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Astrophotography

The ultimate astrophotography target for your DSLR and telescope

|Nebulae|7 Comments

It’s very exciting to know that the night sky is full of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters to observe and photograph.  The great Andromeda Galaxy, the glimmering Pleiades, and the vibrant red California Nebula are all jaw-dropping astrophotography subjects.

Astrophotography with a DSLR and telescopeBut what is the best way to capture these amazing deep-sky objects?

The followers of this blog know that I am all about astrophotography with a DSLR and telescope.  This is a popular deep-sky imaging setup and is capable of some incredible results using affordable equipment that can often be purchased used.

A DSLR camera is a perfect option for beginners as they are much more user-friendly than a dedicated CCD astronomy camera.  In the post below, I’ll give you the ultimate astrophotography target for your DSLR and telescope.

I use a Canon 600D DSLR and an Explore Scientific ED102 CF telescope.  View my complete setup.

An amazing year of Astrophotography

As we approach the end of 2016, I would like to thank everyone who has connected with AstroBackyard this year. Whether it was a YouTube comment, retweet, or Facebook like, I really appreciate the support.  I’ve connected with beginners, seasoned veterans, and everyone in between this year. I hope you were able to get outside and partake in some astrophotography with your DSLR and telescope this year.

AstroBackyard - DSLR Astrophotography


As you learn more about astrophotography, it’s almost certain that you will want to revisit previous imaging projects.  The lessons learned during each and every night out with your DSLR and telescope make you a more efficient and organized astrophotographer. As a beginner, my goal was to photograph as many galaxies and nebulae as possible.  Equipped with more tools and knowledge, I am now taking a second look at some of best deep-sky objects the Universe has to offer.

Orion constellation

The Orion constellation from my backyard

As for my latest astrophotography project, I’ve moved on from my Horsehead nebula photo for the year.  Not that it couldn’t benefit from more time and processing, it’s just that I shared the photo so much that I thought it would be best to shelve the project for now and complete it next winter.  This project helped me hone my skills of combining narrowband data with color images, as seen in my latest video tutorial.

I have now started pointing my telescope towards the alluring diffuse nebula known as Messier 42.  The glowing Orion Nebula is in prime position for imaging over the next month or two.  I have photographed M42 many times over the years, but since then I have made many advancements I made in terms of both equipment and technique.

With my telescope’s relatively wide focal length (714mm), I can include the Running man nebula (NGC 1973, NGC 1975 and NGC 1977) in the same frame. I added a modest amount of data using my old DSLR and telescope (Canon Xsi and ED80) to an earlier version of Orion last year, but not nearly enough to do it justice.

Why I’m photographing the Orion Nebula all over again

My previous version of the Orion nebula was shot with an 80mm telescope (Explore Scientific ED80) and a Canon Rebel Xsi (stock).  The image I produced consisted of RGB data only (No H-Alpha), and was lacking the rich color that astro-modified DSLR cameras can produce.

Orion nebula using a DSLR through and telescope

My 2015 version of the Orion Nebula

Ways to improve my Orion Nebula image:

  • The Canon T3i has a higher resolution than the Xsi
  • The Canon T3i camera is modified (IR cut filter removed)
  • I can add narrowband h-alpha data and combine it with RGB
  • The ED102 telescope has an increased focal length and light gathering ability

A new astrophotography project begins




On Thursday, December 22nd, I began my latest astrophotography project with my DSLR and telescope.  I have a new favorite spot in the backyard that offers the widest possible window to the sky when aiming at M42.  Stellarium was helpful in planning this position for this particular time of year.

From my location, clear nights are few and far between in the winter months.  Obtaining enough data (5 hours+) to process the image to its full potential will be a challenge.  The final image will likely have much more Ha data than RGB.  The nights leading up to, and during the full moon are more commonly clear.

AstroBackyard on Facebook

M42 – A rewarding astrophotography target for beginners

New to using a DSLR and telescope? Try Orion!

Beginners are drawn towards the Orion nebula as an astrophotography target, and for good reason.  The bright color and intense details of this object can be captured even in very short exposures.  When shooting with a DSLR and telescope for the first time, focus and proper tracking are some of the biggest hurdles to overcome.  Fortunately, M42 is very forgiving in terms of both focus and tracking.

