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I Captured My Most Detailed Portrait of the Wizard Nebula Yet

|Nebulae|6 Comments

Last week, I photographed the Wizard Nebula with my camera and telescope in the backyard. The final image includes 24 individual exposures of 4-minutes each, for a grand total of 1.5 hours.

Despite a bright moon interfering, it is by far my best image of the Wizard Nebula to date. In this post, I’ll explain how I captured the Wizard Nebula, and what to expect if you’re new to the world of deep-sky astrophotography. 

You don’t need the latest and greatest gear to capture this nebula, although I’ll admit, it helps. Along with a few best practices, I’ll share a few ways that you can accomplish this goal with budget-friendly gear. 

For a behind-the-scenes look at how this image was taken, be sure to watch the video on my YouTube channel. 

Wizard Nebula

The Wizard Nebula in Cepheus. Photo by Trevor Jones. 

The image above includes 1.5 hours of total exposure time captured through a 150mm refractor telescope (Sky-Watcher Esprit 150). The camera was a QHY268C (Photographic Edition), one-shot-color CMOS dedicated astronomy camera. You can see a larger version on my Flickr profile

A dual bandpass narrowband filter was used (Optolong L-eXtreme) to ignore light pollution and isolate the light that is emitted by this deep-sky object. The pixel scale of this image is 2.11 arcsec/pixel, and the radius is 0.507 degrees.

Photographing the Wizard Nebula

If you’re a seasoned astrophotographer, capturing deep-sky images in space with your telescope almost starts to feel “normal”. But the reality is, photographing a sensational object like the Wizard Nebula is quite the accomplishment.

Capturing any deep-sky object is an accomplishment, whether it is a distant galaxy, bright emission nebula, or even an open star cluster. Aside from understanding the basics of long-exposure astrophotography through a telescope, you need to plan your projects based on things like image-scale and apparent altitude. 

Don’t believe me? Have a look at my first attempt at capturing the Wizard Nebula from 2014. For this image, I used a DSLR camera (Canon EOS Rebel XSi) and an 80mm refractor telescope (Explore Scientific ED80).

It’s not that this image is bad (I was quite proud of it at the time), it’s just that is overwhelmed by stars and there is not enough resolution to showcase its true structure. 

Wizard Nebula DSLR

My first image of the Wizard Nebula from 2014. 

I remember this night well. I brought all of my equipment to a friend’s house (now my brother-in-law), as I did not have an outdoor space of my own to set up in at the time. 

In the photo below you’ll see my 80mm refractor telescope riding on top of my Sky-Watcher HEQ5 GoTo mount. Some of the biggest upgrades in my imaging setup now are increased focal length and aperture, and the use of a dedicated astronomy camera. 


My old astrophotography setup in 2014.

My latest version was captured with a 90% illuminated moon shining brightly. Ideally, I would capture all of my deep-sky images on a moonless night, but clear nights can be hard to come by.

Even though you’ll get better results during the new moon phase, certain deep-sky targets such as emission nebulae can be captured successfully using narrowband filters that ignore most of the visible light spectrum.

NGC 7380: The Wizard Nebula

This nebula lies 7,200 light-years away, and the fact that we look back in time to photograph it through a telescope is truly amazing.

Like all of the other deep-sky objects in the night sky with a common name, the Wizard Nebula gets its name from a resemblance of a recognizable figure on Earth. When the image is turned the right way, you can clearly see the wizard’s face, arms, and signature wizard’s hat. 

The Wizard Nebula is a collection of interstellar gas and dust with an open star cluster (NGC 7380) embedded within it. For a more elegant description of this nebula in Cepheus be sure to see this incredible APOD image by Andrew Klinger.

  • Classification: Nebula with an embedded star cluster
  • Magnitude: 7.2
  • Cataloged: NGC 7380, Sh2-142
  • Constellation: Cepheus
  • Distance: 7000 light-years from Earth

You may get a better understanding of the astrophotography equipment I used to photograph nebula in the night sky by watching the following video:

Location in the Night Sky

If you are trying to find the Wizard Nebula in the night sky with your telescope, you can use the star map shown below as a reference.

