5 Things Every Astrophotographer Needs

Regardless of your mount, or OTA, or camera, there are things every astrophotgrapher needs to survive. These aren’t equipment related, but something all of us can relate to.

couple1. An understanding or similarly interested spouse and/or family.

When you start in with astrophotography, if you decide to stay with it through the first levels of frustration, you will be obsessively either tinkering with your equipment, reading endless articles/blogs, watching numerous YouTube videos, standing right next to the telescope when imaging, or staring at the computer screen outside through a PC inside while the rest of the world carries on. After about a month, your family may start to seem like other people who just occupy the same space. Work will become a thing you do to pay for the equipment you “need”. Sleep will only be a memory. If you have kids, remember those horrible nights the first few weeks after they were born and how tired you were the next day. Now translate that into every clear night and the following day.

In all seriousness, it’s easy to let things slip away when you first get into this hobby. It is frustrating and time consuming. The learning curve when you incorporate all aspects (tracking mount, guiding, etc.) is so steep that you’re brain has a hard time taking in your day-to-day activities. Do everything you can to keep a balance. Involve your family to the extent you can so they understand, as much as they are able, as to why you’re doing this.

If you’re single, none of this matters and you can do whatever you want. I’m not jealous of you. I love my wife and kids. I like to think they love me back even when I’m sleeping on the couch on a Sunday afternoon because I was up all night!

If your spouse and or family are also interested or active in Astrophotography, screw you! I’m only kidding of course. I’m glad my wife and family have varied interests. My wife and I are total opposites, but we work well together because we are. As a bonus result, we expose our kids to a lot of different things and viewpoints.

2. Timehourglass

You need it, and it is not your friend. Dawn, Summer, tree branches, clouds, food, sleep, a job. These are the enemies of astrophotography. They all take time away from an open shutter on your camera. Those photons you want have been travelling for tens-of-millions of years. How dare those clouds come in now. Who in the hell planted that tree 70 years ago? Didn’t they know your camera had a date with some starlight in 2018? And what is with the sun coming up at 4AM in June? Only six hours of imaging time is bullshit. You can do that before midnight in December. Stupid orbits and seasons.

Plan your nights ahead of time to maximize your photon collection.

  • Check the incredibly unreliable satellite forecast. We’re really good at forecasting rain and snow, but we really suck at forecasting lighter clouds that screw up imaging. Don’t expect this to be terribly reliable, but do it anyway and you’ll start to learn how to read the radar and satellite info.
  • Take a look at your planetarium software ahead of time to map out the availability of targets and when they’ll duck behind a tree or a house. After a while, you’ll just know, but it helps to plan it out.
  • Plan for the other things you have to do. Daily responsibilities shouldn’t be considered interruptions and should be accounted for in your planning (making dinner for the kids, taking out the garbage, spending time with your spouse, etc.)
  • It’s probably not a good idea to plan to fit in time with your spouse. If it’s not natural, then you have some other problems that I can’t help you with.

money3. Money

What’s that thing you read about on that blog that one time? You don’t know, but you know you need it! Do you need a CLS filter, or LPS-D1 filter for light pollution. Oh crap, now there’s an LPS-D2 filter that dims LED light pollution. Screw it, get them all! Should you get  12nm or 7nm Ha, OIII and SII filters? You know you need both sets, and different sizes so they fit the camera you haven’t bought yet.

If you’re not careful, you’ll be chasing your wallet through the pipes of the Interwebs. Comparatively speaking, I do this on the cheap, but I know there is money to be spent in obtaining decent results. The key to keeping that total number down is realizing where you can get the biggest bang for your buck, and planning ahead.

For example, shooting narrowband in my light pollution isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. I weighed price, ease of use and future compatibility. From there, I got a 48mm, 12nm Ha filter for $130. The first time I used it my jaw dropped, like, liraly (idiot-speak for literally). Of course now it’s galaxy season and I’m working on the Leo Triplet and Markarian’s Chain for the next month or so and it’s useless to me. There are a lot of galaxies that benefit from Ha data, but these ain’t them. So, how did I come to this conclusion?

