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The Dark Skies of the Okie-Tex Star Party

|Milky Way|5 Comments

We have just returned from a memorable astrophotography trip at a Bortle 1 dark sky site. The event was an annual star party hosted by the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club known as the Okie-Tex Star Party.

After a few location changes during the first several years, the star party found its home at Camp Billy Joe near the small town of Kenton, OK, not far from the Oklahoma/Texas border. The name ‘Okie-Tex’ was selected to show the collaborative efforts of the two states. 

Aside from taking some amazing astrophotography images through our telescopes, the event opened our eyes to the experience of being under a truly dark sky

Arriving at the Okie-Tex Star Party 

Camp Billy Joe is a very remote location away from all city light pollution. This also means that depending on where you live, you might have to drive (or fly) a long distance to get there. 

We flew from Toronto to Dallas/Fort Worth where we boarded our connecting flight to Amarillo, Texas. From there, we rented a car and drove approximately 2.5 hours to the star party site. 

When you arrive, you can check in (if registration is open) and then set up anywhere on the field. Like most star parties, your chances of getting a better spot are higher the earlier you arrive. 

Travel Tips:

  • When traveling to the star party by car, there are significant distances between each of the small towns along the way. You’ll want to make sure you always have a lot of gas to avoid running out before the next gas station. There is no gas station in Kenton and the closest gas station to the star party is either Boise City, OK (36 miles) or Clayton, NM (43 miles).
  • It is always nice (and often easiest) to arrive at a new location in daylight. For our travel, we arranged for an early morning flight to arrive around dinner time to get settled and set up the first night. For our flight home, we made sure to book an afternoon flight to accommodate the long drive from the star party back to the Amarillo airport.

Where to Stay for the Okie-Tex Star Party

Like most star parties, camping is your easiest option for enjoying the star party. You can set up your gear outside your camper or tent and enjoy all the other activities and events on-site.

camping at the Okie-Tex Star Party

If you’d prefer a little more shelter or a bed while at Okie-Tex, they do have a limited number of bunkhouses available on a first come first serve basis. This includes a separate bunkhouse for men and women, as well as a family option. 

Aside from the above options, there are limited alternatives for sleeping arrangements outside Camp Billy Joe. There is a small bed and breakfast nearby that we heard books up early.

As a speaker at the event, they arranged for a mobile home rental for us in the small town of Kenton, OK. This meant we had to drive the short distance (3 mins) to and from the star party and park outside the gates, which closed at 9 p.m. to avoid headlights or any type of white light once it was dark out.

Okie-Tex Star Party

A view of the Okie-Tex Star Party from the rock formation nearby.

Meals and Food Options

When you are so far removed from city amenities, the logistics for running a star party are more complicated. 

In terms of food, there is catering available for those who are in a tent or staying offsite. There is a separate registration process and cost associated with this, so keep an eye out for this when completing registration. 

If you’re looking for a late-night snack, the Cosmic Cafe is also available on-site each night from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.

If you are camping, please note that open flames are not allowed for cooking (to discourage smoke and fire issues) but cookstoves are okay. 

And if you’re up for a bit of a drive (approximately 45 minutes), there are also food options available in Boise City OK, and Clayton, NM. 

astronomy observing field

Events at Okie-Tex Star Party

There are a lot of activities to do at the Okie-Tex Star Party besides astronomy or astrophotography. 

There are plenty of great speakers lined up throughout the week and some additional workshops you can register for. There is also a swap meet, vendor tents, and some pretty awesome giveaways. 

If you’re up for a little adventure, there are some other sightseeing activities that you can do in the area, including hiking the Black Mesa Summit, walking along a dormant volcano, and checking out preserved dinosaur tracks

South View on top of Black Mesa Summit

Black Mesa Summit

We hiked the Black Mesa Summit which is only a short 10-15 minute drive from the star party. You can use Google Maps to get you to the parking lot and follow the trail to the top. Be sure to bring a backpack with water to keep you hydrated for the 9 mile trek and be on the look out for rattlesnakes. 

Fun fact: Cimarron County, OK, which includes the Town of Kenton and the summit, is the only county in the U.S.A to touch 4 different states (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, & Kansas). 