The northern constellation Cepheus is full of incredible deep-sky astrophotography targets. From my latitude (43 degrees North), this constellation is circumpolar, meaning that it never sets below the horizon.

From mid-northern latitudes, the best time to observe and photograph the Wizard Nebula is from August to November, when it reaches high into the northern sky.

You will have a hard time seeing the Wizard Nebula visually through the eyepiece of your telescope (or binoculars). At magnitude 7.2, it is just too dim. A camera, however, can record long-exposure images that reveal its dynamic structure.

Where is the Wizard Nebula

Wizard Nebula star map. Sky and Telescope, IAU.

Now that you have a better understanding of where the Wizard Nebula is located, let’s focus on how to photograph it with a camera and telescope.

How to Photograph a Nebula

Astrophotography is a rewarding and awe-inspiring hobby, but it certainly isn’t easy. 

If it weren’t enough that the night sky is a moving target, the steep learning curve of the hobby demands patience and perseverance. When you’re starting out, things like learning how to attach your camera to a telescope, and focusing on stars can be challenging.

Add in the endless amount of new equipment to learn how to use (and the cost of these items), and astrophotography begins to feel like a mountain to climb.

I vividly remember the early stages of my astrophotography journey, and how impossible photos like the one shared on the page seemed. The good news is, if you’re not overly technical or experienced, there is hope for you if you’re willing to be patient.

For a timeline of my images, be sure to follow AstroBackyard on Instagram. I upload new images each week, with a description of how they were taken. You can also take a look at my premium astrophotography image processing guide for a deep-dive into how I create my images.

Related Video: Nebula Photography Basics (Start-to-Finish)

My Deep-Sky Astrophotography Process

If you’re a frequent visitor to my website and YouTube channel, you already know how the process works. However, I realize (usually after making a post on Reddit), that the art of deep-sky astrophotography is still foreign to a large number of people.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the entire process works, the most important element is the tracking of the apparent motion of the night sky. I use an equatorial tracking mount to move at the same speed as the night sky to freeze the Wizard Nebula in place.

AstroBackyard telescope

The telescope and mount used for my image.

For this image, I used the heavy-duty Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro, but you don’t need a massive observatory-grade telescope mount like this to take amazing astrophotography images. A compact star tracker like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or the iOptron SkyGuider Pro is more than adequate for an entry-level imaging configuration. 

Because the exposure times tend to go long for a deep-sky image (longer than 30-seconds), you’ll need the tracking mount to be spinning with the night sky at sidereal rate. The longer the focal length of the telescope (magnification), the more accurate the tracking must be.

For accurate tracking, the equatorial mount needs to be polar aligned with the north or south celestial pole. In the northern hemisphere, we have the good fortune of having the North Star (Polaris) as a helpful point of reference. 

With the tracking platform compensating for Earth’s rotation, you can focus on capturing steady, long-exposure images of dim targets in space like the Wizard Nebula.

Tracking and guiding are two different things, but some people get confused about this. Guiding refers to autoguiding that utilizes a separate camera for improved tracking accuracy. You don’t need to autoguide for a successful image, but it will certainly let you shoot longer.

night photography

Using a Dedicated Astronomy Camera (Color)

I have used nearly every type of astrophotography camera available, from a sophisticated monochrome CCD camera to an entry-level DSLR. For my latest image of the Wizard Nebula, I used a one-shot-color (OSC) CMOS camera.

For beginners, I typically recommend starting out with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera. These cameras are versatile and remain a relevant option for astrophotography of all kinds (Milky Way Nightscapes, Deep-Sky, etc.). Some of my best images were captured using a DSLR camera.

The selection of dedicated astronomy cameras available now is staggering, and these cameras have the advantage of being designed for long exposure imaging. Back-illuminated sensors, thermoelectric cooling, and improved quantum efficiency are 3 important features that separate this breed from a standard daytime camera.

One-shot-color (OSC) dedicated astronomy cameras have the advantage of collecting full-color images in a single shot, even if they leave a significant amount of signal on the table (which monochrome cameras do not). 

