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Photograph the Total Lunar Eclipse

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Are you hoping to capture a photo of the total lunar eclipse on January 20, 2019? If so, you are not alone. Amateur photographers and astrophotography enthusiasts around the world will do their best to take a pictures of the lunar eclipse in January using a wide variety of camera equipment.

These days, every full moon and lunar eclipse has some sort of epic name attached to it, and the total lunar eclipse in January 2019 is no different. The media has nicknamed this astronomical event the Super Blood Wolf Moon 2019. That’s right, don’t forget to add the “Super”. 

Catchy names aside, a total eclipse of the moon is a truly breath-taking astronomical event that anyone can appreciate. Over the years, I have photographed a number of total lunar eclipses, and I plan to do so again on January 20, 2019. There are many ways to photograph the total lunar eclipse this January, but for the best results I recommend using a DSLR camera and a small refractor telescope on a tracking mount. 

lunar eclipse photography methods

The total lunar eclipse on January 20-21, 2019 is the only total eclipse of the moon in 2019 around the world, with a partial lunar eclipse happening on July 16 in isolated parts of the world. 

To capture a detailed portrait of the moon like the image above, a long focal length and a tracking equatorial mount are required. However, it is also possible to produce a comparable close-up image using a digital camera or smartphone through the eyepiece of a non-tracking telescope using the eyepiece projection method.

In this post, I’ll share some tips for photographing this celestial event using both basic and advanced astrophotography equipment. 

What is a Lunar Eclipse?

Do you understand why a lunar eclipse happens? There are two types of lunar eclipses: partial and total. I am happy to say that the event on January 20-21 is the extra exciting one.

As you know, the Earth orbits the sun, and the moon orbits the Earth. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth is sitting directly between the sun and the moon. Although the moon is being covered in Earths shadow, some sunlight still reaches the moon. 

When the moon enters the central umbra shadow of the Earth, it turns red and dim. This distinctive “blood” color is due to the fact that the sunlight is passing through Earth’s atmosphere to light up the disk of the moon. 

What is a lunar eclipse?

A diagram of what happens during a total lunar eclipse – NASA

Unlike a solar eclipse, observing a total lunar eclipse is completely safe to do with the naked eye. This natural phenomenon can be enjoyed without the aid of any optical instruments, although binoculars can really help to get an up-close view of the action.

Where and When will it Happen?

The total lunar eclipse will take place on January 20-21, 2019, with the total phase visible from North and South America. From my vantage point in Ontario, Canada, the maximum eclipse will occur at 12:15am on January 21. To find out when the total lunar eclipse will take place from your location, you can check out this eclipse map on Timeanddate.com.

City Penumbral begins: Maximum: Duration:
Los Angeles Jan. 20 at 6:36pm Jan. 20 at 9:12pm 5 Hours, 11 Minutes
Denver Jan. 20 at 7:36pm Jan. 20 at 10:12pm 5 Hours, 11 Minutes
Chicago Jan. 20 at 8:36pm Jan. 20 at 11:12pm 5 Hours, 11 Minutes
Toronto Jan. 20 at 9:36pm Jan. 21 at 12:12am 5 Hours, 11 Minutes
St. Johns Jan. 20 at 11:06pm Jan. 21 at 1:42am 5 Hours, 11 Minutes

There are 7 stages of a total lunar eclipse, and many amateur photographers like to capture the event in each stage. This can later be made into a composite photo showing the transition of the moon as Earth’s shadow covers it. A time lapse video is another excellent way to capture each stage of the eclipse.January 2019

The maximum eclipse stage is when most photographers want a great shot. This is when the the moon turns “blood” red and the surrounding night sky becomes much darker from our point of view on Earth. It is an unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to witness this moment.

lunar eclipse path 2019

Lunar Eclipse Path – January 20-21, 2019 – NASA

Stages of the total lunar eclipse:

  • Penumbral Eclipse begins
  • Partial Eclipse begins
  • Full Eclipse begins
  • Maximum Eclipse
  • Full Eclipse ends
  • Partial Eclipse ends
  • Penumbral Eclipse ends

An interesting thing happens when the moon is completely eclipsed by the shadow of Earth. Not only does the moon turn to an eerie reddish hue, but the stars and constellations surrounding the moon begin to appear as they would on a moonless night. Capturing a scene like this requires careful planning and execution.

Tips for Photographing the Total Lunar Eclipse

There are numerous ways to photograph a lunar eclipse, but here are 5 methods I techniques I suggest you try out:

  • Point-and-shoot digital camera through a telescope eyepiece (eyepiece projection)
  • Smartphone camera through a telescope eyepiece 
  • DSLR camera and wide angle lens on a stationary tripod
  • DSLR camera and telephoto lens on a tracking mount
  • DSLR camera attached to telescope (prime focus) on a tracking mount
  • Dedicated astronomy camera attached to telescope and tracking mount

    total lunar eclispes

    A photo of the “Super Blood Moon” eclipse I captured from my backyard in 2015

All of the methods described above are capable of incredible lunar eclipse photos. However, the ones that leverage the full manual control of a DSLR or dedicated astronomy camera will have more creative control over the types of shots available.

 

Wide-angle nightscape images that include a large portion of the night sky including an eclipsed moon can be done using a DSLR and tripod. For a 30-second exposure, a tracking mount is not necessary. At a focal length of 18mm or wider, star trailing will begin to show after about 20-25 seconds, so just keep that in mind. 

To capture the stars and constellations in the night sky, an ISO of 800 or above is recommended. However, this exposure will likely record the eclipsed moon as a featureless ball of light.

