You’re just taking pictures of the sky, right? How hard can it be to just point the camera up and click a button? Maybe set a timer. People generally aren’t that condescending when they ask me 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 more advanced photographer trying to stabilize a 500mm lens might have a slightly better idea of the difficulties of long exposure photography of a moving object through a telescope. Maybe I can offer a bit of a primer for what I find most challenging, and why I choose to take on the challenge.
This is the big one, and for me with minimal equipment, the most frustrating. We do everything at magnification – some more than others. 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 in the mount destroys an exposure. A slight crosswind, a truck driving by… your exposure is lost. I’ve had some amazing nights with several hours of untainted exposures, but those nights are the exception, not the norm.
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 experienced 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 creep in you can’t even see them with the naked eye and cause fuzzy stars. Sudden wind shifts can make a reflector react like a sail. The fact that we suck at predicting cloud movements can never guarantee a perfectly clear night. The amount of moisture in the upper atmosphere scatters starlight all over the place, and magnifies light pollution. These variables all create a wildly unpredictable night many 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. If the wind is out of the East that night, I know I’ll be throwing away a lot of exposures.
Someone who hasn’t imaged before would 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. With the latest stream of satellites for “global wireless” launching, I expect this to become an increasing problem for imagers.
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 specific filters and 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 haven’t seen much for reviews on that one.
Old Fashion Patience
I can’t get my kids to spend 5 minutes looking at Jupiter, but due to weather conditions, timing, positioning between trees, etc. a single image that I am able to process can take a month to acquire. Sometimes I miss out on an object all together in a given year because of conditions, or just life. And there’s another imager’s not so secret, secret. No image is ever complete. We reprocess 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. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s also a necessity in trying to image object thousands, or even millions of light-years from Earth.
OK, So Why Waste Your Time?
Why put up with all of this frustration? First and foremost, we love space and the amazing unkowns that come with it. I 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. When people ask how we do it, or what we’re imaging, we generally are more than happy to talk about it for longer than they expected! That said, unfortunately not all imagers are so accepting, and there is an aspect of elitism in this hobby. That’s generally around in most hobbies, but I steer clear of those who aren’t so inclusive – in and out of astrophotography. Anyone who wants to should be able to take pictures of space. Even if you’re married, with three busy kids and live just outside a major city.
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, seeing the Milky Way stretch from one horizon to the other. Most of the time, once we’re grabbed by this, we aren’t let go. The grip of astronomy might loosen for a bit when life gets in the way, 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, this hobby isn’t something you’ll want to pursue. If you want to do it right, creating images of space is a consuming passion. These were all taken during the course of my second year of imaging. In comparison to an advanced and more experienced imager’s works, they are crap. But they’re mine, and I’m progressing still every time out after two years.
If you like these, and you have some patience, you can take these. If I can do it, anyone can. You just point up and click, right?
Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA
Helpful links if you’re having trouble:
Dive into Astrophography Tonight!
Imaging in Severe Light Pollution: Part 1 – Unmodified DSLR
Imaging in Severe Light Pollution: Part 2 – Modified DSLR and H-alpha
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.