The QHY268C has proven to be an excellent performer for my style of astrophotography, particularly when coupled with a dual-bandpass narrowband filter. This camera has an APS-C (crop) sized sensor, which is quite large in the world of OSC astrophotography sensors.

one-shot-color astronomy camera

The camera used for my photo of the Wizard Nebula (QHY268C dedicated astronomy camera).

The camera includes a cooling function to help keep thermal noise at bay and several other astrophotography-specific features that a daytime photography camera does not have. 

Although a dedicated astronomy camera may seem like an obvious choice for deep-sky astrophotography, be warned that the complexity of the image acquisition stage grows as well.

No longer can I focus the camera using the display screen on the back, I must employ dedicated software to run the camera and control settings such as gain, offset, and binning. 

These days, I am still using Astro Photography Tool to control my imaging sessions, as it does everything I need reliably.

The Ultimate Light Pollution Filter for Nebulae

My backyard suffers from horrible light pollution (Bortle Scale Class 7), so a light pollution filter that helps me isolate a nebula from a washed-out sky is essential. 

The Optolong L-eXtreme filter is especially useful because it isolates two key areas of the visual spectrum. The Ha bandpass, and the OIII bandpass, both at 7nm each.

Although you can achieve better results using a monochrome camera and dedicated narrowband filters (narrowband imaging), a dual bandpass filter makes the most of your limited time under a clear sky.

For emission nebula targets (which there are plenty of), a filter that helps isolate Ha and OIII is incredibly useful. Instead of capturing a grayscale image using one narrowband filter at a time, you can produce color images with dynamic details in a single shot.

Once captured, you can process the data in many interesting ways, including new methods of extracting the data to produce synthetic Hubble Pallete images.

Essentially, the data you see in the red channel is the H-alpha, and the blue channel contains the OIII. It should come as no surprise that the red channel is the strongest, but you can extract the signal from this channel for a luminance layer as well.

My Image of the Wizard Nebula

My final image of the Wizard Nebula contains only 1.5 hours of total exposure time. In the realm of deep-sky astrophotography, this is a very short integration.

I stacked 24 individual light frames of 4-minutes each to produce an image with a stronger signal-to-noise ratio than a single exposure. I used dark frames to calibrate the image (reduce noise), and flat frames to correct uneven field illumination.

All of the integration and calibration takes place in DeepSkyStacker. When the intermediate file has been created, I can then bring it into Adobe Photoshop for post-processing.

I make slight adjustments to my image processing workflow depending on the subject matter, but there are a number of key actions that take place on each one:

  • Levels Adjustment (Balance Background)
  • Curves Adjustment (Masking the Highlights)
  • Saturation Boost (Selective Color Boosting)
  • Star Reduction (Multiple Iterations)
  • Topaz DeNoise AI (Opacity Adjusted)
  • Sharpening (Selective)

For a complete, detailed breakdown of these adjustments, please see my premium image processing guide. You can also view many useful image processing tutorials on the astrophotography tutorials page.

Wizard Nebula

Image Details:

  • Total Exposure: 1.5 Hours (24 x 240s @ Gain 102)
  • Integration/Calibration: 15 Darks, 15 Flats, 15 Bias
  • Camera Control: Astro Photography Tool
  • Integration Software: DeepSkyStacker
  • Post-Processing: Adobe Photoshop 2020
  • Tools: Astronomy Tools Action Set, Topaz DeNoise AI

Equipment Details:

astrophotography equipment

Final Thoughts

Through the process of capturing and sharing this image of the Wizard Nebula, I am reminded of just how far I have come. For me, astrophotography has been a slow and rewarding process. 

I still remember the first time I tried to photograph the Wizard Nebula using my 80mm refractor telescope and DSLR camera. The image scale was all wrong, and the process of building an image using specialized filters was foreign to me.

However, I was just as excited to see the faint shape of a wizard appear on my camera screen then as I am now.

