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The GEAR Behind My Best Images in 2021

best astrophotography images
|Equipment|21 Comments

I’ve taken some amazing astrophotos this year, and I want to share the exact equipment I used in my approach and even some processing tips. After all – I know you’re super pumped about the images I take – right?

But in reality, if I can’t provide useful information about how you can do it yourself, what’s the point of watching?

I won’t go into too much detail about each piece of gear and why it’s ‘better’ than another option – just the results possible with this gear. Seriously, if I can get to this point, you can too. 

Constant State of Change

Now, first I’ll say that I am in a constant state of ‘testing’. Companies will send me new cameras and telescopes to review for a while, and then I either give them back or buy them. Yes, it’s an honor to get to use some of the latest and greatest gear – but my rig is NEVER finished. 

As many of you know – it takes TIME to fully understand the in’s and out’s of your equipment, and I never seem to have enough clear-sky testing time with any of the gear I use. The reason I say this is because it REALLY makes me appreciate the equipment that allows me to get what I need, without a lot of extra tinkering and tweaking. 

Side note: I am not a software or electrical engineer – I went to friggin art school! So, I wish I could give you guys some expert technical advice on how to hyper tune your EQ mount and calculate the amount of tilt in your imaging train – but I am honestly drawn to gear that just works.

I want the pictures.

Gear Summary

Before we get to the photos, below is a summary of the different cameras, telescopes, mounts, and filters behind my best images of 2021. 

Cameras ZWO ASI2600MM Pro
ZWO ASI2400MC
ZWO ASI462MC
Canon EOS Ra
Telescopes Sky-Watcher Esprit 100
Celestron Edge HD 11
William Optics Redcat 71
Radian 61
Mounts Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro
Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro
Filters Radian Triad Ultra
Optolong L-eXtreme
Optolong L-Pro
Chroma 3nm SHO
Chroma LRGB
Chroma Ha Filter
Chroma OIII Filter

Image 1: Seagull Nebula 

Seagull Nebula SHO

This emission nebula sits along the border of constellations Monoceros and Canis Major. 

This was the first project I completed using the new ZWO ASI2600MM Pro. Until this camera, I had never used a high-resolution monochrome CMOS sensor before and it was an absolute game-changer. The signal collected in narrowband is so strong and so pure. There is no comparison when you look at the data in each channel versus a color camera. 

This camera is currently still attached to the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 which was the scope used for this shot. Only this time, the camera and scope live inside of the Black Dog Observatory. The filters I use with this camera are Chroma 3nm SHO and the entire system is really a dream rig for me. 

I have been enjoying the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 since 2018. Its practical size, impressive performance, and quality optics have served me well. 

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 E

When you have plenty of exposure time in your narrowband data, you have the advantage of being able to pull up the SII and OIII signals to match the light intensity of that dominant Ha. This is how you create stunning, balanced Hubble Palette images.

For many objects, you’ll need to double down on a particular wavelength like OIII. These are the situations where a quality filter and sensitive camera really prove their worth. 

Image 2: Messier 106

Messier 106

Messier 106 is a spiral galaxy in Canes Venatici. I’ll say this – taking these pictures from my backyard is challenging. The seeing sucks, and most of the time I’m taking the images with a thin haze of clouds or moonlight. The guys downloading data from a remote setup in the desert will always CRUSH me. 

BUT, I am super pumped about this image. To capture a small galaxy like this up close has been a dream of mine for a long time. When I think about the ‘smudges’ I use to capture with my DSLR and refractor – this is really amazing. 

This was captured using the big Celestron Edge HD 11 for the long focal length, and my Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera. I used a 0.7X reducer to bring the field of view back a bit – 2000mm to be exact. I wanted to see how the Canon EOS Ra performed at a focal length like this – and it’s actually a valid option for galaxy shooters.

Celestron Edge HD 11

The image scale is a bit off with this system – and you can probably tell. I’m OVER sampled, which means the stars and details are a little soft. Could I have achieved a better result with a shorter focal length and just cropping in? Maybe. Either way, the Celestron Edge HD is my ‘long reach’ scope, and it’s a real thrill to be able to pull in small galaxies like this in for a closer look.

Image 3: Sunflower Galaxy

sunflower galaxy

The photo of the Sunflower Galaxy was also taken through the Celestron Edge HD 11. This time, I used the ASI2600MM Pro camera with LRGB filters. 

I achieved a better result than I could have with my mirrorless camera, especially considering this image includes half of the exposure time my M106 image did. The moon was nearly full this night too, so not a bad result from the city under such conditions. 

