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Astrophotography

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Review

|Equipment|15 Comments

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro is a computerized equatorial telescope mount with GoTo capabilities. This equatorial (EQ) mount is capable of providing precise, accurate tracking of the night sky, and is suitable for long-exposure astrophotography. 

The core specifications of this equatorial mount include having a built-in ST-4 autoguider port, a payload capacity of 44 pounds, and a SynScan computer hand controller with an extensive database of objects. 

I have been using the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro telescope mount since October 2018, and have used it to capture several deep sky images of nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters in space. In this post, I’ll share some of my favorite features of this EQ mount that I have experienced over several imaging sessions in the backyard.

Whether you already own the EQ6 and are looking to tap into more of its features, or are trying to decide which equatorial mount is best for your visual observation or astrophotography goals, this article should offer up some useful input from someone who’s been in your shoes. 

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Review

The Veil Nebula captured using the EQ6-R Pro telescope setup shown on the right.

Related Video: My first run with the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro in the backyard

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Review

Before we dive into some of the interesting features you may not have known about, here is an overview of exactly what the “EQ6” is capable of. As a preface, it’s worth noting that I use this mount for astrophotography exclusively, and I am in the northern hemisphere.

For those in the southern hemisphere, the process is very similar all around, aside from polar aligning the mount with the south celestial pole (SCP).

Before stepping up to the EQ6-R, I used a number of intermediate level astrophotography mounts, including the slightly smaller HEQ5 Pro SynScan model. 

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

Breakdown of the Gear Shown Above:

ItemModel
Equatorial MountSky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan
Imaging TelescopeSky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO
Imaging CameraZWO ASI294MC Pro
Autoguiding Scope60mm Starfield Guide Scope
Autoguiding CameraZWO ASI290mm Mini
AccessoriesQHY PoleMaster

The Basics

The EQ6-R Pro includes a SynScan hand controller with an LCD display that gives you control it’s features and basic functions. The left and right keys on the keypad control the Right Ascension (RA) axis, while the up and down arrows are used to control the Declination (DEC) axis. 

You can control the slew speed by selecting the RATE shortcut button (2) on the keypad, as it is useful to make large movements at a high speed, and subtle adjustments using a slow speed. The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro has 10 slew speeds for complete control over the movement of each axis. 

Before powering up the EQ6-R, your telescope should be in the home position. This means that the EQ head is leveled on the tripod, and the RA axis is pointed towards the north celestial pole (NCP). The counterweight should be at its lowest position, and the telescope should be pointing towards the NCP.  You can then turn on the mount and select the operation mode. 

For those interested in astrophotography, you will only ever want to use the mount in EQ mode. 

Iris Nebula

The Iris Nebula in Cepheus captured using the setup shown on this page.

With the RA and DEC clutches locked, and counterweight(s) attached, you can mount your telescope on top of the EQ head. This is accomplished by fastening the mounting plate of your telescope to the saddle, which accepts both D and V-style mounting plates.

Getting Started

Once the SynScan system has initialized, you can enter in the geographic coordinates of your observing site.

This involves entering the latitude and longitude coordinates of your current location using the cursor on the LCD display and the keypad. Then, you will enter in your current time zone, which for me, happens to be UTC -4 in southern Ontario. 

You can also enter in your current elevation, which which is used for atmospheric refraction compensation (generally, the higher your elevation, the better). Next is setting the current date and time, and whether you are currently on daylight savings time.  

Once all of these important details have been entered (so the mount understands what is available in the sky from your location), you reach the mount alignment  process, with the “Begin Alignment” dialog served up on the LCD screen. 

SynScan Hand Controller

The SynScan Hand Controller set to EQ Mode. 

Use the “Park” Feature

This simple, yet useful feature automatically aligns your telescope mount in both axis at the beginning of your imaging session. It is not exclusive to the EQ6-R Pro, yet it is easy to miss if you don’t follow the instructions in the manual on your first few runs. 

This feature is located under the “Utility Function” menu and asks you to turn off the mount after the park position has been confirmed. The next time you turn the mount on, you will see a dialog on the LCD display asking if you would like to start from the park position.

This is a handy feature that I did not personally take advantage of for the first few months of ownership with the mount. It is nice to confirm the home position when setting up, especially before beginning your polar alignment process.

The EQ6-R is Easy to Polar Align

Whether you use the built-in polar scope with the illuminated reticle, or use a QHY PoleMaster device, polar aligning the EQ6-R is a breeze. 

This largely due to the fact that the EQ6-6 includes large, Alt/Az adjustment bolts with comfortable handles. Fine tuning the polar axis of this equatorial telescope mount is possible thanks to these convenient controls.

The built-in polar finder scope with illuminated reticle allows you to accurately polar align the mount without the need for additional software or accessories. You can either use a third party  mobile app like “Polar Finder” to find out the current position of Polaris, or simply use the information displayed on the SynScan hand controller. 

The SynScan hand controller displays the position of Polaris in polar scopes field of view (FOV). You need to imagine that the large circle in the FOV of the polar scope as a clock’s face with 12:00 sitting at the top.

Then, it’s simply a matter of adjusting the Alt/Az bolts of the mount to place Polaris in the “HH:MM” position provided.

Using a PoleMaster with the EQ6-R

If you don’t like getting underneath the polar scope for a real time view of the NCP or SCP, the QHY PoleMaster is a great option. This electronic polar scope uses a small camera to display the region surrounding the north (or south) celestial pole. 

Using the live feed through the camera, you can fine tune your Alt/Az adjustments in a very precise manner. The PoleMaster requires the appropriate adapter (this is the one you need) to fasten it to the polar axis.

QHY PoleMaster Adapter

Fastening the PoleMaster to the EQ6-R using the necessary adapter.

You Can Improve the Alignment Accuracy

Before running a star alignment routine, make sure that your telescope is well balanced, and that there are no loose cables that could get caught and snag on the mount. 

The alignment routine involves choosing a bright, named star from the database and centering it in your telescope eyepiece or camera. The LCD screen displays “Choose 1st Star”, at which point you can cycle through the list to find a star that is not blocked by any obstructions from your location, and press enter.

A word of caution here, once you hit enter, the mount will start to slew to the object immediately. 

From here, it’s a matter of using the arrow buttons on the keypad to center the star. Remember, you can change the slew speed at any time by pushing the “Rate” button and setting the value higher or lower. It is often useful to leverage a finder scope on your telescope when slewing to your first alignment star, as it has a much wider field of view than your primary telescope and makes finder the first star easier. 

When running through a star alignment routine, it is important to consistently center the alignment star in the eyepiece or camera’s FOV. It is beneficial to use a reticle eyepiece with a small FOV. Personally, I use the camera’s FOV and center the star on my DSLR display screen (with grid enabled), or with a cross-hair overlay in my camera control software (Astro Photography Tool).

You can run a 1,2, or 3-star alignment to improve the pointing accuracy of the telescope. This is very important when it comes to photographing deep sky objects that are nearly invisible until a long exposure image is collected. 

Tulip Nebula

The Tulip Nebula in Cygnus using the EQ6-R Pro mount for tracking.

Avoid Errors due to Mechanical Backlash

You can improve your alignment accuracy by avoiding errors due to mechanical backlash. Backlash is present in all equatorial telescope mounts, and does not affect your observing enjoyment, or your long exposure images when autoguiding is employed.

To avoid introducing alignment error caused by backlash, center the alignment star ending with an UP and RIGHT directions from the keypad. If you overshoot the star using this method, use LEFT and DOWN to bring the star back down the FOV and try again.

Computerized Telescope Mount

The Stepper Motors are Quiet

If you haven’t used this particular mount first hand, you may be wondering what the EQ6-R sounds like while it is slewing. I have heard many astrophotography mounts over the years, and this one is impressively quiet. 

This mount uses stepper motors with a 1.8° step angle and 64 micro steps driven. This technical design aspect results in a quieter mount than on using servo motors.