Focus

The bright stars that populate the area in and around the Orion nebula are perfect for adjusting focus and framing.  Many deep-sky objects are very dim, with no bright stars within the same field of view.  This can make focusing and framing the target a nightmare.  I like to use the stars in the Trapezium to achieve the best possible focus while using my Cameras live-view mode, or on BackyardEOS.

Framing

The stars in the Sword of Orion are a great help when it comes to aligning your image.  Even better than that is the fact that the overall size and shape of the nebula is revealed in short exposures (5 seconds).  This makes capturing test frames and making adjustments much easier.  This is not the case when shooting a faint reflection nebula such as the Witch Head nebula!

Tracking/Guiding

Beginners usually need time to fully utilize their telescope mount’s tracking and autoguiding abilities.  The longer the exposures, the more evident poor tracking becomes.  Luckily for beginners, an impressive photograph of M42 is possible using multiple exposures of 1 minute or less!  This target is just begging you to capture it!

Multiple exposures for more detail

The bright core of the Orion Nebula requires very short exposures to properly document the area.  To capture the Trapezium without over-exposing the image, I shot several 5-second subs at ISO 800.  I also set BackyardEOS to shoot a series of 30-second subs to capture the mid-tones and slightly less-bright areas surrounding the core.

Here are the totals from each series of shots at lengths of 5, 30, and 180 seconds at ISO 800.

  • 180″ – ISO 800 – 1 hour 9 minutes (23 frames)
  • 5″ – ISO 800 – 1 min 40 sec. (20 frames)
  • 30″ – ISO 800 – 5 min. (10 frames)

I registered and stacked each of the image sets in Deep Sky Stacker, and processed each of the files separately.  Once each image file was processed to maximize the intended level of detail, I blended the images together in Adobe Photoshop using layer masks.  This can be a difficult process, as this can sometimes lead to unnatural looking and/or flat looking deep-sky objects.

Here is the current state of my Orion Nebula image, using the short exposures in the core:

Orion Nebula with a DSLR and Telescope

The Orion Nebula – Early version using layer masks

As you can see, some of the faint outer nebulosity has been captured, yet the core of nebula is still well exposed without clipping any of the data.  In comparison, have a look at the stack of 5-second exposures at the exact same scale from the same imaging session:

Orion short exposures

A stack of 5-second exposures on the Orion Nebula

Using layer-masking in Adobe Photoshop, we can merge the data from all 3 image sets to reveal all of the details of the Orion Nebula in a single image. As I said earlier, this process can be difficult to master and takes time and patience to utilize properly.  If done properly, the nebula will look natural and full of detail.  I’ll provide updates along the way as I tackle this winter astrophotography project from the backyard.

Cold, long nights with my DSLR and telescope

Despite what the frigid winter temperatures do to our bodies, your DSLR will produce images with less noise in the cold!  The nights are also extra long, which means the potential of longer imaging sessions.  So fill your thermos will a hot drink, it’s going to be a long night. If you need me, I’ll be in the backyard.

Cheers, and all the best in 2017!

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Winter deep sky astrophotography

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November is an exciting month for backyard astrophotographers as we transition into a new season of fantastic winter deep sky targets.  These constellations contain some of the best nebulae and star clusters the sky has to offer.

The colder temperatures mean less noise in your images, which is great news for DSLR camera owners.

Winter deep sky nebula

The image of the Horsehead Nebula above is combined data from 2015 and this month.  View the complete photo details here.

The winter deep sky targets in Orion are arguably the best of the Northern Hemisphere.

With my recent addition of a modified Canon T3i and 12nm ha filter, I am anxious to capture these nebulae in a new way.  I’ll tell you my top 3 winter deep sky objects further down this post.

View my complete astrophotography equipment details

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Astrophotography in your e-mail!

The very first AstroBackyard newsletter was sent out last week.  This newsletter covers my latest images, processing tips, tutorials and more.  Please subscribe to the mailing list today, and receive my latest DSLR astrophotography information!  E-mails are currently delivered about once or twice per month.

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Did you catch the “Supermoon?”

You have probably all heard a lot about the Supermoon that occurred on November 14th.  Media outlets love to hype up this particular celestial event because it consistently receives wide appeal from people across the globe.

