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The ultimate astrophotography target for your DSLR and telescope

|Nebulae|6 Comments

It’s very exciting to know that the night sky is full of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters to observe and photograph.  The great Andromeda Galaxy, the glimmering Pleiades, and the vibrant red California Nebula are all jaw-dropping astrophotography subjects.

Astrophotography with a DSLR and telescopeBut what is the best way to capture these amazing deep-sky objects?

The followers of this blog know that I am all about astrophotography with a DSLR and telescope.  This is a popular deep-sky imaging setup and is capable of some incredible results using affordable equipment that can often be purchased used.

A DSLR camera is a perfect option for beginners as they are much more user-friendly than a dedicated CCD astronomy camera.  In the post below, I’ll give you the ultimate astrophotography target for your DSLR and telescope.

I use a Canon 600D DSLR and an Explore Scientific ED102 CF telescope.  View my complete setup.

An amazing year of Astrophotography

As we approach the end of 2016, I would like to thank everyone who has connected with AstroBackyard this year. Whether it was a YouTube comment, retweet, or Facebook like, I really appreciate the support.  I’ve connected with beginners, seasoned veterans, and everyone in between this year. I hope you were able to get outside and partake in some astrophotography with your DSLR and telescope this year.

AstroBackyard - DSLR Astrophotography


As you learn more about astrophotography, it’s almost certain that you will want to revisit previous imaging projects.  The lessons learned during each and every night out with your DSLR and telescope make you a more efficient and organized astrophotographer. As a beginner, my goal was to photograph as many galaxies and nebulae as possible.  Equipped with more tools and knowledge, I am now taking a second look at some of best deep-sky objects the Universe has to offer.

Orion constellation

The Orion constellation from my backyard

As for my latest astrophotography project, I’ve moved on from my Horsehead nebula photo for the year.  Not that it couldn’t benefit from more time and processing, it’s just that I shared the photo so much that I thought it would be best to shelve the project for now and complete it next winter.  This project helped me hone my skills of combining narrowband data with color images, as seen in my latest video tutorial.

I have now started pointing my telescope towards the alluring diffuse nebula known as Messier 42.  The glowing Orion Nebula is in prime position for imaging over the next month or two.  I have photographed M42 many times over the years, but since then I have made many advancements I made in terms of both equipment and technique.

With my telescope’s relatively wide focal length (714mm), I can include the Running man nebula (NGC 1973, NGC 1975 and NGC 1977) in the same frame. I added a modest amount of data using my old DSLR and telescope (Canon Xsi and ED80) to an earlier version of Orion last year, but not nearly enough to do it justice.

Why I’m photographing the Orion Nebula all over again

My previous version of the Orion nebula was shot with an 80mm telescope (Explore Scientific ED80) and a Canon Rebel Xsi (stock).  The image I produced consisted of RGB data only (No H-Alpha), and was lacking the rich color that astro-modified DSLR cameras can produce.

Orion nebula using a DSLR through and telescope

My 2015 version of the Orion Nebula

Ways to improve my Orion Nebula image:

  • The Canon T3i has a higher resolution than the Xsi
  • The Canon T3i camera is modified (IR cut filter removed)
  • I can add narrowband h-alpha data and combine it with RGB
  • The ED102 telescope has an increased focal length and light gathering ability

A new astrophotography project begins




On Thursday, December 22nd, I began my latest astrophotography project with my DSLR and telescope.  I have a new favorite spot in the backyard that offers the widest possible window to the sky when aiming at M42.  Stellarium was helpful in planning this position for this particular time of year.

From my location, clear nights are few and far between in the winter months.  Obtaining enough data (5 hours+) to process the image to its full potential will be a challenge.  The final image will likely have much more Ha data than RGB.  The nights leading up to, and during the full moon are more commonly clear.

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M42 – A rewarding astrophotography target for beginners

New to using a DSLR and telescope? Try Orion!

Beginners are drawn towards the Orion nebula as an astrophotography target, and for good reason.  The bright color and intense details of this object can be captured even in very short exposures.  When shooting with a DSLR and telescope for the first time, focus and proper tracking are some of the biggest hurdles to overcome.  Fortunately, M42 is very forgiving in terms of both focus and tracking.

Focus

The bright stars that populate the area in and around the Orion nebula are perfect for adjusting focus and framing.  Many deep-sky objects are very dim, with no bright stars within the same field of view.  This can make focusing and framing the target a nightmare.  I like to use the stars in the Trapezium to achieve the best possible focus while using my Cameras live-view mode, or on BackyardEOS.