This means that even at the maximum slew speed (9X), the mount emits a modest hum that will not wake up your neighbors. While the telescope mount is tracking, it is completely silent. It’s only when you move the RA or DEC axis at top speed that you hear a noise.

Compared to other equatorial telescope mounts I have used, the audible sound the EQ6-R Pro makes is more than acceptable. When you are partaking in a hobby that takes place (alone) outside at night, avoiding loud or unusual noises when possible is always a good idea.

In contrast, the Celestron CGX-L computerized mount is noticeably loud while slewing at top speed. If this mount is being used in a closed observatory, it’s not an issue. However, I set up my equipment in a city neighborhood backyard. Depending on the time of night, I hesitate slewing to a new target because of this trait. 

The Autoguiding Performance is Impressive

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro delivers impressive results when the built-in autoguider port is leveraged. Over the years I have maximized the tracking capabilities of my astrophotography mounts by using an auxiliary guide scope and camera to autoguide using a free software called PHD2 guiding

The EQ6-R Pro allows you to set change the default auto guide speed of the mount of 0.5X to 0.75X or 1.0X in the setup menu.  

I have experimented using a guiding rate of 1.0X , and saw little improvement to my guiding graph in PHD2 guiding over the default speed of 0.5X. The point is, you have the option of adjusting this setting if the need calls for it, and it’s a feature I’ve only recently tapped into on the EQ6-R Pro.

For a real-life example of the autoguiding performance you can expect with this mount, have a look at the screenshot below. The guiding graph shows that my total RMS error is 0.63″. Generally, a total RMS error of under 1-second means that you can expect pin-point stars in your long exposure images.

EQ6-R autoguiding graph

My autoguiding graph in PHD2 guiding using the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan mount. 

The Mount is Heavier Than it Looks

When it comes to equatorial mounts for astrophotography, being heavy is a good thing. However, I think some people that receive their EQ6-R for the first time may be a little surprised at how heavy the EQ6-R actually is (I was).

The weight of the EQ head is 38 lbs on it’s own, and the tripod adds another 16.5 lbs. Add in two 11-lb counterweights, and you’ve got a telescope rig that weighs 76.6 pounds, and is not going anywhere for a while.

Luckily, the EQ head includes a useful carry handle that I have certainly put to good use. Also, the supplied counterweight bar is retractable, which makes transporting the mount out the door of my garage a little easier. 

mount specifications

I used to carry my Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro SynScan around the yard with the telescope and counterweight attached. It was heavy and awkward, but manageable.

This is not possible with the EQ6-R, which is understandable considering the increased payload capacity (44-lbs) of the mount. To transport the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R from my detached garage to the yard, I must remove the counterweights and the telescope first.

It’s possible to lift the tripod with the EQ head attached (54.5 lbs), but this is likely too heavy for most folks. The good news is, this heavy profile means that accidentally bumping the polar alignment out of position by kicking a tripod leg is unlikely. Smaller, ultra-portable mounts like the iOptron SkyGuider Pro do not share this quality. 

You Don’t Need to “Mod” the Mount

If you’re a tinkerer, I get it. It may be tempting to you to open up the EQ mount head and take a look. I would advise against this personally, as you may do more harm then good.

I’ve seen a number of posts and videos discussing “belt-mods” and “hyper-tuning” Sky-Watcher NEQ6 and EQ6-R mounts. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend opening up the mount in hopes of tweaking performance, even if the underlying mechanics are straightforward to you.

In my experience, the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R can track accurately for 10-minute exposures (or longer) without any re-greasing or modifications to the worm gears when autoguiding is leveraged.

I suggest spending the time to get your balance and polar alignment spot-on before blaming the mount for bad tracking. It’s easy to get caught up in scrutinizing the mechanical backlash and periodic error present in the mount.

If you do dive into these advanced adjustments, you better be mechanically minded and ready to invest a “minimum of four hours” for a typical belt modification. 

astrophotography telescope

The EQ6-R with a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO attached.

The SynScan Hand Controller gives you Extensive Options

The included SynScan hand controller includes an impressive 42,000+ object database, with almost every possible target you could ever want to observe or photograph.

The Messier object list gets a lot of use for amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere, while the NGC catalog is great for pointing the telescope at more obscure nebulae and star clusters.

The database also includes IC and Caldwell catalogs, which covers most of the noteworthy subjects in the night sky. I only wish the database included the Sharpless catalog, for items such as the Tulip Nebula with no alternative designation.

To slew to these objects, it may be better to control the EQ6-R using your PC using supplementary PC-Link cable along with the appropriate ASCOM drivers and software.

I use the hand controller to align, and center my target. After a quick polar alignment routine using the QHY PoleMaster, the pointing accuracy of the mount is spot-on using just a 1-star align.

After you’re aligned and ready to observe or image an object in space, you can start by choosing a target using the “OBJECT” shortcut key, which contains the following object list:

  • Named Stars
  • Solar System
  • NGC Catalog
  • IC Catalog
  • Messier Catalog
  • Caldwell Catalog
  • SAO Catalog
  • Double Stars
  • Variable Stars
  • User Object
  • Deep Sky Tour

The deep sky tour is a very cool feature for visual observation sessions. Imagine a star party or public outreach event where you want to have the best list of targets at the ready.

This feature generates a list of the most famous deep sky objects that appear in the current night sky overhead. You simply go through the list and pick them off one by one.

The Periodic Error Correction (PEC) Feature

Periodic tracking error is present in all equatorial telescope mounts, and is a due to the design of the internal gears. The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R includes a periodic error correction (PEC) function to help correct this.

The PEC training procedure requires that you first polar align and star align the telescope mount. Then, slew to a star close to the celestial equator, and center it in the telescope eyepiece or imaging camera.

Then, navigate to the Utility Function > PEC Training mode and press enter. From here you can select the speed you would like to use for PEC training. The Sky-Watcher SynScan manual suggests using 0.125X sidereal rate for wider FOV telescopes such as the Esprit 100 ED APO.

After selecting the speed using the “1” or “2” keys, the screen will then start to display the elapsed time of the PEC training routine. Now, your job is to keep the star centered in the FOV using the left and right direction keys on the hand controller.

Once the PEC training routine has completed, the elapsed time will stop. Noe, you can select “PEC+Sidereal” as a tracking speed in the Setup menu. It is recommended to wait for at least one PEC training reply cycle to complete before you start taking your images.

Sky-Watcher SynScan Specifications

  • Object Catalog: Messier Catalog, NGC, SAO, Caldwell, Double Star, Variable Star, Named Star, Planets
  • Pointing Accuracy: Up to 5 arc-minutes RMS
  • Tracking Rate: Sidereal Rate, Solar Rate, Lunar Rate
  • PEC: PPEC (permanent PEC)
  • Database: 42,000+ Objects
  • LCD: 18 Characters X 2 Lines (adjustable contrast and backlight)
  • Keypad: Rubber with adjustable backlight
  • GPS: SynScan GPS Modular (Optional)
  • PC Connection: USB or RS-232X
  • Power Output: Power Supply Voltage – 0.7V, Max. 100mA current output

Power Supply for the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

As one Cloudy Nights forum member put it, the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro can get “cranky” if the right power supply is not used. I have experienced this issue myself, when I used an AC to DC power adapter that did not provide a minimum 4 amps of power.

These days, I use a 12V AC/DC adapter with 10 amps to power the EQ6-R when plugged in at home. Here is a picture of the exact AC/DC adapter I use with the EQ6-R, and here is a link to it on Amazon. Others have found the Pyramid PS9KX 5 Amp power supply to work well with this mount. 

AC/DC adapter

 

The AC/DC adapter I use to power the EQ6-R Pro mount from home. 

Final Thoughts

As you may have noticed, there is a lot to cover when discussing all of the features of the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan computerized telescope mount. The very first night I used the EQ6-R, I captured one of my favorite astrophotography images to date, and I knew I was in a for a long relationship with this mount. 