 

 

Because I took these images Binned 1×1 –  the image scale is on the soft side, but some sharpening in post brought it back. The next time I shoot with this setup I’ll definitely bin 2×2 to improve the image scale and see if it makes a noticeable difference or not. 

I find that image scale becomes a lot more important as you increase focal length. Keep the pixel size of your camera in mind when thinking about your next scope.

Image 4: Eagle Nebula 

wide-field nebulae

 

This image of the Eagle Nebula and surrounding emission nebulae in Serpens was captured using my Radian 61 refractor at 275mm, and the Canon EOS Ra.

A full-frame sensor at 275 can pull in a LOT of space. And for busy regions like this, there is so much going on – I love it. The little Radian scope was made for projects like this, and from the moment it first arrived I couldn’t wait to point it towards the core of the Milky Way.

refractor telescope

I used the Triad Ultra quadband filter for this dynamic shot. To capture images in this direction from home, I need some serious filters to help cut through the light dome of the city. I’ve found the Canon EOS Ra / multi-bandpass filter combo to be the most practical use for this scope. 

The Radian Triad Ultra and Optolong L-eXtreme are what I reach for first when capturing emission nebulae or supernova remnants from the backyard. You get small stars, punchy highlights in the hydrogen regions, without that awful washed-out light-polluted sky on top. Magic.

Image 5: Pelican Nebula 

The Pelican Nebula

Now this one really surprised me. This is the Pelican Nebula in Cygnus. Once again, the ASI2600MM Pro is responsible, and the data was collected through Ha and OIII filters only. It’s a HOO palette image, and I just found the details to be extra sharp and detailed in this one. 

This is what’s possible using narrowband filters and a monochrome camera from the city. Looking back, it’s almost a little TOO sharp for my liking, but for anyone tired of soft, bloated images, maybe this is exactly what you want. 

The camera was connected to my Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 refractor, which allows me to capture mid-range objects in the 500mm range. I still love this photo and look forward to many more projects with this system in my observatory. 

Image 6: The Planet Jupiter

The Planet Jupiter

Okay, time to go in a completely different direction – planets! To be more specific, the gas giant known as Jupiter. Planetary astrophotography is still largely unexplored for me personally, mainly because I didn’t have a telescope with enough reach to capture them properly until now. 

my telescope

 If you’re a deep-sky astrophotographer, and you’re thinking about tackling solar system objects (wait, did I go backward?), get ready for a whirlwind of new techniques and software. It’s actually quite astonishing how different the entire experience is. Instead of wide, long exposure images, you use ultra-long, short exposure video frames.

My latest image of the planet Jupiter was captured using a small planetary astro-camera, the ZWO ASI462MC. This camera is excellent for such tasks, and essentially it’s a game of recording video footage of the planet in as best focus, and under the best seeing as possible. 

 

 

Small sensors, high frame rates, and Gigabytes of data bring your PC to crawl. 

The register and stacking process is straightforward, and even the sharpening and color adjustments are fun and fluid. It’s all about recording the planet as clear and sharp as possible, to begin with. 

As you can imagine, finding and tracking objects at nearly 3000mm focal length means your telescope mount needs to be accurate. The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro has been downright flawless since it arrived, and the impressive payload capacity allows me to mount giant scopes like the Edge 11. 

Image 7: Iris Nebula 

Iris Nebula

See the larger version on Astrobin.

Lastly, we have my current ‘favorite’ rig. The one that I look for excuses to use even if it’s supposed to be clear for an hour and a half. This photo of the Iris Nebula was somewhat of a ‘bucket shot’ for me, as I have always wanted to capture this reflection nebula under a truly dark sky.

For deep images of dusty space like this, you can really creative a dynamic scene by pulling up the faint areas of nebulosity and minimizing the stars in the field. Tools like StarNet ++ and the ‘Enhance DSO and Reduce Stars’ action were MADE for processing the Iris.  

The telescope used was the new RedCat 71, a highly portable, ultra-flat, ultra corrected APO designed for projects just like this. Using the full-frame ASI2400MC Pro, I am able to collect light at the native focal length of 350mm, which creates mouth-watering images of certain areas of the sky. 

redcat 71 telescope

Remember: at such a wide field-of-view like this, gradients and light pollution can be a real pain. Careful, correct calibration, particularly in your flat frames, are essential for a quality intermediate file to dive into.  

