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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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Black Forest Star Party

The unspoiled dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania are a real treat to stargazers who attend the Black Forest Star Party.  Now, this is what our night sky is supposed to look like! 

Whether you’re a visual observer or an amateur astrophotographer, it’s hard to find a place as special as Cherry Springs State Park

black forest star party

Black Forest Star Party

Although I have been to Cherry Springs State Park several times, I attended my first Black Forest Star Party (BFSP) in September 2019. The Black Forest Star Party has been running since 1999 at the Cherry Springs State Park and is hosted by the Central Pennsylvania Observers.

The following video takes you along for the ride as I travel from Ontario, Canada, to the Black Forest Star Party.

The skies at Cherry Springs State Park are absolutely incredible. The Milky Way stretches across the park from end to end without any intrusion from city lights.  They have a strict policy about white light, which really helps preserve your night vision throughout the night.

As I mentioned to a fellow amateur astronomer at the park, the Black Forest Star Party is like a “car show” for telescopes. People from all over the US and Canada bring their prized astronomy gear and show it off.

20″ Dobsonian telescopes were commonplace at the park, and there are often telescopes with 30″ of aperture or more.  Giant refractors, heavy-duty mounts, and expensive CCD cameras as far as the eye can see.

I am always very impressed by the behavior of all the guests. It’s a little strange to be outside with almost 500 people all night without any loud music or yelling. It’s just a big group of people who have traveled many miles for the same reason, dark skies!

Dobsonian telescopes

A look at some of the large Dobsonian telescopes on the observing field. 

Where is the Star Party Held?

The location of this annual stargazing event is Cherry Springs State Park, which is one of the darkest sites in the state of Pennsylvania. It has even been designated as a Dark Sky Park by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Cherry Springs State Park is an International Dark Sky Association (IDA) Park, and one of the best places in the eastern United States for stargazing. The park sits 700 m above sea level in the Susquehannock State Forest and offers largely unobstructed views of the night sky in a 360-degree field of view.

In the light pollution map below, you can clearly see why this location is so dark. The red and white areas are the brightest in terms of light pollution, and the blue areas are the darkest. Cherry Springs State Park is a Bortle Scale Class 2 site. 

light pollution map

The location of the Black Forest Star Party.

When is Black Forest Star Party?

The Black Forest Star Party is usually held in the early Fall at Cherry Springs State Park. To find out when the next BFSP will happen, you can visit the official website

There, you will also find directions to the park, as well as frequently asked questions and star party rules. Each year, this event hosts a number of interesting speakers. In September 2019, I was lucky enough to be one of them!

Astrophotography

The image of the Andromeda Galaxy below was captured under the pristine skies of this location. I set up my Canon EOS 60Da DSLR camera and William Optics RedCat 51 telescope on a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro tracking mount. The photo includes 100 x 2-minute images at ISO 3200. 

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy captured at the Black Forest Star Party, 2019. 

Here is a photo of the Triangulum Galaxy I captured at the Black Forest Star Party in 2019. Broadband galaxies are some of the most difficult targets to shoot effectively from home, which is why I tend to give them a lot of attention when I am at a dark sky preserve. 

Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum Galaxy captured at the Black Forest Star Party in 2019. 

Cherry Springs Star Party

Not to be confused with the Black Forest Star Party, the Cherry Springs Star Party takes place at the same location as the BFSP, but at a different time of year. This annual stargazing event happens when the core of the Milky Way is beginning to rise high overhead. 

Here is a photo I captured of the Milky Way from the Cherry Springs Star Party in 2018:

The Milky Way

The Milky Way from the Cherry Springs Star Party.

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Rosette Nebula – Stock Canon DSLR

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How the Rosette Nebula looks with a Stock DSLR

Will an unmodified Canon DSLR pick up the red nebulosity?

Happy New Year! I was finally graced with some clear skies that showcased the beautiful winter milky way on Monday.

