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Real Results with a Budget Astrophotography Lens

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A great astrophotography lens is only as good as the images it produces. Not all camera lenses are created equal, and imaging a night sky full of stars has a way of pushing your photography gear to its limits.

Canon lens for astrophotography

On a recent astrophotography session in the backyard, I discovered how enjoyable it can be to squeeze in a brief mid-week session using a camera lens in place of the telescope.

For this imaging run, I used the refreshingly simple and affordable Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 lens. The lens was attached to my Canon Rebel T3i DSLR, which rode atop an iOptron SkyTracker camera mount.

(Those of you that have been following my blog for some time know how much I love my DSLR astrophotography.)

The difference this time around is that I’m able to get up and running in about 10 minutes.  The lack of computer control and autoguiding saves a lot of time and effort – meaning I’m collecting data sooner.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at a recent shoot that took place on a less than perfect night.

A Budget Astrophotography Lens (Nifty Fifty)

The lens used in this video is often referred to as the “nifty fifty”. “Every photographer should own a 50mm f/1.8 lens as your first upgrade from the kit lens that came with your camera.”Improvephotography.com

In the video above, I set out to capture the Orion Constellation using a Lens in place of a telescope.  This is my “quick and dirty” imaging setup.

In this post, I’ll show you my results using a Canon lens that costs less than $150 USD brand new. I’ll also share some information on another affordable lens for astrophotography from Rokinon.

Using a Camera Lens instead of a Telescope

On nights when imaging time is limited, a great option is to set up a highly mobile setup that you can get up and running quickly.

Sure it would be great to capture light frames on a deep sky project using my primary imaging telescope (especially when you’ve got a William Optics FLT 132 on loan!) but that’s not always a practical choice in the middle of February.

Setting up my camera mount

A small sky-tracker camera mount can be set up and polar aligned within minutes

The process of setting up my complete deep sky telescope rig for a night of astrophotography takes time.

Even with a sound blueprint for setting up my non-permanent setup, the process can take upwards of an hour. This isn’t a problem on a warm Saturday in June, but a Monday night in February is an entirely different experience.

Related Post: Building a Portable Astrophotography Kit



Another factor that went into consideration was my weather conditions. The clear sky chart was less than ideal, with the transparency meter looking a little pale.

Rather than setting myself up for a potentially wasted night due to weather, I took a chance on some wide field shots using my “spur of the moment” rig.

A Lightweight, Portable Solution

wide-angle astrophotography setup

My Canon EOS Rebel T3i sitting atop the SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount

The iOptron SkyTracker Pro is a portable astrophotography mount that is perfect for taking wide-angle nightscape with a DSLR camera and lens. If you’re just getting into the hobby and interested in long exposure shots of the Milky Way – a star tracker mount like this what you want.

I used the SkyTracker Pro mount and the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens to photograph the Milky Way under the dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park in June 2018. This portable astrophotography setup is absolutely perfect for wide-angle shots of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way using the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens

If you’re want to go a step further and use a small telescope – I’ve had success using the beefier SkyGuider Pro. Wide-field nightscapes are a lot of fun – and can be just as rewarding as a deep sky image.

My target was the Orion Constellation, including Barnard’s Loop. Using the Canon 50m lens with my T3i results in a focal length of 80mm (50mm x 1.6 crop factor), which happens to be a perfect fit when it comes to capturing the stars that make up Orion the hunter.

Canon astrophotography lens

The Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 Lens

What’s the Best Lens for Astrophotography on a budget?

You may remember my announcement on Facebook about investing in a new Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens. This “budget” category lens was purchased with the idea of wide-angle nightscapes in mind.

There are many great lenses for astrophotography available, but these are two that I personally own and enjoy. The models mentioned below are both prime lenses with a fixed focal length. Although they are both affordable choices for astrophotography, their uses will vary.

Jerry Lodriguss has put together a helpful list of both Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Rokinon Lenses for Astrophotography on his website.

best budget astrophotography lens

Left: Rokinon 14mm F/2.8  |   Right: Canon 50mm F/1.8

The lenses listed below are both built for a Canon DSLR body because that’s what I currently shoot with.  Nikon has comparable lenses (Nikkor) in this category, with similar models of the lenses mentioned below.

The Rokinon 14mm F/2.8

If you were to ask me for advice on “the best budget lens for astrophotography”, I’d lean toward the Rokinon 14mm Ultra Wide Lens if you plan on shooting wide-angle astro-landscapes. I don’t have any photo examples using this lens (yet!), but it’s a relevant part of the conversation.

For a look at some example photos of this lens used for Milky Way photography, be sure to check out this review by lonelyspeck.com.

Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens for Canon

The Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens attached to my Canon DSLR

At 14mm, the Rokinon is a much better choice than the Canon 50mm if you plan to capture large areas of the night sky, including the Milky Way. With a full frame camera, the ultra-wide 14mm FOV can be fully appreciated.