Framing

The stars in the Sword of Orion are a great help when it comes to aligning your image.  Even better than that is the fact that the overall size and shape of the nebula is revealed in short exposures (5 seconds).  This makes capturing test frames and making adjustments much easier.  This is not the case when shooting a faint reflection nebula such as the Witch Head nebula!

Tracking/Guiding

Beginners usually need time to fully utilize their telescope mount’s tracking and autoguiding abilities.  The longer the exposures, the more evident poor tracking becomes.  Luckily for beginners, an impressive photograph of M42 is possible using multiple exposures of 1 minute or less!  This target is just begging you to capture it!

Multiple exposures for more detail

The bright core of the Orion Nebula requires very short exposures to properly document the area.  To capture the Trapezium without over-exposing the image, I shot several 5-second subs at ISO 800.  I also set BackyardEOS to shoot a series of 30-second subs to capture the mid-tones and slightly less-bright areas surrounding the core.

Here are the totals from each series of shots at lengths of 5, 30, and 180 seconds at ISO 800.

  • 180″ – ISO 800 – 1 hour 9 minutes (23 frames)
  • 5″ – ISO 800 – 1 min 40 sec. (20 frames)
  • 30″ – ISO 800 – 5 min. (10 frames)

I registered and stacked each of the image sets in Deep Sky Stacker, and processed each of the files separately.  Once each image file was processed to maximize the intended level of detail, I blended the images together in Adobe Photoshop using layer masks.  This can be a difficult process, as this can sometimes lead to unnatural looking and/or flat looking deep-sky objects.

Here is the current state of my Orion Nebula image, using the short exposures in the core:

Orion Nebula with a DSLR and Telescope

The Orion Nebula – Early version using layer masks

As you can see, some of the faint outer nebulosity has been captured, yet the core of nebula is still well exposed without clipping any of the data.  In comparison, have a look at the stack of 5-second exposures at the exact same scale from the same imaging session:

Orion short exposures

A stack of 5-second exposures on the Orion Nebula

Using layer-masking in Adobe Photoshop, we can merge the data from all 3 image sets to reveal all of the details of the Orion Nebula in a single image. As I said earlier, this process can be difficult to master and takes time and patience to utilize properly.  If done properly, the nebula will look natural and full of detail.  I’ll provide updates along the way as I tackle this winter astrophotography project from the backyard.

Cold, long nights with my DSLR and telescope

Despite what the frigid winter temperatures do to our bodies, your DSLR will produce images with less noise in the cold!  The nights are also extra long, which means the potential of longer imaging sessions.  So fill your thermos will a hot drink, it’s going to be a long night. If you need me, I’ll be in the backyard.

Cheers, and all the best in 2017!

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Astrophotography in the City

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Saturday Night Under the Stars

Astrophotography in the City

Last weekend I posted a new video to the my YouTube channel titled DSLR Astrophotography – A Night in the Backyard with my Camera. It is now Early-April, and we are in what amateur astrophotographers call “Galaxy Season”, as we transition from the Winter Constellations like Orion and Taurus, to the Summer Milky Way objects.  In between, there are some fantastic deep-sky objects to observe in the Spring Constellations Leo, Coma Berenices and Bootes.

The forecast called for clear skies on that crisp, cold Saturday night in Southern Ontario, and I was ready to image some deep-sky objects with my camera and telescope.  After a late dinner, it was a race against the clock to photograph my first subject of the evening, the Waxing Crescent Moon. If you want to jump straight to the video, you can find it at the bottom of this post.

Live-View DSLR Through a Telescope

Using the Canon 70D’s live view screen for telescope observing

Crescent Moon Astrophotography

 

I barely had time to get the beautiful Waxing Crescent moon into my telescope’s eyepiece before it became obscured by the surrounding trees in my neighborhood!  I shot a live-view video of the moon (with Earthshine visible) with my Canon EOS 70D DSLR through the telescope.  This may be of interest to anyone wondering what the view is like through an 80mm refractor telescope.  You need an adapter to attach the camera to the telescope, which you can buy online here.

After I focused the Moon and experimented with different ISO settings and exposure lengths, I snapped a couple of shots before moving on with the rest of my night.  You can have a look at the equipment I use for astrophotography here.

 

Earthshine Moon

The sky from my backyard

Next, I wanted to provide some examples of the dark-sky quality from my backyard.  Living in the central part of town has its advantages, but dark skies are not one of them!  I experience heavy light pollution from all directions.  This makes using a light-pollution filter on my camera necessary for long exposures.  Currently, I use the IDAS LPS clip-in filter on my Canon Rebel Xsi DSLR.  This allows to me to capture exposures of up to 5 minutes from my backyard.