I’ve been running this camera on the ASIAIR Plus – and I can now officially say I’m back on the ASIAIR train. It is way too reliable and painless to ignore, and my laptop is now reserved for sessions that require more tools, such as solar system imaging and controlling non-ASI cameras.

Final Thoughts

I hope that the descriptions of the gear I used for these shots and the reasons why have provided some useful insights that you can apply to your own progress. Having the opportunity to test a wide variety of gear has given me an extra appreciation for the tools that allow me to focus on the final image, and not obsess over numbers on a screen. 

The clear winners for me this year were:

  • ASI2600MM Pro camera: which I should have mentioned DID have an oil leak which is a known issue with this model. It was easy enough to clean and get back in action, but it’s a real pain to have to do this in the middle of an imaging session. 
  • Celestron Edge HD 11: continues to deliver value in the form of my best images of planets and galaxies to date, and an overall positive experience despite being a different design than my beloved refractors. 
  • Sky-Watcher EQ6 and EQ8 mounts: both have been so incredibly reliable that I simply don’t think about things like tracking accuracy or guiding. Ever. The only thing that sucks about these mounts is that they’re impossible to find in stock. 

Thank you

I want to thank all of you that tuned in to watch my videos this year, whether you are new to the channel or a longtime subscriber.

I hope the images remind you of some of the stories and memories associated with each one. 

As always, we appreciate your support!

AstroBackyard

 

 

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This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Mitch Linneman says:

    Truly Inspirational. I keep saying, “write a book.” I will buy it. 🙂

  2. Daniel says:

    Fantastic beyond words.

  3. Dave Seaman says:

    Your videos and opinions are terrific, not to mention the images. Thanks for all the hard work and effort to post. Outstanding

  4. David Aucoin says:

    I am awed at your dedication to this hobby. I am a veteran EAA imager (I could never do AP, I have little patience for long exposure time). I recently bought a Celestron C11 XLT (non-edge). This is my third 11″ telescope over the years. I also bought my first EQ6R mount to hold it. I currently own the ZEQ25 mount for my Nexstar C8 and the nexstar SE mount to hold my Astrotech 80mm APO and my Astrotech 60mm APO, mostly these two for Solar imaging but also for some wide field DSO’s. I am curious about your acquisition of these products you have. You do a lot of Demoing on the products and you buy many. Do you have a lucrative job to afford all these toys? I get mine through a trust fund, credit and my Social Security Disability payments each month.

  5. Hi Trevor, very impressive! The picture of the Iris Nebula is fantastic. Since I am looking for new filters: what filter size do your Chromas have? Is 31mm enough using the ASI 2600?
    Clear skies! Alex

  6. Zacharus Diavante says:

    I know this won’t be a popular opinion but that doesn’t mean there is no merit.

    You push a lot of buttons, come back in 8 hours, and there you go, you got a picture. You DID say at the very beginning, you want the pictures.

    Me too. Although I can get it a lot faster than in 8 hours, without any of this hassle in fact, and it’s a million times better than anything you will ever take here on this planet.

    https://www.nasa.gov/content/about-facts-hubble-fast-facts

    Sorry man. I’m just not impressed. What I see is a giant waste of time and money. Maybe it’s your passion, that’s cool. Except you said you’re drawn to gear that just works. So which is it?

    I have passions, and I waste money on them. But if I was not about the gear and instead just about the results, I wouldn’t spend any money at all when our taxes in this country have paid for it along with the many donations from people who also have this passion, who also just want the pictures.

    150 gigabits of new content per week? You’ve got nothing on that.

    I love the hubble, loved it since we got access to it after it’s inception. Now, I see people attempting to get anything close through vast sums of cash and equipment, after the most passionate of them all gave up. Knowing between light pollution and everything else, it’s a complete waste of time if we can take the pictures from space instead.

    If you want the experience, hey, that’s cool. Just stop right now. Say it’s about the experience. Instead you whine about how frustrating it all is and how difficult. Oh your gear had an oil leak, oh no.

    You want the prize of being able to say, I took this? No, you pushed buttons and waited 8 hours, a computer spit the image out. If you want the credit fine have fun enjoy your fan base.

    I pushed buttons and waited a few seconds. My results are definitely a lot better, you can’t deny it. So just what are you doing again?

    We’re looking at the same things in the sky. I’m just using something better than you will ever have. And I’ve got the pictures.

    • Trevor says:

      I understand your point, and that’s fair. I get it. But I want you to know that I read your comment while sitting in my observatory collecting photons on the Horsehead Nebula. The Geminid meteor shower is at its peak tonight, and I just witnessed another one streak across the sky. I assure you that astrophotography is more than “pressing buttons” and not a waste of time!

