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The Gear Behind My Best Astrophotography Images

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In this post, I’ll share my 10 best astrophotography images of the year, and the complete list of gear used to take them. I completed roughly 40 projects this year, and it was difficult to choose my favorite 10 images from the bunch. 

The selection process involved remembering why each photo was so special. Why each one of these astrophotography images made me say “wow” as I opened the picture files on my computer.

You may find it useful to see the exact imaging configurations used for each photo, as the gear used was deliberately selected to best capture each deep-sky object. 

I’ll explain why each one of these astrophotography images sustained (and grew) my passion for this hobby, and perhaps it will inspire you to do the same. If you would like to keep up with my latest images as I share them, consider following me on Instagram

astrophotography images

As you all know, the image acquisition stages of astrophotography are only half of the story. You can capture the best data in the world, but without great image processing, your photos will be held back. For those that need a little help, I have created an astrophotography image processing guide to use as a reference at your own pace. 

My Best Astrophotography Images of 2019

In the online forums, you’ll often find people sharing very strong opinions about particular gear based on the technical specifications. Although this information is very relevant, I hesitate to follow advice from others that have not shared a single picture taken with the camera or telescope in question. 

I find that beginners can easily get caught in “paralysis by analysis” mode, as they’ve read rants from users that may or may not have been using their equipment properly. In a hobby with the word “photography” in the name, I believe the pictures are the true judge of the astrophotography gear. 

I believe it is also helpful for you to know that I am just a regular guy who has learned most of what I know now through trial and error. I don’t get more clear nights than the rest of you (chances are, far less), but I get out there.

astrobackyard

You will see a lot of the same pieces of gear being used in several of the astrophotography images shared in this post. This is the ultimate validation for the effectiveness and practicality of the item.

I have had the incredible opportunity to try out many pieces of astrophotography equipment this year, and you may be a little surprised to not see more images captured using certain items I reviewed. (No RASA images… really?)

Reviews aside, if you haven’t figured this out by now, the gear I use most is what I like best. Clear winners this year were the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, the William Optics RedCat 51, the QHY PoleMaster and the Optolong L-eNhance Filter

With that out of the way, I hope you enjoy my favorite images of 2019. I have included links to each of the items used for every picture for those looking to replicate my imaging setups. 

Image 1: The Fish Head Nebula

This image was captured in October 2019 from my backyard using a monochrome CCD camera. This astrophoto is special to me because it is one of my first monochrome images built using narrowband filters.

The refractor telescope used has a much longer focal length than I am used to, pulling this deep-sky object in closer than ever before. This picture is also one of the few I have managed to collect using the mighty Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro mount due to weather constraints. Needless to say, I am anxious to use this heavy-duty equatorial mount a lot more in 2020. 

The Starlight Xpress CCD camera used for this image of IC 1795 absolutely knocked my socks off in terms of image quality. I have never seen such beautiful data out of the camera, which made this image a real treat to process. 

Fish Head Nebula

Image 2: The Orion Nebula

This astrophotography image was captured under the truly dark skies of the Black Forest Star Party. This is a Bortle Scale Class 2 site where the Milky Way shines brightly overhead in an unforgettable forest setting.

I had to stay up very late to photograph this northern hemisphere winter target, with my first sub exposure clicking through at about 2:30 am. I have photographed the Orion Nebula countless times over the last decade, but the view provided through the William Optics RedCat 51 was my favorite yet. 

Photographing this stunning jewel in the night sky was surprising un-complex thanks to the portable and impressive Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer camera mount. The total exposure time for this photo is an astonishing 27-minutes, which was only possible thanks to the incredible dark skies I was under when this was taken. 

The Orion Nebula

Image 3: The Cave Nebula

We go back to the backyard for this one. This image of the Cave Nebula was captured over multiple nights in the Spring of this year using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro camera.

The Cave Nebula was a new target for me, which always makes the imaging session a little more exciting. Cepheus is an opportunistic constellation from my latitude, as objects in this region are available for almost the entire year. 

I really poured on the exposure time on this one, and I think it helped create a strong signal-to-noise ratio. Because of this, I could really stretch the data without introducing much noise. This image is a great example of what’s possible using a dedicated astronomy camera and a multi-bandpass filter from the city. 

Cave Nebula

Image 4: The Andromeda Galaxy

This image really blew me away as I was processing it. I have photographed the Andromeda Galaxy many times over the years, and it has led to some very memorable moments in my life. This time around, I shot this galaxy with the widest focal length telescope yet, the William Optics RedCat 51. 

