Things I wish I’d known when I got started with Astrophotography
When I started in Astrophotography and realised how complicated it was, I promised myself that once I started producing images I was happy with I would write a simple tutorial. By writing this I am not saying i’m an expert, or that this way is the best way to do things, or that everything I write is correct. It is just a best efforts attempt to assist anyone setting off on the same journey I did.
When I look back I wish someone had given me a simple step-by-step guide with each step telling me exactly what to buy, trying to break down the cost involved at each point, and introducing me to the complexity slowly. Obviously this is almost impossible as there is no right way to do this hobby, and no “single” right steps / path to take, so i’m going to just write how I would do it if I was starting again from the beginning which if you like you can follow at your own risk! For avoidance of doubt – I am not affiliated to any of the equipment manufacturers or vendors and I am not receiving anything from mentioning their products.
Step 1 (£67) :
Buy and read the book “Making every photon count by Steve Richards” (http://www.firstlightoptics.com/books/making-every-photon-count-steve-richards.html) £20. This will give you tons of hints and tips and points to consider before you set off on this hobby. It will help you avoid lots of costly mistakes.
Buy the app “Star Walk 2” for your smartphone £5. You can then point it at the sky and it will identify what you are looking at.
Get the app “Scope Nights” which attempts to predict clear nights for observing. I can’t remember how much it is – but not more than a few pounds.
Subscribe to the monthly podcast “The Jodcast”. £Free. This comes from Jodrell Bank and tells you what can be seen during that month in the sky.
Start reading the “Getting started with Imaging” forum at http://stargazerslounge.com. Lots of helpful past topics here, and people to ask for tips.
Buy some binoculars. Generally when I started I was advised to get some 10 x 50 binoculars. 10 is the magnification, and 50 is the diameter of the lens (determines how much light they let in). If I was to buy some now I would probably get the Celestron Upclose G2 Porro Bino 10×50 for £32 on amazon. I can’t recommend them specifically as although I have a pair of 10×50 binoculars I don’t have this model, but they’re by a reputable make, get good reviews, are low cost, and are 10 x 50. It’s tempting to get higher magnification ones, but they get harder to find anything with when you’re a beginner (you see less sky and can’t work out where you are), and harder to hold still (every tiny movement gets magnified remember). Just last week when I was trying to find the comet Lovejoy, I got my binoculars out first to see if I could find it, so they will always be useful. Personally I still enjoy looking at the moon with them, and a target such as the Pleiades. If you have a camera tripod you can get an adaptor so you can mount them and keep them still.
Buy a little red torch or red headlamp £10 (the red affects your eyes less – white will affect your night vision).
Overall objective of Step 1 – See if your interest is likely to be sustained, because the next step is expensive. Learn to navigate the sky and recognise the main constellations.
Step 2 (Minimum £730) :
This step is the no going back one – unfortunately it costs a lot – and it is difficult to delay that cost to a later stage. You’ll also start to get frustrated by the amount of cloudy nights that stop you being able to use your new pride and joy!
Join a local astronomy group and talk to people about what is realistic from a budget set-up. You might be disappointed or you might be delighted. These people will be a great support network for the challenges to come. Talk about what supplier in your area gives good service and will help you to find the right equipment at good prices. You can also investigate the second hand website http://www.astrobuysell.com/uk/propview.php if you feel comfortable purchasing used equipment with the risks that carries.
Buy a decent mount. This is the really expensive bit but is also the part you cannot skimp on. The mount seems boring compared to the telescope or camera, but it is critical. The difficult thing about Astrophotography is compensating for the earth’s rotation whilst you take long exposure images – and only a good mount will enable this. Personally I bought a Skywatcher EQ5 Pro Synscan for £500. This is the very cheapest people tend to recommend, although many people will say you should really get the next one up as a minimum – the Skywatcher HEQ5 Pro Synscan for £750. If you want to get a bigger telescope than I have then you will probably need to get a higher specification mount than even either of these.
Buy a telescope. I have a Skywatcher 150PDS which costs £230 (the one below I think is the 127PDS which is also highly recommended by astrophotographers and some would say is better). This has a dual speed focuser which is designed to enable easier focus with an SLR camera. Some telescopes have a problem where you can’t adjust the focuser enough to get in focus with an SLR camera. I should add that this kind of telescope (Newtonian reflector) is cheap and good for deep sky imaging. An 80mm refractor is probably better if you can stretch to a good one, or if you want to do planetary pictures you need one with the capability of much higher magnification. Read up lots before you choose what type of telescope you buy – but remember changing telescope means you may need a different mount.
Get the app “Scope Help”. This helps you with polar alignment of your mount. I can’t remember how much it is – but not more than a few pounds.