The fact that the moon appears “super” to the naked eye is the funny part about this phenomenon.  Yes, the moon was 14% larger, and 30% brighter than normal, but this is virtually undetectable to the naked eye, even though people will swear they see a difference.  The moon always appears larger when it is low on the horizon due to the relative scale.

This time around, the event had an interesting twist.  The full moon on November 14th was the closest since 1948!  The moon won’t come this close to the Earth again until the year 2034.

Whether you thought it was “super” or not, a full moon rising on a clear night is worth my attention, every time.

Supermoon

The “Supermoon” on November 13th

It is nice to see the general public take an interest in a celestial event.  Meteor showers also do a good job of grabbing attention in the same way.  I experienced my most viral post ever on twitter, with my Supermoon photo seen above.  It just goes to show that events like this are appreciated by more than just astrophotographers!

New photo: Triangulum Galaxy Re-processed

In September 2015, I photographed the Triangulum Galaxy from the backyard.  I felt that a re-process was in order as I have learned a few new techniques.  The image seen below is a stack of 3 nights worth of imaging with the Canon Xsi.  This version is less dynamic than my previous version, but also a lot cleaner.

View the full version and complete photo details of the Triangulum Galaxy.

Triangulum Galaxy - Astrophotography

 

I have recently put a focus on overall sky quality.  I am guilty of stretching the data too far to reveal as much color and detail as possible in the deep sky object.  This has lead to some less-than-pretty background stars and sky color.

View my Deep Sky Processing Tutorial

My Top 3 Winter Deep Sky Targets

With lots of great choices in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year, it’s hard to choose 3 deep sky objects that stand out among the rest.  However, these astrophotography targets seem to capture my interest year after year.

  1. The Orion Nebula

Is there any surprise here?  This stellar nursery is the Granddaddy of all astrophotography targets.  The Orion Nebula is usually one of the first targets for beginner astrophotographers, myself included.  The intense color and satisfying results make this a photography project that could last a lifetime.  The challenge is a revealing the deep outer nebulosity while blending it with a well-exposed core.

Winter deep sky astrophotography

  1. The Horsehead and Flame Nebula

This area of the sky is so incredibly interesting, that it’s hard to believe it lies so close to the Orion Nebula.  The Horsehead and Flame nebulae reside very close to Alnitak.  This is the far left star in Orion’s belt.  The famous “horses head” can be brought forth in detail by using a hydrogen-alpha filtered DSLR.  I experienced this first hand with my Astronomik 12nm clip-in filter.

Horsehead Nebula in H-Alpha

The Horsehead Nebula in H-Alpha

  1. The Rosette Nebula

The Rosette nebula was the subject of my first processing tutorial video on YouTube.  This object can be recorded in great detail with or without a modified DSLR.  The photo below was captured in February 2014 with a stock Canon Xsi.  Classified as NGC 2237, is located in a neighboring constellation to Orion known as Monoceros.

Rosette Nebula

The Rosette Nebula

All 3 of these winter deep sky astrophotography targets are located in the same region of the Northern Hemisphere sky.  From my latitude, they travel from East to West in an arc looking south.

Click here for star charts to find all of these winter deep sky objects.

Map of the Orion Constellation from Sky and Telescope.

Orion Constellation Map

Cold nights under the stars

Astrophotography in the winter means long cold nights.  Plenty of time for imaging, but harsh conditions on your body and sometimes your gear.  Modern astrophotography equipment was built for the elements, and can safely operate in sub-zero temperatures.  This includes your precious DSLR!  Don’t panic when you check on your rig and find your camera covered in ice crystals.

The colder temperatures mean less thermal noise recorded in your images.  A camera sensor running at 0°C is a welcome change to those hot (noisy) summer nights.

winter-constellations

Follow AstroBackyard on Facebook for my latest astrophotography images and information.