After purchasing a used Canon EOS 60Da in the summer, I used it extensively with a number of different filters from the OPT Triad Ultra filter, to the Optolong UV/IR to prevent star bloat in the image below. 

This was another image collected using the portable Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount, and it has proven to be an extremely reliable star tracker for astrophotography on the go. I was able to collect 100 x 90-second images on this stunning spiral galaxy in broadband (RGB) true color. 

Andromeda Galaxy

Image 5: The Triangulum Galaxy

I was extremely satisfied with my results on the Triangulum Galaxy under dark skies. Unlike the Andromeda Galaxy, M33 has a low surface brightness making it much dimmer overall. This can be a challenging target to shoot under the light-polluted skies of the city, which is why I took full advantage of my surroundings at Cherry Springs. 

The focal length of the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 proved to be a perfect fit for this deep-sky object, capturing the entire disc of this large galaxy with room to spare. My favorite aspect of this image is definitely the natural star colors recorded. This is very difficult to do from the city, yet a UV/IR filter was all that was needed to capture the natural colors of this region in space from a dark sky site. 

Triangulum Galaxy

Image 6: The Tadpoles Nebula

This image really shook me up. It is on another level of astrophotography.

There was no monumental shift in acquisition best practices or processing skills, it was simply due to the equipment used. Experienced amateur astrophotographers will tell you that “mono is the only way to go”, and this picture helped me understand what they mean. 

The Starlight Xpress SX-42 (Trius 694) is a professional level monochrome CCD camera, and the data collected through this camera using narrowband filters is exquisite. The giant aperture of the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 Super APO may have had something to do with it as well. 

I felt comfortable submitting this image to APOD (astronomy photo of the day), which is a very rare occurrence. While it was not selected, I feel that my first APOD will be using this system.

Tadpoles Nebula

Image 7: The Sadr Region

There is something about this image that I really enjoy. It is a little bizarre because there isn’t really anything overly special with it, other than the fact that it was captured using a very simple and portable setup. The William Optics RedCat 51 is an incredibly practical telescope for a variety of astrophotography projects.

There is so much hydrogen gas in this region of Cygnus. I highly suggest pointing your modified DSLR camera or dedicated astronomy camera towards the star Sadr in the night sky. The most promising result from this particular imaging setup is how well the OPT Triad Filter did when in front of the Canon EOS 60Da sensor. 

It’s also worth noting that this image was captured using the highly portable and capable Fornax Mounts LighTrack II. This mount really surprised me. I ended up reaching for the LighTrack II over my larger mounts when shooting wide-field targets with the RedCat this summer.

Sadr Region

Image 8: The Omega Nebula

This image of the Omega Nebula is the lone image on this page taken using the Celestron CGX-L mount. After underwhelming results on this target using the Celestron RASA 8, I swapped the telescope out for a large William Optics Fluorostar 132 on the Celestron CGX-L mount. 

After some impressive early results in the spring of this year, I opted to use my refractor telescopes in most situations over the RASA due to convenience. After reviewing the amazing work being done using the RASA 8 (and 11) from amateur astrophotographers around the world this year, I have mixed feelings about my decision to keep the RASA in the garage for the majority of the summer and fall this year. 

The night I photographed this image was documented on my YouTube channel as you may remember. It is by far my best version of the M17 yet. 

Omega Nebula

Image 9: The Heart and Soul Nebulae

This image was a real thrill for me, as I have never been able to capture both the Heart Nebula and Soul Nebula in sinlge frame before. For this wide-field astrophoto, I used a camera lens in place of a telescope. The Rokinon 135mm F/2 lens was a total surprise for me this year, an impulse buy based on an overwhelming recommendation from the AstroBackyard Facebook community

The 135mm focal length and fast optics of this affordable, durable telephoto lens make it an invaluable tool for amateur astrophotography. It is the perfect complement to a portable mount like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider Pro. 

Shooting these targets in heavy light pollution is surprisingly difficult, as the wide swath of sky can create challenges in color balancing and gradients. This HaRGB composite was achieved with the help of an Astronomik Ha filter for my DSLR. 

Heart and Soul Nebulae

Image 10: The Pleiades Star Cluster

Lastly, we have the iconic seven sisters in the constellation Taurus. This wide-field image of the Pleiades was captured using a Canon EOS 60Da DSLR and William Optics RedCat 51.