To properly capture both the starry sky and a detailed moon, you will need to capture exposures of varying lengths and blend them together into a composite image. This is because the moon is much brighter (even while eclipsed) than the surrounding starry sky.

A composite image can be made be masking the area of your night sky exposure, and blending in a shorter exposure of the moon with surface details. This technique will take some time and experience to master, but the results can be amazing.

I’ll share a few more astrophotography tips a little farther down the post.

Using a DSLR and Telescope

A telescope can provide an up-close view of the eclipsed moon, and will allow you to take pictures of the moon using your camera or smartphone. The prime focus method of astrophotography is best, as the camera sensors focal plane is aligned with the telescope. You can directly attach a DSLR camera using a T-Ring adapter to utilize the telescopes native focal length.

t-ring adapter

A DSLR camera and T-Ring Adapter attached to a telescope

The prime focus method requires that the telescope tracks the apparent rotation of the night sky to avoid any movement in your shots. To learn more about the process and equipment involved for deep-sky astrophotography, have a look at a typical DSLR and telescope setup.

If your goal is to capture an up-close view of the moon during the eclipse, there are many benefits to this technique. A small refractor telescope will have the adequate amount of focal length (magnification), offer precision focus, and a stable base to attach to an equatorial telescope mount. 

To record the lunar eclipse with a DSLR camera, no filters are necessary. A stock DSLR camera is best as the additional wavelengths available with a modified camera are unused in moon photography.

camera settings for lunar eclipse

Camera settings used for my lunar eclipse photo

Without a tracking equatorial mount, a 2.5 second exposure like the one above is impossible. Even 1-second of movement at this focal length will record a blurry image if the telescope or lens is not moving at the same speed as the moon.

The benefit of shooting a longer exposure during the maximum eclipse, is that you also record the starry sky behind the moon. To do this in a single exposure on a normal full moon is not possible as the dynamic range is too wide.

A dedicated one-shot-color astronomy camera is more than capable of taking a brilliant photo of the eclipse as well. The computer software used to control these devices have countless options to control the Gain and exposure settings of theses cameras. 

For projects like this, I personally enjoy the freedom and simplicity of a DSLR. Camera settings such as ISO, exposure and white balance can easily be changed on-the-fly as the eclipse is taking place.

Using a Telephoto Camera Lens

A telephoto camera lens with at least 300mm of focal length will also work well. At longer focal lengths like the ones necessary for a close up of the moon, you must use a fast exposure to capture a sharp photo of the moon. This is because the Earth is spinning, so you’re essentially trying to photograph a moving target. 

The image below was captured using a Canon EOS 70D and a Canon EF 400mm F/5.6 Lens. 

partial eclipse phase

The final stages of the partial eclipse phase are challenging to photograph because there is a bright highlight on a small portion of the moon. For the photo below, the camera settings included an ISO setting of 6400, and a shutter speed of 1/8.

A tracking telescope or camera mount such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro (pictured below) is recommended. An equatorial mount that is polar aligned with the rotational axis of the Earth will allow you to take longer exposures, and get more creative with your camera settings.

Owners of astronomical telescopes for astrophotography usually own a GoTo equatorial mount. This allows the user to enter any celestial object into the hand controller, and the mount will automatically slew to that object once it has been properly star aligned.

An iOptron SkyGuider Pro camera mount with a DSLR and 300mm Lens attached

The key to capturing details of the moons surface in your lunar eclipse photo is reach, and exposure. By this, I mean that you need enough magnification to show the detailed craters of the moon’s surface, and a fast enough shutter speed to not blow out any of the highlights in your image. 

To do this, a precise exposure length must be used. One that preserves the data in your image while also bringing enough of the shadowed areas forward is ideal. For my photos, I found an ISO of 200 and an exposure of 1/200 to work quite well. This was enough to showcase a starry sky behind the eclipsed moon.

I use Adobe Photoshop to process all of my astrophotography images, including photos of the moon and our solar system. Adobe Camera Raw is a fantastic way to edit your images of the lunar eclipse because it gives you complete control over the highlights and color balance of your image. 

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Camera Raw offers powerful tools to edit your photos of the Total Lunar Eclipse

With the camera connected to the telescope (prime focus astrophotography), experiment with different exposures and ISO settings in manual mode, using live-view to make sure you have not under/overexposed the image.

The shortest exposures will only be useful during the partial stages of the lunar eclipse, as the lunar eclipse is beginning and ending. As I mentioned earlier, this is a challenging phase of the even to capture in a single shot, as the shadows and highlights of the image are from one end of the spectrum to the other.

When the moon enters totality, you will need to bump up your ISO, and/or your exposure length to reveal the disk of the moon as it becomes dimmer. Use a timer or external shutter release cable to avoid camera shake if possible. Ideally, you’ll keep the ISO as low as possible for the least amount of noise. With an accurately polar-aligned tracking mount, exposures of 2-5 seconds will work great.

Using a Smartphone or Point-and-Shoot Camera

Another way you can photograph the moon is to use the eyepiece projection method of astrophotography. To do this, you’ll simply position your digital camera or smartphone into the eyepiece of the telescope. This method usually requires a far amount of trial and error, but you may be quite surprised with your results.

An eyepiece smartphone adapter may help to steady your shot of the lunar eclipse. Although you’ll have much less control over exposure and record less detail, this technique can be used with a non-tracking telescope such as the Apertura AD8 Dobsonian I reviewed in late 2018. 

The moon is one of the few subjects that is easy to photograph with a non-tracking mount, although the transition phases of the eclipse will be more difficult. I recommend capturing the lunar eclipse during its maximum phase if you’re using this method. You likely won’t be able to capture a well-exposed image  using the cameras auto-exposure mode.

