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Elephant’s Trunk Nebula

Photographing the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula

|Nebulae|14 Comments

As the season transitions from summer to fall, the nights have become longer and cooler in the backyard. This is beneficial for deep sky astrophotography for many reasons, with more time to capture exposure time on incredible targets like the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula being one of them.

For those that have been following my YouTube Channel, you’ll know that I’ve been testing out a new APO refractor telescope, the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED. I was shocked to see just how many of my subscribers were already using and enjoying this exact telescope for astrophotography.

In the following post, I’ll show you how I captured the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula using a camera and telescope from my backyard in the city. The final image includes 1 hour and 50 minutes of total integrated exposure time.

Photographing the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula

From my little backyard, I like to choose targets that offer a long run of imaging time before running into an obstruction (like my neighbor’s roof). This can be challenging at times, and certain objects have a very small window of opportunity.

This, unfortunate reality that many of us backyard astrophotographers face often has a lot to do with the deep sky targets we choose to photograph. I’d love to simply choose the most interesting nebula or galaxy to shoot each month, but I usually opt for something that I can spend a fair amount of time on.

Total integrated exposure time is the single biggest factor to consider when executing a new deep sky astrophotography project. The best images in the world usually include 10 hours of exposure time or more, not an hour and a half.

With that being said, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula is well placed in the night sky for plenty of exposure time during the months of September and October. I expect to collect a much more time on IC 1396 throughout the month of September.

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED

Setting up the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED APO Refractor

IC 1396

The high position of IC 1396 from my latitude is advantageous for some sharp and detailed images. This nebula stays away from the horizon and the ever-present glow of my Bortle Class 8 skies.

Targets that rise almost straight up in the sky benefit from less turbulence in the air, which (in my experience) results in tighter stars. It’s also free from the tall obstructions present on my back patio such as an increasingly tall Northern Hackberry tree.

The plan was to capture as many 5-minute exposures as possible during the brief stretch of clear nights we’ve experienced in September this month. These nights have all been mid-week, which can often lead to some groggy days at work to follow. But that’s what we signed up for.

To properly showcase this 5-degree wide emission nebula and cluster of young stars, I’ve decided to use a narrowband filter with a color camera. Not just any filter, a duo-narrowband filter that captures both Ha and OIII at the same time.

Object Details:

  • Common Name: Elephant’s Trunk Nebula
  • Catalogued: IC 1396 (Embedded Star Cluster), vdB 142
  • Object Type: Emission Nebula with embedded star cluster
  • Distance: 2,400 light years
  • Constellation: Cepheus

IC 1396 location

The location of the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula – Sky and Telescope

The Camera and Filter Used

The STC Astro Duo-Narrowband filter has been an astonishingly useful addition to my growing collection of light pollution filters. Together, with a cooled color CMOS camera, I have been able to produce some of my best deep sky images to date.

With the cooler temperatures at night, I’ve managed to lower the sensor temperature on the ZWO ASI294 MC Pro to -20C. This helps capture low-noise images that make the image processing stages so much more enjoyable later on.

The sensor size of the ASI294 MC Pro is an excellent fit in terms of pixel scale with the wide field Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED refractor. The field of view using the Esprit 100 with the included field flattener (corrector) and this camera is perfect for large nebulae objects like the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula. I used this handy tool to calculate the field of view.

The image above illustrates where I threaded my 2-inch filter on the imaging train of this configuration. Finally, I think I’ve got the correct spacing between the camera sensor and the flattener!

ZWO ASI294 MC Pro

The ZWO ASI294 MC Pro Camera attached to the Esprit 100 2-Element Corrector

Update: A number of folks contacted me after seeing the way I had the camera and filter connected to the field corrector in my Pacman Nebula video. Two helpful options for placing the 2-inch filter in front of the sensor have surfaced.

  1. FLO Push-Fit Adapter for Sky-Watcher Focal Reducers
  2. Starizona Filter Slider – Complete System

Thank you to Jimmy and Kevin for the tip. I appreciate the advice, guys!

