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ASI071

CCD Camera Target: The Leo Triplet

|Galaxies|2 Comments

My testing of the ASI071MC-Cool Astrophotography Camera continues.  This time, on the Leo Triplet of Galaxies. This CCD-style camera (One-shot color CMOS sensor) has taken the place of my Canon T3i DSLR for now.  After some early struggles, I have enjoyed learning the new photography techniques involved with CCD imaging.

By now, many of you have transitioned from deep sky targets that were available during the Winter months into the springtime galaxies (myself included).  Even though each night kicks off with Orion, the constellation quickly fades into the glow of the city as the night progresses.

I have been pointing my telescope towards Leo the lion for a few years now, usually starting in the month of April.  The Leo Triplet occupies the “sweet spot” in the night sky where I have an opportunity to capture a respectable amount of data throughout the night, with a meridian flip intermission in between.

View my latest image of the Leo Triplet (April 3, 2017)




 

Target Acquired: The Leo Triplet

M66 Galaxy

If you read my post on 8 deep sky targets for galaxy season, you’ll already know that the Leo Triplet is one of my favorite subjects to photograph at this time of year.  Most galaxies are quite small when photographed through my 102mm refractor, but this trio of galaxies fits nicely within the frame.

The constellation Leo is present for the majority of the night during the months of March through May, which is where you’ll find the Leo Triplet. The diversity in galaxy types makes the Leo Triplet a satisfying astrophotography target for night sky photographers, both amateur and professional.

If you want to try it for yourself, set your goto mount to M65.  You’ll discover M66 and NGC 3628 nearby even in short exposures.

You can view my most recent image of the Leo Triplet further down the post. It is a good example of what to expect using a small refractor.

To me, the Leo constellation is most easily recognized by the sickle or “reverse question mark”, as I like to call it.  The sickle starts with the bright star Regulus and works up through the lion’s mane including another bright star, Algeiba.   I will often use Regulus as a target for my star alignment process, as its magnitude and location are familiar to me.

Leo Constellation Map

Camera: ASI071MC-Cool (Color)

I’ll continue my deep sky astrophotography work using the ASI071MC-Cool (one shot color) CCD camera for the next 2 weeks.  If you missed any of my latest experiences using this cooled astronomy camera, have a look at the video below.  I begin to understand some of the basics of CCD astrophotography and end up with a much better version of the M81 and M82 galaxies.

A night of deep-sky imaging in the backyard

Like anything else, my enjoyment of the process becomes greater as I achieve better results.  I feel like I have a system that works now, so it is exciting to keep using the new camera.  I will likely capture one more deep-sky target with the ASI071 before returning it to OTA.

I photographed the Leo Triplet the night I shot the video below.  It was the second target after spending time on Bodes’ Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy.

 

New AstroBackyard videos are posted on Facebook too

Dew heater strap

I hope experienced Sequence Generator Pro users will excuse my lack of knowledge.  I was delighted to be able to capture successful light, dark and flat frames using the ASI071 with SGP.  The flats were a little different than I was used to, but I eventually had success using the methods outlined on the AstroBackyard Facebook Page.

The team over at ZWO graciously included my video on the product page for the ASI071MC-Cool.  I can only hope that sharing my experiences using the camera early on will be useful to future owners of the ASI071.  It may give another perspective to the realities of switching to a CCD camera by current DSLR owners.

I can see how SGP would do an amazing job automating almost the entire imaging session. I haven’t even scratched the surface of this software yet. The plate-solving, autofocus, and target sequencing features have opened my eyes to a new world of automation possibilities. These will come in handy when I eventually build a backyard observatory.

I also want to test out (APT) Astro Photography Tool before I have to send the camera back.  On the surface, it looks to be a slightly more user-friendly option than SGP.

Switching from DSLR to CCD?

I have been asked this question a number of times, and the answer is not yet.  For starters, the Canon 600D continues to be my only primary imaging camera.  I have been given an amazing opportunity to test products (Including the ASI071MC-Cool) thanks to my partnership with Ontario Telescope and Accessories.  I will be sending the CCD camera back in about 2 weeks from now.

CCD camera attached to telescopeThe costs involved in upgrading to a dedicated CCD camera are not in my budget for this year.  The equipment I currently use should paint a picture of the amount of money I am able to invest in astrophotography at the moment.

I have been very impressed with the results I have been getting with the CCD camera thus far.  The final stacked images are probably the highest quality data I have ever brought into Photoshop. The 4 and 5-minute exposures captured using the ASI071 have been incredibly smooth, with very little noise.  The color balance is little different than I was accustomed to with the 600D, but there are ways to correct this in post-processing.

