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The Gear Behind My Best Astrophotography Images

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In this post, I’ll share my 10 best astrophotography images of the year, and the complete list of gear used to take them. I completed roughly 40 projects this year, and it was difficult to choose my favorite 10 images from the bunch. 

The selection process involved remembering why each photo was so special. Why each one of these astrophotography images made me say “wow” as I opened the picture files on my computer.

You may find it useful to see the exact imaging configurations used for each photo, as the gear used was deliberately selected to best capture each deep-sky object. 

I’ll explain why each one of these astrophotography images sustained (and grew) my passion for this hobby, and perhaps it will inspire you to do the same. If you would like to keep up with my latest images as I share them, consider following me on Instagram

astrophotography images

As you all know, the image acquisition stages of astrophotography are only half of the story. You can capture the best data in the world, but without great image processing, your photos will be held back. For those that need a little help, I have created an astrophotography image processing guide to use as a reference at your own pace. 

My Best Astrophotography Images of 2019

In the online forums, you’ll often find people sharing very strong opinions about particular gear based on the technical specifications. Although this information is very relevant, I hesitate to follow advice from others that have not shared a single picture taken with the camera or telescope in question. 

I find that beginners can easily get caught in “paralysis by analysis” mode, as they’ve read rants from users that may or may not have been using their equipment properly. In a hobby with the word “photography” in the name, I believe the pictures are the true judge of the astrophotography gear. 

I believe it is also helpful for you to know that I am just a regular guy who has learned most of what I know now through trial and error. I don’t get more clear nights than the rest of you (chances are, far less), but I get out there.

astrobackyard

You will see a lot of the same pieces of gear being used in several of the astrophotography images shared in this post. This is the ultimate validation for the effectiveness and practicality of the item.

I have had the incredible opportunity to try out many pieces of astrophotography equipment this year, and you may be a little surprised to not see more images captured using certain items I reviewed. (No RASA images… really?)

Reviews aside, if you haven’t figured this out by now, the gear I use most is what I like best. Clear winners this year were the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, the William Optics RedCat 51, the QHY PoleMaster and the Optolong L-eNhance Filter

With that out of the way, I hope you enjoy my favorite images of 2019. I have included links to each of the items used for every picture for those looking to replicate my imaging setups. 

Image 1: The Fish Head Nebula

This image was captured in October 2019 from my backyard using a monochrome CCD camera. This astrophoto is special to me because it is one of my first monochrome images built using narrowband filters.

The refractor telescope used has a much longer focal length than I am used to, pulling this deep-sky object in closer than ever before. This picture is also one of the few I have managed to collect using the mighty Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro mount due to weather constraints. Needless to say, I am anxious to use this heavy-duty equatorial mount a lot more in 2020. 

The Starlight Xpress CCD camera used for this image of IC 1795 absolutely knocked my socks off in terms of image quality. I have never seen such beautiful data out of the camera, which made this image a real treat to process. 

Fish Head Nebula

Image 2: The Orion Nebula

This astrophotography image was captured under the truly dark skies of the Black Forest Star Party. This is a Bortle Scale Class 2 site where the Milky Way shines brightly overhead in an unforgettable forest setting.

I had to stay up very late to photograph this northern hemisphere winter target, with my first sub exposure clicking through at about 2:30 am. I have photographed the Orion Nebula countless times over the last decade, but the view provided through the William Optics RedCat 51 was my favorite yet. 

Photographing this stunning jewel in the night sky was surprising un-complex thanks to the portable and impressive Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer camera mount. The total exposure time for this photo is an astonishing 27-minutes, which was only possible thanks to the incredible dark skies I was under when this was taken. 

The Orion Nebula

Image 3: The Cave Nebula

We go back to the backyard for this one. This image of the Cave Nebula was captured over multiple nights in the Spring of this year using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro camera.

The Cave Nebula was a new target for me, which always makes the imaging session a little more exciting. Cepheus is an opportunistic constellation from my latitude, as objects in this region are available for almost the entire year. 

I really poured on the exposure time on this one, and I think it helped create a strong signal-to-noise ratio. Because of this, I could really stretch the data without introducing much noise. This image is a great example of what’s possible using a dedicated astronomy camera and a multi-bandpass filter from the city. 

Cave Nebula

Image 4: The Andromeda Galaxy

This image really blew me away as I was processing it. I have photographed the Andromeda Galaxy many times over the years, and it has led to some very memorable moments in my life. This time around, I shot this galaxy with the widest focal length telescope yet, the William Optics RedCat 51. 

After purchasing a used Canon EOS 60Da in the summer, I used it extensively with a number of different filters from the OPT Triad Ultra filter, to the Optolong UV/IR to prevent star bloat in the image below. 

This was another image collected using the portable Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount, and it has proven to be an extremely reliable star tracker for astrophotography on the go. I was able to collect 100 x 90-second images on this stunning spiral galaxy in broadband (RGB) true color. 

