You’re just taking pictures of the sky, right? How hard can it be to just point something up and click a button? People generally aren’t that condescending when asking about the difficulties of imaging deep sky objects, but they clearly don’t understand how damn hard this is. And that’s fine, why would they? Most people just click away on their phone, or point and shoot camera, and off they go. A little more advanced photographer trying to stabilize a 500mm lens might have a slightly better idea of the difficulties. Maybe I can offer a bit of a primer for what I find most challenging, and below that list, why I still do it.
This is the big one, and for me with minimal equipment, the most frustrating. We generally do everything at magnification, and for me its a relatively low magnification as I prefer a wider field and larger objects for now. Even at the lower magnifications, an error in movement equal to the thickness of a hair destroys an exposure. A slight crosswind, a truck driving by… screwed. I’ve had one amazing night so far. Four hours of imaging, two bad exposures.
Nights that look perfect for stargazing to a non-imager can actually suck. People may say that the sky is so clear that the stars are twinkling. An imager knows that’s when you pack it in, because the twinkling is caused by atmospheric shifts and she’d be wasting her time. Conditions constantly change. Clouds so thin you can’t even see them with the naked eye can ruin a night. Sudden wind shifts. The fact that we suck at predicting cloud movements. The amount of moisture in the upper atmosphere. These all create a wildly unpredictable night most times out. Unless you live on top of a mountain, or in the desert, excellent conditions are extremely rare.
Airplanes & Satellites
Planes have predictive landing patterns close to airports, but not takeoff patterns. I’m about three miles from O’Hare, and when the planes are taking off toward the East I lose many frames a night. I’m imaging about 1.5 square degrees of the sky, and one plane seems to find that tiny patch about every 10 minutes. When they are landing from the East, They aren’t anywhere in my field of view.
Someone who hasn’t imaged before would also be shocked at just how many satellites are out there, and just how many exposures they wreck. It’s inevitable that I’ll come across at least one each night aside from the airplanes.
We’ve generally figured out how to combat Sodium and Mercury lights with filters and not drastically mar what we’re trying to image. I live in a red-to-impossible zone, making things even more difficult. My best options are to move or give up the hobby. I chose to fight it out instead, but it requires many, many more shorter exposures than what can be achieved in a dark sky.
LEDs are great for energy savings, and if aimed properly can decrease overall light pollution. But we don’t have effective filters for them. One company has released an LED “reduction” filter that is supposed to reduce the effects of LED light pollution, but I think the jury is still out on that one.
Old Fashion Patience
I can’t get my kids to spend 5 minutes looking at Jupiter, but due to conditions, timing, positioning between trees, etc. A single image that I am able to process can take a month to acquire. And there’s another imager’s not so secret, secret. No image is ever complete. We play with current data, add newly acquired data, try to combine data from different scopes or cameras. It goes on forever. In reality, it can take years to obtain enough data on an object to create an image we’re happy with.
OK, So Why Waste Your Time?
Why put up with all of this frustration? First and foremost, we love space and the opportunities to learn. We also feel that we’re part of a special unofficial “club”. It’s like we know something that other people don’t. Despite that, we mostly welcome people in our club. Not all imagers are so accepting, and there is an aspect of elitism in this hobby. But I generally steer clear of those who aren’t so inclusive (in and out of astrophotography).
Something different grabs each one of us. For me, it’s a combination of lifelong interests in science and art, and my father’s interest in the stars. For others, it was the images returned from Hubble, or a trip to the country when they were a kid. Most of the time, once we’re grabbed by this, we aren’t let go – maybe only the grip is loosened for a bit, but most of us are pulled back. “Every time I think I’m out…”
For an overall answer as to “Why I Do This?”, If you don’t get it when you look at these images, I don’t know if this hobby is something you’ll want to pursue. These were all taken over the first eight months of my learning. In comparison to an advanced imager’s works, they are crap. But they’re mine, and I’m progressing every time out.
If you like these, and you have some patience. You can do it too. You just point up and click, right?
Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA
Helpful links if you’re having trouble:
AstroBackyard.com is a great resource for beginners. The page can be tough to navigate, but Trevor’s bread and butter are his well-produced and clearly explained videos and tutorials on his YouTube channel. Check them both out.
To avoid a contradiction to some of my other posts, the difficulties referenced here relate to the use of a telescope, camera and guider, rather than wide-field lens imaging talked about in some of the beginning posts, which is much more forgiving.