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Trifid Nebula

Summer in the AstroBackyard

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This is one summer that I will never forget.  The addition of my new telescope, the growth of AstroBackyard and the explosion of my YouTube channel has given me an astronomical boost in motivation and passion for astrophotography.  This has not come without hard work, it has been extremely busy in terms of both astrophotography and my day job.  The common sacrifice between the two has been sleep, of course.  The battle between day and night is a struggle astrophotographers know all too well.  I take comfort in the fact that the winter season will have many cloudy nights that will force me to catch up on my sleep, and maintain a healthier lifestyle balance.

How hard did you go this summer? Did you opt for sleep instead of imaging time?  Let me know on Facebook

Astrophotographers are not normal!

I recently created a short “trailer” for the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel:


 

AstroBackyard on YouTube

 
We have a burning desire to capture the wonders of the night sky each and every night.  We check the weather constantly and plan most social activities during the full moon, or during stretches of bad weather.  A stretch of clear nights surrounding the new moon means getting less than 4 hours of sleep during the week. For me, my health takes priority over all, so this is an issue that I am still trying to properly address. A more permanent deep-sky equipment setup and a dedicated observatory will help me optimize my setup time. These dreams are on my radar, and will become a reality in the not so distant future.  Which leads me to my next point;

The social following from this blog and my youtube channel have added another level of pressure to regularly produce quality astronomical images. This is a huge motivator for me, and a challenge I am honored to have in my life.  The AstroBackyard following has already grown much faster than I anticipated. I have big plans for the future of this venture.  

New Photo: The Trifid Nebula

Deep-Sky Nebula in Sagittarius

Tridi Nebula - DSLR astrophotography

M20 – The Trifid Nebula

Messier 20 is one of my all-time very deep-sky objects.  I remember one of the very first times I saw an image of the Trifid Nebula in a book called: The Practical Astronomer by Will Gater.  The dynamic color combination of blues and pinks had me looking into astrophotography equipment so I could capture it for myself.  I realized that dream in April of 2013, and have continued to soak camera time on it ever since.  The image above was achieved by shooting over 3 separate nights in early August.  Complete photo details below:

M20 – The Trifid Nebula

Photographed on: August 2, 3, 8, 2016

Total Exposure Time: 2 Hours, 54 Minutes (58 x 3 Minute Subs @ ISO 1600)
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 Pro
Camera: Stock Canon Xsi
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF

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

 

Autoguiding telescope package

I documented my night under the stars for my third and final installment on the Trifid Nebula in video form.  The video discusses the specifications of my new Explore Scientific ED 102 CF, the Field-Flattener I use, and some simple tips for backyard astrophotography.  Thank you to the (now over) 1000 subscribers to the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel!


New Photo: The Summer Triangle

Wide-Field Image with Tracking and Autoguiding

Milky way stars from backyard

The Milky Way including stars in the “Summer Triangle”

This was a very exciting experiment was finally actualized the night of August 2nd, 2016.  I have always loved wide field camera lens astrophotography. Whether it’s a constellation full of stars with hints of nebulosity through a 14mm lens, or a complete portrait of the North America Nebula shot with a 200mm; camera lens astrophotography is responsible for some of the greatest images ever taken.

I mainly shoot deep-sky astrophotography through my 102mm Apo Refractor, with a focal length of 702mm. This is a great distance to photograph many deep-sky objects. It fits the entire object in the frame, yet is close enough to reveal some solid detail.  However, this is far too “deep” for a number of large nebulous regions and star clusters.  In instances like this, a camera lens anywhere from 50mm – 300mm will execute your plan better than any telescope.  That’s great news for anyone who already owns a lens or two!

Here’s the catch. You need 2 things to produce long exposure astrophotography images with no star trails:

1. A tracking mount

A German equatorial mount will allow you to capture a much longer exposure without star trails. Your camera can then pick up deep-sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies.

