The AstroBackyard Backyard of the Week highlights astrophotography setups from around the world. A “backyard” can be a balcony, driveway, garden, or wherever else you set up astrophotography equipment at home.
By taking a behind-the-scenes look at the equipment amateur astrophotographers use to take deep-sky images, you can get a better understanding of the process.
This week’s backyard astrophotography equipment profile comes to us from Helena Cochrane in Scotland.
Location: Scotland, United Kingdom
I have watched Helena progress from a DSLR and a manual Dobsonian telescope to a full-fledged deep-sky imaging kit. Her current setup includes a reliable autoguiding system, as well as a cooled one-shot-color dedicated astronomy camera.
The Sky-Watcher Esprit 120 ED telescope she is now using is an incredible optical instrument. This triplet apochromatic refractor captures beautiful areas of the night sky at a focal length of 840mm at F/7.
Along with her ever-improving acquisition routines in the backyard, Helena’s image processing skills have progressed as well. Great data can only be enjoyed once you know how to effectively process it to reveal the hidden beauty within.
Helena’s frosty Sky-Watcher Esprit 120 ED outside in the winter.
Deep-sky astrophotography is not a skill you can learn overnight. It requires countless nights of troubleshooting, perseverance, and dedication to finally achieve the results we all crave.
Just look at the images Helena has photographed from her backyard over the last 6 months. These images represent Helena’s relentless desire to capture the cosmos, and share it with her audience.
Be sure to follow her on Instagram to keep up with her latest deep-sky projects.
Deep-sky astrophotography by Helena Cochrane.
If you haven’t seen Helena’s astrophotography videos on YouTube, here is an excellent example of the professionalism and quality she puts into each and every video.
I have not met Helena in person (yet) but I feel very proud to have inspired her in a small way to continue sharing her passion with the world. I can only imagine what she will have accomplished by the time she is my age!
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see Helena inspire the next generation of amateur astrophotographers with her content. The image of the Pinwheel Galaxy shown below is wonderfully processed, to reveal nebulae regions in the spiral arms, as well as the detailed core of the galaxy.
The Pinwheel Galaxy by Helena Cochrane.
|Primary Camera||ZWO ASI294MC Pro|
|Primary Telescope||Sky-Watcher Esprit 120|
|Mount||Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro|
|Guide Scope||ZWO 30mm Mini Guide Scope|
|Guide Camera||ZWO ASI120MM Mini|
|Dew Control||SVBONY Dew Heaters|
|Camera Control Software||Astro Photography Tool|
What does Helena love most about her gear?
“I love the focal length of the Esprit 120! Despite it being a heavier scope, it’s definitely an ‘all-rounder’ in the sense that it can perform wonderfully under galaxy or nebulae season.”
The Sky-Watcher Esprit 120 is a well-rounded telescope indeed. Talk about the perfect mix of aperture, reach, and size. Any bigger (the Esprit 150 ED), and you are entering larger telescope mount territory.
Helena’s deep-sky astrophotography rig in the backyard
The ZWO ASI294MC Pro is a one-shot-color dedicated astronomy camera with an 11 megapixel sensor in a micro four-thirds format. The pixel size and resolution of the 294MC Pro make it excellent deep-sky astrophotography, but it is a capable planetary camera as well.
A crop-sensor (APS-C) DSLR camera may have a larger sensor but will capture a large amount of noise compared to a cooled CMOS camera like this. The onboard cooling system allows the sensor to reach 35 degrees below the ambient temperature outside.
I saw a major jump in image quality when Helena began using this camera in place of her DSLR. It’s a big jump, especially if you enjoy the freedom and hands-on nature of a DSLR camera body.
A dedicated astronomy camera requires specific software to run, and there are new tools to learn and explore. It is well worth the effort, however, as new and exciting deep-sky projects become available.
Sky-Watcher Esprit 120 is a triplet apochromatic (APO) refractor telescope that uses ED glass. The Esprit line of APO’s are widely used in the amateur astrophotography community and are responsible for thousands of deep-sky images shared across the internet.
The 120 ED includes a dedicated field flattener that threads directly onto the robust 3.4-inch rack and pinion focuser. Speaking from experience here, these focusers can handle plenty of weight and is rock-solid.
The air-spaced ED optics on the 120 ED are fully multi-coated for superb clarity and contrast. The dedicated focal corrector creates a flat imaging field across an impressive imaging circle (43mm).
Dew and stray light are mitigated via the built-in retractable dew shield. The CGE D-Style dovetail bar allows for safe and secure attachment of this 22-pound telescope on your equatorial mount. Keep in mind that a telescope of this size will require an equatorial mount in the EQ6-R range (44-pound payload capacity) to accurately track the night sky for astrophotography.
Sky-Watcher Esprit 120 Specs
- Type: Apochromatic Refractor
- Field Flattener: Dedicated two-element corrector (Included)
- Diameter: 120mm
- Focal Length: 840mm
- Focal Ratio: f/7
- Weight: 22 lbs (10 kg)
The Telescope Mount
The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro is a robust computerized equatorial telescope mount with a built-in database of thousands of deep-sky objects (42,000). The EQ6-R now includes a USB port to connect your computer, allowing for advanced computer control for pulse autoguiding and plate-solving.
I personally use and enjoy the EQ6-R mount in the backyard in a variety of imaging configurations. This mount has carefully tracked the night sky using telescopes from the Radian Raptor 61 to the William Optics FLT 132.
Helena has had great success using the Optolong L-eNhance filter with her one-shot-color astronomy camera. This is a multi-bandpass narrowband light-pollution filter that isolates the important wavelengths of light associated with some of the best deep-sky targets in the night sky.
Helena uses the 2-inch round mounted version with her astronomy camera and telescope. This is the most versatile option for both DSLR cameras and dedicated astro-cams.
A filter drawer system is recommended, for easy swapping between filters without interrupting the imaging train. I personally use this filter (along with the more narrow Optolong L-eXtreme filter) for one-shot-color projects.
The Guide Scope
I am not surprised to see the ZWO 30 Mini Guide Scope grace the pages of the Backyard of the Week yet again. For those looking to autoguide their telescope rig, miniature guide scope and camera are often all you need to get started.
From watching her videos, I know that Helena uses PHD2 Guiding to communicate with her guide camera and telescope mount to improve tracking. An autoguiding system may take some adjustments to get up and running, but after the initial setup, autoguiding becomes as simple as a few mouse clicks.
ZWO 30mm Guide Scope
The Guide Camera
The ZWO ASI120mm Mini guide camera is a no-brainer for anyone looking to start autoguiding on a budget. This monochrome CMOS camera can also be used for planetary imaging at long focal lengths as well.
I’ve used this guide camera on a number of different astrophotography setups, and it has never let me down. When it comes to guide cameras, a mono sensor has the advantage of being more sensitive. This results in more stars available in the field of view of your guide scope.
The ZWO ASI120MM Mini.
Thank you for sharing your backyard astrophotography set up with us, Helena!
Helena, if you are reading this – I am so proud of you! I am honored to be a part of your journey and can’t wait to see what the future holds for you.
This is a great way for beginners to see a deep-sky imaging setup that is being used to successfully photograph the night sky.