Tuesday, June 19, 2012

So you want to do Astrophotography?

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It is now 19:30 (UK time) on Tuesday 19th June 2012. I say this because if you happen upon this blog tomorrow, you'll know why there is very little content :)

OK. If you want to get into Astrophotography, then apart from kit, like a camera (always useful), some sort of mount (preferably an equatorial mount - more on that later) and a computer with an image processing program installed, you will need:
  1. Time, and lots of it
  2. The ability to survive on very little sleep
  3. Dogged determination
  4. Patience of a saint, preferably a little bit more
  5. Shed loads of enthusiasm
  6. The ability to persevere under the most testing circumstances
  7. A sense of humour
  8. The ability to not take all this stuff seriously :)
If you've got all that, and you really, really want to do this, then I can offer a few tips and tricks, the benefit of my very limited experience, and a virtual shoulder to cry on when it all falls apart, as it will do - frequently.

The first bit of advice I will offer, and this is pretty boring guys but I make no apology, is to prepare yourself before you even think about pointing a camera at the heavens. By that I mean research the subject on the internet, read books, and then do some more research and read more books. When you think you've done enough, do some more research and read more books. Until I say stop ;) There's a good reason for offering that advice: If you don't know what you're doing and just jump in, you will fail and you'll give up - guaranteed. Astrophotography is an extremely steep learning curve - not just taking the images (the easy bit), but processing them in Photoshop or whatever (the hard bit). If you try doing all this without even the basic knowledge that you need, your results will be very disappointing and you'll think it's just you that can't do it - everybody else seems to be able to. And you'll give up and carry on watching the telly or something.

This is the very first astro image I ever took:

M45 The Pleiades
M45 The Pleiades aka The Seven Sisters  in Taurus

and this is the second:

M42 The Great Nebula in Orion

A bit blotchy, and not superb processing, but for first images they're not bad. Now I don't show these images to demonstrate how clever I am - far from it. The point is that by the time I came to take these images I had a reasonable idea of what I had to do and how to do it, because I had spent at least two months reading as much about this stuff as I could. There really are no short cuts guys - IMHO :) These images were taken with a Nikon D40, which I already had, and a second hand Skywatcher 200p and EQ5 mount that I purchased together on ebay for £200. I had to add motors to the mount so that I could do long exposures (these images are about 30 seconds) and that cost about £80. I still use this kit now, although I now use a second hand Nikon D70 (£99) which I modified myself (£0) :) So you don't need to spend a fortune on kit (although you may very well end up doing that) - hence BudgetAstro :)

Now take a gander at this stunning image:

Orion by Rogelio Bernal Andreo - Deep Sky Colors

Not bad eh? When I first saw Deep Sky Colors I was gobsmacked. I didn't know such images were possible, and Rogelio's website was a huge motivating factor in my decision to take up astrophotography - I urge you to pay it a visit (the link is in the caption above). This particular image is a mosaic of 32 individual frames, with a total exposure time of 28 hours, taken over several nights in October 2010. Rogelio will think nothing of driving for ten hours into the desert to find the darkest of dark skies to take his images, and having acquired the data, he will spend countless hours processing it - total dedication to his craft.  Now if I'm brutally honest with myself, I know that I will probably never take an image of such quality. Not because I don't have the ability (although that may very well be true), but because I do not possess that extraordinary level of  dedication. Oh, and he probably doesn't use budget kit - but that's another story ;)  The point here is setting expectations. You'll find plenty of stunning astro images on Flickr and other image sharing sites - I would suggest that you don't try to match them, at least not in the early stages of your astro imaging career, because you probably won't be able to. Use them for inspiration by all means, and for reference, but don't beat yourself up if your images aren't as good. The creators of those images have probably been doing it for years, and have acquired a great deal of knowledge and skill, and probably some decent kit, along the way. Apart from that, no matter how good you are, there will always be someone doing it better (not sure that applies to Rogelio though!)