Learn how to polar align your mount. To try to describe how to do this in text is going to be difficult. I read up on the stargazers lounge forum, but most helpful I searched for “EQ5 polar align” on youtube and watched every video that came up several times. The basic principle is that your mount needs to be pointed towards the celestial pole (basically the north pole in the sky). Luckily in the northern hemisphere (if you’re in the southern hemisphere I can’t help you here) the star Polaris is very near the northern celestial pole. The EQ5 mount has a polar scope, you set-up your mount basically pointing north (it has an N on the leg you should point north), and then look through the scope. I tend to carefully move the mount itself until Polaris is within the circle marked inside the scope (though not sure that is the right way to do it). Then I look on the Scope Help app (invert the vertical and horizontal axis on the app or you’ll be setting the whole thing in the opposite place) and see where Polaris should be on the setting circle in my Polar scope. I then use the adjusting bolts (gently – they break easily i’m told – read your manual about how to adjust them!!!) to “move” Polaris until it is in the right place on the circle. It’s easy once you’ve done it a few times.
Overall objective of Step 2 : Assemble your mount (get a friend to help in case you need an extra pair of hands – I managed to drop something when I was doing mine – it didn’t get damaged but I was nearly very upset!). Learn how to polar align your mount (this is quite easy to do but seems like a nightmare when you first get one). Learn how to perform a 3-star alignment with your synscan system then enjoy telling your telescope to point to different things and view lots of interesting targets. Try the included eye pieces and barlow lens. Note how your mount attempts to track the target you have selected to keep it still in your field of vision. The better you polar align the better it will manage this – for viewing it’s not a big deal but for imaging it is really important.
Step 3 (Cost £360 ) :
Right now we’re in business. We can finally start taking some images.
Buy an SLR camera (£325) – I got the Canon 1100d (with infrared filter removed) from a seller on astro buy/sell. I would recommend getting a Canon (just because lots of astrophotographers use them so easier to get software and tips) and getting one with the infra-red filter removed. There is a website that does them with the filter ready removed but i’ve never used them – http://cheapastrophotography.vpweb.co.uk/Available-Cameras.html. Getting one with the filter removed really helps you to capture more light, you don’t want any useful light getting blocked. Your whole challenge when taking astro pictures is trying to get as much light as possible – hence using a telescope with a 6 inch mirror to gather lots of light, and then doing long exposures.
You’ll need some adapters now to connect your camera to your telescope. From memory you need a T-Ring adaptor for Canon EOS cameras (I got a Celestron one from amazon for around £12 I think), a 2 inch nosepiece to connect to the T ring (I think I got this one for £20 – http://www.opticstar.com/Run/Astronomy/Astro-Accessories-Imagers-Opticstar.asp?p=0_10_5_0_3_710). Check these adapters with wherever you buy them from because i’m struggling to remember exactly what I bought.
Now set-up your telescope as you learnt how to do in step 2 and do a 3 star alignment. Use Synscan to find your target and check it is in the centre of your telescope. Attach your camera in place of your eyepiece, hook up your laptop to it and take your first picture. Personally I use the provided Canon EOS Utility software to remote control my camera. This means the pictures come up on my laptop and I can also change any settings etc. from the software. Getting the whole thing in focus will be frustrating until you learn whereabouts the focuser needs to be – in my experience it is quite far in. Using live view on the camera whilst pointed at something like a bright star or the moon can help. Try experimenting with exposures times and ISO settings (400 / 800 / 1600). To begin with you’ll probably struggle to get more than 30 second exposures without star trailing. Try to use a low ISO if possible as you get less noise, but you may need a higher one for dimmer objects. Try easy objects first like the moon, or a star cluster such as M13, or the Pleiades.
Step 4 (Cost £114) :
Now you need to get more out of what you’ve already got. To do that you will need to get into image processing. For deep sky photography (i.e. not planets or the moon) you basically need to take lots of the same picture and then stack them to reduce interference. Stacking kind of averages out the pictures which reduces noise. So for example if you were taking a picture of M13 (Great Globular cluster in Hercules) you would take for example 15 thirty second exposures at ISO 800 of it. Then, and this is going to sound weird, you take say around five pictures, still at thirty seconds on ISO 800 but with the lens cap on the end of the telescope. Then you take around 10 pictures at ISO 800 as fast as your camera will allow – so maybe 1/4000th of a second each. The first set of images (of the cluster) are called the lights, the second set (with the lens cap on) the darks, and the third set the bias. There’s others you can do as well but I don’t bother with them. In general the more of each you do the better – especially the lights. Then you process them.
Download DeepSkyStacker (might have to get the latest beta version for the Canon 1100d). Cost £Free. Watch a youtube video on how to use this. It imports your lights, darks, and bias files, and then produces a TIFF or FITS final image. I only do the stacking in deepskystacker I don’t do any processing in it. The video I think I watched on how to use it was this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWWaKkCUm6c&spfreload=10
Then I use a program called StarTools (cost around £40). I import the stacked image, and then run various of the functions from this program on it. I basically go through the left menu in order trying things, it has an undo button and is highly intuitive. Once i’ve got what I can from it I then save it out as a TIFF file.
I then use Apple Aperture (cost £60) (Photoshop or GIMP would do the job on a PC), and use colour curves, brightness, contrast, and black point to try to improve the image further. Again there are lots of youtube videos on how to do this mainly in Photoshop or GIMP but the functions are similar whatever package you use.