Experiment with your cameras manual settings that allow for variations in shutter speed. 

Without Using a Telescope 

If you are simply using a point and shoot camera, or a DSLR and lens on a tripod, you can still take photo of the lunar eclipse. This is often a great way to capture the landscape and mood of the moment. The photo below was captured back in October 2014 using a CaDSLR Canon EOS 7D and a 18-200mm lens.

The wide angle tripod shot was photographed at 18mm, while the inset image was captured at the lenses maximum focal lengh of 200mm. 

Total Lunar Eclipse - Moon Photography

Just like I mentioned when using a phone camera, you’ll want as much manual control over the camera settings as possible. “Auto” mode, flash, and autofocus won’t work on a photo of the total lunar eclipse. Adjusting individual parameters such as exposure length and ISO is essential when photographing objects at night. 

Practice taking shots at night beforehand, so that you are ready when the eclipse happens. Ideally, find a location that includes some interesting foreground and background details to capture a dramatic scene on the night of the event. 

I hope you enjoy the total lunar eclipse in January with your friends and family. If the weather cooperates, I will be photographing the event from my backyard using a DSLR camera and telescope. 

Related Posts:

My Best Astrophotography Tips for Beginners

Choosing a Camera for Astrophotography

How to Take Pictures of the Moon

Helpful Resources:

 In-the-sky.org’s calendar of Celestial Events for 2019

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Deep Sky Astrophotography in Light Pollution

|Nebulae|11 Comments

If you’ve been following AstroBackyard on YouTube, you’ll know that I regularly shoot DSLR astrophotography images under the heavily light polluted skies at home. My night sky is classified as Bortle Class 8 in terms of sky quality, a white zone on the light pollution map. This certainly makes things more difficult in terms of collecting data and image processing, but I welcome the challenge.

It’s true, there is no substitute for dark skies. But being able to set up a portable astrophotography kit in the backyard on a weeknight is pretty cool. I don’t have to pack up heavy gear into the car and worry about mobile battery power or internet access. I can open up the garage door and start capturing images through my telescope before it gets dark after work.

light pollution map

I live in the center of town, a red zone on the light pollution map

Don’t get me wrong, I adore traveling to dark sky locations, it just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to. For me, a typical night of deep-sky imaging happens during the week in between work, family time and lots of dog walking. A clear sky in the backyard is my idea of the perfect night, no matter which target I’m shooting.

I’ve been successfully capturing deep sky images from this light-polluted backyard for 3 years now. The best part about it is that I get to show others that live in the city that deep sky astrophotography is not only possible, but you can capture some truly incredible images. In this post, I’ll share my latest results from the backyard using a Canon EOS Rebel T3i DSLR camera and a small refractor telescope.

deep sky astrophotography

The Soul Nebula captured with a Canon DSLR and the equipment shown below

Light pollution is a major side-effect of urbanization, and is said to compromise your health and can disrupt ecosystems. To discover the amount of light pollution where you live, simply locate your house on this interactive light pollution map. The Bortle scale is a way of measuring the brightness of the night sky.

Photographing a Nebula from the City

After much deliberation, I have decided to dedicate an increasingly rare and precious clear night to the Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia. I’ve photographed IC 1848 before, so I’ll be combining the new images I take with the previous data to create my best image of this emission nebula yet. All of the data I’ve ever collected on this nebula was shot here in the backyard with a DSLR.

My secret weapon is to collect absolutely as much exposure time on my target as possible. Stacking several images together can increase the amount of signal collected while reducing noise by canceling out its random output. For more information about the concept of signal-to-noise ratio, Craig Stark explains it better than I ever could.

astrophotography telescope

My telescope with the Canon EOS Rebel T3i attached

Overcoming light-polluted skies

I’ve got lots of experience here, as the majority of my deep-sky astrophotography is done from home. In theory, a light pollution filter will let you shoot longer exposure times before being blown out on the histogram, but this comes at a price. The signal (light) is often weak, and the natural color emitted from the stars has been altered. For both of these trade-offs, capturing more integrated exposure time can be a huge help.

A popular and effective method of overcoming the light-polluted skies of an urban backyard is to use a monochrome camera equipped with narrowband filters (narrowband imaging). This has the power to aggressively ignore artificial light and isolate the light associated with specific gases in objects in space. But what about those shooting with a DSLR camera?

A color camera like a DSLR uses an internal Bayer matrix to create full-color images in a single shot. This convenience comes at the expense of a much weaker signal when compared to a monochrome CCD or CMOS camera. To offset this challenge, I like to use camera filters that help me isolate the light I want to collect.

camera filter

I use a clip-in light pollution with my Canon DSLR (Skytech CLS-CCD)

Shoot During New Moon

Although narrowband filters have allowed me to take photos during all moon phases, the new moon phase is a special time for amateur astrophotographers. The days surrounding the new moon phase mean that I can finally capture true color images of my subject with more natural colors.

Believe it or not, the bright glow of Earth’s natural satellite produces enough skyglow to really reduce contrast in your deep-sky images. Even a narrowband filter won’t help if your target is sitting too close to a bright full moon.

Light pollution filters such as the Astronomik CLS and IDAS LPS D-1 help to reduce moonglow, but for the absolute best data on a deep sky target, the new moon phase is best. If you’re planning on shooting unfiltered, this is definitely when you want to try it.

Shooting Without a Light Pollution Filter

It’s also worth noting, that for certain targets, an incredible image can be captured without using a filter at all. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this photo of the Andromeda Galaxy posted by Jon Rista on Astrobin. The image was created by stacking 174 x 150-second subs at a modest ISO 400 under light-polluted skies. Inspired? I was too.