Starizona Filter Slider

The Starizona Filter Slider. 

The Telescope

In late August, I was sent a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED APO to review. It’s a wide-field apochromatic triplet refractor, my absolute favorite type of telescope for astrophotography. I have only recently mounted the telescope to the iOptron CEM60 mount and sorted out all of the necessary accessories for astrophotography.

The Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED included a threaded 2-element field corrector (or, “field flattener”) and a Canon t-ring adapter. Instead of connecting my DSLR camera, I’ve opted to try the ASI294 MC Pro for some more narrowband imaging.

I’d like to eventually take advantage of the full-frame corrected focal plane with my stock Canon 5D Mk II. I may try shooting a reflection nebula using this camera such as the Iris Nebula, or Witch Head Nebula.

astrophotography telescope

Video: Unboxing a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED APO

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED Super APO Triplet Specs:

Glass: Schott/Ohara ED
Aperture: 100mm
Focal Length: 550 mm
Focal Ratio: F/5.5
Weight: 16.3 lbs.

At a focal length of 550mm, this triplet is best for capturing large nebulae and galaxies. In my early tests on the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula, the very edges of the image showed elongated stars. After correcting the spacing between my camera sensor and the threaded field corrector, I am happy to report that the stars are now pin-points to the edge of the image.

Overall the Esprit 100ED has been a welcome addition to the AstroBackyard with yet another focal length and native magnification to play with. In contrast, my Explore Scientific ED102 has a focal length of 714mm despite only being 2 inches larger in aperture.

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED vs. Explore Scientific ED102

My Results

The following image was captured over 2 nights in early September from my backyard. The complete photo details and equipment breakdown are listed below.

Elephant's Trunk Nebula

IC 1396 – The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula – Trevor Jones

Total Exposure Time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes
(22 x 5 minutes)

Mount: iOptron CEM60 center-balanced equatorial mount
Telescope: Sky-Watcher 100ED Super APO triplet
Camera: ZWO ASI294MC Pro
Reducer: Sky-Watcher 2-Element Field Corrector
Filter: STC Astro Duo-Narrowband Filter
Autoguiding: Starfield 60mm Guide Scope Package

Image Acquisition in Astro Photography Tool
Autoguiding with PHD2 Guiding
Stacking in DeepSkyStacker
Final Processing in Adobe Photoshop

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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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Canon Rebel Astrophotography

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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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M33 Galaxy – The Triangulum Galaxy

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M33 Galaxy

M33 – The Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum Galaxy

The M33 Galaxy is the third-largest galaxy in the local-group of galaxies, behind the Milky Way and Andromeda.  Its large size from our vantage point makes my wide-field astrophotography 80mm telescope a great choice for imaging this target. Despite it’s size, the Triangulum Galaxy appears much dimmer than M31 – The Andromeda galaxy.  If you are new to astrophotography, chances are that the Triangulum Galaxy is one of the first few galaxy names you have learned.

M33 Galaxy Photo Details:

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 (Modified)
ISO: 800
Total Exposure: 7 Hours (84 x 300 seconds)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 20 darks, 20 flats, 20 bias

Target Acquired – Messier 33

I have managed to image the M33 Galaxy from my backyard for multiple nights over the course of nearly a week. I can’t remember the last time we have had such a long stretch of clear night skies in the Niagara region. Mind you, these clear nights occurred during weekdays, and I have to be up early for work (and to walk the dog) early each morning. Needless to say, I haven’t been getting much sleep lately.  Luckily my astrophotography equipment can be set up and ready for imaging in about 30 minutes. This includes polar alignment, calibration, focus and guiding.  

M33 Galaxy - Astrophotography

My Telescope pointed at the M33 Galaxy

But first, the Elephant’s Trunk

My first imaging session was on the night of September 16th. Smack-dab in the middle of the work week. I didn’t originally intend to shoot the M33 galaxy that night, I started with IC 1396. The Elephant’s Trunk nebula is a concentration of interstellar gas and dust within IC 1396, located in the constellation Cepheus. You can view the results of this project below.

