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Finding Darker Skies

|Nebulae|2 Comments

Astrophotography in late August and early Septemeber feature ideal conditions for spending a full night photographing the stars. The nights are longer, the temperature is warm, yet cool at night, and the breathtaking Milky Way core continues to stretch upwards into the night, as nightfall sets in.

Right now, some of the first stars to “pop” after the sun has receded behind the Earth are Vega, Altair, Deneb, and Arcturus. Even more noticeably present are the intense glowing “wanderers” known as Mars and Saturn in our Solar System.

As the end of summer approaches, so does our nightly showing of the Milky Way core across the night sky.

 

Camping under the stars

Camping under the stars

On Friday, September 2nd I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favorite places on Earth – The CCCA Observatory. This is a dark sky area reserved for members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Niagara Centre) From here, the Milky Way dominates the night sky. Bright nebulae like the Swan Nebula, Lagoon Nebula and galaxies like Andromeda can clearly be seen naked-eye.

In Southern Ontario, views like this are unheard of.  Places like this give you a preview into what it must have been like to gaze up into the night, in a time before light pollution destroyed our visual connection to the Universe. (Can you tell I am a little bitter?)

 

Deep-sky objects in the Milky Way core continue to receive my full attention at the moment, as experience has taught me that these precious jewels only reveal themselves for a short period of time.

This mindset was responsible for my deep-sky object of choice on Friday night.  With over 2 hours of photons already soaked into this summer-long project, I opted to finalize this image over photographing a new target.  When the conditions are as perfect as they were on Friday, this decision is not made easily! 9 out of 10 times I will decide on the latter.


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Latest Photo: The Eagle Nebula

DSLR Astrophotography - Eagle Nebula

My reliable equipment and proven methods for a successful night of imaging were evident in the prompt and ultra-smooth execution leading up to my first 5-minute exposure of Messier 16.  Balance, polar alignment, calibration and focus were extremely accurate – what could be better? I am reminded of the countless nightmare astrophotography sessions of the past where I had to learn this hobby the hard way and waste a perfect night under the stars. Not tonight.

Photo Details:

Dates Photographed: June 8, June 29, June 30, Sept 2, 2016
Total Integrated Exposure Time: 5 Hours, 59 Minutes (100 Frames) ISO 1600

Video: Camping Under the Stars

The temperature plummeted to 12 degrees by 1:00am, well below the forecasted low of 16.  The drastic temperature drop from 25 degrees during setup created a staggering amount of moisture on my electronics.  Seeing your beloved camera and telescope dripping in water does not get easier to accept over time.  It is an unnerving yet common experience for astrophotographers.

The first few frames I captured of the Eagle Nebula looked fantastic. The focus and framing of the 300-second exposures were exceptional. I continued to collect light on M16 well into the night until my frames began to brighten slightly due to low atmospheric conditions as the object began to set in the west.

Stacked frames in Deep Sky Stacker

My stacked image in Deep Sky Stacker – Before Processing

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula

Although it didn’t make it into the video, I did shoot over 2 hours on another deep-sky object after the Eagle Nebula.  I decided to take full advantage of the pristine dark skies by shooting a subject of great difficulty from the city.  The Elephant Trunk Nebula has eluded me for years despite my keen interest in this concentration of interstellar gas.

My attempts from the backyard this year have been less than promising, with far too little exposure time to produce a fair documentation of IC 1396.

IC 1396 - Elephant's Trunk Nebula

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula – Captured on September 2nd

Photo Details:

Date Photographed: Sept 2, 2016
Total Integrated Exposure Time: 2 Hours, 15 Minutes (27 Frames) ISO 1600

In September 2018, I revisited the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in a new video and post. This time, I used the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED APO and a cooled CMOS camera to capture this target. The duo-narrowband filter I used helped isolate the nebula from my city sky.

After soaking some serious dark-sky time on the Elephant’s Trunk, I diligently placed the cap on my telescope objective and began taking a set of dark frames.  By this point, the Milky Way had traveled to the other end of the sky, with the summer deep-sky favorites now long-gone.

I took some time to enjoy some familiar constellations rise from behind the Earth.  Orion made its ominous debut over my campsite, so I took full advantage of the photo opportunity.

In the early morning hours of September 3rd, the constellations provided a haunting warning of the cold Canadian Winter ahead.

 

Winter Constelltions including Orion

Orion the hunter dominates the early morning sky

 

After snapping a few exposures, it was off to bed to conclude my night of camping under the stars.  It was a lot of fun putting the video together, and it made the entire trip that much more memorable.  Aside from providing value to those learning about Astrophotography, the videos on my YouTube Channel serve as a timeline for my journey.  One that is that I am happy to share.

This website is constantly receiving revisions and updates, to improve its functionality and the way it delivers useful information.  Please excuse any hiccups as we grow!  I have recently added plenty of useful information to the resources page, to make sure that fans of this website are aware of the tools I use to capture and process my astrophotography images.  You may have also noticed that the photo gallery section has also evolved over time.  Lastly, to those of you who have been so kind to subscribe to AstroBackyard in their e-mail, I promise the first edition of this newsletter will be worth the wait!