I plan to capture the Pleiades from my backyard again soon using only the required UV/IR (luminance) filter with my modified DSLR. This target does not emit light that a narrowband filter can isolate, as it is a reflection nebula. Another target that would be a great test subject for this technique is M31, as seen in Jon’s image above.

Update:

I captured the Pleiades star cluster using a new light pollution filter, the Optolong L-Pro. This is a multi-bandpass filter the does a great job of preserving the natural star colors in my images from the city. Have a look at sample image comparing an unfiltered image and one using the Optolong L-Pro:

filter comparison

My full review of this broadband astrophotography filter includes an image of the Pleiades star cluster captured with a stock Canon 5D Mk II camera.

Optolong L-Pro Filter Review – An Urban Broadband Astrophotography Filter

An Astrophotography Filter for the City

In the following video, you’ll see me describe the challenges of photographing deep-sky objects in space from a light-polluted area. The Optolong L-eNhance filter is an excellent choice to consider when shooting nebula targets that include areas of H-alpha and Oxygen III.

The image in this video was not shot using a DSLR camera, instead, a dedicated astronomy camera. However, a dual bandpass filter like the Optolong L-eNhance is a great choice for DSLR camera owners as well. This filter was designed especially for one-shot-color cameras. 

 

 

Selecting a Target

I no longer go into my astrophotography projects blind. In the early days, I would set up my telescope and astrophotography gear and think to myself “what will I shoot tonight?”. As carefree and exciting as those nights were, they also included a lot of wasted clear sky time looking at a computer screen while the night passed me by.

These days, I prefer to take a much more organized approach to deep-sky astrophotography as my time is limited, and clear nights are rare. I find it best to double down on deep-sky targets that not only compliment my equipment but maximize exposure time and increase the chances of “completing” a final image.

astrophotography book

I often refer to my “The 100 Best Astrophotography Targets” book for inspiration (On Amazon)

Be sure to check out my list of 14 Best Astrophotography Books for many more great choices. 

My decision-making process involves answering the following questions:

  • Have I photographed this target before?
  • Is the target in the early, mid or late position for the season?
  • Is it a good fit for the focal length of my telescope?
  • Does this object require narrowband data to properly showcase?
  • Will it turn out well in color using a DSLR camera?

As an example of a target’s position relating to the season – you wouldn’t want to start a new astrophotography project on a DSO that is on its way out and fading deeper and deeper into the Western twilight each night. Right now, Orion (winter target) is in the early season stages, while objects like the Crescent Nebula (Summer target) are on their way out.

It’s beneficial to select a deep sky target that will get as high from the horizon as possible. This will, of course, vary by your location but aim to collect light on subjects that are in their optimal position for the time of year. Your backyard window of the sky and potential obstructions in your yard will also factor into your selection.

deep sky imaging setup

My deep-sky imaging setup in the backyard

Despite having several previous iterations of IC 1848 on my hard drive, The Soul Nebula checked off the most boxes and won the battle for option selection. It currently sits in an opportunistic area of the night sky to collect a serious amount of exposure time this month.

This will be a great opportunity to improve my broadband color data collected on the Soul Nebula to improve upon my image from last year.

Why I’m using a DSLR

With a number of dedicated astronomy cameras and cooled CMOS cameras in my possession, why would I opt for using an old DSLR camera instead of an impressive astronomy camera like the QHY128C? (I’m working on it)

For starters, I wanted to produce another example image using the Zenithstar 73 APO with a DSLR. In my last video I shared images of the heart Nebula and Butterfly Nebula in narrowband Ha – but this time I’ll collect images in good old full color. My results on the Soul Nebula should give you a good idea of what to expect with a crop sensor DSLR camera like my Canon T3i or similar models.

A telescope like the Zenithstar 73 is a logical telescope choice for deep sky beginners just entering the hobby, and many of those people will be using a DSLR. It’s easy to get carried away in my posts and videos and skip over the basic information beginners are looking for, so I’ll try my best to scale back when the situation calls for it.

connecting a DSLR to a telescope

My DSLR attached to the Flat 73 Field Flattener and Zenithstar 73 Telescope

Camera Settings for a Washed Out Sky

From my bright sky here in the city, I’ll use 3-minute exposures at ISO 800 to capture the Soul Nebula. This is a rather conservative approach, which may have you wondering why I’m not shooting longer subs. A typical DSLR light frame under moderately light polluted skies would normally be 5 minutes at ISO 1600, but it’s a hot a humid night, and those settings would absolutely cook my sensor.

In these conditions, there is little value in collecting images longer than 3-minutes. As the noise increases significantly, the signal sees very little improvement. You are much better off capturing several shorter images over time. (My camera sensor hit 32°!) Even at 180-seconds, I am capturing A LOT of skyglow that will have to be dealt with in post-processing.

Camera Settings in the City

  • Mode: Manual
  • Format: RAW
  • ISO: 800
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Exposure: 180-seconds (3 minutes)

*Note without using a light pollution filter, this exposure time would be cut in half.

light frames

Previewing my 3-minute light frames in Adobe Bridge before stacking

Focal Ratio is Important

The Zenithstar 73 APO is fast. It’s fixed f-ratio of F/5.9 can collect light faster than most of the refractor telescopes I’ve used in the past (Including my Explore Scientific 102). This gives my images a much-needed boost in signal for each short 180-second sub. A lower focal ratio allows more photons to hit your camera sensor in a single exposure, which makes a big difference in terms of SNR.

