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DSLR Photography Tips: Shooting the Milky Way on a Tripod

|Milky Way|0 Comments

It’s time for another Photoshop tutorial, along with some night sky DSLR photography tips.  This time, the subject is our glorious Milky Way galaxy.  There is nothing more humbling than spending a night under the band of stars seen from within our barred spiral galaxy.

The true beauty of our universe is displayed in the arching collection of stars known as the Milky Way.

In the image processing video below, I’ll show you how to use Adobe Camera Raw to get the most out of your DSLR image. I’ll also cover some online photography schools available for those who wish to learn more.

DSLR photography tips

The Milky Way from Cherry Springs State Park (2014)

Milky Way Photography with a DSLR

I’ve recently put together a resource for anyone interested in photography the Milky Way with their DSLR this Spring.  This includes everything from the best times to set up – to the recommended camera settings.  The Milky Way photography page found under Tutorials includes more information than on this post.

Night photography has become quite popular among all types of photographers, thanks to some inspiring photos of the milky way taken over the past few years.  Now, there are some incredible online photography courses dedicated to creating nightscapes. More on this below.

How to Photograph the Milky Way with a DSLR

Milky Way Processing in Photoshop

The photo above shows the difference a few simple edits in Adobe Camera Raw can make to your astrophotography image.  Click the link above for the full tutorial, or watch the video below.

No Star Tracker Needed

Photographing the Milky Way without a star tracker is an attractive idea to beginner astrophotography enthusiasts. Due to the limited equipment needed, it is often one of the first types of astrophotography attempted.

Modern DSLR Camera’s are well suited for Milky Way photography.  Here are a few tips for taking your first photo of the Milky Way:

DSLR astrophotography

The Milky Way as seen from Cherry Springs State Park

4 Things to remember when photographing the Milky Way

  1. Choose an ISO setting based on your shooting environment. The ISO will need to be much higher than you would normally use during a daytime photo. For moderate light pollution use 1600 to 3200. Pay attention to the histogram, and expose to the right. It’s a balancing act between noise and the amount of light collected. However, with enough image frames, even a noisy image can be smoothed out after stacking.
  2. Use your camera’s widest aperture, or close to it. Generally, you’ll want to let in as much light as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Fast camera lenses of f2.8 or below may need to stop down a bit for better star quality.
  3. Set your camera’s drive mode to a 2, or 10-second delay. Better yet, use a remote shutter release cable. Even the slightest movement created by pressing the shutter button can be enough to shake the stars up in your image. Also, make sure your tripod head is locked securely. A sliding tripod head in any direction will show itself immediately in the form of elongated stars.
  4. Shoot 30-second exposures.  This will maximize the light collected in each individual frame.  Yes, the stars may begin to trail (depending on your focal length), but this will only be evident when zoomed into 100%.

And remember, for the best results, you can’t beat a location well away from city light pollution.

Canon DSLR Camera for Astrophotography

The Canon EOS 7D

The image above was captured using a Canon EOS 7D and an 18-200mm Zoom Lens.

Long exposure Milky Way photography is not this camera’s specialty. The Canon 7D (Mark 1) is an excellent camera for nature/bird photography, but the amount of noise present at ISO 3200 and above leave much to be desired.

If you are new to photography, and in the market for a DSLR camera, a Canon EOS Rebel T6i would be a better choice. The Canon 7D has been replaced with the 7D Mark II, an excellent camera but an expensive choice for a beginner.

The example photo used in the tutorial was taken under the dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park. This is home to the Cherry Springs Star Party, which I will be attending this year!

Cherry Springs Star Party

Setting up my astrophotography gear at Cherry Springs in 2014

With some simple preparation and a bit of luck (weather wise), an incredible photo of the Milky Way is possible using a basic DSLR on a tripod.  This type of photography uses a stationary tripod, with no star tracking or autoguiding is needed.

An astrophoto of the Milky Way reveals our galaxy as a bright swath of light and color across the sky.  For all of the images of the Milky Way in this post, ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 were used.  This can create a lot of noise, which is why stacking exposures in Photoshop can help.

DSLR photography - The Milky Way

Looking towards Cygnus in the Milky Way

The brighter nebulae and star clusters near the core will stand out. The colorful red emission nebulas in Sagittarius are the easiest to identify, with M8 being the most noticeable.