  • I use a modded DSLR right now, but plan to change cameras eventually. Therefore the 48mm screw-in type gave me the most versatility. A clip-in is convenient, but limiting.
  • My sky is so light-polluted that I have a hard enough time getting stars in the frame to focus and/or plate solve. I also have limited windows between trees to capture objects. A 7nm filter would hamper and lengthen the time to focus and plate solve. And since my GoTo likes to suck to the magnitude of about 15 degrees in Dec when the temperature is below 40F, the 12nm was the option for me so I could plate solve easier and faster.
  • I’m a cheap bastard because I have three daughters and they’re more important to me than pictures of the sky… and they’re in dance. Do you have any idea how expensive that crap is? For parents of boys, imagine you have three boys and they’re all in hockey… and they’re all goalies… and every year they need ALL new equipment. Now imagine that you paid for all their equipment, but never actually got it. That’s having girls in dance. That’s a very long way to explain why I got the $130 Astromania filter from Amazon rather than the $300 Astronomik. I’m sure the Astronomik filter is a superior product, but I have three pairs of frickin’ tap shoes to buy. Don’t even get me started on the costumes.

It’s hard, but avoid the impulse buy. The force is strong in astrophotography, but you have to resist. If your don’t, I guarantee you’ll end up alone and poor… unless that what you want. Again, I can’t help you with that. Weigh what you need and what will be most effective in improving your images.

4. Patienceperson-human-male-man

I’ll be completely honest with you. When you start this hobby, you’re going to suck. Whether you came here from Photography, Art, Astronomy, oh hell, why not include Astrology, you will suck when you start. You can spend $20,000 on equipment, and read 8,000 contradicting blog posts from 800 different people that will tell you the absolute way you need to take each image for each situation. You know exactly what you need to do because you taught yourself everything there is to know about astrophotography by reading what other people do.

You get that $20k rig all setup and take those first images on a beautifully clear night, and they look like shit. M31’s core is blown out. All you got of M42 was the core. Where’s the Witch Head? The Wizard looks like a bed-sheet ghost. And finally, your Soul is empty. If you stay in this hobby for a while you’ll remember that last one and laugh in a few months, I promise.

Artists need to learn the science and process of this, Scientists need to learn the art of this, and Astrologers need to forget everything they know and properly learn both sides of this. Not much of any previous experience relates well. You’ll generally have one side or the other, but not both. You have to have the patience to stick with it, experiment and eventually you’ll start sucking less. After a while, you’ll start learning techniques that work for you at your location and that’ll lead to images you’re not afraid to show people.

On a little side-note. I thought of something triggered by the “your location” comment, but it’s relevant to how hard this is. You image on one block, you’re neighbor images on the next block. Can you use the same settings and processes? Unless you live under real dark skies in a ghost town, probably not. Sources of light are different. You have different neighbors with different lights at different hours. You might be imaging on cement, and she’s on grass. Who will dew up first? And that’s why you need to figure out what works for you, on your own. It’s a hard thing to understand why none of those 8,000 blog posts you read will be exactly right for you. They can help, but ultimately, you will learn for yourself.

pexels-photo-421485. Humility

I’ve seen some beautiful pictures made by some giant assholes. I choose not to visit their pages anymore, but for the most part, giant assholes in astrophotography make shitty pictures. I guess that’s kind of how it works, isn’t it. Anyway, I believe real success in astrophotography requires a level of humility and a sense of relativity (like one thing relative to another, not e=mc^2 relativity).

The funny thing is, if you’re open to it at all, and even in some cases if you’re not, you will learn the true meaning of this trait by default as you progress in your abilities. If you start to go beyond just taking the pictures, and begin to learn about the objects you’re capturing – their vastness, what they really contain – and then how small those vast objects are as they relate to a galaxy – and even still how that galaxy, including our own, is just a spec in the Universe – you’ll understand how insignificant you are. Being on this plane of existence reminds me a bit of when I was in high school in the 90’s pretending I was a hippy from the 60’s.

Realizing your place in the Universe is the sole basis of humility – the core of it’s definition. When you start to understand this, and look at the object you’re capturing in a different light, you’ll understand its importance as it relates to us as humans, and you’ll take the time you really need on each object rather than hurry through it. The process will still be precise, but it will be less robotic, and flow better. People who “get” this care for their images in a different way, and aren’t just trying to copy someone else’s work.

Or hey, If you want to be an asshole, take shitty hurried images and over-process them, you are well within your rights to do so. I’d just prefer that an entry into this hobby helps move society away from the elitist shitty asshole and toward inclusive, darker peaceful skies.

free-decorative-line-divider-clip-art-1045078

Obviously these are tongue-in-cheek, but they also have some very important lessons I’ve learned as I’ve immersed myself in astrophotography. Things are starting to work better, and my images are slowly getting better.  I spend a little less time setting up and a little more time imaging each time out. I learn something new every day, and even more every time I’m imaging. When I think I’ve learned everything, I’ll just be another asshole, alone and poor, making shitty pictures.

Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA

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