A reliable equatorial mount is the foundation of every great deep sky astrophotography kit, and the EQ6-R is a worthy investment for those looking for a stable, long-term solution for long-exposure imaging.

From my early days with the HEQ5 Pro to my latest session in the backyard with the EQ6, I’ve been extremely satisfied with the user experience and performance of Sky-Watcher’s affordable equatorial telescope mounts. 

astrophotography telescope mount

Pros:

  • Fantastic Tracking when Autoguiding Used
  • Quiet Stepper Motors even Slewing at 9X
  • Easy to Polar Align
  • Built-In PEC Training Feature

Cons:

  • Heavier Than it Looks
  • Intermediate Level Mount with Price to Match
  • Power Supply must be Correct or will Act Up

What Others Have Said:

“This mount is simply amazing. It is robust and tracks very well. I was taking 5 minute subs with no star trails. It is built like a tank and handles my Meade 5″ refractor with ease. The stepper motors are quiet. It’s simply a joy to use and I highly recommend it. The price is well worth it” – James S. on HPS website

“This mount is a tank. I have been doing astrophotography for several years using a lighter weight mount but I was ready to setup up to a heavier payload mount and I am very pleased.” – Ray on HPS website

twitter review

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro is Available with Free Shipping at High Point Scientific

EQ6-R Pro Review

Useful Resources:

Update the Firmware of your Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan (Sky-Watcher Website)

The Complete User Manual (Sky-Watcher SynScan PDF)

Do you use the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro for astrophotography? If so, let me know your experiences with it in the comments. To stay up to date with my latest adventures in the backyard, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. Until next time, clear skies!

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Astrophotography in Costa Rica (Carina Nebula)

|Nebulae|16 Comments

I’ve just returned from a vacation to Costa Rica with the goal of capturing some astrophotography images from the resort. Being so close to the equator, the night sky featured many new southern hemisphere deep sky targets I had never seen before.

Aside from astrophotography (including an impromptu Facebook Live stream from our balcony) my wife and I also enjoyed a private birding tour and some much needed relaxation. The average temperature from home in Canada was around -10 degrees Celsius, in Costa Rica, 33.

Despite the pleasant temperatures and impressive number of clear nights during our trip, it took some creativity and persistence to accomplish my astrophotography goals from this location. All-inclusive resorts never sleep, which means that the lights never go out. 

In this post, I’ll share my experiences photographing the night sky from Guanacaste, Costa Rica. For a fun overview of my experience, and some of the raw emotions this trip included, please watch the video.

Astrophotography from Costa Rica (On our honeymoon).

Astrophotography in Costa Rica

The resort we stayed at was Dreams Las Mareas, located in the northwestern peninsula of Guanacaste. The closest city is La Cruz, which is very close to the Nicaraguan border.

While other focused on the all-you-can eat buffet, piña colada’s and catamaran tours, I couldn’t help staring up at an entirely different looking night sky. 

Attempting to take deep sky images through a telescope from a vacation resort in a foreign country has its challenges. As you will soon find out, those uncontrollable variables began to add up.

Costa Rica Map

The location of our resort in Costa Rica.

A Preview of the Southern Sky

The first and most obvious looking change was just how high the Orion constellation was. How fortunate for those that live at this latitude to photograph the Orion Nebula near the zenith!

Below Sirius, in Orion, I saw the bright star Canopus for the first time. This star belongs to the southern constellation, Carina, which is non existent in mid Northern latitude skies.

In fact, there are numerous southern hemisphere constellations and deep sky objects observable from Costa Rica. I thought a trip to Australia would be necessary to see many of these targets.

Southern Deep Sky Objects from Costa Rica

southern deep sky objects

My view of the night sky from 10 degrees north of the of the equator. (Stellarium)

An easy way to get a preview of the night sky from a new location is to download the Stellarium mobile app on your smartphone. Then, you can either enter in the location manually in the settings, or let the app use your GPS for the exact latitude and longitude of your position on Earth.

My android smartphone was set to “airplane” mode during our trip, as I was able to use the resort WiFi for internet access. However, I needed to quickly turn airplane mode off for a GPS signal to get the lat/long coordinates of my location. This may not be necessary depending on your operating system. 

A GPS signal was also needed for my polar alignment process, to display an accurate position of the north celestial pole on the Polar Finder mobile app. If you are interested in the software and tools I use for astrophotography including astronomy mobile apps, be sure to visit the resources page.

mobile apps for astronomy

The Stellarium and Polar Finder mobile astronomy apps were very handy on my trip.

Polar Alignment

Since I was still in the northern hemisphere, I could theoretically polar align my telescope mount using the North Star, Polaris. The north celestial pole doesn’t land precisely on this star, but it’s a fantastic reference point. The process of polar alignment is much more difficult in the southern hemisphere. 

I have polar aligned my telescope mount countless times using the north star from home in Canada, but this time, Polaris sat just above the northern horizon. It was far too low to observe from the resort as it was blocked by the surrounding mountainous landscape and the hotel itself.

To polar align my portable iOptron SkyGuider pro, I guestimated the exact altitude of the polar axis, and it was nearly level with the horizon. At only 10 degrees north, there was no way I’d be able to spot it.

I ran a series of test exposures at 30-seconds in length to improve my rough polar alignment. Luckily the focal length (250mm) of the telescope I brought is more forgiving in terms of tracking accuracy than higher magnification instruments. The RedCat 51 is also extremely lightweight and portable, which makes it a superb choice for wide field deep sky imaging while traveling. 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

My DSLR astrophotography setup including a telescope and tracking mount.

Portable Astrophotography Gear for an Airplane

I packed all of the astrophotography equipment needed for wide field deep sky imaging in my carry-on bag on to the airplane. This included the telescope, camera, mount, tripod, filter, and adapters.

This “deep sky travel kit” included a capable equatorial telescope mount, the iOptron SkyGuider pro. The EQ head of the mount was easily packed into my bag, along with the wedge and collapsible carbon fiber tripod. This camera mount matches the apparent rotation of the night sky using a right ascension tracking motor.

The telescope is a William Optics RedCat 51 refractor. The RedCat weighs just 3.2 lbs, and can easily be mounted to a lightweight astro tracker for long exposure imaging.

Inside of the RedCat, sits a 2-inch Optolong L-Pro filter that I’ve pre-threaded into the M48 adapter of the telescope. This proved to be a great way to record images in broadband true color while reducing the immediate light pollution from the resort.

The camera is a stock Canon EOS 7D Mark II. When I say “stock”, I mean that this DSLR has not been modified for astrophotography by removing the internal IR cut filter. The camera threads on the RedCat 51 via a dedicated Canon EOS t-ring adapter.

My Portable Deep Sky Astrophotography Rig (Carry-on friendly)

  1. Tripod: Neewer Carbon Fiber Tripod
  2. Mount: iOptron SkyGuider Pro
  3. Telescope: William Optics RedCat 51
  4. Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  5. Filter: Optolong L-Pro (2″)

astrophotography equipment

The astrophotography gear used for my shot of the Carina Nebula.

The Game Plan

Due to factors such as lack of a precise polar alignment, and setting up in a high traffic area, I decided to shoot 30-second exposures at ISO 6400. This way, I could at least complete a number of successful images rather than having to discard many of them in the pre-processing stage.

The constant wave of wind gusts made keeping my camera and telescope ultra-steady during an exposure very difficult. The limited exposure lengths helped to reduce this effect.

The location of our resort meant that there was very little light pollution in the direction of the nearby Atlantic Ocean. However, this resort chooses to shoot high intensity spotlights toward the night sky during their nightly shows.

There was an unfortunate amount of localized light pollution from the many lighting fixtures that stay on all night long. The mild light pollution filter inside of the telescope adapter helped to reduce this unnatural glow.

I generally like to see all of the lights go out at night, but the lighted pathways on the resort came in handy when navigating to my deep sky imaging location near the front lobby. As an experiment, I took a photo looking towards the constellation Orion from the pathway near our room. As you can see, there is a lot of light coming from all angles.

the night sky

Deep Sky Imaging Location

I decided to stay on the resort to run the camera and telescope. The beach was a better spot in terms of darkness, but it was just too risky to leave the security of the resort at night in a foreign country.