The moon was about 19% lit, and it didn’t set until about 10:30 pm, so about half of the data in the photo above was captured with the moon still out.

The sky conditions were so fantastic on Monday, it was a shame I had to leave early to get a good night’s sleep for work the next morning.

The Rosette Nebula (Caldwell 49) is a large circular HII region. The open cluster NGC 2244 (Caldwell 50) is closely associated with the nebulosity, the stars of the cluster having been formed from the nebula’s matter.

Rosette Nebula Stock

Caldwell 49 – The Rosette Nebula
Imaged Monday, February 3, 2014

38 subs, 3.5 Minutes Each totaling 2 Hours 13 Minutes

I used the Explore Scientific 80ED telescope for this photo because the size of this object is quite large. I am quite happy with my end result, although I plan on processing the photo several more times to try and pull out as much detail as possible.

I highly recommend Noel Caboni’s Astronomy Tools Action Set for Adobe Photoshop. I found it very helpful when processing this image, and every other image I have taken. For the price of a cheap filter, you can drastically improve your astrophotos. Well worth it!

Complete Astrophoto Details

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Tracking 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: 2 hours 13 Minutes (38 x 210s)
Processing Software: Calibration and Stacking in Deep Sky Stacker, Levels/Curves/Enhancements in Photoshop CC
Support Files: 12 darks

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How To Take Pictures of Stars & Night Sky

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If you are wondering how to take pictures of stars and the alluring wonders of the night sky, look no further. In this article, I’ll share an absolute, bare-bones approach for capturing a spectacular photograph of the stars above the one below. 

This includes covering which camera to use, the exact camera settings I recommend, and the right conditions for a successful photo. I’ll also cover some of the next steps to consider for night sky photography, including recommended light pollution filters, and an introduction to star trackers

how to take pictures of the night sky

Anyone with access to a DSLR camera and a tripod (or a steady surface) can take stunning photos of the night sky with all of its glorious stars. You will even start to see some Nebulae, Galaxies, Globular Clusters, the Milky Way, Meteorites, Auroras, and more.

If you own a point-and-shoot camera, or are just using your smartphone, you will need to tap into the manual settings that allow you to shoot long-exposure images.

Smartphones like the Google Pixel 4 (with astrophotography mode), and newer iPhone, Samsung, and Huawei models are getting better at low-light photography, but the small sensors will limit your success. You may be able to get some decent pictures of stars in the night sky with these devices, but for the best results, you need to get your hands on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. 

Canon EOS Ra

Canon’s mirrorless astrophotography camera, the Canon EOS Ra.

The good news is, you don’t need an astrophotography camera like the Canon EOS Ra to photograph the night sky successfully. Even an entry-level DSLR camera (such as the Canon EOS Rebel T7i) can produce spectacular results. 

Take Stunning Pictures of the Night Sky

Taking pictures of a starry sky (nightscape photography) is a wonderful experience that may help you learn some of the constellations as well. A camera sensor, like the one in your DSLR, is capable of recording much more light than our eyes can see. This is why we are able to enjoy much more detail in a photograph than with our naked eye alone.

Whether you are just getting started with a new camera, or have just never attempted night photography before, the simple steps below should give you a strong foundation to put into action the next time you are under a clear night sky.

camera settings

Related Post: 7 Astrophotography tips to put into action, tonight

The process of collecting long exposure images at night is very different from regular daytime photography. Focusing the lens, keeping the camera steady, and choosing the right subject for your setup are critical steps of the process. 

The Basics: Camera Equipment

As I mentioned, there are plenty of suitable cameras for night sky photography, but some will give you more control (and better results) than others. For example, those of you that have access to a DSLR or mirrorless camera with detachable lenses have a huge advantage.

For this type of photography, remember to keep things lightweight and portable. For a great shot of the stars, you may find yourself traveling to a distant location.