Interestingly enough, I used the Rokinon lens to film most of the video I recently published. The wide field of view comes in handy when shooting scenes of my equipment underneath a starry sky.

Pros:

  • Ultra Wide-Angle (Especially using a full-frame DSLR)
  • Affordable
  • Fast Optics (F/2.8)

Cons:

  • Manual aperture adjustment
  • Manual focus ring is slow
  • Big and bulky objective lens

As the season changes, I’ll spend much more time with this astrophotography lens.  I am curious to see how much sky I can collect in some stacked long exposures.




The Canon EF 50mm F/1.8

This lens is about $150 brand new, is virtually weightless, and is useful focal length for wide field imaging on certain targets.  I purchased the Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 lens years ago, as it added a much need portrait lens to my DSLR kit at the time.

Canon EF 50mm F/1.8

With the aperture wide open at F/1.8, you can pull in a lot of light in a short period of time, but the stars are a little rough at the edges of the frame. If you stop down to F/2.8 or F/3.2 things improve dramatically.

Pros:

  • Extremely Affordable
  • Fast Optics (F/1.8)
  • Lightweight

Cons:

  • No Image Stabilization
  • Impractical Focal Length
  • Stars at F/1.8 aren’t great

examples using a 50mm lens

The images above were taken by Kurt Zeppetello and Victor Toth using the Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens on a tracking mount.

Using a Clip-in DSLR filter with a camera lens

To make life easier, I opted to use an h-alpha filter in the T3i to completely ignore the light pollution from home. The Astronomik 12nm Ha filter clips into my camera – and isolates the hydrogen gases found within the hunter.

Clip-in DSLR filter

The Astronomik 12nm Ha Clip-In Filter used for my Narrowband image of Orion

The clip filter fits nicely underneath a camera lens like the Canon 50mm F/1.8. One of the reasons I like clip-in camera filters so much is the flexibility of using them with an astrophotography lens or telescope.

The Orion Constellation at 50mm (in narrowband ha)

The following image is of a large portion of the night sky including the stars and nebulae surrounding Orion.

The resulting narrowband image is, of course, black and white – with the red channel isolated in photoshop for processing. For more details on processing images in ha from a DSLR, have a look at my narrowband Photoshop tutorial.

Barnard's Loop in Orion

Barnard’s Loop in Orion | 26 x 3-minutes @ ISO 800

Overall, I am quite pleased with the way this turned out. The total exposure time was short, and the sky conditions were lousy.  However, the focal length of the Canon EF 50mm lens was spot on for this target.

I have never shot Orion at this focal length before in narrowband.  Seeing Barnard’s Loop appear on the camera display was a huge thrill!

RAW narrowband ha exposures

My individual RAW exposures in narrowband ha – they’re all red!

The shots were 3 minutes each, at ISO 800.  I stopped the aperture down to F/3.2 to sharpen things up, not to mention not blow out my 3-minute subs.

As you can see, the stars are still rather sharp at the very edge of the field.

stars at the edge of field

A sound polar alignment on the little iOptron SkyTracker was all I needed for sharp, pinpoint stars for each 180-second sub.  Can your telescope mount go 3 minutes unguided with sharp stars?

To polar align, I simply refer to my Polar Finder phone app and make the necessary adjustments to the mount.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount

At this focal length, autoguiding is not necessary and the field of view is quite wide and forgiving. With that being said, I am so impressed with the smooth and accurate tracking on the SkyTracker.

Camera Automation and Focus

I  automate my imaging sessions on the mini-rig using a remote shutter release cable. I set everything from the number of exposures to the individual exposure length.

remote shutter release cable

My Polaroid  Remote Shutter Release Cable

The cheap Polaroid version I bought on Amazon has been surprisingly reliable. Using the remote, I let the camera do it’s thing until it’s time to tear down and go to bed.

The Summer Triangle

The Summer Triangle and the Milky Way (Rokinon 14mm F/2.8)

Quick and Efficient Backyard Imaging

For me – finding ways to sustain this hobby long term is important. This rather brief astrophotography session provided me with enough data to produce an impressive portrait of Barnard’s Loop, and the Orion constellation in hydrogen alpha.

The simplicity of mounting the camera on a small tracking mount and walking away really appeals to me.  On frigid February night, it’s a refreshing experience that doesn’t involve a lengthy star alignment routine or lugging 40 pounds of gear around.

Shooting deep sky through a telescope will always be my bread and butter, but shooting with a cheap astrophotography lens on a small star tracker sure is a lot of fun too.

Related Posts:

Astrophotography Cameras: The Best Choice for a Beginner

Light Pollution Filters for Astrophotography

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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.

AstroBackyard is on Facebook

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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
Mount: Skywatcher HEQ5 Pro Synscan
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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