The wind was also much stronger and unpredictable by the water, and I had enough to worry about already. I did, however, sneak down to the beach one night to take some wide angle tripod shots of the night sky. Unfortunately, the timing of this idea was off, as my photos were spoiled due to rare clouds at night. 

Costa Rica Resort

The Location of my Deep Sky Astrophotography Session from Costa Rica.

Shooting from the balcony of our room would have been ideal, but the window of sky was limited to the west. I did attempt to photograph a deep sky object from the balcony through the telescope, but it was more of an experiment than anything else.

There was a large open area of grass outside of the main lobby of the resort, and the security staff by the front entrance gave me some peace of mind. This is where I planted the tripod and iOptron SkyGuider pro with my telescope attached. I kept the tripod very low to the ground for added stability during strong winds.

The Target: Carina Nebula

Coming from a northern hemisphere sky with the usual constellations and deep sky objects, how could I not attempt the Carina Nebula from Costa Rica? This is a “bucket list” target for me, and one I didn’t imagine capturing without a trip to Australia.

The Carina Nebula (also known as the Eta Carinae Nebula) is a magnitude 1 deep sky object, so 30-second exposures were enough to reveal much of this complex and large nebula. This emission nebula is cataloged as NGC 3372, and includes multiple objects within it. 

See this annotated image for a closer look at the many deep sky objects found inside of the Great Nebula in Carina.

The Carina Nebula

  • Distance to Earth: 7,500 light years
  • Radius: 230 light years
  • Magnitude: 1
  • Designations: NGC 3372, ESO 128-EN013, GC 2197, h 3295, Caldwell 92
  • Constellation: Carina

Carina nebula star map

Star map showing the location of the Carina Nebula (Universe Today).

Cataloged deep sky objects inside of the Carina Nebula:

  • Keyhole Nebula
  • Mystic Mountain
  • Trumpler 14 Star Cluster
  • Trumpler 16 Star Cluster
  • WR 22
  • WR 25

The Carina Nebula does not reach a high altitude in the sky from northern Costa Rica, which meant I needed a low view to the horizon to capture it. The Carina Nebula just barely cleared the treeline from our resort at 10pm.

As it turned out, one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was wind. The wind gusts were as strong as 40km an hour at times, completely ruining the current exposure being captured on my portable rig.

This element was particularly painful to experience, as it can occur when absolutely every other measure of success has been taken.

To compensate for wind, I used my body to block the telescope from the direction the wind was blowing from. Also, I was limited to 30-second exposures, as this offered the best chance of completing a frame without interruption.

Results

My final image of the Carina Nebula includes just over 9-minutes of total exposure time. The following image consists of 18 x 30-second images at ISO 6400.

Carina Nebula

The Carina Nebula | 18 x 30-Seconds @ ISO 6400

Once I registered and stacked the sub frames in DeepSkyStacker, I had a total overall integration time of 9 minutes, and 30 seconds. Processing the stacked integration in Photoshop was an exciting experience, and I took my time. The individual 30-second light frames were very noisy, which was to be expected when shooting on a hot night using an ISO of 6400.

The stacking process helped improve the signal to noise ratio a great deal. However, the noise reduction actions in post processing seem to have softened the image up significantly. In these situations, it’s a fine balance between noise and overall sharpness.

I really enjoyed processing this image, and loaded it into nova.astronomy.net to be annotated. As you can see, my photo includes NGC 3293, NGC 3324 in the frame as well. This website is a great way to annotate your own astrophotography images online).

our resort

A drone shot of our resort from the beach.

Final thoughts

I would have loved to capture more data on the Carina Nebula, and attempted to capture images of more southern targets like the Centaurus A galaxy. However, I left my new bride in the hotel room during these ventures, and she was very patient and understanding to give me the time I had.

I witnessed the Southern Cross, Carina, Canopus, and much further into the southern night sky than ever before. I could hear the white-faced monkeys in the forest as my camera collected each exposure on the Carina Nebula. I stood alone in a field of grass in the dark while the rest of the guests slept or tied one on at the bar.

Deep sky astrophotography from Costa Rica in early March presents the best of two hemispheres, from Orion to the Carina Nebula. If you are planning on travelling to Costa Rica in the future, I highly suggest that you don’t forget to pack your telescope.

View a high resolution version of my Carina Nebula image on Flickr or Astrobin.

 

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Photograph the Total Lunar Eclipse

|Tutorials|6 Comments

Are you hoping to capture a photo of the total lunar eclipse on January 20, 2019? If so, you are not alone. Amateur photographers and astrophotography enthusiasts around the world will do their best to take a pictures of the lunar eclipse in January using a wide variety of camera equipment.

These days, every full moon and lunar eclipse has some sort of epic name attached to it, and the total lunar eclipse in January 2019 is no different. The media has nicknamed this astronomical event the Super Blood Wolf Moon 2019. That’s right, don’t forget to add the “Super”. 

Catchy names aside, a total eclipse of the moon is a truly breath-taking astronomical event that anyone can appreciate. Over the years, I have photographed a number of total lunar eclipses, and I plan to do so again on January 20, 2019. There are many ways to photograph the total lunar eclipse this January, but for the best results I recommend using a DSLR camera and a small refractor telescope on a tracking mount. 

lunar eclipse photography methods

The total lunar eclipse on January 20-21, 2019 is the only total eclipse of the moon in 2019 around the world, with a partial lunar eclipse happening on July 16 in isolated parts of the world. 

To capture a detailed portrait of the moon like the image above, a long focal length and a tracking equatorial mount are required. However, it is also possible to produce a comparable close-up image using a digital camera or smartphone through the eyepiece of a non-tracking telescope using the eyepiece projection method.

In this post, I’ll share some tips for photographing this celestial event using both basic and advanced astrophotography equipment. 

What is a Lunar Eclipse?

Do you understand why a lunar eclipse happens? There are two types of lunar eclipses: partial and total. I am happy to say that the event on January 20-21 is the extra exciting one.

As you know, the Earth orbits the sun, and the moon orbits the Earth. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth is sitting directly between the sun and the moon. Although the moon is being covered in Earths shadow, some sunlight still reaches the moon. 

When the moon enters the central umbra shadow of the Earth, it turns red and dim. This distinctive “blood” color is due to the fact that the sunlight is passing through Earth’s atmosphere to light up the disk of the moon. 

What is a lunar eclipse?

A diagram of what happens during a total lunar eclipse – NASA

Unlike a solar eclipse, observing a total lunar eclipse is completely safe to do with the naked eye. This natural phenomenon can be enjoyed without the aid of any optical instruments, although binoculars can really help to get an up-close view of the action.

Where and When will it Happen?

The total lunar eclipse will take place on January 20-21, 2019, with the total phase visible from North and South America. From my vantage point in Ontario, Canada, the maximum eclipse will occur at 12:15am on January 21. To find out when the total lunar eclipse will take place from your location, you can check out this eclipse map on Timeanddate.com.