 

Astrophotography in the City

The night sky from my backyard on April 9, 2016

 

The Big Dipper Asterism

Looking towards the Big Dipper in Ursa Major

Deep-Sky Target: Edge-On Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices

NGC 4565 – The Needle Galaxy

Once the moon had set, I promptly prepared my deep-sky astrophotography rig for a night’s worth of photons on my photography subject.  I settled on NGC 4565 – The Needle Galaxy because of it’s size, magnitude, and current location in our night sky.  The Needle Galaxy is an edge-on spiral galaxy that resides about 30-50 million lights years from Earth.  This handsome galaxy is the current photo in my 2016 RASC Observer’s Calendar hanging in my office at work, perhaps that is what gave me the idea!

Astrophotography in the City - Needle Galaxy from my backyard

NGC 4565 – The Needle Galaxy

Photographed on: April 9/10, 2016

Total Exposure Time: 54 Minutes (18 x 3 Min. Subs @ ISO 1600)
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 Pro
Camera: Canon 450D (modified)
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet Apo

Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

This interesting NGC object shows up rather small in my 80mm telescope, as many galaxies do.  A larger telescope with a focal length of 1000mm or more would be a better choice for this DSO.  I also had a bit of a challenge evening out the background colour of this image.  Flat frames would have made this issue much easier to deal with in post-processing.  With just under an hour of exposure time, it is safe to say that I will need to add more time to this image to bring out the colour and detail.


AstroBackyard on Youtube

I am completely blown away with the response to my YouTube Channel has received.  Thank you to everyone who has subscribed, I look forward to many new astrophotography videos in the future!

Beginner Advice:

What’s the best telescope for astrophotography?

Which camera do you recommend for beginners?

Astrophotography Settings and Tips

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Collimating a Newtonian Telescope

|Telescopes|2 Comments

Collimating a Newtonian telescope is something every backyard astronomer should experience.  In this post, I align my 8″ Orion Astrograph Newtonian for a night of astrophotography in the backyard.  My deep sky target is M101 – The Pinwheel Galaxy – in the constellation Ura Major.  With a proper alignment of the mirrors in this reflector, I should be able to capture a new portrait of the galaxy with my DSLR camera.

Spoiler – things do not go well.

My Newtonian Reflector is Ready for Spring

Collimating a newtonian reflector telescope

 

The clouds finally broke (to a certain degree) last Saturday night, and being the die-hard night-sky photographer that I am, I skipped out on all of the fun social activities taking place that night in exchange for a lonely time by myself under the stars.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nowhere I would rather be, but when things go horribly wrong, you begin to question your decision to stay home. On a positive note, I learned a little more about my equipment, and how to deal with the challenging and sometimes frustrating scenarios that come with deep-sky astrophotography.

Example photo using my Newtonian Reflector for Astrophotography:

Collimating a Newtonian Reflector

M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy

Collimating a Newtonian Reflector

Orion 8″ f/4 Astrograph Reflector

While the sun was still up, I carefully collimated my Orion Astrograph to the best of my abilities.  The process of constantly collimating a Newtonian reflector is a big reason I generally prefer to use my apochromatic refractor.  That being said, once tuned-in, the light-soaking power of that fast 8″ mirror is hard to ignore.  Not to mention that this telescope has a focal length of 800mm compared to the wider 480mm in my Explore Scientific ED80.

The process of collimation is actually quite a simple process, once you know what you’re doing.  The hardest part is learning exactly what you are looking at when you position your eye over that open focuser tube.  Thankfully Sky and Telescope has an extremely helpful tutorial on their website, with the necessary diagrams for my brain to fully comprehend the ordeal.  (I am a visual learner – go figure!)  The diagram below was an integral part of my collimation success:

Collimation Diagram

The 3 Step Process outlined by Sky and Telescope‘s Nils Olof Carlin really helped simplify the process.  Like I mentioned earlier, these steps are a lot easier to take once you understand each part of the telescope from the diagram above.

Step 1: Center the secondary mirror on the axis of the focuser drawtube

Step 2: Aim the eyepiece at the center of the primary mirror

Step 3: Center your primary mirror’s sweet spot in the eyepiece’s field of view.

It’s Galaxy Season!

Thanks to some suggestions on my Facebook page, I narrowed down my imaging choice to Bode’s Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy in Ursa Major (M81, M82).  The reason for this choice is that they are in a great position in the Northern sky from my latitude right now.