Are you seeing a trend here? More of my favorite images were captured on a portable star tracker and tiny refractor than on a large optical tube like the Celestron RASA 8. Perhaps the saying is true “the best telescope is the one you use most”?

After avoiding this target for a number of years from the city, I returned to it under the dark skies of the Black Forest Star Party in September. All in all, I was able to soak up over an hour’s worth of 90-second exposures on M45 in broadband color. 

The Pleiades Star Cluster

Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed looking at my best astrophotography images taken this year. It’s difficult to realize all of the time and effort you’ve put into your craft until you look at everything from a glance. 

I think this post is useful for those looking to invest in astrophotography equipment for deep-sky astrophotography. Deciding on the types of images you wish to capture is an important consideration to make before making your next purchase.

You can review and compare technical specifications until you are blue in the face, but in the end, astrophotography is about taking pictures

Whether it was on Flickr. a Facebook post, or a YouTube video, thank you to everyone that has left a nice comment on my astrophotography images this year. It is my absolute pleasure to share my passion for astrophotography with you all. 

Trevor Jones

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ZWO ASIair Review

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The ZWO ASIair is a smart WiFi device that allows you to control ASI astronomy cameras for astrophotography. This Raspberry Pi-based accessory allows you to run an imaging sequence, autoguide, and even plate solve using your smartphone or tablet.

As many of you know, when it comes to capturing astrophotography images, I tend to do things “the hard way” more often than I should.

This includes everything from a manual 3-star alignment to carrying my astrophotography gear in and out of the garage night after night.

It’s because I’m old-school. When I started deep-sky astrophotography back in 2011, there weren’t nearly as many dedicated astrophotography products available to automate the imaging experience as there are now.

Images captured using the ASIair

Powering up my laptop computer inside of a weather-proof plastic bin has always been a part of my deep-sky ritual. It’s a familiar and oddly comforting routine.

But so was connecting a DSLR camera to my telescope with a T-Ring adapter.

I’ve learned to embrace new technology, even when I am not convinced it will add additional value to my sacred deep sky astrophotography experience.

In this post, I’ll describe my experiences with an astrophotography product that not only has the power to persuade “old-school” imagers to evolve but attract new blood to this addictive hobby.

ZWO ASIair Review

Streamlining the deep sky astrophotography experience means spending less time setting up and connecting hardware, and more time collecting light on your target. 

Perhaps one of the greatest recent examples of the technological evolution of this hobby is the ZWO ASIair WiFi camera controller. It aims to provide the astrophotography world with a portable, full-featured, user-friendly experience in a standalone package.

If the idea of ditching your laptop computer for a miniature (nearly weightless) device that can be velcroed to your telescope interests you, you’re in for a real treat. Here are my early impressions of the ambitiously mainstream ZWO ASIair.

astrophotography equipment

Update 2019: ZWO now offers a package that includes the ASIair, the ASI120mm Mini Camera and a 30mm guide scope. This is a great option for anyone looking to start autoguiding their telescope and ASI cameras. 

guide scope package

A Dedicated Astrophotography Computer

The ZWO ASIair is not the only camera control device in this category. The StellarMate and Primaluce Labs EAGLE are comparable products, each with their own loyal following of users.

These onboard astrophotography computers can be daunting to newcomers, or those of us that are not overly technologically advanced.

However, the package put together by ZWO is aimed at the everyday backyard astrophotographer, and that’s what captured my attention first. 

I first noticed the ASIair remote imaging control system at NEAF in April 2018, and finally, have one for myself to try out here in the backyard.

Why the ASIair?

An obvious difference between the ASIair and its competitors is that that it’s camera control functions are exclusive to ASI cameras. As a very satisfied user of the ZWO ASI294MC-Pro, this compatibility restraint did not deter me.

The ASIair will control all of the cooled ZWO ASI cameras. Unless you already own one of these cameras (or plan on investing in one), the ‘air is likely not on your radar.

However, the impressive slew of features this computer offers may present an opportunity for automation in the areas of mount control or autoguiding, even if you’re shooting with a DSLR or non-ASI astronomy camera.

Included in the box:

What's Included?

ASIair Wifi Camera Controller Features

The ASIair is meant to replace the need for your imaging laptop in the field. For long-time imagers like myself, removing a laptop from the equation gives me mixed feelings. 