Summit tips:

  • You will want to make sure you leave plenty of time before dusk to complete the entire journey. It took us three hours to finish the 9-mile (14-kilometer) hike.
  • You will hike a long way (approx. 2 miles) before reaching the point of the hike where you actually start to ascend the Mesa.
  • Be sure to get your photo at the top of the summit, which is signified by a granite column. This is where you will see information about the 4 different states.
  • There is apparently a logbook at the base of the column as we later saw on social media. We did not sign it as we could have sworn the case it was in said ‘do not open’.
  • If you want the best view (and a view of the star party) but sure to follow a small path to the south. This will take you near the edge marked by two large wooden crosses. You can spot Kenton and to the left, the field of the star party. Again, be on the look for rattlesnakes that apparently like the tall grass.

Black Mesa Monument

Black Mesa Summit Column.

Bortle 1 Skies 

As a Bortle 1 site, the skies at Okie-Tex were incredible. We were lucky enough to have two crystal clear nights under the darkest skies I have ever seen.

Unfortunately, one of those nights was the day we arrived and we were, of course, exhausted from travel. With a half-day workshop the next day, I had to pack it in early. But the following night was also great. 

We were told by the regular attendees of the Okie-Tex Star Party that some years have been very windy, but this was not the case for our trip. The skies were calm, cool, and most importantly, dark


A 25-second exposure of the Milky Way, Ash, Okie, and Tex.

The scenic, rolling landscape at the Okie-Tex Star Party is well-suited for nightscape photography. Our host (Andy) spent much of his time at the party taking incredible nightscape images with creative compositions (including this incredible 360-degree view of the night sky).

I tried to capture as many Milky Way nightscape-style images as I could with my stationary tripod and filming camera (a stock Canon EOS R6). The following image is a single, 25-second exposure at ISO 3200 of the Milky Way from our campsite. 

The Milky Way

A single 25-second exposure of the Milky Way from our campsite.

Deep-Sky Astrophotography Setup

Even though we flew, we were able to bring a fair amount of gear with us to take advantage of the dark skies. Because this was our first time under Bortle 1 skies, I did want to bring a little more focal length than I typically bring to a star party.

Below is the breakdown of the rig that I brought in my carry-on luggage and personal item (backpack). We did have to check one bag as our tripods did not fit in any of our carry-on bags. It also came in handy for packing some warmer clothing for at night.

Okie tex setup

Trevor (left) and Ashley’s (right) setup

My Setup:

Ashley’s Setup:

I chose to photograph the Embryo Nebula in Perseus in LRGB. Unfortunately, the clearest nights of our trip landed at times when I had to present in the morning, and I didn’t run the rig as long as I wanted to. 

My final image includes just 2.5 hours of total exposure time, using a ZWO ASI6200MM Pro camera and LRGB filters. 

Embryo Nebula

The Embryo Nebula in Perseus. 

(Ashley has not yet processed her images of the Cave Nebula, but we will add those to the post when ready!)

When you are flying to a star party, you realize there are lots of other things that you typically bring to make things more comfortable, that you wouldn’t be able to given the circumstances – things like chairs, a table, a blanket, etc. Thankfully, Andy, from the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club had us covered, and brought all those things for us, including extension cords.

He even brought and set up a sky-box for us to have a little place to go during the star party, which also doubles as protection from the wind, which is common at Okie-Tex. He also kept an eye on our gear, so we could leave it set up, while we traveled to and from the town where we were staying. Thanks, Andy!

Sky Box

Sky Box for Astrophotography

Star Party Speakers

In 2022, I was a speaker at the Okie-Tex Star Party. They expressed interest in having me attend in 2021, but due to the pandemic and the lockdowns between the Canada and USA border, it was arranged for the following year. 

I presented on two topics: a half-day workshop on wide-field Astro imaging, and as per the request of the star party organizers, a presentation on the ZWO ASIAIR. Both talks went well and attendees seemed to be engaged in the information. 

In addition to myself, there were other presentations from folks like Jonathan Talbot and Rick Fienberg on the topics of ‘Leveraging New CMOS Technology’, ‘Pixinsight Beginner Imaging’, ‘The New Era of Professional-Amateur Collaboration in Astronomy’ and ‘The Great North American Solar Eclipses of 2023 & 2024’.

