Reset Your Expectations

crab-nebula

For a lot of us under the age of 45 or so, this hobby was kicked off by seeing amazing images from Hubble like the Crab Nebula that looked more like imaginative paintings than reality. From there we used the Google-box, or at that time for myself, the Yahoo! box to see if those images were real things. In searching we ran into some person who took a picture of a DSO from their backyard, that in your head, resembled the magic sent back from Hubble. In even further searching (if it was the mid-2000’s or earlier), you find out that person had spent upwards of $30,000 or even way more for a setup that could capture those images.

I’m using a $200 150mm F/5 Newtonian telescope with an 8 year old Canon T1i DSLR on a 13 year old mount. Can I make beautiful images? Despite all of my data sets being very incomplete, I like to think so. Can my images ever rival the that of a true APO Refractor or something like a RASA on a heavy-duty mount with a full frame cooled camera? Not even close. I have no delusion that I can somehow do something to equal the technical quality of images taken with superior equipment. That said, I’m going to try my damnedest to get as close as I can with what I have.

My personal objective at this time is to make the best images I can for the least amount of money. “At this time” is the key phrase in that statement.

Can the images from my $1,000 setup in 2018 match that $30,000 setup from 2005? No, but it’s definitely a smaller gap than it was all those years ago. I would argue that a $5,000-$8,000 rig and proper knowledge could match those images from 10 or so years ago from equipment that at the time was more expensive than some people’s houses. There are three primary reasons for this:

  • Software such as PHD didn’t exist when I first looked around at this hobby. The current PHD2 makes lesser equipment much more capable and manageable than it is by itself. If you wanted consistently usable long exposures (over 2 minutes) back then, your option was limited to a mount with robotic precision and an inheritance or unlimited credit card.
  • Large cooled CMOS sensors are now rivaling the abilities of their much more expensive CCD siblings. A $3,000 camera in 2017 is “better” than a $13000 camera in 2005. A $200 used DSLR is better than a lot of astronomy cameras of 12 years ago that cost thousands of dollars at the time.
  • Whether you agree or disagree with the larger economics of it, the move of production to China has driven the cost down of some previously unattainable equipment. This is in addition to technological advancement driving down the cost as well.

Now-a-days, if you’re spending $30,000 on astrophotography equipment, you’re most likely setting up a very nice permanent observatory. There are some pieces of equipment still considered “amateur” that will blow your mind, $15,000 OTAs, $20,000 mounts, or $40,000 cameras, but in my opinion, if you’re buying a FORTY THOUSAND DOLLAR CAMERA, you’ve long eclipsed the “hobby” part of this hobby. The last thing you’re reading is this blog!

Keep things in perspective to your acceptable price range and what you expect to get out of it in relation. You may just start out with a lens and a tripod (see this post), but if you catch the bug, you’ll eternally want more! In 2018, price ranges for good equipment aren’t nearly as wide, or as exponential they were 10 years ago, but in most cases are still related to the technical quality of the images you’ll get out of it. Now I fully admit that the difference in finished product between a $3,000 Explore Scientific in capable hands and a $10,000 Takahashi is beyond me. Those are really getting into very fine details that more experienced astrophotographers take note of. I’m not there… yet. However, I’m not blind to the difference between my cheap 6″ Newt and a quality 80mm APO, even using the same camera.

Mounts are a great example of the closing price gap. I’d love to run out and pick up an iOptron CEM60, but my budget dictates that it’s not happening for a long time, so I continue to fight with my old LXD75 mount. There is an updated version of the LXD75 mount with better internals. The Explore Scientific Exos-2GT is priced at about 1/2 of the original MSRP of the LXD75 mount. You can even add belt drives and wireless capabilities from the PMC-8 configuration and still come in at a lower price point than the original LXD75. Neither mount is perfect, but the point is that they are a higher quality mount for less than the original. That CEM60 ($2200US) would have been exponentially more expensive 10 years ago.

Also built into the cost of this hobby is what you’re willing to deal with and trade-off:

  • Why is a reflector generally less expensive than a refractor? A reflector is bigger and requires maintenance almost every time out, where a refractor is more portable and essentially maintenance free.
  • Do you need portability in a mount or do you need more payload capacity?

There is a trade-off in everything and some of those trade-offs cost more than others. With my chosen setup, I trade off cost for time and quality. The two images below were acquired over several nights with 25-40% of the frames thrown out. A more precise mount, better OTA and more sensitive camera could produce cleaner images in much less time, but I’m willing to work with what I have at this point.

Rosette – 4 hours worth of 120″ exposures.

Rosette_4hrs_2-10-18_edit1

M42 & The Running Man – 5 hours of varied exposure lengths

Picture saved with settings embedded.

This hobby can hook up a vacuum cleaner to your bank account if you’re not careful. Do your research and get the best for what you can afford. Rather than listening to everyone tell me what’s best, I troll Astrobin to see the results of different equipment and setups. Nobody says you have to start cheap, but there are some people who say you can’t start cheap. I strongly disagree with the latter. I’m realistic about what I can afford, and what I should expect from that cheap equipment. My abilities and methods haven’t reached the limitations of my equipment yet, so I’m just fine for now.

When I first started cycling heavily (again), I was using a 20-year-old repurposed mountain bike. After a year or so, I got a better mountain bike. A few years later my tastes, abilities and expectations changed. I moved on to a cyclo-cross bike and put about 30,000 miles on that over 5 years. Just a year ago, I got my dream purebred road-bike, thanks to my amazing wife! The key point of the analogy is that tastes, abilities and expectations change over time. I think it’s best to start simple in this hobby and discover what you really want out of it instead of assuming you know what you want from the start. Ten years ago I knew that I would never ride anything but a mountain bike. I currently own three bikes, but I haven’t owned a mountain-bike in five years. Ten years ago I had a giant Newtonian, but I wanted a giant SCT. Right now, I want a Celestron RASA, a CGX-L mount and an ZWO ASI071MC camera. Two years from now I might want something completely different, but because I didn’t bite on an impulse, I won’t be out the $7000, or hassling with resale. What I will have is earned experience and whatever direction I choose to move onto will come easier.

Clear Skies – KA

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