CityPenumbral begins:Maximum:Duration:
Los AngelesJan. 20 at 6:36pmJan. 20 at 9:12pm5 Hours, 11 Minutes
DenverJan. 20 at 7:36pmJan. 20 at 10:12pm5 Hours, 11 Minutes
ChicagoJan. 20 at 8:36pmJan. 20 at 11:12pm5 Hours, 11 Minutes
TorontoJan. 20 at 9:36pmJan. 21 at 12:12am5 Hours, 11 Minutes
St. JohnsJan. 20 at 11:06pmJan. 21 at 1:42am5 Hours, 11 Minutes

There are 7 stages of a total lunar eclipse, and many amateur photographers like to capture the event in each stage. This can later be made into a composite photo showing the transition of the moon as Earth’s shadow covers it. A time lapse video is another excellent way to capture each stage of the eclipse.January 2019

The maximum eclipse stage is when most photographers want a great shot. This is when the the moon turns “blood” red and the surrounding night sky becomes much darker from our point of view on Earth. It is an unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to witness this moment.

lunar eclipse path 2019

Lunar Eclipse Path – January 20-21, 2019 – NASA

Stages of the total lunar eclipse:

  • Penumbral Eclipse begins
  • Partial Eclipse begins
  • Full Eclipse begins
  • Maximum Eclipse
  • Full Eclipse ends
  • Partial Eclipse ends
  • Penumbral Eclipse ends

An interesting thing happens when the moon is completely eclipsed by the shadow of Earth. Not only does the moon turn to an eerie reddish hue, but the stars and constellations surrounding the moon begin to appear as they would on a moonless night. Capturing a scene like this requires careful planning and execution.

Tips for Photographing the Total Lunar Eclipse

There are numerous ways to photograph a lunar eclipse, but here are 5 methods I techniques I suggest you try out:

  • Point-and-shoot digital camera through a telescope eyepiece (eyepiece projection)
  • Smartphone camera through a telescope eyepiece 
  • DSLR camera and wide angle lens on a stationary tripod
  • DSLR camera and telephoto lens on a tracking mount
  • DSLR camera attached to telescope (prime focus) on a tracking mount
  • Dedicated astronomy camera attached to telescope and tracking mount

    total lunar eclispes

    A photo of the “Super Blood Moon” eclipse I captured from my backyard in 2015

All of the methods described above are capable of incredible lunar eclipse photos. However, the ones that leverage the full manual control of a DSLR or dedicated astronomy camera will have more creative control over the types of shots available.

 

Wide-angle nightscape images that include a large portion of the night sky including an eclipsed moon can be done using a DSLR and tripod. For a 30-second exposure, a tracking mount is not necessary. At a focal length of 18mm or wider, star trailing will begin to show after about 20-25 seconds, so just keep that in mind. 

To capture the stars and constellations in the night sky, an ISO of 800 or above is recommended. However, this exposure will likely record the eclipsed moon as a featureless ball of light.

To properly capture both the starry sky and a detailed moon, you will need to capture exposures of varying lengths and blend them together into a composite image. This is because the moon is much brighter (even while eclipsed) than the surrounding starry sky.

A composite image can be made be masking the area of your night sky exposure, and blending in a shorter exposure of the moon with surface details. This technique will take some time and experience to master, but the results can be amazing.

I’ll share a few more astrophotography tips a little farther down the post.

Using a DSLR and Telescope

A telescope can provide an up-close view of the eclipsed moon, and will allow you to take pictures of the moon using your camera or smartphone. The prime focus method of astrophotography is best, as the camera sensors focal plane is aligned with the telescope. You can directly attach a DSLR camera using a T-Ring adapter to utilize the telescopes native focal length.

t-ring adapter

A DSLR camera and T-Ring Adapter attached to a telescope

The prime focus method requires that the telescope tracks the apparent rotation of the night sky to avoid any movement in your shots. To learn more about the process and equipment involved for deep-sky astrophotography, have a look at a typical DSLR and telescope setup.

If your goal is to capture an up-close view of the moon during the eclipse, there are many benefits to this technique. A small refractor telescope will have the adequate amount of focal length (magnification), offer precision focus, and a stable base to attach to an equatorial telescope mount. 

To record the lunar eclipse with a DSLR camera, no filters are necessary. A stock DSLR camera is best as the additional wavelengths available with a modified camera are unused in moon photography.

camera settings for lunar eclipse

Camera settings used for my lunar eclipse photo

Without a tracking equatorial mount, a 2.5 second exposure like the one above is impossible. Even 1-second of movement at this focal length will record a blurry image if the telescope or lens is not moving at the same speed as the moon.

The benefit of shooting a longer exposure during the maximum eclipse, is that you also record the starry sky behind the moon. To do this in a single exposure on a normal full moon is not possible as the dynamic range is too wide.

A dedicated one-shot-color astronomy camera is more than capable of taking a brilliant photo of the eclipse as well. The computer software used to control these devices have countless options to control the Gain and exposure settings of theses cameras. 

For projects like this, I personally enjoy the freedom and simplicity of a DSLR. Camera settings such as ISO, exposure and white balance can easily be changed on-the-fly as the eclipse is taking place.

Using a Telephoto Camera Lens

A telephoto camera lens with at least 300mm of focal length will also work well. At longer focal lengths like the ones necessary for a close up of the moon, you must use a fast exposure to capture a sharp photo of the moon. This is because the Earth is spinning, so you’re essentially trying to photograph a moving target. 

The image below was captured using a Canon EOS 70D and a Canon EF 400mm F/5.6 Lens. 

partial eclipse phase

The final stages of the partial eclipse phase are challenging to photograph because there is a bright highlight on a small portion of the moon. For the photo below, the camera settings included an ISO setting of 6400, and a shutter speed of 1/8.

A tracking telescope or camera mount such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro (pictured below) is recommended. An equatorial mount that is polar aligned with the rotational axis of the Earth will allow you to take longer exposures, and get more creative with your camera settings.

Owners of astronomical telescopes for astrophotography usually own a GoTo equatorial mount. This allows the user to enter any celestial object into the hand controller, and the mount will automatically slew to that object once it has been properly star aligned.

An iOptron SkyGuider Pro camera mount with a DSLR and 300mm Lens attached

The key to capturing details of the moons surface in your lunar eclipse photo is reach, and exposure. By this, I mean that you need enough magnification to show the detailed craters of the moon’s surface, and a fast enough shutter speed to not blow out any of the highlights in your image. 

To do this, a precise exposure length must be used. One that preserves the data in your image while also bringing enough of the shadowed areas forward is ideal. For my photos, I found an ISO of 200 and an exposure of 1/200 to work quite well. This was enough to showcase a starry sky behind the eclipsed moon.

I use Adobe Photoshop to process all of my astrophotography images, including photos of the moon and our solar system. Adobe Camera Raw is a fantastic way to edit your images of the lunar eclipse because it gives you complete control over the highlights and color balance of your image. 

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Camera Raw offers powerful tools to edit your photos of the Total Lunar Eclipse

With the camera connected to the telescope (prime focus astrophotography), experiment with different exposures and ISO settings in manual mode, using live-view to make sure you have not under/overexposed the image.

The shortest exposures will only be useful during the partial stages of the lunar eclipse, as the lunar eclipse is beginning and ending. As I mentioned earlier, this is a challenging phase of the even to capture in a single shot, as the shadows and highlights of the image are from one end of the spectrum to the other.

When the moon enters totality, you will need to bump up your ISO, and/or your exposure length to reveal the disk of the moon as it becomes dimmer. Use a timer or external shutter release cable to avoid camera shake if possible. Ideally, you’ll keep the ISO as low as possible for the least amount of noise. With an accurately polar-aligned tracking mount, exposures of 2-5 seconds will work great.

Using a Smartphone or Point-and-Shoot Camera

Another way you can photograph the moon is to use the eyepiece projection method of astrophotography. To do this, you’ll simply position your digital camera or smartphone into the eyepiece of the telescope. This method usually requires a far amount of trial and error, but you may be quite surprised with your results.

An eyepiece smartphone adapter may help to steady your shot of the lunar eclipse. Although you’ll have much less control over exposure and record less detail, this technique can be used with a non-tracking telescope such as the Apertura AD8 Dobsonian I reviewed in late 2018. 

The moon is one of the few subjects that is easy to photograph with a non-tracking mount, although the transition phases of the eclipse will be more difficult. I recommend capturing the lunar eclipse during its maximum phase if you’re using this method. You likely won’t be able to capture a well-exposed image  using the cameras auto-exposure mode.

Experiment with your cameras manual settings that allow for variations in shutter speed. 