So, what exactly did I do to make such an improvement over the last image? It’s impossible to summarize everything I’ve learned in 6 years of deep-sky astrophotography, but here are some key improvements I made:

  • I shot the image with more focal length (higher magnification) and aperture (light-gathering power)
  • I used a duo-narrowband filter that isolates the prominent gases in this target (and keeps stars small)
  • My guiding accuracy and tracking (polar alignment) have improved
  • I now know how to take proper calibration frames to avoid excessive noise, dust, and vignetting
  • My image processing skills have improved with new techniques for pulling out faint details

Over time, your standards will get higher, and what you deem “a decent image” will change. But as long as you are making small improvements in at least one aspect of your process along the way, astrophotography will continue to reward you with memorable nights, and images that make people say “Wow! You took that?”

astrophotography progress

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Astrophotography Telescope Buying Guide – Under $2000

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Astrophotography Telescope Buying Guide

Note: This post was created back in July 2015, I have since purchased a new astrophotography telescope, the Explore Scientific ED102 (The number 1 telescope on this list)!

So you’re in the market for an astrophotography telescope, are you? There have never been so many affordable options for the amateur astrophotographer on a tight budget. I am often asked which telescope I use, and which one I would recommend for beginners. The quick answer is a high-quality, doublet or triplet refractor.  

Larger models can be very expensive (and heavy!) due to the high-quality ED glass used. I think you will be quite surprised at the performance of a small 65-80mm refractor such as the Explore Scientific ED80 I currently use for astrophotography. To view the types of wide-field images I have taken using this small telescope, please visit my photo gallery.

An astrophotography telescope buying guide? I thought you were an amateur? Yes, it’s true, but I decided that since I was doing all this intense research into which telescope I will be buying next, I would share it for others in my position to help streamline your search.

I have researched refractors made by Orion, Meade, Sky-Watcher, Tele Vue, Takahashi, Vixen, Astro-Tech, Explore Scientific, Stellarvue and William Optics. Please remember that this is my personal list, and I am by no means an expert! I tried to keep a high standard when browsing for telescopes.

All of the telescopes on this list are apochromatic refractors. I hope this top 10 list is useful for anyone looking to buy a refractor telescope for imaging under $2000 US. 

Keep in mind that with my limited budget, I am interested in getting the best balance of aperture, performance, and quality I can afford. A high-end instrument like the 76mm Takahashi might be the number one choice on your list, but it doesn’t make sense for my situation. So without further adieu, here is MY top 10 list of refractors for astrophotography:

10. Tele Vue TV76

Astrophotography Telescope - Tele Vue TV76 Doublet Refractor

Thanks to Marc Fitkin, there is an extremely useful and insightful review of this telescope on his blog. He notes the ability to use this scope as a prime lens for daytime photography as well as astrophotography. Tele Vue telescopes have a reputation for being top-quality instruments that will last a lifetime.

Because I will be using this scope for astrophotography exclusively, a model that excels in visual use has less of an impact on me. The reason this high-quality scope lands at 10 on my list is because it is at the extreme end of my budget, yet has an objective of only 76mm. Maybe one day I will be in a position to purchase premium-priced optics, but not yet.

Price: $2,000 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Ring Mount, 20mm Eyepiece, 2″ Diagonal, 1.25″ Adapter, Custom Soft Case


9. Sky-Watcher 80mm Esprit ED

Sky-Watcher 80mm Espirit

This is another model that comes with an aluminum case, diagonal, and a finder scope – a huge bonus for me. The heavy-duty Sky-Watcher exclusive “Helinear Track” focuser is a nice touch. This scope actually includes a thread-on field flattener and adaptor for Canon cameras! A major selling point for someone like me. 

I do, however, wonder how much of an upgrade this would be to my current ES ED80. The built-in dovetail is a turn-off for some, but I think it is a great feature. It is nice to see companies like Sky-Watcher catering to astrophotographers, a trend I am sure that will continue.

Update: I had the amazing opportunity to try out the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO in 2018

Price: $1,649 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Thread-on Field Flattener, 2.7″ to 2″ Adapter, 2″ to 1.25″ adapter, 2″ Diagonal, Canon Camera Adapter, Tube Rings with “V” Dovetail, Carry Case

8. Takahashi FC-76DC

Takahashi FC-76DC fluorite doublet

I can’t believe there is actually a Takahashi under $2000! Takahashi has a reputation for building a superior quality astrophotography telescope. This fluorite doublet is tied with the Tele Vue for smallest objective on this list. This instrument has the highest quality glass of all the telescopes on this list, and is very lightweight (4 lbs).

