Here are 10 of my secrets to the firehose of astrophotography I publish!
I’m a very active astrophotographer (see my Instagram for proof). People often say to me “How do you do so many astrophotos?” and I can’t give them a single answer, so I decided to write this article. I asked prolific solar astronomer Paul Stewart the same question and he replied without hesitation: “If the sun is out, I’ll image it.”
I can’t say I’m as dedicated as Paul, and many a perfect night has been lost to sleep, beer, or a good rock show, but there are several things I do that keeps me bombarding my friends and family with endless Facebook posts of my photos of space. I’m almost certain they’ve muted me by now.
Of course, different types of astrophotography are faster than others. The sun can be imaged in seconds and planets in minutes, though a good result can take an hour or more of processing. Night sky photography also returns results in minutes, but deep space takes, well, as long as you’d like to sacrifice to the timelords. Here are 10 of my secrets to my firehose of astrophotography.
1. Fast optics
Celestron’s incredible 11″ RASA is an example of an F2 telescope designed for fast exposures.
Obviously having an F/2 Hyperstar lens, dedicated astrograph telescope, or L-series wide aperture DSLR lens is literally going to speed up your exposure time by orders of magnitude. This is only one way, though, and buying your way to better photos, while fun, is not sustainable for most people.
Such fast optics however, really cut down a night’s work to a few hours. Or a week’s work to a single night. If you can afford the glass, why not? The time saved is a real justification for the cost, depending on what your time is worth to you.
2. Shooting in colour
For deep space astrophotography, getting at least 3 and sometimes 4 or more series’ of exposures in each different filter (e.g. Red, Green, Blue & Hydrogen Alpha) is hugely inefficient. It means you’ll almost never get a decent stacked astrophoto in a single night. This is the one true benefit of shooting in colour, if you can sacrifice that bump in quality mono will give you. If you do shoot in mono, settling for a bi-colour image using only two filters is a good compromise.
3. Versatile setup
It’s natural to want to specialise. But most telescopes and cameras are capable of a wide variety of focal lengths with different reducers, lenses, multipliers (Barlows & Powermates) and camera chip sizes. Having a DSLR for nightscapes in your toolkit as well as a telescope means you can try a whole variety of different methods and a single target may be photographed in several different ways. My current rig with adapters and lenses offers about 6 different fields of view with the one telescope, DSLR, and mount. Check to see what adapters, magnifiers and reducers yours supports – they are much cheaper than everything else.
Check out my C9.25″ with 2 separate image trains! One for planets, and one for high-speed F/2 Hyperstar deep-space imaging.
4. Permanent setup
It goes without saying that getting your own little observatory setup will increase your output immeasurably, but it’s no panacea to quicker astrophotos. Before mine, I was always making the best of the clear nights, but having everything set up and ready to roll can shave an hour or more off your setup and pulldown time, and may simply motivate you to get out and use your equipment more. At some point the amount of money you’ve spent on this pursuit really does justify making sure you use it, and a personal observatory is a logical next step.
The Sky Shed Pod, from Canada, is a relatively cheap prefab kit observatory with a small footprint, perfect for backyard astronomers.
5. Consistent workflow & practice
It’s common when setting up at a star party to completely screw up the polar alignment due to the sheer unfamiliarity of the process away from your usual location. Knowing your steps to align your mount and get it guiding, setting up your DSLR in the dark, getting your guiding configured quickly, etc will help you get exposures quicker. Try to introduce new equipment one piece at a time and be ready to waste a night here and there just fiddling and practicing and working out the kinks in your process and gear. After a while, you’ll be playing it all like a piano. I know it sounds obvious but wasting good imaging time because windows needs a reboot is something that happens to everyone – even the professionals.
6. Just enough exposures
There is a bit of mythology about stacking and what it actually does. Some people have the idea that stacking ridiculous amounts of exposures will magically make the image proportionately better. It doesn’t. It has two main goals.
Firstly, noise removal. That’s it. That’s literally all stacking does.
The other one is just having enough exposures that you can actually throw away the less perfect ones and keep the best. Otherwise known as “lucky imaging”. Knowing this, you can aim for around 30 good exposures (of whatever length you’re using). If you get 40, great! If you have more than 40 good exposures, you’re wasting time for little tangible benefit. Nobody on Instagram is going to notice, trust me.
7. Diversity of subjects & techniques
The great thing about photographing space is — there’s so much of it! At any given time there are dozens of easy targets overhead, and then an insane amount of difficult ones.
Solar disc, flares, and spots, lunar craters, planets, galaxies, nebulae, clusters, conjunctions, eclipses, star trails, Milky Way. The list is endless! Not to mention the exotic ones: aurorae, sprites, the ISS, fireballs!
We all have a favourite and a least favourite (globular clusters – YAWN), but if you open your repertoire to the possibilities you’ll find a vast array of celestial wonders and you won’t be a one trick pony” either. Adding to this, any given target can be imaged a variety of different ways. Colour, Mono, Bi-colour, LRGB, Hubble Palette, 3D … There’s no shortage of variety.
I can see your eyes glazing already. Boring. Who am I? Your parents? Telling you to plan your shoots!?
I know, I know. I spent a long time just setting up then looking at my software and seeing what’s up. I’m coming around to knowing ahead of time what I’d like to get in any particular season, then ensuring it’s well positioned and timed so the time I spend imaging works around the rest of my life’s timetable. Software like Photopills, Stellarium, and Sky Guide for iOS are all great programs for this. Have a think about how you are going to frame the shot before you even set up.
Sky Guide for iOS isn’t too sophisticated, but using photography from the Photopic Sky Survey – it sure is pretty!
9. Processing is king
All astrophotos are a result of processing. Yes, even yours – hipster film nerds from the 1980’s. Don’t get me started.
It’s true these days that software is getting so good, and so advanced, that sometimes it takes just as long to process the stack of images as it does to get the light frames in the first place. Darks, flats, bias, noise reduction, sharpening, colour calibration, star reduction, etc., these should all be in your toolkit. Not to simply enhance a poor image (though that’s possible too), but to reveal the good image of space that is sitting in there under all that star bloat, light pollution, noise, and optical and digital aberration.
Processing can compensate for not having enough frames, or not being in the ideal location. As long as you keep it honest. Don’t just paste the starship enterprise onto the setting sun and share it with a straight face. Keep it real.
Below is my image of the Cat’s Paw Nebula, before and after processing in PixInsight and Photoshop.
10. Sharing is caring
Art is never finished, it is only abandoned, so they say.
I know too many astrophotographers with amazing work and amazing gear whose photos never see the light of day beyond technical forums or a close circle of astro friends. Us astrophotographers can be very critical of each other’s work (in a good way), which also leads to a heightened sense of self criticism. Try to let that go and get those images off your hard drive and in front of the eyeballs of the general public, they love what we do! The positive feedback will motivate you to keep going, and the critical feedback will motivate you to get better – it’s a win/win situation. I, for one, need less celebrity and politics in my news feed, and more sharing and appreciation of science the natural world we all have direct access to!