Without Using a Telescope 

If you are simply using a point and shoot camera, or a DSLR and lens on a tripod, you can still take photo of the lunar eclipse. This is often a great way to capture the landscape and mood of the moment. The photo below was captured back in October 2014 using a CaDSLR Canon EOS 7D and a 18-200mm lens.

The wide angle tripod shot was photographed at 18mm, while the inset image was captured at the lenses maximum focal lengh of 200mm. 

Total Lunar Eclipse - Moon Photography

Just like I mentioned when using a phone camera, you’ll want as much manual control over the camera settings as possible. “Auto” mode, flash, and autofocus won’t work on a photo of the total lunar eclipse. Adjusting individual parameters such as exposure length and ISO is essential when photographing objects at night. 

Practice taking shots at night beforehand, so that you are ready when the eclipse happens. Ideally, find a location that includes some interesting foreground and background details to capture a dramatic scene on the night of the event. 

I hope you enjoy the total lunar eclipse in January with your friends and family. If the weather cooperates, I will be photographing the event from my backyard using a DSLR camera and telescope. 

Related Posts:

My Best Astrophotography Tips for Beginners

Choosing a Camera for Astrophotography

How to Take Pictures of the Moon

Helpful Resources:

 In-the-sky.org’s calendar of Celestial Events for 2019

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ZWO ASI294MC Pro Review

|Camera|24 Comments

The ZWO ASI294 MC Pro is a remarkably capable one-shot-color CMOS camera for deep sky astrophotography. Whether you use it for broadband true-color images on a moonless night or ultra-long-exposure images using your favorite narrowband filter – this camera can produce insanely beautiful images.

This is easily one of the best color cameras I have ever used for astrophotography, and my go-to choice for a night of deep sky imaging. Over the past year, I have used this camera extensively through a number of telescopes in the backyard and beyond.

Here is a taste of what the ASI294MC Pro can do:

M20 - The Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula using a Luminance Filter with the ASI294 MC Pro

This photo of the Trifid Nebula was captured using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro with an Astromania Luminance filter (IR Cut) in front of the sensor. The photo was captured under the dark skies of the Cherry Springs Star Party in 2018.

The ASI294MC Pro has proven to be an incredible 4/3 sensor CMOS astronomy camera in the astrophotography community. This camera is responsible for my best deep sky images to date, including the photos shown below.

ZWO ASI294MC Pro Images

It is the best camera I have ever personally used for astrophotography, and I continue to use it to this day. At under $1K (US), you’ll be hard pressed to find a more versatile, reliable, and easy-to-use color astronomy camera.

This camera works exceptionally well with broadband light pollution filters, and narrowband filters. Many people will advise you not to use a color camera with narrow bandpass filters such as H-alpha or OIII, but I have found the 294MC Pro to perform extremely when used with a duo-narrowband filter.
where to buy

Order the ZWO ASI294MC Pro Camera

If you want to see what others are doing with the ASI294MC Pro, have a look at the #ASI294MCPro hashtag on Instagram, and you’ll see that it’s not just me. You can also see exquisite example images with this camera on Astrobin. 

ASI294MC Pro Astrophotography Camera Review


 

I can safely say that I now know exactly what the ASI294MC Pro is capable of, and some recommended settings that you can use for a successful image. I’ve used this camera for both full-color images with light pollution filters, an IR cut filter and narrowband filters that separate certain wavelengths of light such as Ha and OIII.

This OSC (One-shot-color) camera performs exceptionally well in both situations. The idea of capturing narrowband images with a color camera is something that is generally advised against in the astrophotography community. This is because a color sensor will essentially record about one-quarter of the detail a mono camera would.

The cheat code, however, is to use a color camera like the ASI294 MC Pro with a duo-narrowband filter like the STC Astro Duo-Narrowband filter. This has the power to build gorgeous deep sky images like the Eagle Nebula example below in a single shot.

The Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula in Ha + OIII (STC Astro Duo-Narrowband Filter)

The photo above was captured in a Bortle Scale Class 8 light polluted area (my backyard) using the ASI294 MC Pro. It showcases both Ha and OIII gases of this Emission Nebula (Messier 16) for some astonishingly detailed results from the city.

This dedicated astronomy camera houses a high-sensitivity type 4/3 CMOS image sensor that supports 4K output at 120 frames per second. It’s a SONY 10.7 MP sensor that produces high-resolution 4144 x 2822 pixel images at its native resolution.

I generally bin my images 2×2, so that just means that my photos are half of that size, in greater resolution. (smaller pixel size). The Bayer pattern of this color sensor is RGGB, which you’ll need to remember when selecting the camera in your image control software, and before stacking.

This camera is well suited for color EAA astronomy (Electronically-Assisted Astronomy), as the ASI294MC Pro includes a 256MB DDR3 memory buffer to help improve data transfer reliability. This is a great feature to consider if you plan on diving into this type of visual astronomy.

You can benefit from the high sensitivity sensor to view more detail in a deep sky object in a “live” looping video feed. Because I am obsessed with collecting images, the only time I experience a glimpse of this feature is when I am framing my target!

Comparing Specs Between ASI Color Cameras:

CameraSensorSensor SizeResolutionPrice
ASI183MC ProSONY IMX1831"20 MPCheck Current Price
ASI294MC ProSONY IMX2944/3"10.7 MPCheck Current Price
ASI071MC ProSONY IMX071APS-C (1.8")16 MPCheck Current Price
ASI128MC ProSONY IMX128Full Frame (35mm)24 MPCheck Current Price

All of the Pro model ASI color cameras include the DDR3 Buffer technology which results in faster data transfer speeds and reduces amp glow. Each one of these cameras requires 55mm of back focus between the image sensor and your flattener/reducer.

In the case of the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2, no field flattener is needed as this optical system is very flat to begin with. However, a new backfocus distance is needed between the camera sensor and the top surface of the lens group cell. To achieve the required spacing of 29mm for the RASA, I used a Starizona filter slider drawer to give me some added backfocus.

RASA backfocus distance

Making the Upgrade from a DSLR to a CCD-style camera

When I began using color CMOS cameras like the ASI294 MC Pro, I could no longer use the camera control software I did with my DSLR’s (Backyard EOS). Instead, I use an application called APT (Astro Photography Tool), which allows me to control every aspect of the camera from the cooling temperature to gain.

Upgrading from a DSLR to a CCD type astronomy camera like this is a big transition. For me, the hardest part was getting used to controlling the camera entirely with external software.

The change in image file formats (from .RAW to .FIT was also a bit of a hurdle early on. Luckily, DeepSkyStacker is well suited to stack and de-Bayer this image format into a high resolution .TIF file that you can process in Photoshop.

ZWO ASI294MC Pro Review

The two-stage TEC (Thermo-electric cooling) is perhaps the biggest difference and advantage a dedicated astronomy camera has over a DSLR. As you may know, noise is a big issue to deal with when taking long exposures at a high ISO. I’ve battled with noise for many years (and continue to do so) when processing my astrophotography images taken with my Canon T3i and 5D Mk II DSLR’s.

A cooled CMOS camera like the ASI294 MC Pro can cool its sensor down to 35 degrees below ambient. This results in images that are virtually free of thermal noise. I should mention that it’s important to understand that this means 35 degrees below the current temperature, so if it’s a hot 30-degree night, the camera will max out at -5 degrees.

APO refractor telescope

The ASI294MC Pro Camera attached to my Explore Scientific ED102 Refractor Telescope

Pixel Scale

The pixel size of the ZWO ASI294MC Pro is a great match for many of my astrophotography telescopes. The pixel size of the ASI294 is 4.63µm, which is in the middle of the road for the ASI camera lineup. For comparison, the ASI183MC Pro has a sensor with a 2.4µm pixel size.

So what does this mean for your astrophotography images?

In the amateur astrophotography community, a general rule of thumb is to use a pixel scale that is between 1.0 to 2.0 to be “well sampled”. This is simply a rough guideline and should not be taken too literally. The math for calculating the pixel scale of a particular camera and telescope combination is:

pixel size (4.63) / focal length (550) x 206 = 1.73

When using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro with the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2, I have a pixel scale of 2.38 which some consider to be “under-sampled”. Theoretically, under sampling can lead to blocky or pixelated stars in your image, although in reality I have never known this to be a noticeable problem (in any of my telescopes).