For more information about winter deep sky objects including the Orion Nebula, the book below is a great resource.  It’s a reference guide for choosing your astrophotography target for the night.  (My copy stays in the garage;)

The 100 Best Astrophotography Targets
Deep sky astrophotography book

Celestial Events Calendar: November/December 2016

  • November 29 – New Moon
  • December 11 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation
  • December 13, 14 – Geminids Meteor Shower
  • December 21, 22 – Ursids Meteor Shower
  • December 29 – New Moon

View more celestial events on the Astronomy Calendar of Celestial Events

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Summer in the AstroBackyard

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This is one summer that I will never forget.  The addition of my new telescope, the growth of AstroBackyard and the explosion of my YouTube channel has given me an astronomical boost in motivation and passion for astrophotography.  This has not come without hard work, it has been extremely busy in terms of both astrophotography and my day job.  The common sacrifice between the two has been sleep, of course.  The battle between day and night is a struggle astrophotographers know all too well.  I take comfort in the fact that the winter season will have many cloudy nights that will force me to catch up on my sleep, and maintain a healthier lifestyle balance.

How hard did you go this summer? Did you opt for sleep instead of imaging time?  Let me know on Facebook

Astrophotographers are not normal!

I recently created a short “trailer” for the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel:


 

AstroBackyard on YouTube

 
We have a burning desire to capture the wonders of the night sky each and every night.  We check the weather constantly and plan most social activities during the full moon, or during stretches of bad weather.  A stretch of clear nights surrounding the new moon means getting less than 4 hours of sleep during the week. For me, my health takes priority over all, so this is an issue that I am still trying to properly address. A more permanent deep-sky equipment setup and a dedicated observatory will help me optimize my setup time. These dreams are on my radar, and will become a reality in the not so distant future.  Which leads me to my next point;

The social following from this blog and my youtube channel have added another level of pressure to regularly produce quality astronomical images. This is a huge motivator for me, and a challenge I am honored to have in my life.  The AstroBackyard following has already grown much faster than I anticipated. I have big plans for the future of this venture.  

New Photo: The Trifid Nebula

Deep-Sky Nebula in Sagittarius

Tridi Nebula - DSLR astrophotography

M20 – The Trifid Nebula

Messier 20 is one of my all-time very deep-sky objects.  I remember one of the very first times I saw an image of the Trifid Nebula in a book called: The Practical Astronomer by Will Gater.  The dynamic color combination of blues and pinks had me looking into astrophotography equipment so I could capture it for myself.  I realized that dream in April of 2013, and have continued to soak camera time on it ever since.  The image above was achieved by shooting over 3 separate nights in early August.  Complete photo details below:

M20 – The Trifid Nebula

Photographed on: August 2, 3, 8, 2016

Total Exposure Time: 2 Hours, 54 Minutes (58 x 3 Minute Subs @ ISO 1600)
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 Pro
Camera: Stock Canon Xsi
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF

Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

 

Autoguiding telescope package

I documented my night under the stars for my third and final installment on the Trifid Nebula in video form.  The video discusses the specifications of my new Explore Scientific ED 102 CF, the Field-Flattener I use, and some simple tips for backyard astrophotography.  Thank you to the (now over) 1000 subscribers to the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel!


New Photo: The Summer Triangle

Wide-Field Image with Tracking and Autoguiding

Milky way stars from backyard

The Milky Way including stars in the “Summer Triangle”

This was a very exciting experiment was finally actualized the night of August 2nd, 2016.  I have always loved wide field camera lens astrophotography. Whether it’s a constellation full of stars with hints of nebulosity through a 14mm lens, or a complete portrait of the North America Nebula shot with a 200mm; camera lens astrophotography is responsible for some of the greatest images ever taken.

I mainly shoot deep-sky astrophotography through my 102mm Apo Refractor, with a focal length of 702mm. This is a great distance to photograph many deep-sky objects. It fits the entire object in the frame, yet is close enough to reveal some solid detail.  However, this is far too “deep” for a number of large nebulous regions and star clusters.  In instances like this, a camera lens anywhere from 50mm – 300mm will execute your plan better than any telescope.  That’s great news for anyone who already owns a lens or two!

Here’s the catch. You need 2 things to produce long exposure astrophotography images with no star trails:

1. A tracking mount

A German equatorial mount will allow you to capture a much longer exposure without star trails. Your camera can then pick up deep-sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies.