This area of the night sky is in a perfect spot for imaging at this time of year from my location, almost directly overhead. I captured 38 frames on this DSO on Wednesday night. The subs were 4 minutes each using ISO 800 on my aging modified Canon Xsi.

IC 1396 – Elephant’s Trunk Nebula

Elephant's Trunk Nebula

IC 1396 – Elephant’s Trunk Nebula – A tad noisy!

IC 1396 – Astrophotography Image Details

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 (Modified)
ISO: 800
Total Exposure: 2 Hours, 24 Minutes (36 x 240 seconds)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 dark frames

The Elephant’s Trunk nebula can be seen in the top center-right of the photo above. It is a dark patch with a bright, sinuous rim. The rim is the surface of a dense cloud that is being illuminated and ionized by a very bright, massive star. Faint objects like this are difficult to image from light-polluted skies in the city. I found myself battling with horrible gradients and noise when processing this image. I will likely add more time to the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula during the weeks that surround the new moon in October. Another 4 hours should help me pull out more detail with less noise.

Canon 450D attached to my telescope

Canon Xsi 450D for astrophotography – attached to my telescope with the William Optics 0.8 FF

On to the M33 Galaxy…

After achieving a steady graph in PHD guiding, and a tight-focus on my reference star (Alderamin) I set BackyardEOS to take 50 frames, and I headed to bed.  I set my alarm for 2:00am, and managed to stumble back out to the patio to check on my results.  The Elephant’s trunk nebula was too far west, and my telescope would soon by aiming directly at my garage!  Because the sky was still crisp and clear, I figured I would add some time a second object for the night.  I imaged the M33 Galaxy back in 2012, but that was before I self-modded my 450D for astrophotography.  The Triangulum Galaxy contains some beautiful pink nebulosity within it that I knew I could now capture.

The following 2 nights of the week were also clear, and I took full advantage. This time, I shelved my plans for the Elephant’s trunk, and focused all of my efforts on Messier 33. I captured an impressive 49 subs the following night at 5 minutes each, and then I added another 17 light frames the night after that!

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M33 Galaxy

M33 – The Triangulum Galaxy

My total number of frames on this object was now over 100! That’s a lot of imaging in one week. All that was left now was to stack and process all of the data acquired. I set Deep sky stacker to use “the best 90% of frames” to register and stack, which resulted in a final stack of 84 images total, or exactly 7 hours. I even had success with my creation of flat and bias frames. I shot the bias frames through the telescope with the lens cap on, at the fastest shutter speed my camera allows (1/4000 of a second). The flat frames were created by shooting through the telescope, pointed at the early morning blue sky. These were shot with the camera in Av mode. I shot separate bias and flat frames for each night, except the first. Only dark frames were used for that imaging session.

Processing a photo with 7 hours worth of data is quite enjoyable.  There is less noise, and more detail than I am used to.  As with all of my astrophotography images, I am sure I will re-process my photo of Messier 33 several times until I feel like I have done the galaxy justice. Everyone has their own taste, and at the end of the day, you have to be happy with it.

BackyardEOS 3.1

I finally purchased a copy of BackyardEOS 3.1 Classic Edition. My trial period has ended, and I am very happy with the software. The focus and framing tab, dithering control, and file organization features are my favourite, and make me wish I had upgraded to this software a lot sooner. I always had a hard time getting accurate focus using the live-view function of my DSLR. The focusing function built-in to BackyardEOS allow you to view a digital readout of the star size in real-time as you focus your telescope. The lower number you see on-screen, the better your focus! The filename for each sub lists the ISO, object name, exposure time, date and even the temperature! This is extremely handy when stacking a large number of frames from multiple nights.

BackyardEOS

Screenshot of the BackyardEOS 3.1 Software

I would love to hear what you think of my results for this galaxy image.  You can also follow me on twitter to see more of the “behind-the-scenes” stuff from the backyard. As always, if you have any questions about the equipment I used, or my processing techniques, please leave a comment below.  Thank you so much for visiting my website.

Backyard Astrophotography

Another night under the stars in the backyard

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