Compare this to the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100, which provides me with a pixel scale of 1.73. The bottom line is, it’s worth calculating the pixel scale of your camera and telescope combo before making any big decisions. In my experience, the ZWO ASI294 is an extremely versatile choice for many telescope focal lengths.

Pixel Scale

Thor’s Helmet – ZWO ASI294MC Pro with the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2.

Connections and Software

The camera is connected to my computer via a USB 3.0 cable. For the cooling feature, it also requires an external 12V power supply that does not come included with the camera. If you’re anything like me, you have accumulated a number of 12V adapter cables over the years.

To keep things organized and convenient, I now connect the power port on the ASI294MC Pro to the outlets on my Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box. This means that the camera and telescope don’t have another power cable running to an outlet. It all rides atop the iOptron CEM60 equatorial mount.

The camera is controlled using APT, which required the appropriate drivers from the ZWO ASI website. Installing the driver is painless, and then the “ASI camera” selection will appear from the drop-down menu the next time you connect the camera to APT.

The cooling function is set using the “Cooling Aid” within Astro Photography Tool. It can take a few minutes to get the camera sensor to the temperature you want it. It’s best to get a head start on this process so you’re not waiting around when it’s time to shoot.

A One-Shot-Color Camera – Impressive Specs

I love how sensitive the SONY IMX294CJK sensor is on this camera. The dynamic range of this camera sensor is listed at 13 stops. This is even more than the legendary AS1600 camera from ZWO. This characteristic is thanks to the built-in 14bit ADC (analog-to-digital converter) unit on the 294MC Pro.

ZWO ASI294MC Pro Camera Specs:

  • Sensor: 4/3″ SONY IMX294 CMOS
  • Diagonal: 23.2mm
  • Resolution: 10.7 Mega Pixels (4144 X 2822)
  • Pixel Size: 4.63µm
  • Bayer Pattern: RGGB
  • ADC:14bit
  • DDRIII Buffer: 256MB
  • Back Focus Distance: 6.5mm
  • Cooling: Regulated Two Stage TEC

If you’re wondering what the difference is between the MC-Cool and MC-Pro cameras from ASI are, it’s the DDR3 memory buffer. For non-tech-heads (like myself) this basically means that the camera can transfer data faster and more efficiently. It also reduces amp glow because this artifact is primarily caused by slow transfer speeds.

Here is what the amp glow looks like on a single image captured with the ASI294MC Pro. The amp glow is completely removed after stacking the images with dark frames in DeepSkyStacker.

amp glow

Recommended settings for the ASI294 MC Pro

I find that the best camera settings to use with this camera are to set the gain at “unity gain” and an exposure length of 3 to 5 minutes. This, of course, depends on the deep sky target you are shooting, and the filters being used with the camera.

For example, using a narrowband filter such as a 12nm Ha, I would choose an exposure length of at least 5 minutes. I even shot some images that were as long as 10 minutes with this camera. The photo below shows the Rosette Nebula using a stack of 20 x 10 minutes exposures using the ASI294MC Pro and an Astronomik 12nm Ha filter.

NGC 2244 in Ha

Because the sensor is so sensitive, I can often find my deep sky target in a 2-3 second exposure in live loop mode. This is usually with a strong narrowband filter in front, which is quite impressive. This makes framing the target much easier because you’re able to see the shape and orientation of the DSO (almost) in real time as you adjust the telescope.

Taking flat frames with the ASI294MC Pro

I use 3 layers of white t-shirts when capturing flat frames with the ASI29MC Pro. I point the telescope towards the morning dawn sky with the t-shirts covering the telescope objective.

When the white t-shirt method isn;t cutting it, a flat field panel like the Artesky Flat Field Generator works exceptionally well. 

flat frame target ADU

Taking flat frames with the ASI294MC Pro using a flat field panel (Artesky Flat Field Generator).

I use the CCD Flats Aid tool in Astro Photography Tool to find the correct exposure to hit my target ADU (25,000). In my experience the images are usually around an exposure of 0.03381 when using a gain setting of 120 (unity gain). This creates a flat field image with an ADU of approximately 25000.

I have heard that others have found success by using longer flat frame exposures, which can be accomplished by adding more layers of white t-shirts or with an adjustable flat panel.

Final Thoughts

If you compare the ASI294MC Pro vs. the ASI071MC Pro, you’ll find that the price is significantly more affordable for the 294. I’ve used both of these cameras (The ASI071 camera was the older non-pro “Cool” version), and the image results are remarkably comparable.

The biggest difference between the two cameras is, of course, the sensor itself. The sensor in the AS071 is a 16MP APS-C sized chip, while the ASI294 is a four-thirds 10.7 MP sensor. This changes the pixel scale of your images and thus the apparent size of the objects you’ll capture through your telescope.

For APO refractors in the 700-1000mm range, the pixel scale of the ASI294 MC Pro was the absolute perfect size for some of my favorite deep sky targets like the Eagle Nebula and Pelican Nebula. I used a Starfield 0.8X reducer/flattener with this camera and the various refractor telescopes I used when imaging deep sky objects.

Deep sky astrophotography telescope

If you’re looking to upgrade your DSLR or current color astronomy camera to the realm of “cooled” CMOS sensors – my results with the ASI294 MC Pro should help you make a more informed decision. I highly recommend the ASI294 MC Pro camera if you are in the market for a color astrophotography camera with some serious power and versatility.

I hope you enjoyed this review! If you’d like to stay up to date with all of the future posts on AstroBackyard, please sign up for my newsletter.

Dumbbell Nebula

Related Posts:

Controlling this camera with the ASIair

Capturing Narrowband Images with a Color Camera

A perfect match for the ASI294MC Pro (Sky-Watcher Esprit 100)

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Upgrading My Computer for Astrophotography

|Equipment|16 Comments

The past 48 hours have been a whirlwind of software downloads, driver updates and even a last minute run to the computer store (for a new USB to RS232 cable)

I am happy to report that the journey was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time to advance my progress in this incurable addiction we call deep sky astrophotography. As I write this – my camera is recording impressive unguided 2-minute images of the North America Nebula using the new PC.

North America Nebula

NGC 7000 – 26 Minutes of Exposure Time (13 x 2 minutes)

The new computer has inspired me to bring my old equatorial mount out of retirement, and the above photo proves she can still hold her own. (unguided!) But first, let’s take a step back and look at how I got here.

Upgrading My Computer for Astrophotography

The computer I’ve used for astrophotography until now was a Sony VAIO with USB 2.0 ports, 2GB RAM, and a severely outdated processor. With new astrophotography hardware products hitting the market that demand faster and more capable machines, I knew the old Sony’s days were numbered.

The most recent of these products being the impressively small and powerful Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box. I had some issues connecting to the device early on that I am convinced are related to my aging computer with USB 2.0 ports.

laptop computer

My aging laptop computer for astrophotography

The USB drivers are a complete mess on this old laptop. I probably could have wasted a few more nights under the stars troubleshooting the issue, but instead decided to channel the experience as a catalyst for a new machine.

(It’s amazing how certain situations in astrophotography result in the necessity for new equipment:)

Controlling the Telescope, Camera, and Mount

I should state this right out of the gate, so there is no confusion about this post. The computer I recently upgraded to is for controlling my camera and telescope mount, not for processing deep sky images.

I use a more powerful (and much less portable) computer for photo and video editing, as I am sure many of you do. (It’s an ASUS ROG GL752 for those interested.)

The computer I’ll be discussing in this post is destined to spend countless nights next to my telescope. It needs to be lean and mean, so I can rely on it produce consistent astrophotography images with my equipment.

It must be able to withstand the elements and connect to all of my current and future imaging cameras and devices.