Goodbye Thermal Noise

My regular processing workflow with the DSLR included a lot of time spent correcting noise and gradients.  With the frames being captured at -30 degrees and below, removing noise is an afterthought.  I still run one noise reduction filter near the end of the workflow, but that’s it.




It’s too bad that I am reviewing the ASI071 in the early Spring when the temperature regularly drops to zero at night.  Those hot imaging sessions in July could really benefit from a cooled sensor!

My latest image: The Leo Triplet

The Leo Triplet

Click the image for a larger version

The image above was captured on March 17th from my backyard.  I did not use any filters with the ASI071 including the recommended IR-UV CUT filter for better color balance and to prevent star-bloat.  The camera was cooled to -30 degrees Celcius before taking each frame.

Astrophotography Details:

Equipment:

Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ5
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color)
Guide Scope: Altair Astro Starwave 50mm
Guide Camera: Altair Astro GPCAM2

 

Photo Acquisition Details:

Total Integrated Exposure Time: 3 Hours, 30 Minutes
March 23: 21 x 300 Seconds
April 1: 20 x 300 Seconds

Camera at Unity Gain
Support Files: 15 Darks, 15 Flats for Each Night

Processing: DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop

Astrophotography telescope

No filters, from a red-zone, light polluted sky!  I was shocked at the quality of the frames I was taking in the city with this camera.  I think that astrophotographers shooting in heavily light-polluted areas could benefit a great deal using a cooled CCD.

The photo above was under 2 hours worth of total integrated exposure time.  The potential for the ASI071 is remarkable.

If you would like to stay up to date with my latest images and equipment updates, please follow AstroBackyard on Facebook or Twitter.  You can also subscribe to the AstroBackyard newsletter here: AstroBackyard Newsletter

Until next time, clear skies!

Related Posts:

A photogenic group of galaxies – The Leo Triplet

Altair Astro GPCAM2 and Starwave 50mm for Autoguiding

Deep Sky Processing in Photoshop

Resources:

An incredible photo by one of my biggest inspirations, Scott Rosen: The Leo Triplet

Leo? Here’s your constellation – EarthSky

APOD – August 2011 – The Leo Triplet

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CCD vs. DSLR – A New Learning Curve

|Camera|3 Comments

Like many of you, I love shooting astrophotography with my DSLR.  I control my Canon Rebel T3i with BackyardEOS to capture deep-sky objects through my telescope.  Then, the real fun begins by processing the images in DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop.

This method has worked for me for years, and there is lots of room to expand my astrophotography skills using this setup.  I favor this system because it is beginner friendly, and it’s where I can help others get started.

ZWO ASI071MC-COOL CMOS Camera

However, I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to try out the new ASI071MC-Cool for the first time.  Let’s talk CCD vs. DSLR Astrophotography, more below:

Spring Equinox

The warmer, longer days have returned as we are now officially in Spring!  The Spring Equinox occurred on March 20th here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means earlier sunrises and later sunsets.  I must admit, I am looking forward to the milder nights sitting at the telescope without the numb fingers.

The Big Dipper in Spring

The Big Dipper in Ursa Major – Early Spring 2016

Despite fewer hours of overall darkness at night, the Spring imaging window works much better with my schedule.  I can now get home from work at a reasonable hour (6:00 – 6:30pm), have dinner, walk Rudy, and be right on time for dusk to start setting up my equipment.

Visual Observing While Imaging

Historically, this time of year generally provides less cloud-cover than in the winter.  “April showers bring May flowers”. Regardless of how the old saying goes, I always seem to get lots of imaging time during the month of April.

binoculars for stargazing

Even better, I can actually enjoy my time outside rather than setting everything up and running inside to monitor Team Viewer.  The nights that drop below -10 degrees celsius are over.  I like to set up a zero-gravity chair and scan the sky with my 15 x 70 Celestron SkyMaster Binoculars.

With the camera collecting data through the telescope in the background, I just turn on some classic rock and get lost in the constellations.  Truly magical.

AstroBackyard is about the enjoyment of astrophotography as a hobby.  It’s about the desire to keep improve your images, and loving every step along the way.

New CCD Astrophotography Camera

The ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color) actually uses a color CMOS sensor (The same one used in the Nikon D7000) and was generously loaned to me from my friends over at Ontario Telescope & Accessories.

ASI071 Camera

Talk about information overload!  I have always shot astrophotography with a DSLR camera, and CCD imaging is completely new to me.

Since receiving the ASI071 last week, I have learned a wealth of knowledge on the subject thanks to fans of the AstroBackyard Facebook page, and helpful astrophotographers on Cloudy Nights.

One of the early setbacks was not knowing which Bayer pattern to use when stacking the .FIT files in DeepSkyStacker.  I’ll save you the trouble and tell you that it is Generic RGGB!