This telescope operates at a f/7.5 focal ratio, and includes a fixed dew shield. The downsides for someone in this budget are the small objective and 1.25″ focuser (though it can be adapted to 2″ with an additional accessory). The views through this “Tak” have been described as absolutely stunning.

Price: $1,949 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: None

7. Vixen ED103S Refractor

Vixen ED103S Apo Telescope

The official product description from Vixen states “ED103S lenses are almost free of chromatic aberration in all colors and are critically sharp edge to edge. The astro-photographer will be especially pleased with the high contrast images through this telescope.” 

The dual speed focuser, 4.1″ objective, and overall weight of just 8 lbs is what has me interested in this white beauty. Not to mention that it’s short tube length of 31.5″ makes it extra portable. A handy in-depth look at this instrument written by Pernel Johnson can be found here.

Price: $1,799 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Carry Handle

6. Meade 115mm ED APO

Meade 115ED Apo Triplet

Meade has catered to the next generation of imagers with this astrophotography telescope. The older version of this scope was almost identical to the Orion EON 115mm. The newer Series 6000 model uses an upgraded FK61 extra-low dispersion glass. Some notable features are the 3″ Crayford focuser, sliding dew shield, and overall build quality.

Update: In 2017, I had the opportunity to test the Meade 70mm Quadruplet APO

Price: $1,999 US (Ontario Telescope and Accessories)
Accessories Included: 3″ Diagonal, Cradle Rings, Mounting Dovetail, 8 x 50 Viewfinder, Hard Case


5. Stellarvue SV80ST

Stellarvue SV80ST-25FT

Forum users on reported that this Stellarvue Apo has an easy-to-use, well-built focuser. It allows the entire imaging train to screw together, giving you accuracy and stability when imaging. A flattener is a must-have to accompany this scope to eliminate coma, a trait many of these refractors have indeed. User reviews are very high for this precision instrument with the focuser being the biggest draw.

Price: $1,295 USD (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Hard Case

4. Astro-Tech AT106

Astro Tech AT106 Telescope

Sky and Telescope reviewed this scope back in 2009, saying: “the Astro-Tech AT106 provides all the benefits of a first-class 4-inch apo but without the premium price. I highly recommend it.” I have found a number of positive reviews about this modestly sized refractor. 

There is a great in-depth look including sample astrophotos at the scope on This astrophotography telescope uses high-quality Ohara glass, and comes with a dual speed 2.7″ Crayford focuser. At just under the $2000 range, (including an aluminum case) This telescope is definitely a top contender for my hard-earned cash.

Update: It appears as though this telescope is no longer available.

Price: ?
Accessories Included: Hard Case

3. Orion EON 115mm ED

Orion EON ED Triplet Apo

An astrophotography telescope from one of the oldest most trusted brands in the hobby. Time after time, Orion products deliver and continue to impress their reviewers. My first telescope was an Orion, so this brand holds a special place in my heart. This APO has been around for a LONG time. (I found a review from 2006!)

This quality instrument offers excellent color correction by way of the FK-61 extra-low dispersion (“ED”) optical glass in its air-spaced triplet objective lens. With a focal length of 805mm at F/7, this is a fast, medium wide-field scope. The extendable dew-shield and multiple knife-edge baffles protect your eyes from off-axis reflections and glare to ensure a view with excellent contrast. 

The extra aperture for the price is what puts this scope near the top of my list. The massive 3″, rotatable , dual-speed focuser is an attractive feature for astrophotographers.

Price: $1,499 USD (Orion Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Dovetail Bar, Foam-lined Carry Case, Starry Night Software

2. William Optics GT102

William Optics GT102

There are many fans of William Optics, and for good reason, they make quality instruments for a fair price. The focal ratio, 102mm diameter objective, and reputation of this scope make this one of my top choices for “next scope”. The optional DDG digital readout on the focuser is a neat feature, and would help me achieve accurate focus with my camera.