2. External camera control

You will need to take exposures longer than the 30-second maximum your DSLR will take on its own. (Without holding the shutter button down!) A camera remote or laptop comtrol will allow you to choose exposure length, and automate the process.  Autoguiding will create an even better image.  However, you may be able to get away with 1-2 minute exposures without it – depending on your mount.

An astrotrac or iOptron sky tracker was meant for moments like this. Not only to they simplify the polar alignment process and accurately track the sky, but they are MUCH lighter and more transportable than a full-blown GEM. If I ever plan on diving into travel astrophotography (I do!) I will certainly invest in one of these ingenious devices.

Back to my Experiment…

Mounting a Canon DSLR to a telescope with a Gorilla Pod

I have everything needed to execute a coveted wide field camera lens astrophoto, but I rarely opt for this method over shooting deep-sky through the telescope. Not to mention I must find a way to securely fasten my DSLR and lens to my astrophotography rig while maintaining a proper balance, and a functioning auto guiding system.  I used a small gorilla pod meant for a GoPro and wrapped it around my telescope.  This kept my existing alignment and guiding from an earlier deep-sky session.

 

The bendable legs of this sturdy little tripod firmly grapple onto my scope, so much so that I can leave the camera running in this position for hours with confidence.  I should mention, that this photo was acquired during the night of new moon. I can count on one hand the number of clear new moon nights I have experienced. I have had many clear nights leading up to and following my favorite day of the month, but to bask in the glory of our night sky on a summer new moon? That’s the stuff I live for.

 

I used BackyardEOS to automate my imaging session:

 

Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Mode: Bulb
ISO: 800
Exposure: 120 seconds
Dithering: Enabled

I ended up taking about 15 x 120-second exposures at ISO 800.  I also shot a few dark frames after my session, so I could stack the images into Deep Sky Stacker for a better SNR (Signal to noise ratio)


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I often tweet during my imaging sessions:

AstroBackyard on Twitter

Results from the 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower

The weather was a bit iffy the week of the Perseid Meteor Shower (August 8-12).  The skies were clear the night before the peak (August 10th) so I took a shot at capturing some decent meteors on that night.  When thundershowers are in the forecast, I am weary of setting up my astrophotography equipment, even if the conditions are currently clear!

I piggybacked my Canon 7D onto my telescope using a gorilla pod as per my previous session so that I could have a wide-field eye on the sky.  I pointed my wide-angle camera lens (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L) towards the constellation Perseus over my house.  This arrangement worked extremely well.  I was able to capture sharp images that revealed an impressive amount of detail of this area of the sky by taking 2-minute exposures.

 

Perseid meteor photo from my backyard

Perseid Meteor photographed from my backyard the Night of August 10th-11th

 

What’s Next?

I have realized that my current DSLR camera is holding back my astrophotography.  Despite the fact that my Canon Rebel Xsi is modified for astrophotography, I think I would be better off with a newer unmodified, stock Canon camera.  I have my eye on a used Canon T3i camera.  This will give me much better noise performance, increased ISO capabilities, and a higher resolution than my ancient 450D’s 12.2 megapixels.  Yes, a full-frame Canon 6D would really take my images to the next level, but that is a much bigger investment than the reasonable cost of a used Canon T3i DSLR.  (Under $500!)  I can then modify this camera for astrophotography myself using the tutorial by Gary Honis. 


I would like to thank you all for the continued support of this blog for the AstroBackyard YouTube channel.  Please follow me on Facebook for the latest news about my on-going astrophotography journey.  I wish you all the best in your own efforts and hope that I have inspired you to keep going.

AstroBackyard on Facebook

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HaRGB Astrophotography

|HaRGB|6 Comments

Right now is the absolute best time of the year for backyard astrophotography.  The days are warm and the nights are clear, summer star gazing is here!  The core of our Milky Way galaxy has returned to our night sky here in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it comes many celestial delights such as the colorful nebulae located in and around the constellation Sagittarius.  For me, Summer astrophotography means pointing my telescope right where the action is – in the core of the Milky Way, soaking in as much exposure time as possible.  These days do not last long!  We have but a brief window to capture glorious deep-sky objects such as the Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula, Swan Nebula, and Eagle Nebula.  All four of these glorious Messier Objects are worthy of several sleepless nights in the backyard.