I know a guy that is forever buying new golf clubs: new complete sets, new and better (and more expensive) drivers, the latest utility club - it goes on forever. He honestly believes that if he buys better and better clubs his game will improve, and it probably would if it wasn't for the fact that he can't play golf. He just isn't very good, and it doesn't matter how good his driver is, it will never go further than 100 yards. The same applies to astrophotography. I promote astrophotography on a budget, because that's what I do, but you may have more funds at your disposal. I would suggest that you don't go rushing out buying the best kit that you can afford at this stage, because you probably don't know what to do with it (I make that assumption because you're reading this blog :) ). As a result your images, taken with your expensive driver - sorry - telescope, probably won't be as good as mine, taken with kit that cost next to nothing (relatively speaking). You need to learn to crawl before you can walk before you can run, and I hope the stuff I put on this blog will go some way towards giving you the required knowledge. Mind you, I'm still very much a learner myself, and I've made many mistakes along the way, but if I can help you avoid the same mistakes, I'll have done my bit :)

One final point before you doze off: Astrophotography has a reputation for being a bottomless pit, and so it is. As you're experience grows, and your images improve, you'll always be able to find a bit of kit that will improve your images further. Unfortunately, they don't give this stuff away for nothing. My advice would be to keep the plastic well and truly hidden and to set yourself an upper limit above which you will not go - you don't want to end up re-mortgaging the house :)

OK, OK enough already! The next post will be about taking images with just a DSLR and a tripod, which you may already have - you won't need to do too much research for that :)

Cheers guys, and may your skies be forever cloudless :)



  1. Nice job Doug. Finding somebody on the internet who claims astrophotography can be done on a budget is exactly the mentor I've been looking for. Your images are stunning and are inspiring me to improve what I've been doing: scratching the surface of a huge learning curve. Good luck with your new blog which I'll be adding to my blog feed.

  2. Cheers Clifton. I'll get as much stuff up on here as I can, but it'll take a little time. The processing stuff I'll keep on YouTube (I'll pop the videos on a page on this blog though), and everything else will go here.

    Watch this space :)

  3. Hi doug, I agree with Clifton- great to see someone who isn't just recommending the latest billion pound scope. Great tutorials on YouTube btw- already taught me a bit about masks in photoshop! I have a D700 and just got an astrotrac mount, so hope to get some non-trailing images soon. All the best

    1. Hi Rich. Thanks for that. An astrotrac eh? Not cheap those things. Good luck with it - let me know how you get on :)

  4. No they aren't! - but I already had the camera gear and seemed the best option for a portable setup. If I had the time would have tried to make a barn door mount but pesky work gets in the way of these things! Was all set for some last night when my polar scope battery died!- but still got some good (for me) results. Now if I can just find that observatory for sale on eBay...... :)

    1. Observatory - wouldn't that be nice :) But we can dream...

  5. hi doug. ive read through all your posts and found them very interesting and im seriously intrigued about going into astrophotography but just biding my time at the moment. i have one question though :- when you said you bought extra motors for your eq5 mount, did you get the RA axis motor or a dual axis motor because i have found both on ebay. now they may be the same thing as i dont fully know. it would be great if you could answer. thanks

    1. Hi Rob
      I bought the dual axis motors, which give you drive in both the RA and DEC axes. I would suggest they're the ones to go for as they aren't that much more expensive, even though whilst the mount is tracking only the RA motor is actually running. If you eventually get into guiding, you'll need both axes driven, so you may as well go for both now. There is a difference between tracking and guiding, which often confuses newcomers - quick search on google should explain that if you're not sure :) Hope that helps. Doug

    2. thank you. i am not getting any equipment yet not even a scope or camera. i am just doing research into astrophotography and if indeed it is gonna cost me a bit, which evidently isnt gonna cost me as much as what i thought. hopefully i can gain the knowledge and start up asap. :)

    3. Very wise approach Rob - exactly what I did :) You can't do too much research. Good luck, and come back to me if I can help :)

  6. Having watched all your videos, I would like to get a handle on using a DSS tiff file in a photo manipulation program to see a) how close I can come to recreating the image you did and b)whether I can "nearly" accomplish that with out buying PS (yet.) I live in Wyoming USA at 8000' in the summer and mostly clear skies and would like to experiment with astrophotography this summer -- in other words, start on the steep learning curve. Would you be willing to share that galaxy tiff file you used in the videos?

    1. No probs Phil - glad to :) Email me at doug@budgetastro.net

  7. Hi Doug
    Brilliant information and video tutorials, having been away from astronomy for 30 years now and with retirement looming I am trying to get back into it. Just purchased a SW 200p and EQ5 syncscan mount and I was wondering if you can recommend the best filter to use for shooting Galaxies/nebula. living close to Reading myself I have the same problem with light pollution.