 I own the WO 72mm Megrez Doublet, and have had many great experiences with it for both astrophotography, and daytime nature photography.

Update: It appears as though the older version of this telescope is no longer available, and only the 20th anniversary edition is now for sale. Unfortunately, it now has a price tag that exceeds $2,000 USD! However, if you are looking for a more affordable option, have a look at the William Optics Z61

Price: $2, US (High Point Scientific)
Accessories Included: 2″ to 1.25″ Adapter, Mounting Rings, Dovetail

1. Explore Scientific CF 102mm

Astrophotography Telescope - Explore Scientific Carbon Fibre 102mm Apo Refractor

With over 4″ of aperture, and weighing just 7 lbs – Explore Scientific calls this the “perfect balance between portability and light gathering power”.

The HOYA ED glass is virtually free of chromatic aberration, and produces bright high-contrast images. The carbon fiber tube is highly temperature stable, eliminating the need for focus changes with temperature fluctuations. I am not going to lie, I am a little biased towards this telescope because of my unbelievably positive experience with the ED80.

Update: June 2016 – I bought this telescope!

I was contacted by Explore Scientific to upgrade my ED80 to the 102mm CF! Since then I have photographed many deep-sky objects including this version of the Lagoon Nebula:

M8 - The Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon Nebula

Price: $1,099 USD (High Point Scientific)
Accessories Included: 2″ Diagonal, Deluxe Case, Finder Scope Base, Vixen Dovetail

Well, there you have it, my top 10 list for anyone in the market for an astrophotography telescope. As you can see, I plan on sticking with Explore Scientific. At the end of the day, it comes down to value for me. If you have any hands-on experience with any of these telescopes and would like to comment, please do so below – I would love to hear them!

Astronomy Photo Gallery

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Cocoon Nebula with an 80mm Telescope

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IC 5164 – The Cocoon Nebula

Imaged with an 80mm Refractor

We have had a stretch of clear nights this summer, and I have been taking full advantage! This year I decided to spend some time in the sweet spot of the sky, Cygnus the Swan. This area of the night sky rises high overhead throughout the night, free from the Earths atmosphere.

My first target was IC 5164, The Cocoon Nebula. I have never attempted this object before because I heard it was quite difficult to image, and to be honest, I just didn’t like the look of it!

Cocoon Nebula 80mm

The Cocoon Nebula – Imaged with an 80mm Refractor Telescope

That all changed once I stacked my first night’s worth of images into DeepSkyStacker and saw the beautiful pink nebulosity and dust lanes start to appear. I became obsessed with adding as much time to this deep sky object as possible. I imaged the Cocoon Nebula for 3 consecutive nights, June 30, July 1 and July 2.

Photography Details

Total Exposure Time: 5 Hours (60 x 5 Minute Subs)

Telescope Mount: Skywatcher HEQ-5 Pro Synscan
Camera and Telescope: Canon Xsi (stock) Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet Apo
Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

NGC 6960 – The Western Veil Nebula

Western Veil Nebula

NGC 6960 – Western Veil Nebula

Next up is the gorgeous “Witch’s Broom” Nebula, or more specifically, NGC 6960 – The Western Veil Nebula in the constellation Cynus.  I haven’t shot this object since 2012, with lackluster results back then.  This time however,  I photographed it under darker skies, with better guiding and focus.

Photography Details:

Total Exposure Time: 4 Hours, 41 Minutes (61 Frames)
Camera and Telescope: Canon Xsi (stock) – Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet Apo
Telescope Mount: Skywatcher HEQ-5 Pro Synscan
Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

Canon Rebel Xsi: Now Modified

Now with a “Naked-Sensor” for better Astrophotography

I have some exciting news about the advancements in my astrophotography!  My next post will talk about my recent modification to my Canon Xsi to remove the IR Cut Filter. Stay tuned for a full post and description of this process!  I’ll give you a hint, I used the How to modify your Canon DSLR for Astrophotography tutorial video.

80mm Refractor Telescope

My astrophotography rig at dawn

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