Camping and Star Gazing

The warmer weather also means astronomy camping, to seek out darker skies and spend all night under the stars.  Spending time with family and friends around the campfire with my telescope collecting photons in the background is my idea of a good time!  My camping gear would not be complete without all of my astrophotography equipment coming along with me.  This includes everything from my tracking mount to my laptop!  I always book my camping trips on or around the new moon phase, and with a campsite that has a clear view to the South.  Luckily for me, there are many fantastic campgrounds located on the North shore of Lake Erie, which creates a vast dark area directly south of our location.  I recently spent a night at Selkirk Provincial Park for some astronomy camping on a warm, clear night in early June.

 

Camping and Star Gazing

The Big Dipper from our Campsite

 

Photography with the New APO

I am excited to announce that I am the proud new owner of an Explore Scientific ED102 CF astrophotography telescope.  This is a portable, light weight triplet apochromatic refractor – built for deep-sky imaging.  The increase in aperture is a welcome change from my now departed ED80 telescope I enjoyed for the past 5 years.  I have now had this refractor out a few times, and could not be more pleased with it.  I am thrilled with the fact that I can produce images with deeper, and more detailed results due to the increased size.  Going from 80mm to 102mm may not seem like a large increase, but when it comes to astrophotography, 22mm makes a BIG difference!

 

Explore Scientific ED102 CF

My new Explore Scientific ED102 CF Telescope

 

My first imaging session with the new Explore Scientific 102mm CF was on June 8th.  My deep-sky target of choice was the beautiful Eagle Nebula, an emission nebula in  the constellation Serpens.  I managed to capture just over 2 hours on this object from the backyard.  It was a weeknight, and I got about 2 hours of sleep before work the next morning.  WORTH IT!  I made a video about the dedication to this hobby, a small pep-talk if you will.  Despite the videos mixed reviews, I am still proud of this wacky, short little astrophotography video.

Speaking of YouTube, my channel has over 500 subscribers!  I cannot believe the response generated from my astrophotography videos.  It turns out that I am not the only one obsessed with photographing stars in the night sky.  If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do!  I can promise you many more useful astrophotography tutorials, vlogs, and equipment reviews in the future!

Astronomik 12nm Ha Filter

To add to the excitement, I have also added a new Astronomik 12nm Ha filter to my growing list of astrophotography equipment.  This is my first time diving into narrowband imaging, something I’ve been interested in for years.  This clip-in filter blocks out almost all wavelengths of light and only allows the light produced from emission nebulae and starlight to pass through.  What makes this feature so powerful t astrophotographers is the fact that it allows to image under heavy moonlight and light-pollution.  For a backyard astrophotographer such as myself, it is an absolute game-changer.  This means I can image twice as often, and produce more vivid and detailed deep-sky photos by adding Ha (Hydrogen Alpha) data to my existing RGB images.

 

 

Astronomik Ha Filter

Filter Purchased (For use with my Canon DSLR)
Clip-Filter (EOS) with ASTRONOMIK H-Alpha-CCD 12nm

Bought online from OPT Telescopes and shipped to Canada

 

HaRGB Astrophotography

Combining the RGB data with Ha for a stronger image

HaRGB Astrophotography

M16 – The Eagle Nebula in HaRGB

Anyways – about the Eagle Nebula.  I noticed the increased detail in M16 using the new telescope right away.  The super-sharp, high contrast images I have come to expect using a triplet apo were also evident right away.  I captured my RGB data of the Eagle Nebula on June 8th (About 2 hours), and returned to the subject on June 14th to photograph it using the Astronomik Ha Filter.  Because I use the filter ring adapter for my IDAS LPS filter on my Canon Xsi, the Astronomik 12nm Ha clip-in filter would not fit into the camera without the stock interior.  To make life easier – I captured the Ha data by clipping the Astronomik filter into my Canon 7D body.  This is the first time I have used the Canon 7D for deep-sky astrophotography.  I must say that I was impressed with the increased image resolution.  This makes me want to upgrade my aging 450D.  It never ends!  Here is my image of the Eagle Nebula combining the RGB data with the Ha:

 

Eagle Nebula in Ha + RGB

M16 – The Eagle Nebula in HaRGB

Photo Details

RGB:

