Adventures in Astrophotography

Maybe more so than my photo-nerdery I am a space & astronomy nerd. In fact, it was my desire to "get into astrophotography" that kickstarted my subsequent love of photography... a holiday to Hawaii & a trip to the best astronomy location in the world half way up a volcano was not a photo-op I wanted to miss and promoted my plunge headfirst into photography.

My first ever astro image, the Milky Way taken from Mauna Kea in Hawaii - best place in the world for astronomy!

My first ever astro image, the Milky Way taken from Mauna Kea in Hawaii - best place in the world for astronomy!

The problem has always been that London, and later Singapore, are pretty much the nadir when it comes to light pollution making meaningful observations hard and photography even harder!

Still, my desire to shoot the stars has persisted over the years and recently I've invested in new gear to help me out. Light pollution is still a huge burden & obstacle but a long weekend in Pembrokeshire gave me the opportunity to flex my astro-muscles for the first time in ages!

The new kit I was so excited to try is the Sky Watcher Star Adventurer.  This is a compact motorised equatorial tracking mount designed specifically for DSLRs and smaller telescopes.  In other words, its a motorised mount which, when aligned correctly, tracks the motion of the stars & planets as the Earth rotates. Eventually I plan to give a full review of this but for now I'll just touch on some of its features I've used so far.

Another piece of gear I've been desperate to unleash on the night sky is the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 - my newest and fastest ever piece of glass. Fast and wide lend themselves perfectly to DSLR astrophotography and its a gorgeous lens to use.  My final bit of kit was the Tamron 150-600 to try and get some close ups of planets or deep sky objects like nebulae.  All set, I made the 5 and a half hour trek to South Wales.  It's a busy sky right now with plenty to photograph - Venus is in a great spot until March, Jupiter is always worth a look and there are two comets currently on closest approach to Earth.  Couple this with the usual targets like the Orion nebula and the Andromeda galaxy and I was wondering if the night would be long enough.

 

The plan was simple in concept but altogether more tricky in execution.

 

  • Go outside in the middle of nowhere and marvel at pristine dark sky
  • Mount Star Adventurer to tripod
  • Align motor drive to north celestial pole
  • Attach camera to motor drive
  • Point camera at what I want to shoot
  • Engage motor drive
  • Deliver glorious, Hubble Space Telescope-beating astroimagery!

The actual experience was great fun in a very unusual sort of way but looked more like this...

  • Go outside in the freezing cold of South Wales in winter without gloves wearing your wife's sparkly diamante wool hat (thankfully I found my own eventually)
  • Immediately howl at the full moon for ruining your pristine dark sky. Damn you, nature's light pollution!
  • Nearly fall over in a field full of of cow shit and pot-holes
  • Mount Star Adventurer to tripod
  • Wonder why you can't find your tripod's x-axis rotation lock to stop it constantly rotating
  • Align motor drive to north celestial pole
  • Nudge tripod slightly, requiring a repeat of alignment step
  • Swear at the full moon again while secretly admitting the extra light is useful when setting up
  • Attach camera to ball-head mount, ball head mount to camera
  • Realise that your mounts weren't locked in place tightly enough and your entire setup has shifted again
  • Repeat re-alignment step about two dozen times because of accidental nudges
  • Give up on motor drive, mount camera direct to tripod and finally start shooting 2-hrs later
  • Rage one final time at the full moon for ruining any chance of shooting the Milky Way
  • Clamber your way out of cow field, smelling faintly of cow, tired but quite happy at having been out shooting
This was taken in the middle of the night, in winter.  Damn you full moon!

This was taken in the middle of the night, in winter.  Damn you full moon!

Admittedly my first experience of the Star Adventurer was a wash-out, partly because of my inexperience, partly because of poor technique and partly because of the full moon but the actual act of being out in the middle of nowhere, taking photos and just enjoying a clear, cold, starry night was brilliant. I've shared a couple of photos - none of these are any good, they are just really to give you an idea what I got up to. The shot of the farmhouse in particular shows you how much light the full moon was throwing out, you could be forgiven for thinking I was shooting during the day. I was pretty impressed with my photo of the Orion Nebula & even though the ISO is vertigo-inducingly high it shows what my kit will be capable of once I've improve my technique. Finally, I've been able to not only locate Andromeda in the night sky but also get a photo showing it as a fuzzy blob. It was amazing to see it so clearly though, normally in London-skies it's much fainter because of the light pollution. Sadly I didn’t get a photo of either of the comets.

Another shot taken in the middle of the night

Another shot taken in the middle of the night

The Orion Nebula shot at 600mm and ISO 25600 after colossal noise reduction

The Orion Nebula shot at 600mm and ISO 25600 after colossal noise reduction

The other nights in Wales were too cloudy to go out although I did explore other potential shooting locations. The plan is to master the correct setup & technique first then shoot some long exposure wide-angle images with beautiful foregrounds. I now have a shortlist of places I intend to go back to.

Back home, I began practicing again...

The light pollution pretty much ruins this image at first glance (although much can be saved in post-processing).  However, this is a 30 second exposure with a 100mm lens and as you can see there are no star trails! This shows how you can get long exposures without trails using the tracking mount.

The light pollution pretty much ruins this image at first glance (although much can be saved in post-processing).  However, this is a 30 second exposure with a 100mm lens and as you can see there are no star trails! This shows how you can get long exposures without trails using the tracking mount.

The fuzzy blob at bottom left is the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighbour, shot through light pollution & some tree branches.

The same galaxy as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope - personally I think it feels too blue & cold, lacking the warmth of a detail-destroying orange tinge.

The same galaxy as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope - personally I think it feels too blue & cold, lacking the warmth of a detail-destroying orange tinge.

I know that many of you will be looking at the standard of these images and wondering why I bother. You could also probably argue that because the night sky is effectively fixed I'm just shooting what everyone else has done better than me already without adding anything of my own creativity. It's almost like the cliché of photographers shooting graffiti, sculptures or paintings - it can be hard to impart your own unique influence on the end results. Camera clubs would no doubt dismiss it as "just record photography"! For me though, it's an indulgence pure and simple. I like the challenge of shooting, be it setting up the gear or striving for decent results. When I get images I like I'm thrilled because it has been genuinely hard graft to get there. But the technical side is far from the main draw, and this is where I loop back around to my astro-nerdery. I just love astronomy and combining it with taking photos is even more fun.

So what's next?  I'm off to Cornwall soon and having practiced extensively in my back garden I'm confident I can now quickly & easily calibrate my tracker. I've fixed some issues with my tripod so I can now position/reposition easily but without constantly screwing the polar alignment. I've even managed to mount & shoot my biggest lens at 600mm for 10 seconds with minimal star trailing and my confidence is at a high :) Although it will be a half-moon while I'm away and there's no guarantee of clear skies, I'm seriously excited about the prospect of gorgeous Cornish coastline with the Milky Way arching above it.

Considering that I've been having a "motivation blip" in my photography recently, this excitement I have in the prospect of getting out there to take photographs is a seriously welcome feeling!