Naturally, the aggressiveness of the filter (in this case a SkyTech CLS CCD) in front of the camera sensor changes how much signal I can record in a single exposure.

White Balance

I’ll leave the cameras white balance set to auto, as I see no benefits in adjusting this setting at this stage. Because I am shooting the images in RAW format, I can manually adjust the white balance to whichever temperature I want in post-processing. With that being said, there have been some interesting discussions on the topic of the benefits of using a custom white-balance for astrophotography in heavy light pollution.

Capture Software

The images are being captured using APT (Astro Photography Tool) on my new laptop computer. Autoguiding through PHD2 guiding and the Altair GPCAM + 50mm guide scope means that each image contains sharp stars each and every time. If you’re looking for an affordable autoguiding package to upgrade your kit, have a look at the Starfield autoguiding package offered from Ontario Telescope.

The images are dithered between each frame to further reduce noise – which can easily be switched on within the gear tab of APT. To learn more about the process of data acquisition including the use of support files (dark frames, flat frames), please visit the get started page.

Light Pollution Filter for Canon DSLR’s

For broadband spectrum targets like galaxies (and many reflection nebulae), a light pollution filter is less effective. However, for an emission nebula like the Soul Nebula, isolating the light emitted in the H-Alpha and OIII wavelengths can make a big difference.

Longtime followers of the blog will remember the SkyTech CLS-CCD filter I reviewed last year. Time and time again, this filter has impressed me with its ability to produce impressive color images using my DSLR camera in heavy light pollution.

Light pollution filter for Canon

The SkyTech CLS-CCD clip-in light pollution filter for modified DSLR cameras

This filter has been my go-to choice when it comes to capturing true-color broadband images from home. It does a great job of creating contrast between my target and a washed out city sky. The only downside is that it also alters the color balance of my image and paints the surrounding stars with a red cast.

Later this month, I’ll be testing out an Optolong L-Pro filter with my DSLR camera, which is said to be “a true 5 bandpass filter”. This multi-bandpass filter is less aggressive than the CLS-CCD and should help with my color balance issues. My hope is that this filter is a much needed middle ground between shooting with the CLS-CCD filter and unfiltered. I expect my exposures to be shorter using this filter here in the city.

Optolong L Pro FIlter

The Optolong L Pro Filter is 5 Bandpass Light Pollution Suppression Filter

For Stock Canon DSLR cameras

Owners of stock (non-modified) DSLRs will want to get a standard CLS (city light suppression) filter such as the Astronomik CLS clip-in filter without the unnecessary UV/IR cut filter. If you’re unfamiliar with what it means to modify a DSLR for astrophotography, have a look at this page where I cover this aspect of astrophotography cameras and more.

The Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia

With an apparent size of 150′ × 75′, the Soul Nebula is a fantastic deep sky astrophotography target for a DSLR camera and compact wide-field refractor telescope. It also rises above the roof of my house just as nightfall sets in, which is perfect timing in terms of maximizing my imaging time.

It’s a beautiful emission nebula with several embedded open star clusters. It emits a strong amount of light in the hydrogen-alpha wavelength, which makes adding images captured through a Ha filter beneficial.

star map of the Soul Nebula

Where to find the Soul Nebula

If you’ve been following my backyard activity via the email newsletter, you’ll know that I’ve been using another exquisite compact refractor. This time, it’s the William Optics Zenithstar 73 APO, and my resulting image should give you a good idea of what you can expect from this affordable doublet from an urban sky.

My Telescope

The William Optics Zenithstar 73 APO is a compact F/5.9 doublet apochromatic refractor with an impressive entourage of accessories to get you up and running. The Flat 73 1:1 field flattener is an essential upgrade if you plan on imaging with a full frame camera.

This telescope has a focal length of 430mm, which creates an extremely wide field of view. This means that it is well suited for large nebula targets like the Soul Nebula or Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia, but less effective on smaller targets such as galaxies.

The package I have includes a guide scope rings and a matching 50mm guide scope with gold accents. Using the M48 Canon adapter, I thread my Canon T3i to the Flat 73 for incredible wide-field exposures of my target of choice. Owners of DSLR cameras looking for an easy entry point into deep sky astrophotography should look no further than the Zenithstar 73 APO.

DSLR camera and telescope

The William Optics Zenithstar 73 APO is available at Ontario Telescope

It’s incredibly compact and manageable to use. If you’ve ever fought with balancing a large reflector telescope on a mount, you’ll really appreciate a compact telescope like the Z73. There is less stress on the mount, meaning can effortlessly track your target, even if the overall payload balance isn’t perfect.

One of my favorite features is a simple yet ingenious design touch. They’ve built a Bahtinov focus mask into the lens cap.

Focusing the image with the Z73

The diffraction spikes focus mask is a convenient feature you’ll find in all-new William Optics refractors. To focus with my DSLR, I simply find a bright star in the live view screen with the focus mask attached. Because the material is made from optical acrylic rather than metal, this mask provides 92% light transmission.

DSLR camera sensors are not as sensitive as most dedicated astronomy cameras. So the added light transmission from this mask really comes in handy when focusing your star using the rather dim 10X live view mode.  You’re presented with nice long diffraction spikes to really nail down your optimal focus position.

focus bahtinov mask

The built-in Star Diffraction Spikes Bahtinov Mask on the Z73

You’ll need a telescope mount that’s capable of handling a refractor telescope, but its small size means that beginner level astrophotography mounts such as the Orion Sirius EQ-G, Celestron AVX or Sky-Watcher HEQ5 will perform well with it.