ASIAir Presentation

ASIAIR Presentation at Okie-Tex Star Party

Rules at Okie-Tex Star Party

As far as rules go, Okie-Tex is a pretty laid-back star party. They do have a few rules to follow, mostly pertaining to white light which is normal for a star party:

  • No white light after dark (laptops, cars, cell phones, etc.)
  • No laser pointers
  • Dim red light only and aim it at the ground
  • Anticipate your vehicle lights (opening and locking doors) and take the appropriate steps to make sure there are no issues with light
  • Park outside the gates after 9 p.m. if you are not staying overnight and park facing away from the star party 
  • Pets are allowed but they must be leashed and contained at all times. Be sure to clean up after them.

Okie-Tex Star Party Impressions

This is a very relaxed and casual star party that doesn’t impact the amazing Bortle 1 skies. People just ‘get’ the rules (i.e. no white light) so all you need to do is show up, set up, and enjoy yourself. 

The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club are great hosts. Being in such a remote location, it can be easy to feel a little uneasy, but they really do make sure you have all the comforts and necessities at the site – washrooms, showers, catering, power, etc. The star party is well organized and runs like you think a star party that has run for 30+ years would run – like a well-oiled machine. 

Star Party under Dark Skies

The Okie-Tex Star Party from above. 

There are a lot of seasoned attendees at this star party that make it a lot of fun. You can join in on the conversation, and get the scoop on their stories from the many years they have spent attending the star party and make new friends.

You’ll also want to be sure to hike to the top of the nearby rock formation adjacent to the star party to see Okie and Tex, the official flamingo mascots of the star party.

Overall, we had such a great time at the Okie-Tex star party and can definitely see ourselves returning in the future. A big thanks to the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club for the invite and for taking such good care of us!

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Canon Rebel Astrophotography

|Camera|11 Comments

The very first camera I used for astrophotography was an old Canon Rebel Xsi (450D) DSLR. Even though the production of this camera was discontinued many years ago, I still use and enjoy this camera today.

A DSLR camera like the Canon Rebel 450D is a versatile choice as it can easily be attached to a telescope for deep sky imaging using a T-Ring and adapter. You can also use this camera with fantastic camera lenses such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 for wide-angle nightscapes and Milky Way photography.

I’ve used many types of cameras for astrophotography from monochrome CMOS imaging cameras to cooled one-shot-color models. My Canon Rebel DSLR’s continue to produce amazing images, and they are one of the best ways to get started in the hobby.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way captured with a Canon Rebel T3i on a SkyTracker Pro Mount

Astrophotography with a Canon Rebel DSLR

I eventually upgraded my DSLR camera to a (slightly) newer Canon EOS Rebel T3i (600D), and it came pre-modified for astrophotography. The modification that was made to this camera is known as the “full spectrum modification”, which involved removing the stock IR cut filter inside the camera body.

Although there are many choices to consider when it comes to choosing a camera for astrophotography, an entry-level Canon Rebel series DSLR offers a unique combination of value and performance.

In this post, I’ll share my personal results using the Canon Xsi DSLR for astrophotography, and give you my recommendations for a beginner DSLR camera.

Canon Rebel Xsi for astrophotography

The Canon Rebel XSi a popular DSLR camera for amateur astrophotographers

If you don’t own a telescope yet, but want to get into astrophotography using a DSLR, have a look at the following resource page: Astrophotography Tips You Can Try Tonight

Capturing Deep-Sky Targets with a DSLR

The moon’s glaring presence has subsided, and it is now time to gather more RGB (color) light frames on my coveted summer deep-sky milky way objects. This is now my 5th summer as an amateur astrophotographer, and I don’t like to waste time when choosing my target for the night.

During the months of May-July, the Messier objects located near the core of the Milky Way have my full attention. My favorite summer deep-sky objects lie within the Sagittarius region of the Milky Way Core. Many of them are bright and colorful such as the Lagoon Nebula, Eagle Nebula, and the Swan Nebula.

The Lagoon Nebula is one of my all-time favorite targets and a worthy photo opportunity for any DSLR camera and telescope. The summer emission nebulae in Sagittarius are so bright, it is possible to photograph them from a light=polluted area such as your backyard in the city. My backyard skies are rated a Class 8 on the Bortle Scale.

From my latitude in the Northern Hemisphere (Ontario, Canada), the main aspect to consider is having a clear window of sky to the South, as most of the summer Milky Way targets travel Southeast to Southwest throughout the night.

Canon rebel astrophotography


The Lagoon Nebula using a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi

The photo of the Lagoon Nebula above was imaged over several nights last week. I set up my telescope gear on June 30th, July 2nd, and July 3rd over the Canada-Day long weekend in my backyard. It’s rare that we have such a long stretch of clear nights, especially on a long weekend.

