a little more expensive then you think, so feel free to search the internet for a better deal. These guys have given me wonderful customer service and have been able to help me and answer all of my questions along the way.

For eyepieces, I suggest starting with “economy” type – standard plossl style eyepieces which will run you from $25.00 – $60.00 a piece. For afocal in my setup currently (mainly using the 6″ Dob) I use my 25mm and 32mm plossl eyepieces from Orion Telescopes. For eyepiece projection, I am currently using a very basic projection tube adapter, but I am planning to upgrade to, and recommend the VariMax. You may run into a situation where you cannot find an adapter to couple your camera to your eyepiece, or you simply may suffer from too much vibration depending on your setup or camera. To mitigate this, simply put your camera on a tripod then line the lens up to the eyepiece. A little tedious, but you will like the results once you can get it right! Once you get going, and get a feel for what your telescope and camera can do, upgrading your eyepieces is probably one of the biggest things you can do. Some good initial upgrades for eyepieces would be something like the Orion 14.5mm Edge-On Planetary or  the Orion EF Widefield eyepieces. Again, keep in mind if you go from a “standard” style plossl eyepiece and upgrade to something that has a wide field of view, or a different size or design, you will need to change what adapters you use if you are coupling your camera and eyepieces for afocal photography. If you are using your camera on a tripod, or your cellphone by hand, it should not matter. With eyepiece projection, make sure the system you are using is large enough to accept the eyepiece you plan on purchasing to use.

projection
Nikon DSLR Adapter -> Eyepiece Projection -> Prime Focus Adapter

I could talk about software here, but I’m not. Mainly because there are a lot of options for astrophotography on the market, some free, some cheap and some expensive, plus the run of the mill graphics programs like Adobe or Corel. Depending on what you are wanting to do and how you want to do it, you may can go with something like Adobe Photoshop versus getting a program that is made specifically for astrophotography. However, if your goal is to take long exposures, stack, etc, then I would suggest getting a program specifically made for that purpose. You may still use a program like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro for final touch-ups, so keep that in mind. Which brings me to books which will help way more then I ever could: Digital SLR Astrophotography (Practical Amateur Astronomy) by Michael Covington is a very good resource on Astrophotography with a DSLR. It covers everything from setup, to picture taking to post-processing – covers software as well. The Astrophotography Manual by Chris Woodhouse is next on my own personal list to buy.

Here is a link to my current equipment and wish list – this list will be continually updated.

 

 

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