My Telescope Mount

The Sky-Watcher HEQ5 SynScan pro has been called in for duty to capture guided 3-minute subs on the soul. It’s more than capable of accurately tracking this gorgeous nebula with the 5.5-lb Zenithstar 73 APO attached. I purchased this mount from a Canadian astronomy classified website several years ago, and it’s been working flawlessly ever since.

It allows me to set up quickly and easily Polar Align the mount within minutes. I still use the SynScan hand controller to star align the mount and slew to my target, although most prefer to advance to using the EQMOD software to control this mount from their PC.

tracking telescope mount

My Sky-Watcher HEQ5 SynScan Pro Telescope Mount

Speaking of Sky-Watcher, I am not done with the Esprit 100 ED just yet, not even close. With the departure of the iOptron CEM60 mount a few weeks ago, I had to find a solution to carry my heavier telescopes.

I am excited to announce the arrival of a brand new Sky-Watcher EQ6-R GoTo Mount as of this week. The built-in illuminated finder scope, SynScan hand controller, and snow-white finish will all feel very familiar – except there’s no rust on the counterweight!

I’ll have much more information to share about this soon.

Conclusion and Results

Mother nature doesn’t care what the calendar says, because Tuesday night’s imaging session was a nearly record-setting 31 degrees in Southern Ontario. Unfortunately, this increased the amount of noise in my images of the Soul Nebula (Sensor at 32°), but luckily my total integration time helped to improve the SNR.

Shooting with an uncooled DSLR is not ideal on hot nights like this – but nights like this are numbered, and soon I’ll be complaining about numb fingers, not camera noise.

The following image combines my latest data with images of the same target collected last year. All of the images were captured using a modified Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera and SkyTech CLS-CCD filter from the backyard.  The only difference in acquisition details between 2017 and 2018 was the use of a Meade 70mm Quadruplet Astrograph in 2017.

Narrowband Hydrogen-alpha data was added as a luminance layer to this image using the HaRGB method in Adobe Photoshop. This is a powerful way to boost the signal in an emission nebula captured under heavily light-polluted skies. For these images, an Astronomik 12nm ha clip-in ha filter was placed inside of the camera.

The Soul Nebula

IC 1348 – The Soul Nebula captured from Bortle Class 8 Skies with a DSLR Camera

The images captured this week on the Soul Nebula using the Z73 totaled 3 hours and 15 minutes (65 frames). As expected, the final still contained a fair amount of noise, even with the aid of dark frames and over 3 hours of exposure time. Doubling my integration time would certainly help.

The images were registered and stacked in DeepSkyStacker, with the final image processing done in Adobe Photoshop. The Astronomy Tools Action set contains many useful one-click actions that I regularly use on images like this taken from the backyard. (You can find a list of the software I use to process my images on the resources page)

Darker skies have a clear advantage when it comes to capturing deep sky astrophotography images. But with enough exposure time and the right image processing strategy, you can capture breathtaking images from your own backyard – no matter how light-polluted it may be.

Equipment Mentioned in this Post

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M27 – The Dumbbell Nebula – Find it in Binoculars or Photograph it

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Photography of the Dumbbell Nebula in the night sky

M27 – The Dumbbell Nebula

The Dumbbell Nebula is well photographed by professional and amateur night sky photographers alike. It was one of the first deep-sky objects I imaged way back in 2011. A member of the astronomy forum I was a part of suggested that I give it a try, as it is a very gratifying object to image due to it’s brightness. Sure enough, there it was! Even a 30 second exposure was enough to make this interesting planetary nebula “pop” on my display screen. I have re-imaged this object several times since that first night, and realized that it takes hours of exposures to increase the detail in this nebula. My 4 hour exposure looked disappointingly similar to my 1 hour shot! This photo is an oldy, and I can’t wait to image it again this fall once I get my 8″ Orion Astrograph back up and running. I should also note that this was taken back when I was using my beloved Celestron CG-5 mount.

Now that my Canon Xsi is modified to increase the sensitivity to the colour red and the H-alpha wavelength, I can pick up much more detail around the edges of M27. The increased focal length of my larger scope (800mm) is also better suited for this rather small target. 


PHOTO DETAILS

M27 – The Dumbbell Nebula
Imaged Saturday, July 28th, 2012

 
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Mount: Celestron ASCG-5
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Stock)
ISO: 1600
Total Exposure: 3 Hours, 30 Minutes (60 x 210 seconds)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 dark frames 



 
The Dumbbell Nebula was the first planetary nebula to be discovered by Charles Messier in 1764. Not surprising, as this object has a visual magnitude of 7.5! (Thanks Wikipedia!) It is easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes if you know where to look. It is located in the constellation Vulpecula, at a distance of about 1,360 light years. The human eye will only perceive this nebula as a white, two-lobed structure. 

Where to find Messier 27
Location of Dumbbell Nebula – Source Wikipedia

Location of the Dumbbell Nebula

To find it begin at Altair and navigate back towards Deneb in Cygnus, right through the summer triangle.  About one quarter of the way back to Deneb, you will find a bright orange star (Y Sagittae). Continue to connect the line between Altair and Y Sagittae by another 2°, and you should come to a barely visible naked-eye star, 14 Vulpeculae. Messier 27 is right next to this star and will look a cloud-like object through your telescope or binoculars. Below you will find a handy star-chart I made using one of my wide field photos of the night sky from my backyard. 

Star-Chart
 

Star chart to find the Dumbbell Nebula

 

Did you notice the www.astrobackyard.com watermark?  That’s right, I am transitioning into a brand new website with advanced features and one that is much more professional and user-friendly. I am very excited about this move and have been waiting for this moment for a very long time!  Thank you to all of the regular visitors of this blog and your continued support!