I love the idea of having less kit to set up, but I fear I will lose functionality and control of the acquisition process, especially when autoguiding is involved. However, that is exactly what the ASIair aims to do, with an ambitious array of features for such a tiny piece of gear.

Listed Features

  • Standalone Autoguiding
  • Standalone Image Capturing
  • Plate Solving
  • Control Using SkySafari App
  • On-Board Image Storage (32 GB)

One of the many possible configurations with this unit is to simply use it for mount control with the SkySafari planetarium app on your smartphone. The plate-solving aspect alone is an attractive feature for those looking to implement an element of automation to their process.

Another scenario is someone who uses an ASI guide camera, but shoots with a DSLR through their imaging telescope. The ASIair handles autoguiding without the need for a bulky computer and the power supply it requires.

autoguiding

The autoguiding component of the ASIair is worth the price of admission alone

Using an Android Tablet

I am an Android phone user myself (Galaxy S7), and I have downloaded the ASIair app from the Google Play store. All Android phones are supported – and tablets with OS 5.0 or later are supported. For Apple, iOS 9.0 and up is supported. 

My review of the ASIair gave me the perfect excuse to finally purchase a new tablet, with astrophotography the primary culprit for the decision.

I ordered an 8″ 2017 Samsung Galaxy Tab A, which now has all of my go-to astrophotography apps installed such as the Clear Outside app and SkySafari.

Raspberry Pi Computer

At the heart of the ASIair unit is a Raspberry Pi computer housed in a ZWO branded plastic body. It includes 1 Ethernet port, and 4 powered USB 2.0 ports to connect various imaging accessories.

Most users will connect to the device using WiFi, but it’s nice to know that a direct connection to a wired network is available if needed.

The ASIair is powered with a USB C cable. You can use any USB-based power supply as long as it provides the required 2.5amp voltage. I used the handy Pegasus Astro Pocket Powerbox to power up the ASIair, an equally lightweight device that simplifies the cabling of my rig.

The ASIair includes a USB to RS232 cable, that is necessary for connecting it to your telescope mount.

ASIair telescope computer

The ASIair mounted to a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED telescope

Connecting to the ASIair mobile app

I installed the ASIair app to my Android smartphone, which was a quick and easy download from the Google Play store. iPhone users will also find this app in the App store.

The first thing I did was connect to the ASIair network, which is listed on the inside of the ASIair unit along with the password.

With the network connected, I swiped back over to the app and it automatically recognized my setup. This is where you input the details of your telescope details such as focal length and aperture.

You’ll need to enter in the specs of both your primary imaging telescope and guide scope. The ASIair will automatically detect the cameras and accessories you’ve connected to it.

When powering up the ASIair app for the first time, I received a notification about a firmware update. This update took about 5-seconds to apply wirelessly with one tap.

I could get used to this!

Celestron CGX-L telescope mount

The ASIair controlling the ASI294MC Pro on an 8″ Celestron RASA.

32GB Micro SD Card

The included 32GB Micro SD card comes with the ASIair Operating System pre-installed, which uses about 7GB worth of space.

This memory card also stores the image files I capture using my ASI294MC Pro. To transfer the images to my computer for processing, I use the included Micro SD card reader to pull the images off after a night of shooting.

ZWO states that this is the only size of memory card you should use and that it’s best to back up the OS before imaging to be safe. I’ve still not taken this precaution myself, but it would be silly to lose operation of the device due to corruption of the card data and operating system.

Controlling my ASI Camera and Mount

The ASIair only works with ZWO cameras and filter wheels. This means that I’ll use it to control my ASI294MC Pro camera for imaging, and an ASI290MM Mini for autoguiding.

I’ll save filter wheel operation for a later post, an area of astrophotography that remains to be explored for me.

The ASIair controls ZWO ASI Cameras such as the 290MM Mini and 294MC Pro seen above

I’ll capture images using the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED telescope, with an STC Astro Duo-Narrowband filter threaded to the camera. Autoguiding will take place using the ASI290MM Mini guide camera that has been generously loaned to me from Ontario Telescope. 

The ASIair connects to telescope mounts compatible with the INDI library, which includes the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro (SynScan system). See the list of supported mounts here.

Unfortunately for me, I haven’t purchased the required shoestring astronomy adapter cable to make this happen yet. Once I do, I’ll be able to utilize handy features of the ASIair such as Plate-Solving and planetarium control (SkySafari) of the mount.