Collecting a series of exposures is encouraged, as this will lead to a finished product with a much-improved signal to noise ratio.

Adobe Camera Raw

When you shoot RAW images using your DSLR, you open the door to powerful image processing capabilities.  Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) is one of my favorite tools for processing astro images.

Powerful Processing Steps in ACR:

  • Adjusting white balance
  • Reducing Noise and Chromatic Aberration
  • Setting a Lens Profile Correction

In the video tutorial below, just 3 sub-exposures are manually stacked in Photoshop for an image with less noise.

In this situation, stacking the frames manually in Photoshop can do a better job the Deep Sky Stacker. This is because the foreground objects in the image will throw the registration process off in DSS.  However, an image of the Milky Way with no foreground landscape will stack just fine in Deep Sky Stacker.

Limited exposures of 30 seconds on a tripod are all you need to produce an image like the one below.

30 Second Exposure of the Milky Way

6 exposures of 30-seconds each were used for this photo

By utilizing the powerful features of Adobe Camera Raw, you can make “game-changing” adjustments such as the all important – perfect white balance.

Online Photography Schools





The overwhelming popularity of night photography has led to the availability of many online courses on the subject.  These photography schools offer instructional material on everything from starry nightscapes to light painting techniques.

online photography school

Nightscapes: Landscape Astrophotography by Ian Norman

Skillshare Online Course: Landscape Astrophotography by Ian Norman

Everything I have learned about photography up to this point has been self-taught. However, the idea of completing a structured online course is an appealing option in the future.

The training programs usually list the required skill level before enrolling, although most courses cater to all levels.  No matter what stage of this hobby you are at, building a portfolio of images and learning new skills is always a good idea.

Canadian Astrophotography School (CAPS)

There are some new courses available on astrophotography, that deal with some of the image processing techniques used by the pros.  Canadian Astrophotography School features industry legends such as Ron Brecher as instructors.

Astro Photography School

Canadian Astrophotography School – Instructor Ron Brecher

These instructional courses focus on everything from astrophotography basics to advanced processing in PixInsight. I hope to attend CAPS in the near future.  You can visit CAPS on Facebook page for more information.

I hope that you find these DSLR photography tips useful when planning a Milky Way shot. If you’re looking for some more in-depth lessons on nightscapes and Milky Way photography, I’ve given you some of the options available to you.

Personally, I plan on developing my skills further both in terms of the acquisition process and image processing.

To stay up to date with my latest astrophotography tips and tutorials, please follow AstroBackyard on Facebook.

Related Posts:

How to Photograph the Milky Way – Tutorial

Astrophotography Cameras

Astrophotography Resources – Recommended Software

Resources:

Online Photography Course: Star Trails and Night Photography

How to Capture the Milky Way Using your DSLR (Video)

How to Photograph the Milky Way using a DSLR camera – WikiHow



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The ultimate astrophotography target for your DSLR and telescope

|Nebulae|5 Comments

It’s very exciting to know that the night sky is full of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters to observe and photograph.  The great Andromeda Galaxy, the glimmering Pleiades, and the vibrant red California Nebula are all jaw-dropping astrophotography subjects.

Astrophotography with a DSLR and telescopeBut what is the best way to capture these amazing deep-sky objects?

The followers of this blog know that I am all about astrophotography with a DSLR and telescope.  This is a popular deep-sky imaging setup and is capable of some incredible results using affordable equipment that can often be purchased used.

A DSLR camera is a perfect option for beginners as they are much more user-friendly than a dedicated CCD astronomy camera.  In the post below, I’ll give you the ultimate astrophotography target for your DSLR and telescope.

I use a Canon 600D DSLR and an Explore Scientific ED102 CF telescope.  View my complete setup.

An amazing year of Astrophotography

As we approach the end of 2016, I would like to thank everyone who has connected with AstroBackyard this year. Whether it was a YouTube comment, retweet, or Facebook like, I really appreciate the support.  I’ve connected with beginners, seasoned veterans, and everyone in between this year. I hope you were able to get outside and partake in some astrophotography with your DSLR and telescope this year.