  

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Photographing the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower

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2015 Perseid Meteor Shower

I captured one Perseid meteor from my backyard – better luck next year!

2015 Perseid Meteor Shower

Above photo taken August 13th, 2015 – 12:22am

I was not able to travel to a pretty location to shoot the Perseids last night, so I just set up shop in the backyard! I planted my Canon 7D firmly on my tripod, and aimed above my house towards the constellation Perseus, and above. Using Backyard EOS, I set the camera to shoot 200 – 25-second exposures, at ISO 800. Then I went to bed!  Unfortunately, my battery died after 160 exposures. Luckily though, I didn’t end up empty-handed as this meteoroid streaked through the bottom left of the frame above at around 12:00am:)
 
I used some “creative” processing for the photo above. You may feel that the image is just a tad heavy on the blue! The light-pollution over my house produced a nasty gradient, and an even-black sky really pronounced this. Since the focus of this image is the tiny Perseid meteoroid on the bottom left anyway, I decided to enhance the blue levels to create a more pleasing, although somewhat unnatural looking night sky. Normally, I prefer my RGB black point to be set at roughly 32-32-33.
Backyard astrophotography

So many frames, so few meteors

About the Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower is traditionally the most spectacular and most-reliable show of the year. The evening of August 12th through the morning of August 13th is the peak time for sky watchers.

Before all else, the biggest factor in a successful image (or viewing) of the Perseid meteor shower for 2015 is dark skies! This means getting away from the bright city lights that wash out the night sky, and prevent us from seeing all but the brightest of meteoroids. An unobstructed view of the North-Eastern sky and overhead is also ideal. This year’s display could be the best since 2010 due to that fact that we have the advantage of having a moonless sky. Experts predict anywhere from 75-100 meteoroids per hour at its peak under the right conditions! Realistically, you can expect to see a streak of light every few minutes or so.

Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid Meteor Shower of 2013 – Photo by Trevor Jones

 
I captured this photo in 2013, when the Perseids peaked 5 days after the new moon. Notice the streaking cosmic particle at the lower right of frame. You can also just barely make out the California nebula above the streaking meteoroid!  I have learned a lot since this photo was taken 2 years ago, I hope to get a great shot tomorrow night. This year will be even darker, with a chance to see more “shooting stars”.

Photographing the 2015 Perseid Meteor shower

Make sure you can find the constellation Perseus in the night sky. It is located below the recognizable constellation of Cassiopeia, which I always think of it as a big “W”. You will want attach your camera to a sturdy tripod and aim it roughly towards that constellation.  A nice wide-field lens would really help increase your chances of getting a great shot. This year, I plan on using the widest lens I own, my Canon L series 17-40mm. A kit lens that goes back to 18mm will also work just fine. Make sure you stay up nice and late, so Perseus is nice and high in the sky. Have a look at the handy reference photo provided by Sky and Telescope.
 
Where to look for Perseid Meteors

Radiant point of the Perseid Meteor Shower

While in manual mode on your DSLR, try setting a slow enough shutter speed to increase your chances of a meteor streak, but not so slow that the stars begin to trail themselves. I prefer to have pinpoint stars with the streaking meteor blazing through them. For the photo above, I used a shutter speed of 20 seconds, an ISO of 1600, with my lens aperture set to F4. Keep in mind that I was away from city light pollution.

I sat next to my tripod and continuously pressed the shutter button for a period of about one hour (fun eh!?) in hopes of catching a real burner.  An automatic timer or camera control through a laptop would make things much easier. Just look at what is possible when you have the right equipment, conditions, and creativity:

 
Photo of a meteor shower by Ken Brandon
Perseid Meteor Shower photo by Kenneth Brandon

The meteor shower occurs when earth travels through a debris-stream of comet particles, in this case, Comet Swift-Tuttle. The reason this annual meteor shower is called “The Perseids” is that the “shooting stars” appear to originate from a single point (or radiant) in the constellation of Perseus.
The best part about meteor showers is that you don’t need any optical aids like binoculars or telescopes to enjoy them, just your eyes. Okay, a lawn chair might come in handy, so make sure you have one of those! Most importantly, make a night of it with friends or family! Enjoy the excitement of the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower, and watching the night sky light up with each other.

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Creating an Astrophotography Mosaic

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I have been spending a lot of time photographing the night sky towards the core of the Milky Way. My 80mm refractor has a focal length of 480mm, which magnifies many deep-sky objects in the area of Sagittarius

The Lagoon Nebula and the Trifid Nebula lie very close together in the night sky, as far as emission nebulae go. With the right camera sensor, and a wide-field imaging refractor (such as the Radian Raptor 61), you should be able to fit both objects within the same field-of-view. 

When the photo below was taken, my framing was a little off. I could have fit both objects in a single image frame with my Canon EOS 60Da DSLR camera with the right orientation.

lagoon and trifid nebula

I had quite a difficult time aligning these images up, as I did it manually in Photoshop. The hardest part was the fact that both objects were processed separately, under very different shooting conditions.

I now know the importance of framing the objects in my field, especially when planning a mosaic. Creating a mosaic is a great way to photograph a large area of the night sky in detail.

They allow you to create beautiful, high-resolution images that look great when you zoom in. You can use your existing telescope (and camera) to photograph large nebulae and galaxies that are just too big to fit in a single frame. 

mosaic

Large deep-sky objects such as the Heart and Soul Nebulae are often captured using the mosaic method.