I’ve got a lot to learn on the image processing front so the above is just what I do for now. Lots of people do it a lot better than me and use other software such as PixInsight or Nebulosity.
At this point I would also buy an intervalometer. This plugs into the Canon 1100D and basically takes the pictures – you set the length of each exposure, the break in between (I usually allow about 30 seconds to let the sensor cool down), and how many exposures you want. The software doesn’t work well with exposures over 30 seconds hence the need for the intervalometer. I bought one from amazon (cost £14) called Ramozz Time lapse intervalometer remote timer shutter. It is very easy to use and has a red backlight.
Step 5 (Cost £200)
I would now start doing a little planetary or lunar work. I bought an Opticstar PL131-M video camera for £200. This is a mono astro video camera and later we can use it as well as a very good guiding camera (in step 7). The basic idea here is you point your telescope at the moon or saturn etc. and then take a 10 second video of it. You can connect the camera directly into the 1.25 inch eyepiece adaptor on your scope or even better put a barlow in between it and the scope for extra magnification. You then import the video into Registax (£Free) and it stacks all the frames the video is made up of to make one picture with less atmospheric interference. You then can import that picture into Aperture or Photoshop etc. and use contrast / brightness to improve it. You could also take a video using your SLR camera (if it has video mode) – I haven’t done this yet but intend to shortly. Note if you bought the 150pds you will be short of magnification for planets but will still get something worthwhile from Jupiter or Saturn – you can clearly see Saturn’s rings for example. For lunar work you can get magnificent results.
Step 6 (Cost £75)
So if you’ve been trying to get good pictures of nebula etc. you’re probably now wondering how to take the next step. Personally I bought a 2 inch Opticstar UHC Nebula filter (http://www.opticstar.com/Run/Astronomy/Astro-Accessories-Imagers-Opticstar.asp?p=0_10_5_0_3_128) at a cost of £75. This only lets through the bands you want – and I use it for galaxies and nebula. It does a great job for me of reducing light pollution (I live in Greater Manchester). But it will only be effective if you have an SLR with the infrared filter removed otherwise you just get a lot of blue. There may be better UHC filters this was just the one I bought. It screws into the 2 inch nosepiece adaptor you bought for your SLR.
Step 7 (Cost £280)
Now you need to start getting longer than 30 second exposures without star trailing. If you’ve got good at polar aligning you could be getting up to two minutes – but my aligning isn’t that good. To do this you need to start guiding. This is when you use a second telescope with a guide camera to allow your laptop to control your mount and lock it onto a star to avoid trailing.
I bought an Opticstar AR80S (f5) Gold refractor for £200 as a guide scope. The Opticstar shop made me a metal plate so that it screws into my collimating rings on my Explorer 150PDS. I then connect my Opticstar PL131M video camera into it.
I bought a Shoestring Astronomy GPUSB adapter (cost £80) to connect my Synscan unit on my mount to my laptop.
I use PHD Guiding software (£free) to do the guiding – see a youtube video on how to use this. It takes the input from the PL131M and sends tiny movements to the mount via the Shoestring adapter as the locked on star moves. This software is amazing and makes a complex process very simple.
I plug the Shoestring, PL131M, and Canon camera into one USB hub. I then run a 5m USB cable to my laptop running Windows 8 (actually a Mac running bootcamp). This way if it’s cold outside I can sit at my laptop inside where it’s warmer (with occasional trips out if I need to check on something).
Using the above I have performed exposures up to 3 minutes with little problem – I need to try longer sometime but haven’t got around to it yet – i’m still learning.
If you look around my website you’ll see what kind of pictures I have managed with the above equipment and techniques so far. I’m still learning and maybe in the future i’ll write a sequel to this explaining any progress i’ve made. I hope it’s helpful – but remember it’s just my opinion and I have still lots to learn.
What music equipment do you need?
If I was starting again on a limited budget, for writing electronic music, I would buy :
A computer with at least quad core i5, 8Gb RAM, and 256Gb HDD (must be fast – 7200rpm or preferably SSD). I would also get a large (24 inch) monitor for it. I prefer a Mac with Logic Pro (obviously if an iMac you wouldn’t need a monitor), but otherwise Windows 10 with Cubase.
A small midi keyboard, and a Focusrite USB Scarlett soundcard.
A pair of active monitor speakers – probably Focal Alpha 50’s and some speaker isolation pads.
So now I would have a computer, a digital audio workstation (Logic/Cubase), a midi keyboard for playing the music in with, and speakers to listen to it on. So enough to start as Logic / Cubase have virtual instruments and effects built in.
Next I would buy Native Instruments Komplete – giving me more instruments and effects. Then I would buy IK Multimedia T-Racks for mastering.
I would get a monthly subscription to lynda.com and watch plenty of the tutorial videos on mixing / mastering.
After that I’d probably look at getting another pair of speakers, and a couple of pairs of headphones (small and large), and a Mackie Big Knob. This would enable me to switch between listening to the music in different ways to help me with mixing.
Hope that helps! Oh and add an external hard disk to back things up on or maybe use a cloud based backup service.