AstroBackyard - DSLR Astrophotography


As you learn more about astrophotography, it’s almost certain that you will want to revisit previous imaging projects.  The lessons learned during each and every night out with your DSLR and telescope make you a more efficient and organized astrophotographer. As a beginner, my goal was to photograph as many galaxies and nebulae as possible.  Equipped with more tools and knowledge, I am now taking a second look at some of best deep-sky objects the Universe has to offer.

Orion constellation

The Orion constellation from my backyard

As for my latest astrophotography project, I’ve moved on from my Horsehead nebula photo for the year.  Not that it couldn’t benefit from more time and processing, it’s just that I shared the photo so much that I thought it would be best to shelve the project for now and complete it next winter.  This project helped me hone my skills of combining narrowband data with color images, as seen in my latest video tutorial.

I have now started pointing my telescope towards the alluring diffuse nebula known as Messier 42.  The glowing Orion Nebula is in prime position for imaging over the next month or two.  I have photographed M42 many times over the years, but since then I have made many advancements I made in terms of both equipment and technique.

With my telescope’s relatively wide focal length (714mm), I can include the Running man nebula (NGC 1973, NGC 1975 and NGC 1977) in the same frame. I added a modest amount of data using my old DSLR and telescope (Canon Xsi and ED80) to an earlier version of Orion last year, but not nearly enough to do it justice.

Why I’m photographing the Orion Nebula all over again

My previous version of the Orion nebula was shot with an 80mm telescope (Explore Scientific ED80) and a Canon Rebel Xsi (stock).  The image I produced consisted of RGB data only (No H-Alpha), and was lacking the rich color that astro-modified DSLR cameras can produce.

Orion nebula using a DSLR through and telescope

My 2015 version of the Orion Nebula

Ways to improve my Orion Nebula image:

  • The Canon T3i has a higher resolution than the Xsi
  • The Canon T3i camera is modified (IR cut filter removed)
  • I can add narrowband h-alpha data and combine it with RGB
  • The ED102 telescope has an increased focal length and light gathering ability

A new astrophotography project begins




On Thursday, December 22nd, I began my latest astrophotography project with my DSLR and telescope.  I have a new favorite spot in the backyard that offers the widest possible window to the sky when aiming at M42.  Stellarium was helpful in planning this position for this particular time of year.

From my location, clear nights are few and far between in the winter months.  Obtaining enough data (5 hours+) to process the image to its full potential will be a challenge.  The final image will likely have much more Ha data than RGB.  The nights leading up to, and during the full moon are more commonly clear.

AstroBackyard on Facebook

M42 – A rewarding astrophotography target for beginners

New to using a DSLR and telescope? Try Orion!

Beginners are drawn towards the Orion nebula as an astrophotography target, and for good reason.  The bright color and intense details of this object can be captured even in very short exposures.  When shooting with a DSLR and telescope for the first time, focus and proper tracking are some of the biggest hurdles to overcome.  Fortunately, M42 is very forgiving in terms of both focus and tracking.

Focus

The bright stars that populate the area in and around the Orion nebula are perfect for adjusting focus and framing.  Many deep-sky objects are very dim, with no bright stars within the same field of view.  This can make focusing and framing the target a nightmare.  I like to use the stars in the Trapezium to achieve the best possible focus while using my Cameras live-view mode, or on BackyardEOS.

Framing

The stars in the Sword of Orion are a great help when it comes to aligning your image.  Even better than that is the fact that the overall size and shape of the nebula is revealed in short exposures (5 seconds).  This makes capturing test frames and making adjustments much easier.  This is not the case when shooting a faint reflection nebula such as the Witch Head nebula!

Tracking/Guiding

Beginners usually need time to fully utilize their telescope mount’s tracking and autoguiding abilities.  The longer the exposures, the more evident poor tracking becomes.  Luckily for beginners, an impressive photograph of M42 is possible using multiple exposures of 1 minute or less!  This target is just begging you to capture it!

Multiple exposures for more detail

The bright core of the Orion Nebula requires very short exposures to properly document the area.  To capture the Trapezium without over-exposing the image, I shot several 5-second subs at ISO 800.  I also set BackyardEOS to shoot a series of 30-second subs to capture the mid-tones and slightly less-bright areas surrounding the core.

Here are the totals from each series of shots at lengths of 5, 30, and 180 seconds at ISO 800.