Creating an Astrophotography Mosaic

At first, you might not understand why astrophotographers would spend so much time building an image piece-by-piece. After all, if you want to capture a large area of the night sky, you can simply use a shorter focal length,

The problem with that method is, the image will lack resolution and detail. The deep-sky objects may not appear sharp and well-defined up-close. If you plan to print a large format image, you may be underwhelmed with the overall quality of the image.

There are free mosaic tools to help you create your image including Image Composite Editor. This is a photo-stitching tool that allows you to “drag and drop” your images onto a single canvas, and it will automatically analyze and stitch them together. 

Reasons To Create a Mosaic

  • Capture a large field of view using a long focal length
  • Create large images showcasing entire nebulae regions and areas of interest
  • Create a high-resolution image suitable for large-format printing
  • Create detailed portraits of the Moon’s surface
  • Create a hybrid image by blending photos shot a different image scales

As you increase the overall size of your astrophotography mosaic by adding panels, you add resolution too. Many amateur astrophotographers state the overall megapixels of the image, which is the height (in pixels) multiplied by the width (in pixels) of the entire image.

For example, an image that is 6000 pixels wide by 4000 pixels tall is 24 megapixels (24MP).

Related: Get My Premium Astrophotography Image Processing Guide

How To Create an Astrophotography Mosaic

The act of creating a mosaic image in astrophotography involves capture multiple areas of the night sky and merging them into a single image. This is done when the field of view is too tight to capture an entire object (or interesting area of the sky), or when you want to capture a high level of detail over the entire image.

There are several fantastic examples of Mosaics on AstroBin. I must admit, I have not completed many astrophotography mosaics in my day. I usually opt to shoot large areas using a full-frame camera sensor (such as the Canon EOS Ra) and a wide-field optical instrument. 

However, this will never achieve the level of detail and resolution a large mosaic image will. Amateur astrophotographers will often create mosaics of the moon, to reveal ultra-high-definition details of the lunar surface.

Acquiring the Image Panels

To create a successful mosaic image, you must carefully plan your imaging session to collect each panel of your intended image frame. Plate-solving will help with this, and there are several tools in software such as Sequence Generator Pro (SGP), and TheSky to help you with this.

Sequence Generator Pro includes a handy Framing and Mosaic Wizard that allows you to fetch the target area, define the camera scale and pixels, and more. The level of automation possible with this routine is remarkable. 

The following video explains how to use the framing and mosaic tool in SGP in detail. 

If you’re not using the framing and mosaic tool in Sequence Generator Pro to plan your mosaic projects, you can still apply the same techniques on your own. 

When collecting your data, the key is to include an adequate amount of overlap area so that you can safely merge the panels together without creating visible “seams”. Most astrophotographers recommend at least a 10% overlap area to safely merge the images together without the worry of having to photograph a new panel. 

mosaic panels

Planning the panels of a large astrophotography mosaic.

Photographing the panels at the same focal length and aperture are important to match the image scale of the image. This part is easy, as long as you are using the same telescope or camera lens for the entire project. 

One of the more challenging aspects of creating an astrophotography mosaic is the ever-changing imaging conditions. Light pollution can be a factor, but also the moon phase. Frames shot during a full moon (even narrowband data) will look washed out compared to new moon data. 

It is possible to create a nightscape or deep-sky mosaic using images shot at varying focal lengths, but you will need to perform some careful scaling and alignment in Adobe Photoshop. I prefer to manually align and scale my mosaic images in Photoshop, using a soft feathered edge between panels. 

Building a Mosaic Image in Photoshop

Photoshop’s layer system was designed for tasks like this. Adjusting the opacity of each layer before applying it to the final image is a must. A transparent image will help you line up the stars at the edges of each panel with each other.

Bring all of your image panels into a single laid photoshop file as layers. You may want to use a reference image of the final framing to use as a base layer at the bottom

You can adjust the opacity of each layer (see below) to 50% to align the stars of each panel up with each other. When all of the layers are properly aligned, you can set each layer back to 100% opacity.

create a mosaic in Photoshop

The graphic above shows why capturing a healthy amount of overlap area is important. If there is a gap between image panels, you will need to go back out and photograph the missing areas.

Take advantage of the guidelines tool (View > New Guide Layout) in Photoshop to help align each panel together. In the example above, a full-color, processed image is shown. In reality, this stage should take place before any major processing tasks have taken place.

You may want to perform a simple stretch in PixInsight or Photoshop applied evenly to each panel before aligning the images. A mismatch in processing techniques between panels will result in an odd-looking image.

Enhance Detail and Resolution to Existing Images

If you have captured a wide-field image of an area of the night sky, you can photograph individual objects at higher magnification and apply them to the larger image. 

I would consider this to be a hybrid mosaic image because you are starting with the wide-field image first, and applying high-resolution details to it gradually. The technique isn’t perfect, of course, as you will still have large areas of the image in a lower resolution than the rest.

In the example below, you can see how I applied high magnification images of the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula to an existing wide-field image. 

astrophotography mosaic

High-resolution images are applied on top of a wide field image to improve details. (outlines for reference only).

The same technique can be applied to images of the moon. In the example below, I merged a high-resolution image of the moon (captured through a telescope), with a wide-field image of the moon with passing clouds all around it. 

This photo is a better example of HDR (high-dynamic-range) at work than creating a mosaic, but the sample concept of scaling images to increase overall resolution is at play. 

The Moon

A better example of the power of mosaics in moon photography is this incredibly detailed image of the moon by Andrew McCarthy. Massive lunar close-ups are fun to explore up-close and would look wonderful printed and framed on your wall. 

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This article was originally published in 2013, and updated on January 7, 2021.

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