Here is a promising, entry-level night sky photography setup:

Essential:

  • DSLR Camera (Or mirrorless body)
  • Wide-Angle Lens (24mm or wider is best)
  • Sturdy Tripod (Lightweight)
  • Red Headlamp (To see at night without ruining your “night vision”)
  • Memory Card (Easy to forget)
  • Spare Camera Battery (Especially in cold weather)

Extras:

  • Planetarium Smartphone App (to help you locate objects in the night sky)
  • Remote Shutter Release Cable (To avoid camera shake and set sequence)
  • Heated band and controller (To prevent moisture on the lens)
  • Light pollution filter (Depending on location)
  • Star Tracker (To take exposures longer than 30-seconds without star trailing)

Getting Started

Have you ever tried to take a picture of the moon at night? Chances are (if you are new to astrophotography), the results were less impressive than you had hoped. Well, taking a successful image of the stars in the night sky can be even trickier.

This is because night photography is unlike daytime photography, and creates many new challenges. Low light situations require a completely different approach to photography than you may be accustomed to. It is not possible to take pictures of stars using the “auto” mode on your DSLR camera, because it was not designed to record a nightscape image.

Instead, you’ll need to use a specific set of camera settings that allow you to capture long exposure images of the night sky and all of the wonderful treasures found within it. The cameras used for the images in this guide were all Canon EOS Rebel-series DSLR’s. 

Step 1: Camera Settings

Camera Settings for Astrophotography

The first thing you will need to understand is that in order to capture enough light for your camera’s sensor to pick up lots of stars in the photo, you need to take a long exposure photograph. This can range from 5-30+ seconds depending on your equipment and conditions. To do this, you will want to make sure your DSLR is in Manual Mode.

Manual mode gives you complete control over each internal camera setting, and it can be a bit daunting to shoot in this mode for the first time. Manual mode is indicated by an M on your camera’s dial (Canon or Nikon).

The camera settings available to customize in this mode include:

  • Aperture (F-Ratio) of the camera lens
  • ISO (Sensitivity to Light)
  • Exposure Length (How long the shutter stays open)
  • White Balance (Daylight, Auto etc.)night sky photography settings

These variable camera settings will change depending on the camera lens you are using. For example, if you are shooting with a lens that has a focal length of 18mm or lower, you shouldn’t see any star trails (due to the rotation of the earth) until you shoot an exposure of 20 seconds or longer.

Some photographers like to refer to the 500 Rule to determine the perfect exposure length for them to shoot using a particular camera and lens combination. 

Wide-angle lenses (such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8) have an extremely large field of view, which not only capture more of the sky in a single shot but are also more forgiving in terms of star trailing. A lens with a longer focal length (such as the Canon 50mm F/1.8) will capture a higher magnification image, but stars will begin to trail much sooner.

For the guide below, I used a Canon 18-200mm F3.5 lens, at the widest focal length of 18mm.

Exposure

The maximum exposure length you can shoot is generally limited to the focal length of your camera lens. Unless you are intentionally trying to capture a star trail image, this exposure will likely be under 30-seconds. If you want to shoot longer than that, a tracking camera mount is needed.

If your exposure time is limited to under 30-seconds on a stationary tripod, you’ll need to experiment with the other camera settings that affect the amount of light captured in a single shot. The focal ratio of your lens (eg. F/2.8) can make a big impact when it comes to collecting light in a short period of time.

This is called aperture, and it’s one of the most important camera settings to consider when taking pictures of stars.

Camera Settings for Night Sky Photography

Aperture

On my camera lens, that is a setting of F3.5. The lower the F-number, the more light the camera brings in.

ISO

The next setting you will want to adjust is ISO. This is the camera’s sensitivity to light, which is very important for our purposes! Generally, you will want to use the highest ISO your camera has, this may by 1600, or even 6400 or higher.

Increasing your ISO will introduce more noise to your photo, but the trade-off is more stars and more light-gathering ability. You may want to use a lower ISO if you are finding your photo to be too noisy. Modern photo-editing software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI do a great job of reducing noise in post-processing.