I was also advised to use (among other things) a UV filter when imaging with this camera which, unfortunately, I do not have.

Furthermore, using flat calibration frames is extremely important to properly calibrate the images in post-processing.  They are important for DSLR astrophotography too, but I found the new process of taking flats using Sequence Generator Pro to be a challenge my first time through.

ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color)

Sensor: Sony IMX071
Type: APS-C sized CMOS
Resolution: 16.2 MP (4928 x 3264 pixels)
Cooling: Regulated Two-Stage Tec (-40)

 

ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color)

Being the first CCD style camera I’ve ever used, my review is of CCD cameras in general, as opposed to this specific model.  I have no past CCD camera experiences to compare it to.

Currently, there are only a handful of early reviews of the ASI071-MC-Cool online, from more experienced CCD imagers than I.  A simple search of the camera model on Astrobin can give you some great examples of the capabilities of the ASI071.

What I can tell you from my personal experiences with the camera is that the ASI071 is impressive in terms of design and build quality.

The included accessories, documentation, and software from ZWO were very helpful for someone wanted to get started right away.  I’ll show you my early astrophotography results below.

Early Thoughts from a CCD Newb

So many questions, so many new terms, I felt like I was starting over.  With a CCD camera, you can forget about live-view focusing using the camera screen.  How about reviewing the image you just shot?  The camera doesn’t even have a screen!  Not to mention the new software required to run the camera, and process the new file format: .FIT

This is just the beginning.  A CCD camera is a specialized breed, capable of documenting scientific-grade data.  The advanced features like cooling to -40 degrees and full control of the gain and offset are why professional astrophotographers shoot narrowband CCD.

Some new software I’ve installed:




So far, Sequence Generator Pro has been rather enjoyable to use.  I was able to enter in my current equipment configuration and save it as an Equipment Profile, that I can select for each imaging session.  It was easy to integrate with PHD 2 Guiding, and provides a live graph with dithering options.

Testing the different sensitivity settings on the ASI071MC-Cool camera was a learning experience, one that took multiple imaging sessions to understand.  Thankfully the straight-forward controls of SGP allowed me to make changes and review my results quite painlessly.  The built in image preview and histogram made the process feel familiar.

I will note, however, that the live-view camera mode (for focus and framing purposes) seemed a little sluggish.  The 1-2 second delay in the video feed made making minor adjustments to focus a little aggravating.  I preferred to use SharpCap for this step, as it was much more responsive.

I’ll leave my early experiences using PixInsight for another post.  I am using 45-day trial versions of both SGP and PixInsight.  This option worked well for me, as I will only have the ASI for about the same period of time!

Early Imaging Results with the ASI071

I have to first say that there are a number of reasons why this image below is not a fair example of this cameras’ potential.  The photo below could have been improved by:

  • Integrating More Exposure Time
  • Using the Cooling Function of the Camera
  • Using Flats
  • Using a UV or LP filter
  • Shooting during New Moon

I don’t like to leave my reports without at least one photo.  So have a look at M81 and M82 with about 1.5 total hours total integrated exposure time from the backyard.  This was my test subject for this new process, and needs lots of work!  I’ll continue to capture more time on this target until I return the camera to OTA.

ASI071 example image

M81 and M82 using the ASI071MC-Cool Camera

The image was cropped over 50% to bypass the horrible gradient that dominated all sides of the image frame.  Again, this photo is for educational purposes only!  My goal is to produce an image using at least 4 hours worth of good data, using quality flat frames.

 

UPDATE: March 24, 2017

Click here for the latest version of M81 M82 (2+ Hours Exposure)

CCD vs. DSLR

Time will tell whether I ever fully transition to CCD imaging, or continue to push my deep-sky DSLR imaging to the limits.

I am very protective of my passion for astrophotography, and carefully monitor the emotions that are associated with my endeavors.  To sway too far away from the type of experience I enjoy most would be a miss-step at this stage.

I say this not to be overdramatic, but to share this insight from someone who lives and breathes DSLR astrophotography.  With that being said, many of the frustrations that come with learning new hardware ease over time, and become enjoyable.  I’ve already enjoyed some small victories with the ASI071MC camera and am having a lot of fun.

AstroBackyard YouTube Video:

I feel for beginner DSLR astrophotographers learning the ropes.  Starting with a completely new camera, software and imaging process has humbled me.  Perhaps I forgot what it felt like to be a beginner.  Pushing through the learning curve and enjoying the small victories along the way is what got me here.  It’s time to take my own advice!

A If nothing else, this experience will give me a whole new appreciation for my DSLR.  Until next time, clear skies!

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