Andromeda Galaxy

Image 5: The Triangulum Galaxy

I was extremely satisfied with my results on the Triangulum Galaxy under dark skies. Unlike the Andromeda Galaxy, M33 has a low surface brightness making it much dimmer overall. This can be a challenging target to shoot under the light-polluted skies of the city, which is why I took full advantage of my surroundings at Cherry Springs. 

The focal length of the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 proved to be a perfect fit for this deep-sky object, capturing the entire disc of this large galaxy with room to spare. My favorite aspect of this image is definitely the natural star colors recorded. This is very difficult to do from the city, yet a UV/IR filter was all that was needed to capture the natural colors of this region in space from a dark sky site. 

Triangulum Galaxy

Image 6: The Tadpoles Nebula

This image really shook me up. It is on another level of astrophotography.

There was no monumental shift in acquisition best practices or processing skills, it was simply due to the equipment used. Experienced amateur astrophotographers will tell you that “mono is the only way to go”, and this picture helped me understand what they mean (see my article on narrowband imaging).

The Starlight Xpress SX-42 (Trius 694) is a professional level monochrome CCD camera, and the data collected through this camera using narrowband filters is exquisite. The giant aperture of the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 Super APO may have had something to do with it as well. 

I felt comfortable submitting this image to APOD (astronomy photo of the day), which is a very rare occurrence. While it was not selected, I feel that my first APOD will be using this system. 

Tadpoles Nebula

Image 7: The Sadr Region

There is something about this image that I really enjoy. It is a little bizarre because there isn’t really anything overly special with it, other than the fact that it was captured using a very simple and portable setup. The William Optics RedCat 51 is an incredibly practical telescope for a variety of astrophotography projects.

There is so much hydrogen gas in this region of Cygnus. I highly suggest pointing your modified DSLR camera or dedicated astronomy camera towards the star Sadr in the night sky. The most promising result from this particular imaging setup is how well the OPT Triad Filter did when in front of the Canon EOS 60Da sensor. 

It’s also worth noting that this image was captured using the highly portable and capable Fornax Mounts LighTrack II. This mount really surprised me. I ended up reaching for the LighTrack II over my larger mounts when shooting wide-field targets with the RedCat this summer.

Sadr Region

Image 8: The Omega Nebula

This image of the Omega Nebula is the lone image on this page taken using the Celestron CGX-L mount. After underwhelming results on this target using the Celestron RASA 8, I swapped the telescope out for a large William Optics Fluorostar 132 on the Celestron CGX-L mount. 

After some impressive early results in the spring of this year, I opted to use my refractor telescopes in most situations over the RASA due to convenience. After reviewing the amazing work being done using the RASA 8 (and 11) from amateur astrophotographers around the world this year, I have mixed feelings about my decision to keep the RASA in the garage for the majority of the summer and fall this year. 

The night I photographed this image was documented on my YouTube channel as you may remember. It is by far my best version of the M17 yet. 

Omega Nebula

Image 9: The Heart and Soul Nebulae

This image was a real thrill for me, as I have never been able to capture both the Heart Nebula and Soul Nebula in sinlge frame before. For this wide-field astrophoto, I used a camera lens in place of a telescope. The Rokinon 135mm F/2 lens was a total surprise for me this year, an impulse buy based on an overwhelming recommendation from the AstroBackyard Facebook community

The 135mm focal length and fast optics of this affordable, durable telephoto lens make it an invaluable tool for amateur astrophotography. It is the perfect complement to a portable mount like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider Pro. 

Shooting these targets in heavy light pollution is surprisingly difficult, as the wide swath of sky can create challenges in color balancing and gradients. This HaRGB composite was achieved with the help of an Astronomik Ha filter for my DSLR. 

Heart and Soul Nebulae

Image 10: The Pleiades Star Cluster

Lastly, we have the iconic seven sisters in the constellation Taurus. This wide-field image of the Pleiades was captured using a Canon EOS 60Da DSLR and William Optics RedCat 51.

Are you seeing a trend here? More of my favorite images were captured on a portable star tracker and tiny refractor than on a large optical tube like the Celestron RASA 8. Perhaps the saying is true “the best telescope is the one you use most”?

After avoiding this target for a number of years from the city, I returned to it under the dark skies of the Black Forest Star Party in September. All in all, I was able to soak up over an hour’s worth of 90-second exposures on M45 in broadband color. 

The Pleiades Star Cluster

Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed looking at my best astrophotography images taken this year. It’s difficult to realize all of the time and effort you’ve put into your craft until you look at everything from a glance. 

I think this post is useful for those looking to invest in astrophotography equipment for deep-sky astrophotography. Deciding on the types of images you wish to capture is an important consideration to make before making your next purchase.

You can review and compare technical specifications until you are blue in the face, but in the end, astrophotography is about taking pictures

Whether it was on Flickr. a Facebook post, or a YouTube video, thank you to everyone that has left a nice comment on my astrophotography images this year. It is my absolute pleasure to share my passion for astrophotography with you all. 

Trevor Jones

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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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