Total Exposure: 2 Hours, 9 Minutes (43 frames) 
Exposure Length:  3 Minutes
ISO: 1600
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: Canon Rebel Xsi (modified)
Filter:  IDAS Lps 

 

Ha:

Total Exposure: 1 Hours, 40 Minutes (20 frames) 
Exposure Length:  5 Minutes
ISO: 1600
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Filter: Astronomik 12nm Ha

 

Using H-Alpha as a Luminance Channel

Creating a HaRGB image in Photoshop

I still have a lot to learn about processing HaRGB images using a DSLR.  However, my early results are very promising!  I really love the way the H-Alpha data brings out the nebulosity without bloating the surrounding stars.  The common processing method of combining the Hydrogen Alpha data is to add it to your existing RGB data as a luminosity layer in Adobe Photoshop.  This is the method I have chosen to use, although I am still learning how to best accomplish this task.  You can read a simple tutorial on the process from Starizona.com.

 

Ha luminance layer

The H-Alpha (Ha) Layer of my image

Dark Sky Camping Trip

Camping Trip with Telescope

Our campsite at Selkirk PP

I wanted to take advantage of the dark skies at Selkirk Provincial park by imaging the Swan nebula from my campsite.  I had everything all ready to go including a perfect polar alignment, and my autoguiding system with PHD running smoothly.  The only problem – MY BATTERY DIED!  I captured one amazing 5 minute frame on the Swan Nebula before my battery pack’s low-power alarm sounded off.  What a heart breaker.  Normally this battery is enough to power my astrophotography equipment all night long, but I didn’t charge it long enough before we left.  Lesson learned!

To make the most of a bad situation, I decided to turn my attention to some wide-filed landscape astrophotography using my Canon 70D and tripod.  The moon finally set, and the sky was incredibly dark after midnight.  The milky way could easily be seen with the naked eye as it stretched across the sky.  This is something everyone should witness at some point in there life.  There is something about it that makes me feel connected with our universe.

 

Camping Milky Way

The Milky Way from Selkirk Provincial Park

 

As always, thank you for your interest my website, and this incredible hobby.  I’ll do my best to answer your questions so we can continue our journey together.  Please follow my Facebook Page for the most up-to-date astrophotography information.  It’s a great way to connect with me and other backyard astrophotographers chasing the same feeling.

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Forgotten Light Frames

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While digging though some old folders on Adobe Bridge, I stumbled across some unprocessed, 300 second light frames of the Flaming Star Nebula from November 2013!  When you are desperate to get out and image a new target, this is like hitting gold.  

I was originally looking for my raw files of the Pacman Nebula, which I feel is in desperate need a new process. (Those stars look pretty rough)  I found a folder labelled “Flaming Star – 5 Min Lights”.  I never processed this image!  The Flaming Star Nebula is a colorful collection of glowing gas and dust lit up by the bright star AE Aurigae. 

The tough part about this process will be the limited exposure time.  1 hour of data is really not ideal for a quality astrophotography image.  I find that out the hard way below:

IC 405 – The Flaming Star Nebula

IC 405 - Flaming Star Nebula

Photo Details

Photographed on: November 29, 2013

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Stock)
ISO: 1600
Exposure: 1 hour (12 x 300s)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 darks

Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

This image was acquired using Canon EOS Utilities, and not BackyardEOS as I use now.  This was photo was also shot before I modified my Canon 450D for astrophotography.

Now you might be thinking “how could you spend hours imaging a nebula and forget to process it?”  It’s simple – life is busy!  I likely had a busy week following the the imaging session, and began I new session before I even looked at the precious data collected on that cold November night.  I don’t see any dark frames to support the image.  

This may have been another reason I held off.  I bet that I wanted to take 5-minute darks of the same temperature before stacking, but never got around to it.  This could be a problem.

But first, let’s get this cleared up

This is budget Astrophotography.  Most of my gear was purchased used from online forums and astronomy classifieds.  The total value of the equipment used to photograph this nebula was purchased for under $3,000.  It’s not top-of-the line gear by any stretch of the imagination.  My astrophotography image processing skills were self-taught.  I am no scientist, that’s for sure. Just like you, I have a strong desire to capture beautiful images of the night sky.  I always appreciate constructive criticism, and enjoy helping others learn through my mistakes.