2. External camera control

You will need to take exposures longer than the 30-second maximum your DSLR will take on its own. (Without holding the shutter button down!) A camera remote or laptop comtrol will allow you to choose exposure length, and automate the process.  Autoguiding will create an even better image.  However, you may be able to get away with 1-2 minute exposures without it – depending on your mount.

An astrotrac or iOptron sky tracker was meant for moments like this. Not only to they simplify the polar alignment process and accurately track the sky, but they are MUCH lighter and more transportable than a full-blown GEM. If I ever plan on diving into travel astrophotography (I do!) I will certainly invest in one of these ingenious devices.

Back to my Experiment…

Mounting a Canon DSLR to a telescope with a Gorilla Pod

I have everything needed to execute a coveted wide field camera lens astrophoto, but I rarely opt for this method over shooting deep-sky through the telescope. Not to mention I must find a way to securely fasten my DSLR and lens to my astrophotography rig while maintaining a proper balance, and a functioning auto guiding system.  I used a small gorilla pod meant for a GoPro and wrapped it around my telescope.  This kept my existing alignment and guiding from an earlier deep-sky session.

 

The bendable legs of this sturdy little tripod firmly grapple onto my scope, so much so that I can leave the camera running in this position for hours with confidence.  I should mention, that this photo was acquired during the night of new moon. I can count on one hand the number of clear new moon nights I have experienced. I have had many clear nights leading up to and following my favorite day of the month, but to bask in the glory of our night sky on a summer new moon? That’s the stuff I live for.

 

I used BackyardEOS to automate my imaging session:

 

Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Mode: Bulb
ISO: 800
Exposure: 120 seconds
Dithering: Enabled

I ended up taking about 15 x 120-second exposures at ISO 800.  I also shot a few dark frames after my session, so I could stack the images into Deep Sky Stacker for a better SNR (Signal to noise ratio)


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I often tweet during my imaging sessions:

AstroBackyard on Twitter

Results from the 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower

The weather was a bit iffy the week of the Perseid Meteor Shower (August 8-12).  The skies were clear the night before the peak (August 10th) so I took a shot at capturing some decent meteors on that night.  When thundershowers are in the forecast, I am weary of setting up my astrophotography equipment, even if the conditions are currently clear!

I piggybacked my Canon 7D onto my telescope using a gorilla pod as per my previous session so that I could have a wide-field eye on the sky.  I pointed my wide-angle camera lens (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L) towards the constellation Perseus over my house.  This arrangement worked extremely well.  I was able to capture sharp images that revealed an impressive amount of detail of this area of the sky by taking 2-minute exposures.

 

Perseid meteor photo from my backyard

Perseid Meteor photographed from my backyard the Night of August 10th-11th

 

What’s Next?

I have realized that my current DSLR camera is holding back my astrophotography.  Despite the fact that my Canon Rebel Xsi is modified for astrophotography, I think I would be better off with a newer unmodified, stock Canon camera.  I have my eye on a used Canon T3i camera.  This will give me much better noise performance, increased ISO capabilities, and a higher resolution than my ancient 450D’s 12.2 megapixels.  Yes, a full-frame Canon 6D would really take my images to the next level, but that is a much bigger investment than the reasonable cost of a used Canon T3i DSLR.  (Under $500!)  I can then modify this camera for astrophotography myself using the tutorial by Gary Honis. 


I would like to thank you all for the continued support of this blog for the AstroBackyard YouTube channel.  Please follow me on Facebook for the latest news about my on-going astrophotography journey.  I wish you all the best in your own efforts and hope that I have inspired you to keep going.

AstroBackyard on Facebook

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Astrophotography from a Light Polluted Backyard

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Backyard Astrophotography

Summer would not be complete without spending a night enjoying the dazzling beauty that is the constellation Sagittarius. The “teapot” asterism just clears my fence to the south of my backyard in central St. Catharines. From my latitude, August is my last chance to image the many star clusters and nebulae that populate this area.