  7. Mike says:

    Boy aren’t you just the little ray of sunshine that causes cancer…. I’ll bet you’re a blast at parties.

  8. Ryan says:

    I mean why does anyone even do anything? There’s always someone out there doing it better, so why even bother? Why are we here, just to consume oxygen? I mean there are so many other organisms out there consuming oxygen way better than we are, why do we even bother?

  9. Saj says:

    Yeah that’s easily the silliest comment anyone has ever written on an Astro blog. Congrats! Unrelated, do you cook food at home or just order from a Michelin star restaurant?

  10. Danny says:

    The fact that comment misses the point so much is what makes me strive to do it more. I love football too (soccer to many of you). I’m not the best at it, I could simply watch the pro athletes do it and know I’m witnessing elite sporting prowess. That would be easier, however the thrill of playing myself is what matters to me. It might not be as good as a pro athlete but every time I score, or make a great pass, or dribble past someone I get a buzz. Win or lose I love playing the game. Astro is the same. I might not be the best, my pics might not be Hubble standard but every time I see those images appear on my screen I get a buzz. I love capturing data, processing data and sharing my pics. Just like football, it’s the taking part myself not the end product.

  11. To quote George Mallory, “because it’s there”.

  12. Ed Glasheen says:

    I agree with Trevor. Fresh (maybe cold) air, the sky, meteors, the distant hoot of an owl…camaraderie at star parties, can Zacharias D. download that?

  13. Dana Mah says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I like reading about the creative processes and challenges involved with Earth based astrophotography.

    Hubble takes the fun and enjoyment out of going through the steps involved of getting the images…and deprives the photographer gaining new knowledge after seeing each image after the fact.

    You can snag the Hubble image for enjoyment, but cannot say you’ve created it. I respect the earth-based approach much more.

  14. Nick Taber says:

    Thanks for taking time and always trying to improve the astro community. I happened to stroll across a video of yours about 1.5 years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since. Your passion is addicting and it makes me want to find as much joy in this hobby as you have. Thank you for helping others be successful and continuing to share your adventures! I just recently shot my first image with my new mount, guide setup and other goodies and compared it to what I had captured from a few months prior and the progress is amazing. Without your help I’d probably still be lost trying to figure out how to even start the hobby. For real, Thank you for helping those that are just starting out. This hobby has helped me get through some tough times and im thankful I came across a video of yours to get me hooked into it!

  15. Manuel J Borges says:

    Thanks for all do. I’ve been doing astrophography since the yearly 70s. and it a pleasure to see what you have done.

    I am a telescope builder and I guess I prefer that aspect of the hobby.
    the stuff is you is remarkable and I love you for that.

    Along with all the others I appreciate the work you all do.

  16. Brian Kotak (Dr. B from Manitoba) says:

    Awesome images as always Trevor. It is remarkable that, without the aid of a multi-million (billion?) dollar scope like Hubble, us ordinary citizens can enjoy and explore the beautiful night sky and all that it holds. For me, astrophotography is about a passion for exploring, taking huge satisfaction in capturing mind-bogglingly distant objects on a camera sensor, becoming more technologically savvy with gear and software, and ultimately just revelling in the beauty of a dark sky. You my friend have taught me so much this year, my first year of getting into this hobby. Thank you for your passion and giving me the inspiration to strive for more.

  17. Patrick says:

    Zacharus Diavante – there is so much more to the hobby. Overcoming the unknown, countless technical challenges, learning the software, and the concepts behind processing images. Not just the amazement of what we are doing, but that first image when you finally get it…oh my … Success! It is such an overwhelming experience…not experienced by the faint of heart. I respect armchair astronomy and encourage it. But we astrophotographers could work for the Hubble program. You should expand beyond the Hubble program however and check out astrobin – just as easy as Hubble, and likely more objects, perspectives and framings.

  18. Gregg says:

    Isn’t that like hijacking someone else’s work and claiming that it’s all your own work? Get a life Zac.

    Great work Trevor, keep it up.

  19. Ollie Riley says:

    Trevor, I’ve followed your website for years and have respected suggestion in regards to equipment. However I would like to know what is the camera on your mount in this photo…I have been enjoying the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 since 2018. Its practical size, impressive performance, and quality optics have served me well.
    Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 E

  20. Michael A Cerrato says:

    As for Zacherus’s comment, it’s kinda like sex. You can look at dirty pictures, but there’s nothing like the real thing.

    MC

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