This colorful nebula does not rise very high in the sky from my latitude in Southern Ontario. In fact, it just barely clears the height of my backyard fence. When planning a deep sky imaging session, it’s important to have a clear view of your target for an extended period of time.

I consider myself very lucky to be able to photograph such a glorious night-sky treasure from home.  You can view the specific photography details for my final image on my Flickr profile. I also managed to squeeze in some more imaging time on the Eagle Nebula, as well as the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula over the weekend, as you will see further down the post.

Capturing Galaxies

I have photographed many galaxies with my Canon EOS Rebel Xsi from the backyard. One of my most successful images was the Triangulum Galaxy. A long stretch of clear nights allowed me to collect over 7 hours of exposure time on M33.

This is a diffuse deep-sky object which can make it difficult to observe visually, but through photography, we can reveal the beautiful structure and color of this galaxy. The telescope used to capture the image below was an Explore Scientific ED80 with a focal length of 480mm.

Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum Galaxy using a modified Canon EOS Rebel Xsi

For Beginners / Newbies

You can view the equipment I use to take images like the ones on this website here or watch this video as I take you through my complete setup for astrophotography.

If you already own a DSLR and telescope and have started taking your own astrophotos – you may benefit from my astrophotography tutorials about image processing.

I connect my Canon Rebel DSLR to my laptop computer using a USB cable and control the camera through a software application known as BackyardEOS.  With this application, I can tell my DSLR to take multiple exposures of varying lengths and ISO settings.

Backyard Telescope

My Canon Rebel Xsi attached to an astrophotography telescope

I can also use this program to focus the stars, and make sure that my astrophotography subject is in the center of the frame. A typical session in my backyard will last all night long and have my Canon Xsi set to take anywhere from 30-60 three to four-minute exposures on a nebula or galaxy.

Dark frames of the same temperature are also captured during the night to reduce noise in the final image. As a general rule of thumb, the colder your digital camera is while imaging, the better!  Long-exposures taken during a hot summer night will produce even more noise than usual.

The Canon Rebel series DSLR cameras are also well-suited for Moon photography. If you connect the DSLR camera to a telescope, you benefit from its long focal length (compared to most lenses) for an up-close look at our nearest celestial neighbor.  

Moon through a telescope

If you are interested in this aspect of solar system astrophotography, be sure to have a look at my Moon photography tutorial. The Moon is an excellent target for your DSLR camera at any focal length. 

Hot Summer Nights

On a recent attempt to gather some H-alpha data on the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula, I discovered the limits of my DSLR when imaging in the hot summer heat.  On this particular night in Mid-June, the temperature remained over 30° well after midnight.

This was just too hot for my Canon 7D to capture any useful data on my deep-sky target.  (I use a different DSLR for my H-Alpha captures, as my Canon Rebel Xsi has the LP filter fitted to it at all times)

The hot hazy skies, combined with a dangerously hot sensor produced a red, noisy mess of an image.  An exposure of 30 seconds to a minute may be fine in this heat, but I was shooting 7-minute subs at ISO 1600 to pick up faint nebulosity through a narrowband 12nm Ha filter.  Lesson learned!

I have since returned to the Elephant’s trunk nebula in the constellation Cepheus, and let me tell you – it is faint!  Photographing IC 1396 from a light-polluted backyard in the city has proved to be quite the challenge.  I was able to capture about 2 hours of exposure on this nebula last week, which is not enough to produce a pleasing image.

By stretching the data far enough (using curves in Adobe Photoshop) to show the rim of the nebula, the background stars become blown out and noisy.  It takes many hours worth of imaging to produce a decent portrait of this DSO.  Here is my early result with limited exposure time:

IC 1396 - Elephant's Trunk Nebula

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in Cepheus

Best Beginner DSLR for Astrophotography

I have stood behind the Canon brand of DSLR’s from the beginning. Based on the advice I read in the Backyard Astronomers Guide back in 2010, I chose to start my photography adventure using Canon digital cameras.

At the time, they were the clear choice for astrophotographers, offering the only DSLR built for astrophotography (They later released the Canon 60Da)  Nikon has come a long way since then in the way of astrophotography, but my heart still belongs to Canon.