Trevor from AstroBackyard

My old computer for astrophotography on a cold night in March

A truly efficient computer for astrophotography will ideally only have the essential applications needed for camera and telescope control installed. A jack-of-all-trades machine that includes image-editing software, multimedia, and other unnecessary applications can slow down PC performance and introduce potential headaches.

The perfect astrophotography computer should be a no-nonsense PC with only one purpose, to reliably control your telescope and collect images. In this post, I’ll do my best to compare the most popular choices against the solution I ended up pulling the trigger on.

Options for Deep Sky Astrophotography

In July of 2018, I reached out the AstroBackyard Facebook community for advice on a new PC to control my telescope mount and camera.

The popularity and availability of portable “Mini PC’s” piqued my interest, but the thought of not having complete control of the device accessible at all times raised a few questions.

Needless to say, I had some serious decisions to make about the way I will be controlling my imaging sessions over the next few years.

After some great advice, I began leaning towards a high-end Intel Mini Compute Stick. Naturally, I loved the portability and size of this option, as it’s hard to imagine getting an astrophotography computer smaller than a pack of gum.

Mini PC Sticks

The ASUS VivoStick and the Intel Compute Stick are 2 popular “mini PC” options for running the Windows operating system. Raspberry Pi mini computer systems are also quite popular, but I won’t be covering these as I don’t have any experience using one for astrophotography.

The Intel Compute Stick (pictured below) had the most attractive options for someone in my position. The model I was drawn to included a pre-installed copy of Windows 10,  4GB of RAM and an integrated wireless adapter.  These specs already topped those of my previous imaging laptop at the size of a USB drive.

Intel Compute Stick

The Intel Compute Stick with a Core m3 Processor

However, the price tag of the high-end CS325 model competed with laptop computers with similar specs (that include an integrated keyboard and mouse). I understand that the power and convenience of such advanced technology in a small size comes at a premium.

The slightly larger Intel NUC mini PC was referred to me by several happy customers, but again, the price tag is steep if you’re looking to get the model with high-end specs. The Core i7 version I was interested in included SSD/HHD bays but did not include any onboard storage out of the box.

Intel NUC

The Intel NUC with a Core i7 Processor

In the end, I concluded that a mini PC was not critical to my astrophotography configuration. My setup is non-permanent and having a single cable running to a powered USB 3.0 hub on the mount does not bother me. (for now)

My need for a new computer to control my astrophotography sessions was instigated by outdated hardware, not a desire to reduce the size of my imaging footprint.

Dedicated Astrophotography Computers

A number of astrophotography control computers have hit the market over the past few years, with the Prima Luce Labs EAGLE Core becoming a household name. (Well, in my household anyway).

I’ve seen the results of the Eagle Core control unit used by Sara Wager of Swag Astro, and Corey Schmitz of Photographing Space, and they both had great things to say about this product. As Prima Luce Labs puts it, this control unit is “much easier than a computer”. In fact, I had a chance to talk to the owner of Prima Luce Labs in April:

Eagle Core Astrophotography Computer Control Unit

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The ASIair is another interesting computer control option, and another product I first saw mentioned at NEAF. The ASIair can autoguide, plate solve, and of course capture images. It’s extremely small.

What I found interesting about this option is that ZWO specifically mentions that the ASIair was designed for wide-field astrophotography. In all of their demos and product images, they show a compact APO refractor on a GoTo mount.

ASIair

The ASIAIR imaging control unit

I’ll keep an eye on this one as it is a brand new product at a reasonable price. I know there is a huge market for these types of units and I expect future iterations to follow.

My Final Decision

After digesting all of the helpful information provided by vendors, peers, and fellow imagers, I finally landed on a decision to control my equipment I could live with.

I had a clear vision of the best astrophotography computer for my needs. Another Laptop.

Perhaps I am just too stuck in my old ways to embrace the incredible new solutions available for deep sky astrophotography. Or maybe I just like the thrill of a great deal.

The replacement for my beloved old Sony VAIO laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad 11e. Just a quick note, this is an older generation model that has since sold out, but the link listed is the closest comparable model I could find.

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e review

As cutting edge and impressive as the Intel NUC and Compute Sticks are, the lack of integrated display and steep price tag lead me to explore more options. I enjoy controlling my mount from inside the house on Team Viewer as much as the next guy, but I also want to be able to have complete control over each software tool while sitting next to my rig.

When I found a no-nonsense laptop with speed and performance in a small package on Amazon, I pounced. The Lenovo ThinkPad 11e has a 128 GB Solid-State Hard Drive – which means there is no fan to make noise or fault in the extreme temperatures of my backyard.

The best laptop computer for astrophotography

It also boasts a respectable 8GB of RAM, an Intel Celeron N2920 processor and an internal wifi adapter. All this in a highly portable 11.6” package – for $250 (CDN). The model I ordered was certified refurbished – which certainly helped reduce the price.

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Specs:

  • 1.86 GHz Intel Celeron N2920 Processor
  • 8 GB RAM
  • 128 GB SSD
  • 2 X USB 3.0 Ports
  • HDMI Port
  • 11.6-inch HD LED anti-glare Display
  • 1366 x 768 HD Resolution
  • Integrated Wireless Network Adapter

With a clean slate on a Windows 10 machine, it was time to download each and every software tool I use for astrophotography.

This proved to be a great opportunity to share the current software tools I use for camera and telescope control, as I had to reinstall each and every application on a brand new laptop.

Software Downloads:

  1. Astro Photography Tool
  2. AltairCapture
  3. SharpCap
  4. PHD2 Guiding
  5. Pegasus Astro Power Box Software
  6. Pegasus Astro Focus Controller
  7. Team Viewer

Driver Downloads

  1. iOptron Commander
  2. ASCOM Platform
  3. USB to RS232 Prolific COM Driver
  4. ZWO ASI Camera Driver
  5. Altair Astro Camera Driver

To summarize, the new laptop will control virtually every aspect of my deep sky imaging sessions using APT, PHD2 and the Pegasus Astro software. My early tests using the Pocket Power Box have been promising. So far, I’ve utilized the temperature sensor, onboard 12V outlets, and even the dew heater controllers.

Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box

A More Organized Approach

My goal for the remainder of this year is to get my imaging rigs organized in an effort to save time. With new telescopes and cameras to test and review each month, I have grown tired of scrambling to make things work under the pressure of a rare clear sky.

I’ll have two rigs ready to go that can be controlled using the new Lenovo laptop. Here is the new computer in use for an imaging session on the North America Nebula.

astrophotography setup

The new computer in use with my camera and telescope

I’ve still got some bugs (and cable management) to work out on my “ready for anything” rig that involves the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 equatorial mount and Explore Scientific ED 102 telescope. This setup includes the Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box and Motorized Focuser.

This kit will be deployed for wide field deep sky astrophotography on nights when lugging the big CEM60 and a large telescope isn’t possible.

I captured 26 minutes of unguided subs on the Lenovo ThinkPad 11e laptop with this rig as a test to make sure everything was working properly.

deep sky imaging

Capturing NGC 7000 using APT on my new imaging computer

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is, invest in the type of imaging control solution that works best with your style and equipment profile. For example, if you have a highly-automated imaging setup in a permanent observatory, an onboard mini PC connected to a wifi tablet is probably the most convenient option.

The EAGLE Core and ASIAIR offer an impressive user experience for amateur astrophotographers that want to control everything from their smartphone. This option may seem like the obvious best choice, but for backyard astrophotographers without a permanent setup like me, it’s nice to have the practicality of a traditional laptop computer.

 

I spend a lot of time outside with my rig while it’s running. It will be interesting to see if the new mini PCs and dedicated control units like the EAGLE Core are the preferred choice for beginners getting into the hobby. Anything that can streamline a complex and involved process is sure to be a hit with consumers.

Having been in this game for nearly a decade, I guess you could say I’m “old school”. If you’ve used a mini PC or any of the specialized astrophotography computers mentioned in this post, please let me know how it’s working for you in the comments.

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