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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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Astronomy at Ontario Campgrounds

|Nebulae|4 Comments

One of the best ways to enjoy astronomy under a dark sky is to go camping. Campgrounds are usually well away from city light pollution, meaning that you will be able to enjoy many more stars in the sky than you are used to seeing at home. In mid-summer, the sun sets very late at the campgrounds in Ontario, and most campers are settling in for cozy sleep in their sleeping bag. But if you’re anything like me, your night is just beginning

Astronomy at Ontario Campgrounds

Dark Skies at Ontario Provincial Parks

During the summer months, I like to leave my light-polluted backyard in the city and travel to some Ontario Campgrounds for some astronomy camping.  My two favorite Ontario parks are Rock Point Provincial Park and Selkirk Provincial Park.  They both offer fantastic dark skies looking south over Lake Erie.

 

Astronomy at Ontario Campgrounds

The Milky Way from Selkirk Provincial Park Campgrounds

Stargazing at Selkirk Provincial Park

I had the pleasure of spending a clear, moonless night under the stars at Selkirk Provincial Park in late July 2015.  Despite being in the middle of busy season, I was able to book a campsite with open views of the sky.  Because the park is located on the Northern shore of Lake Erie, the light pollution to the south is minimal.  

I decided to use my 3″ Explore Scientific triplet Apochromatic Refractor to image, as my 8″ Orion astrograph has been a bit of a headache for me lately, but that’s another story.

Selkirk Ontario Campgrounds

Dusk at the park. Clear skies in the forecast!

Astronomy at Ontario Campgrounds

It is important to book your campsite around the time of the new moon, to ensure that you are taking full advantage of the limited light-pollution from these areas.  You will also want to make sure that you book a campsite that has an open window to the night sky, and is not blocked by the surrounding mature trees.

A useful website for previewing each site at Ontario parks campgrounds is Ontario Parks Campsite Pictures.  This way you can have a look at each site before you book!

The sky-window from my campsite:

I was hoping to have clear views directly south from my campsite (Site 85), but I ended up having a larger window to the West than expected.  This changed my imaging target from Sagittarius, to an object high up above in Cygnus.  The wispy nebulosity in NGC 7000 – The North America Nebula captured my attention once again.  

I settled on an area that included the Pelican Nebula – an object have not yet given a fair attempt at before.

Astronomy at Ontario Campgrounds

Our tents and telescopes are set up for a night of deep-sky imaging

My modified Canon Xsi DSLR did a good job at picking up the bright pink and red nebulosity of the Pelican Nebula. I wonder how many more shutter actuations my old 450d can handle?  

That old DSLR has been through every type of outdoor condition you could think of – including being completely covered in ice in the heart of winter. If I had to guess, I would say that this camera has at least a 60,000 actuation shutter count.  Maybe much more!

IC 5070 - Pelican Nebula

IC 5070 – The Pelican Nebula – Photographed from Selkirk Provincial Park

Pelican Nebula – Image Details

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro Synscan
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Modified)
ISO: 1600
Total Exposure: 1 hour, 50 Minutes (22 x 300s)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 darks

As per my usual routine, I shot several exposures (In this case 5 minutes each) at ISO 1600. This is the max ISO for this camera, and does produce a fair amount of noise.  Luckily, most of this noise is cancelled out in the stacking process by using dark frames.  

Dark frames are simply exposures of the same length and temperature as “light” frames, but with the lens cap on the camera. I think of it as – Any data that the camera picks up with the lens cap on, is noise. There are no photons to collect.  

With stacking software (Like DeepSkyStacker), the isolated noise data is removed from the final image. There are several tutorials online to better describe this process.  I will go over the stacking process and workflow in a future post, for anyone interested.  For now, I will share a link to the software I use; DeepSkyStacker.

It is currently the only program I use, and I am very happy with it.

Reviewing Light Frames in Adobe Bridge

Stacking my exposures to create the final version of the Pelican Nebula image

Stargazing at it’s finest

The Milky Way was clearly visible to the naked-eye, a sure sign of limited light-pollution and dark skies.  Aside from astrophotography, stunning views of the summer constellations and Messier objects are within reach to anyone with a pair of binoculars or a telescope.  An amazing surprise we had that night was beautiful pink aurora overhead to the North!  

I heard reports from back home in St. Catharines that it was quite a show around 2am. Rarely do I see the Northern Lights from Southern Ontario, so it is always a treat. A lazy yellow waning crescent moon rose out of the Eastern horizon around 2am, and with that, it was time to get some much needed sleep!

Northern Lights from Selkirk PP

The Northern Lights as seen from our campgrounds

Selkirk Provincial Park is a great place to go camping with your friends and family in the summer.  What attracted me to this park was the dark skies to the South, and the proximity to my home.  It was just over an hour drive from St. Catharines.  

This was my second time to the park this year.  Our visit in late May was a very wet experience as their were intense thunderstorms the night we stayed.  This time, however, I got the trip I wanted with warm, clear skies all night long. If you are also looking to enjoy some astronomy at Ontario campgrounds, I should remind you to check the forecast and moon phase calendar first.  

This way you can appreciate the advantages of having darker skies than you are used to in the city.

Here are some astrophotography tips that will help you understand what it takes to get a decent photo of the night sky. 7 Astrophotography Tips

Deep Sky Astrophotos taken at Ontario Campgrounds

North America Nebula

The North America Nebula – Rock Point Provincial Park.

DSLR astrophotography example

The Andromeda Galaxy – Rock Point Provincial Park.

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