The Nikon D810A is a camera intended for astrophotography, as you may have gathered with the “a” designation in the title. This is Nikon’s first DSLR dedicated to long-exposure astrophotography. This camera body was based on the original D810, but include a sensor that is four times more sensitive to H-Alpha red tones than an ordinary DSLR.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

In 2015 I upgraded to Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera for astrophotography. The T3i (600D) came pre-modified by an astro-modification service known as “Astro-Mod Canada”. I have used this camera to capture many deep-sky objects using various clip-in filters.

This is the DSLR I always recommend to beginners. First of all, it is the successor to the Canon Xsi which I use now and can provide actual results (my photo gallery) of the astrophotography performance of this camera. Second, it is a great value.

Canon Rebel T3i

You will find used models of this camera body at online retailers (such as Henry’s in Canada) for a fraction of the price of a new CCD Astronomy Camera.  You can no longer purchase this camera new, so if you can’t find a used body at camera retailers, you will have to search online forums such as Canada Wide Astronomy Buy and Sell, or Astromart.

This camera can also quite easily be modified for astrophotography by yourself or a professional.  The features of the camera itself are quite standard of all models these days, but this DSLR is capable of taking astonishing deep-sky and landscape astrophotography images.

My favorite feature of the T3i is the flip-out LCD screen. This comes in very handy when shooting deep-sky astrophotography images because the camera is often in an awkward position when connected to a telescope.

Tilting the screen to a more accessible angle allows me to focus the telescope using the 10X live-view function of the camera. I can also review the histogram, make changes to the exposure time, and review my light frames as they are being captured.

The Canon T4i and T5i are also excellent choices but are a little more expensive.  The Canon T5i can be purchased in a kit including an 18-55mm lens.

Recommended Clip-in Filters

I have used a wide variety of clip-in light pollution filters with my Canon Rebel DSLR cameras. For deep-sky targets containing hydrogen-alpha emission data such as the Eagle Nebula, a narrowband filter like the 12nm Astronomik Ha is an excellent choice.

For capturing broadband RGB data on my targets, the SkyTech CLS-CCD filter allows me to block a healthy amount of city glow. This filter creates an impressive amount of contrast between your object and a light-polluted sky.

For broad-spectrum targets such as galaxies or reflection nebulae, I recommend trying the Optolong L-Pro filter. This multi-bandpass filter is less aggressive and helps retain the natural colors of the stars in your image.

DSLR camera filter

The Optolong L-Pro filter in My Canon Rebel 600D

Why use a DSLR?

There are many different types of astrophotography cameras available, other than Digital SLR’s. Dedicated thermal-cooled CCD cameras are much better at producing deep-sky images with less noise, but are much more expensive and less user-friendly.

Webcams can produce stunning images of Solar System planets and the moon and can be inexpensive and easier to use. The Altair Hypercam 183C is an example of a dedicated astronomy camera that can bridge the gap between a DSLR and a CCD.

I still enjoy using a DSLR because it’s an enjoyable experience. You can’t beat the value and versatility of the Canon Rebel series cameras.

Light Pollution Map

I often speak of the light pollution from my backyard in the city.  I love to get away from home to image under dark skies at my astronomy club’s observatory (RASC Niagara Center) – but I rarely have time to drive 40 minutes with all of my equipment to this special place.

To maximize my time under the stars, it makes more sense for me to get as much astrophotography in at home, in the backyard. (Hence the name of this website) The light pollution produced by the city I live in is quite heavy, especially in certain areas.  My house is in the worst of it, being located in the central area of town.

I found this helpful Light Pollution Map that shows just how bad it really is:

Light Pollution Map

Light Pollution Map for my Backyard

The Bortle Scale

Do you see that?  I am in a Red Zone!  I would estimate that my location is either a class 7 or 8 on the Bortle Scale, although I have not yet taken an accurate light pollution measurement.  The Bortle Scale states that a class 6 zone (NELM 5.1-5.5) will have your surroundings easily visible and that the Milky Way is visible only at the Zenith.  

These characteristics are true of my backyard and is referred to as a bright suburban sky. How much light pollution is in your backyard?  You can use this nifty interactive map to find out: Light Pollution Map

To view all of my best images captured with a Canon Rebel Xsi and T3i, check out my photo gallery.  I wish you all the best in your future astrophotography endeavors, clear skies.

Helpful Resource: Getting Started with Deep Sky Astrophotography

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