  • 180″ – ISO 800 – 1 hour 9 minutes (23 frames)
  • 5″ – ISO 800 – 1 min 40 sec. (20 frames)
  • 30″ – ISO 800 – 5 min. (10 frames)

I registered and stacked each of the image sets in Deep Sky Stacker, and processed each of the files separately.  Once each image file was processed to maximize the intended level of detail, I blended the images together in Adobe Photoshop using layer masks.  This can be a difficult process, as this can sometimes lead to unnatural looking and/or flat looking deep-sky objects.

Here is the current state of my Orion Nebula image, using the short exposures in the core:

Orion Nebula with a DSLR and Telescope

The Orion Nebula – Early version using layer masks

As you can see, some of the faint outer nebulosity has been captured, yet the core of nebula is still well exposed without clipping any of the data.  In comparison, have a look at the stack of 5-second exposures at the exact same scale from the same imaging session:

Orion short exposures

A stack of 5-second exposures on the Orion Nebula

Using layer-masking in Adobe Photoshop, we can merge the data from all 3 image sets to reveal all of the details of the Orion Nebula in a single image. As I said earlier, this process can be difficult to master and takes time and patience to utilize properly.  If done properly, the nebula will look natural and full of detail.  I’ll provide updates along the way as I tackle this winter astrophotography project from the backyard.

Cold, long nights with my DSLR and telescope

Despite what the frigid winter temperatures do to our bodies, your DSLR will produce images with less noise in the cold!  The nights are also extra long, which means the potential of longer imaging sessions.  So fill your thermos will a hot drink, it’s going to be a long night. If you need me, I’ll be in the backyard.

Cheers, and all the best in 2017!

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How a DSLR Ha Filter can Improve your Astrophotos

|H-Alpha|3 Comments

Some of the most incredible DSLR deep-sky images ever produced, likely combined regular RGB data (A typical color image) with images using a Ha filter.  A clip-in filter for your camera such as the Astronomik H-Alpha 12nm CCD filter makes it easy to start gathering Hydrogen-Alpha images with your existing DSLR.

Narrowband filters are an astrophotographers best friend.

 

Canon EOS Ha Filter

The Astronomik H-Alpha 12nm Clip Filter for Canon DSLR’S

This narrowband filter lets the h-alpha light of emission nebulae pass through to the camera sensor, and blocks almost all of the other light spectrum.  What does this mean?

It means that city light pollution and moonlight are completely erased!  This opens up the doors to imaging during the full moon, and from a city backyard.

No more waiting until the new moon phase for deep-sky imaging!

 

Emission Nebulas and Hydrogen-Alpha

Emission nebulas are clouds of glowing gas, and they emit light at a very specific wavelength.  This is information is beneficial to astrophotographers as we are able to isolate this wavelength for photography. The light from an emission nebula is created when the atoms in the gas are ionized by the formation of hot young stars.

The dominant wavelength in a hydrogen nebula is the deep red portion of the spectrum known as the hydrogen-alpha line (656nm to be exact).

 

visible spectrum - wavelengths in nm

The Visible Spectrum – Wavelengths in Nanometers

Why this is important for DSLR astrophotography

By using an Ha filter in your DSLR, it is possible to increase the contrast between objects in the h-alpha emission line and the skyglow background.  The filter completely suppresses the emission lines of artificial lighting such as mercury (Hg) and sodium (Na).  The particulars of the Astronomik ha filter can be understood in the graph below.

 

Ha Filter Wavelengths

Chart showing the the 97% transmission of the h-alpha wavelength

Images captured using a narrowband Ha filter have some pleasing characteristics.

At the top of the list is reduced star size.  This further emphasizes the detail and contrast of a deep-sky image by allowing it to stand out from the surrounding sea of stars.  Filtering out skyglow and light pollution means that longer exposure times of 5 minutes and beyond from the city are possible from the city.  You will likely capture more detail in your subject than ever before. 

Here is an example of what is possible with a Canon 450D and a 12nm Ha filter

 

Canon DSLR with Ha Filter - 12nm Version Example Image

Results from a Canon 450D with a 12nm Ha Filter

Choices – 12nm or 6nm versions

The 6nm version of the Astronomik Ha filter has an extremely narrow emission-line filter.  This version targets an even narrower portion of the visible spectrum, blocking neary the whole remainder of the spectrum.  So wouldn’t the 6nm version the obvious choice?