Last night, I set out to gather as much light on the Lagoon Nebula and the Trifid Nebula as possible before they dipped below the trees. With the nights being so short at this time of year, it is important to have your astrophotography equipment setup process down-pat.

As soon as Polaris is faintly visible in the North, I begin my calibration and alignment process on my trusty Sky-Watcher HEQ5 mount.

The summer triangle in the night sky

In the photo above, you can see the Summer Triangle asterism as seen from my backyard. This photo was processed extensively to reduce the light pollution present from my city backyard. When shooting through the glow of a bright city, it if often best to shoot your deep sky targets when they are directly overhead to avoid the light dome. 

The Light Pollution Effect

I should mention, that the third-quarter moon rose at midnight last night. (I ended my imaging session at 11:30pm) Enhanced detail and better contrast would be easier to pull out of this image if my imaging session took place closer to the new moon.

Light pollution is also a major factor where I live. My backyard lies within the border of a red/white zone for light pollution (Bortle Class 8). Surprisingly enough, however, I can still just barely pick out the Milky Way with my naked eye.

To compensate for this unfortunate reality, I use an IDAS Light Pollution Filter to help block out the unwanted light from the street lights and porch lights that surround me.

Wide Field Deep-Sky Image

The Trifid and Lagoon Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius

With my brief window of opportunity, I was able to take (14) 210 second exposures at ISO 800 with my modified Canon Rebel Xsi. Once stacked, the total exposure length equaled a whopping 49 minutes!

Despite the challenges mentioned above, I think I was able to produce an acceptable image of this summertime deep-sky treat. My 80mm telescope offers the perfect opportunity to capture both nebulae in the same field of view.  This will likely be the last photo taken in this rich and starry area of the Milky Way until next year, when it rises again in the Spring.

M8 and M20 Wide Field Image

M8 and M20 in Sagittarius

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro Synscan
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Modified)
ISO: 800
Total Exposure: 49 minutes (14 x 210 seconds)
Image Processing Software: DeepSkyStacker, Adobe Photoshop CC
Support Files: 9 dark frames

Backyard astrophotography setup

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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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What a Weekend!

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M20 - The Trifid Nebula
M20 – The Trifid Nebula
It all started on Friday, April 27th when I was lucky enough to spend another night at the RASC Niagara Observatory in Wellandport, Ontario. The clouds hung around until about 1:30 am, just as the moon was setting.

Now that the summer constellations are beginning to appear again, I wanted to take a crack at the beautiful Trifid Nebula.

I stayed up all night long, which would have normally been okay on a Friday night. However, a Cousin’s wedding the next day meant I was walking around in a suit with bags under my eyes. Having to explain that you look tired because you were photographing a nebula all night can garner some odd looks.

The above shot was taken with the following details:

Equipment:

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 APO Triplet
Mount: Celestron CG-5 GT
Autoguiding: Orion Mini 50mm Guidescope, Meade DSI Pro II Camera
Imaging Camera: Canon 450D (stock)

Photo Details

Exposure Time: 22 x 180″
ISO: 1600
Stacked with 12 dark frames

Stacked in DeepSkyStacker
Processed in PS CS5

2 days later, I was finally able to take my first photo of the sun using my homemade filter (with safe Baader solar film) fitted to my 4.5″ Orion Skyquest XT. The photo below was taken at 3 pm on Sunday, April 29th with a Canon Powershot Digital Camera through a 26mm Orion Eyepiece.


Later that night, the weather gods blessed me with clear skies after the moon had set, again. I was able to capture an hour of data on another exciting DSO that I have never tried before, M17.

I was very surprised at how well this turned out despite the fact that it was so low in my light-polluted backyard sky. This nebula is quite bright, which made it easier to pull the details forward in post-processing.

swan nebula

M17 – The Swan Nebula

 

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