The lack of interesting nebulae and galaxies in the Southeast also swayed my decision.  I have imaged these two galaxies before with the Newtonian, but that was before modifying my Canon Xsi that can now pick up more of the pink nebulosity.

Top 8 Deep-Sky Targets for Galaxy Season

Markarian's Chain in Virgo Cluster

Markarian’s Chain

Where it all went wrong

A thick cloud cover put a lid on my imaging until about midnight on Saturday.  I studied the weather forecast and satellite animations carefully, and sure enough, the early spring constellations began to appear.  I napped for two hours beforehand, to make sure I had enough energy to image late into the night.  While carrying out the alignment process of my Sky-watcher mount, I noticed that the guide stars appeared sharp and crisp.  They even had the reassuring, round donut shape when unfocused. Clearly, my collimation session earlier had paid off!

Once I was polar and star aligned, I directed the tracking mount towards M81 – Bode’s Galaxy in Ursa Major.  There it was in the eyepiece, along with its close companion M82.  A rewarding view, even in the heart of the city.  I so rarely view these objects visually, I spent almost 5 minutes allowing my eyes to adjust and get a deeper view.

Okay, so far so good.  Time to get focused, and start imaging.  I framed the objects perfectly within my field of view and achieved sharp focus by using the handy frame and focus tab within BackyardEOS.  The last piece of the puzzle was to get PHD calibrated, and guiding on my object.

Orion Newtonian Reflector

My 8″ Orion Newtonian set up in the backyard

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PHD Guiding Issues When Imaging Near Polaris

“Star Did Not Move Enough” Error

I have heard from fellow astrophotographers about PHD guiding not calibrating when imaging close to the North Star, Polaris.  I have experienced this first hand a number of times myself, including on Saturday night.  The West calibration step continued to fail, displaying the “Star Did Not Move Enough” error message.

I fiddled with multiple settings within the PHD Guiding “Brain” button, including the much-debated calibration-steps parameter.  I also closed down PHD, and unplugged the autoguiding connection cable, to rule that out.  I have lost countless hours under moonless, clear skies to this scenario over the last 4 years.  I desperately need to come up with a permanent solution for this problem.  I had no choice but to switch targets, and hope that PHD would began doing what it was designed to do.  Autoguiding.  Luckily, I moved to a target in the same region of the sky that would also lend itself well to my current configuration.

I desperately need to come up with a permanent solution for this problem.  I had no choice but to switch targets, and hope that PHD would began doing what it was designed to do.  Autoguiding.  Luckily, I moved to a target in the same region of the sky that would also lend itself well to my current configuration.

M101 – The Pinwheel Galaxy

Sure enough, PHD calibrated itself, and began guiding on my subject.  It was now 2:00am, and I took my first 3 minute sub at 2:09am.  That’s 2 hours of frustration and wasted clear skies!  Patience and a positive attitude is certainly needed for this hobby, but taking action to not repeat past mistakes is even more important.  I will have to research alternatives to PHD guiding, or at least narrow down exactly what is going wrong when trying to calibrate PHD close to Polaris.  Once the graph looked steady, I set BackyardEOS to take 30, 210 second exposures on M101 and went to bed.

I will have to research alternatives to PHD guiding, or at least narrow down exactly what is going wrong when trying to calibrate PHD close to Polaris.  Once the graph looked steady, I set BackyardEOS to take 30, 210-second exposures on M101 and went to bed.

 

PHD Guiding Calibration

East Calibration – Finally! And a Steady Graph

 

Here’s the kicker.  Something wasn’t right with my guiding on M101 either.  I am not sure if it was because of the settings I had changed when trying to calibrate earlier, a conflict with the dithering I enabled within BackyardEOS, or a third unknown factor.  Either way, I captured 30 jerky frames of M101 while I slept.

I didn’t inspect the frames until I woke up again at 4:00am to review my results.  It was at this point that I realized that this blog post would not be a success story.

 

Autoguiding Issues

 

Conclusion – I had a Rough Night!

I came up empty-handed, even after having such a well-planned out night with all my bases covered.  However, I went through the process of collimating a Newtonian telescope again, and now feel comfortable using this telescope more often for astrophotography.

I also came to the conclusion that I need to seriously address the on-going issues I have been having with PHD guiding to avoid more wasted nights in the future.  Thank you for your continued support of my astrophotography journey, and if you have any solutions for me, I would love to hear them!

Update: I now use PHD2 Guiding – and My Issues have been sorted

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