Stacking without Dark Frames?

First of all, I’ll have to use dark frames from a different night to stack with the Flaming Star light frames.  This means that it is very important to match the temperature of my light frames from that night of imaging.

I have done a poor job of creating a master dark library, so finding matching dark’s may be tough.  I usually try to record the temperature of my dark frames in the file folder, for this very situation.  There are external software applications available that can help create a dark frame library, such as Dark Library.  

I remember using this years ago, but their website appears to be down right now.  I will use the 5 minute dark frames from my Pacman Nebula image taken earlier that month, labelled 4 degrees.

Another option is to just stack the light frames without any dark’s.  I’ll try both and compare the two.

Here is the version stacked with no dark frames:

Deep Sky Stacker with No Darks

Here is the version using dark frames from a previous night:

Deep Sky Stacker with Darks

As you can see, stacking with the dark frames produced a better result.  Even though the temperature of dark frames did not match perfectly, the dark frames removed some of the dead pixels and noise from the image.  Notice the red streak of dead pixels on the “no-darks” version.  All of these imperfections would become intensified after processing!  

I performed a few basic edits to the examples above to have a better look at the differences. (Levels, Gradient Xterminator, and Curves)  Now that we have registered and stacked our 1 hour’s worth of data, let’s start stretching the data in Photoshop.

How to take proper Dark Frames for Deep Sky Stacker

The answer to this and more in the FAQ section

Processing the Image in Photoshop

If you have followed any of my astrophotography tutorials on my website, or video tutorials on YouTube, you already know the basics of my processing workflow.  This process has evolved over the years as I learn new tricks.  However, processing the Flaming Star Nebula was particularly tough because of the limited exposure time on the subject.  

Add in the fact that this nebula is quite faint, with many bright stars surrounding it, and you’ve got an astrophotography challenge for even the most experienced astrophotographer.

 

Quick Astrophotography Tip

Try to frame your deep-sky object in an interesting way.  Include nearby star clusters, nebulae or galaxies.  For inspiration, search for your target on APOD, and see how the professionals have framed the object.  This may spark your creativity to photograph an existing target in a different way.

HLVG – Green Noise Remover

The entire image had a noticeable green cast over it, perhaps because of the extreme amount of noise, or the miss-matched dark frames.  I ran Deep Sky Colors HLVG on medium, which helped a lot.  HLVG was created by Rogelio Bernal Andreo of RBA Premium Astrophotography. 

It is a chromatic noise reduction tool that attempts to remove green noise and the green casts this noise may cause in your astrophotography image.  It is based on PixInsight’s SCNR Average Neutral algorithm.  If you don’t already have this useful filter for Photoshop, I highly recommend it, it’s free!  You can download the plugin here:

Hasta La Vista, Green!

HLVG Filter for astrophotography

Results and Thoughts

I must admit, this post became a bit of a nightmare.  I began to document my processing steps one by one, taking screenshots of progress along the way.  I wanted to provide a detailed tutorial of how I turned this forgotten data into a masterpiece, despite having no associated dark frames, and only an hour’s worth of exposure time.  As I experimented using different methods of noise reduction, and various orders of operations, I became very discouraged with my final image results.  

I spent hours taking different roads with all of my trusted astrophotography tools at my disposal, and the results continued to be unimpressive.  By adjusting the curves enough to show any substantial detail on the nebula, I introduced a frightening amount of noise into the background space.  No amount of noise reduction could remove it, without turning the entire image into a blurry mess.

I just couldn’t bring myself to post a tutorial with the end result turning out like it did.  So I scrapped the idea, and settled for a forgettable image of the Flaming Star Nebula.  Surely this gorgeous nebula that spans 5 light years across deserves more than that.

Astrophotography Processing Tutorial

My unused processing tutorial screenshots

At the end of the day:

No amount of processing can make up for lack of exposure time!

I guess you could say I was doomed from the start.  I am not going to spend any more time on this image until I am able to capture at least another 2 hours of data on it.  I hope you can learn from my experiences in astrophotography, in both victories and failures.  But I guess that’s why you’re here 🙂  Please follow AstroBackyard on Facebook for the latest updates.

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