Focusing with the ASIair

The focus adjustment interface is very useful when making slight adjustments to focus using a fast F/2 telescope like the RASA. You simply need to click the play button using your desired exposure length, and the camera will run a continuous loop of images.

The ASIair user manual recommends using the maximum bin value (BIN4), and to use a 1-second refresh rate. I have found these settings to work very well when using a typical light pollution filter. The quick refresh rate is very handy because you get immediate feedback from the changes in focus you have made.

This is extra handy when using a Bahtinov mask like the one found in the dust cap of the RedCat 51.

If you are using a narrowband filter in front of the camera sensor, you may need to increase the exposure time to 3-seconds for a useful star to focus on. 

ASIair focus using HFD

Using the focus fine-tuning interface of the focus tab.

The ASIair application includes a fine-tuning interface that is activated by pressing the magnifying glass. The area framed in the green highlighted square is where the fine-tuning focus area will isolate. 

The micro-adjustment interface shows a peak focus and HFD focus curve. The larger the peak value, the smaller that HFD value. The goal is to achieve the smallest HFD value possible on your selected star. 

An Impressive User Experience

The ZWO ASIair does exactly what it was designed to do, simplify the deep sky astrophotography imaging experience by removing the need for an external computer connection. Instead, the little unit rides along with your telescope as it tracks your target.

The ASIair app works fantastic on my Samsung Galaxy Tab A (8-inch) tablet, allowing me to run entire imaging sequences from inside the house. The autorun tab allows you to set all of the necessary details for acquisition including a lengthy sequence. 

My favorite feature of the app is the no-nonsense camera control of all essential settings. My ZWO ASI294MC Pro camera cooled to -20 degrees Celcius faster using the ASIair than I could ever get it to using APT.

Adjusting gain, binning, and exposure length using the app make the process of running a dedicated astronomy camera like this feel as user-friendly as a DSLR. That is some seriously powerful stuff.

My target selection was Merlotte 15, within the Heart Nebula. This was a spur-of-the-moment decision based on my limited amount of clear sky time, and its convenient location in the sky for this month.

Merlotte 15 in the Heart Nebula – 25 x 120-seconds controlled with the ASIair

Limited clear sky time and poor imaging conditions leave much to be desired with my data. The point is, the recipe for collecting quality data is there.

Images captured using the ASIair

Since I began using the ASIair in late 2018, I have collected an impressive amount of deep-sky images using this device. This includes configurations that use the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2 astrograph with the ASI294MC Pro camera attached.

The following images were all collected using the ASIair to control my ASI294MC Pro camera.

Images captured using the ASIair

I have also photographed the Sunflower Galaxy using the autorun feature of the ASIair while I stayed warm inside the house. 

Autoguiding

Autoguiding was the biggest surprise, as the default settings from ZWO achieved a respectable guiding graph and sharp stars despite poor transparency. Ideally, I could improve guiding performance by tweaking the settings, but beginners will find the guiding software to work exceptionally well out of the box.

The ST-4 cable is connected to my guide camera at one end, and Sky-Watcher EQ6-R equatorial mount at the other.

The fact that a process as complex as autoguiding has been unscrambled into the push (or tap) of a button has me feeling quite astonished. I think back to the early days of the original PHD guiding software and the countless nights of imaging lost fiddling in the glow of my computer screen.

As I stated earlier, this device may serve those looking to simplify their autoguiding experience. If you’re looking to replicate the setup pictured here (and in the video), you should take a good look at the ZWO ASI290MM Mini guide camera. 

Thor's Helmet

In March 2019, I photographed Thor’s Helmet using the ZWO ASIair and the Celestron 8″ RASA.

Final Thoughts

I promise to test the planetarium mount control and plate-solving functionality of the ASIair in the future. I realize that these features are some of the primary reasons amateur photographers are looking into this device.

In the end, successfully capturing a respectable image of a deep sky object in the span of roughly 2.5 total hours of clear sky time with a new product is almost unheard of. This is a testament to the reliability and stability of the ASIair and its dedicated app.  

If you already own an ASI camera from ZWO, investing in the game-changing WiFi camera controller known as the ASIair might be one of the easiest decisions you’ve made in your astrophotography advancement yet. 

The ZWO ASIair is available at High Point Scientific 

Astrophotography using the ASIair

Related Posts:

Controlling my ASI Camera on the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2 (Video)

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