White Balance

For our purposes, Auto White Balance or Daylight White Balance works just fine. You also want to make sure that you are shooting your photos in RAW format. This gives you the opportunity to really bring out the images full potential in post-processing. You will need Adobe Photoshop to make these adjustments, so if you don’t have it, a .JPG photo will have to do!

Step 2: Setting up your camera on the tripod

Now that you have the proper settings for night-time photography, you are ready to point your DSLR to the heavens and capture more stars than you have ever seen with your naked eye alone!  Securely fasten your camera to your tripod via the removable mounting plate. Make sure that all of your adjustment knobs are tight before leaving your camera on the tripod.  DSLR’s can be heavy, and you will be angling the head straight-up in some cases.

Focus

To achieve a proper focus on the stars, do not use autofocus. Manually focus your lens to infinity, then focus back a hair. Take some test shots and try to get the stars to look as tight as possible. Another way to achieve focus is to use the live-view mode of your camera, and focus on something far away (like a street lamp). Zoom-in while in live-view to really get it right.

Star Trails

In a 30 second exposure, you will notice small star trails because of Earth’s rotation. (Yes, even in 30 seconds!) The star-trailing is subtle, and will not affect the overall look you are trying to achieve. If the stars are trailing too much for your liking, knock your exposure down to 20 seconds if you wish.

Step 3: Take the shot!

Drive Mode for Astrophotography

Activating the Shutter

Set your drive mode to a 2 or 10-second delay to avoid shaking the camera slightly when activating the shutter. You can find this option in the Even the slightest movement (like pressing the shutter button) can be enough to create a shaky shot! The drive mode option screen should look something like this:

Things to keep in mind

Make sure that your lens has not fogged up, or your shots will look blurry. A blow dryer will remove dew if necessary. Light pollution is your biggest enemy when it comes to astrophotography. Get as far away from city lights as possible for your star shots. If there is a city glow near you, point away from it. You may find that a shot in the city using a high ISO and long exposure produces a very bright, washed-out photo. If this is the case, bump your ISO down, and shoot a shorter exposure. eg. (ISO 800, 15 seconds)

Milky Way astrophotography image by Ashley Northcotte

Next Steps: Stacking Exposures in Photoshop

One of the most effective ways to produce an attractive image of the night sky is to take advantage of a technique known as image stacking. This involves placing multiple images on top of each other as layers in Adobe Photoshop. 

There are also a number of dedicated tools to accomplish this task including DeepSkyStacker, and Sequator. I recommend trying the manual method of image stacking first, to see the power of signal-to-noise ratio in action first-hand. 

To create the image below, I manually stacked 5 x 30-second exposures shot at ISO 3200 in Photoshop. The key is to step down the opacity of each layer gradually.

This picture was created by stacking 5 x 30-second exposures in Photoshop.

The next time you are out taking pictures of the night sky or the Milky Way, be sure to take a series of 30-second images rather than just one or two. Aim to capture about 10-20 pictures to realize the benefits of image stacking. 

Next Steps: Use a Star Tracker

A portable astrophotography setup like the one pictured below is capable of capturing incredible deep-sky objects in the night sky. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro is capable of tracking the night sky with a DSLR camera and a telephoto lens for long-exposure images.

budget astrophotography setup

A portable deep-sky astrophotography setup.

A star tracker opens up the door to more ambitious astrophotography projects such as faint,  deep-sky nebulae and galaxies. The setup shown above was featured in one of my videos where I photographed the Horsehead Nebula from my backyard. 

The same basic principles of long-exposure night sky photography apply to this configuration. The only difference is that the star tracker allows me to shoot exposures of up to 3-minutes in length without worrying about star trailing. To see of the best photos I’ve taken using a simple setup like this, see The Gear Behind my Best Astrophotography Images

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