Despite the increase in contrast and more light-blocking power of the 6nm version, there were a few reasons I went with the 12nm.

 

Ha filer

The filter clips into your DSLR over the sensor

A major step in my pre-imaging routine includes framing my deep-sky target to include as much of the object and surrounding elements as possible.  BackyardEOS streamlines this task with the frame and focus feature.

 


 

With the 12nm Ha filter installed in my DSLR, this becomes a much more difficult process when framing targets without any significantly bright stars in the frame!  The same scenario transpires when focusing the camera.  Not only is focusing stars using live-view out of the question, but test exposures may need to be as long as 10 seconds before anything appears.

 

6nm Ha filter for Canon DSLR

The 6nm Ha filter from Astronomik

 

It’s not the end of the world, but it does take longer to get up and running.  The 6nm would double these impacts, and increase this setup time.

Many backyard astrophotographers would disagree, wishing they had gone with the 6nm instead.  Ideally, having both filters would provide maximum H II contrast while retaining stars in the image.

Does my camera need to be modified for astrophotography?

Absolutely not.  The same benefits of an H-alpha filter can be realized with a stock DSLR.  However, the amount of red light your camera will be able to record will be drastically reduced.  If you are serious about your astrophotography, it is worth thinking about modifying your camera either yourself  or by a professional.  Here is a shot of the Eagle nebula using the Astronomik Ha filter and a stock Canon EOS 7D.

 

Using an H-Alpha filter with a stock DSLR

Example of an Ha filter with a stock DSLR

 

This is typically what a frame looks like taken using a Ha filter through a DSLR.  This emission nebula could have been captured in greater detail using a modified camera, but the skyglow and wavelength suppression capabilities of the filter are still present.

I am a huge promoter of DSLR astro-mods.  If your camera is used for astrophotography exclusively, why not modify your camera yourself?

 

Modified camera for astrophotography

Modifying a Canon DSLR for astrophotography

If you have either a light pollution or h-alpha filter covering your DSLR sensor at all times, you are not required to install any extra replacement filters.  I carefully removed the IR cut filter on my Canon Rebel 450D by watching this video from Gary Honis.  This is known as a full spectrum “naked sensor” mod, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Processing H-Alpha frames taken with a DSLR

What about image processing, is it different than a regular RGB image?  Yes, there are some differences in the stacking and processing procedures, but not many.  It is still important to take as many exposures (light frames) as possible, to increase your signal-to-noise ratio.  Capturing dark frames will also have the same noise-reducing qualities when stacking images using an H-Alpha filter.

This video tutorial should help you understand the process:


 

In a nutshell, the Hydrogen Alpha version of your astrophoto will use the Red channel as a luminance layer that you will then merge with your RGB version.

 

HaRGB in Photoshop – Adding Ha Data to an RGB Image

Hydrogen-alpha images are essentially black and white images.  By combining them will a full-color RGB astrophoto it is possible to create a beautiful composite photo.  Adobe Photoshop is more than capable of accomplishing this task.  I’ll cover this processing method in an upcoming step-by-step tutorial.

Below you will find a simple example of what Ha-RGB processing in Photoshop can accomplish.  For the example below – a very limited amount of interated exposure time was used.  As I collect more data, I will update the graphic with a more finalized result.

The Bubble Nebula in HaRGB

The Bubble Nebula in HaRGB

Here’s the bottom line

If you own a Canon DSLR modified for astrophotography, a clip-in Ha filter should be on your shopping list.  I waited far too long before making this decision.  Combining H-alpha exposures to your existing RGB data can greatly increase the amount of detail and contrast in your astrophotos.  This is especially evident in deep-red emission nebulae.

The clip-in versions offered by Astronomik are rather expensive but are a perfect fit for modified or stock Canon DSLR’s.

The Ha filter factor

The ability to image during the full moon and surrounding week results in much more time under the stars.  No more wasted moonlit clear nights.  If you live in the city, a Ha filter cuts through even the most severe light pollution.  Astrophotography in the backyard becomes possible, and that’s a beautiful thing.

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