One Small Step in Astrophotography

Last Christmas, my wife bought me a telescope, which proves she loves me. She also bought all of the accessories to attach my camera to said telescope, which proves I definitely married the right girl.

Since Christmas I’ve been itching to get out and try playing with it. I managed a brief foray in early January, but got as far as looking at the Moon before the clouds rolled in and ruined any chance of me getting any images. For the most part, the weather in the UK has been pretty terrible for stargazing so far this year, it’s been unaccountably cold, often rainy and mostly cloudy. The last couple of days have been tantalisingly clearer, however – yesterday was a bit misty, and the day before was brilliantly clear until I thought to get my telescope out, at which point the clouds rolled in again, as they are apparently wont to do.

Tonight, however, is a completely clear night, with a partial moon lighting the way and a decent number of stars visible, even in my location a few miles from the illuminated centre of London. A night, basically, that I’ve been waiting for. Even better, unlike the first time, I could set up out the back of my flat rather than out the front (in the car park of all places), where I felt a bit more exposed and disinclined to experiment.

So, I set up my tripod in what passes for my back garden, and started with aiming for something big and hard to miss.

1/50sec, ISO 500
1/50sec, ISO 500

Unlike my last attempt at shooting the Moon, in which I cropped the image down to about four megapixels, the image above is entirely uncropped. My telescope is roughly the equivalent of a 1000mm lens, allowing the Moon – a lump of rock a thousand miles wide a quarter of a million miles away – to fill the sensor. The tricky part is the focus is entirely manual, and at that level of zoom even looking at the scope was enough to cause a ridiculous amount of shake blur. I used my camera’s LiveView mode on magnify to do my best with getting a clean focus – but the image above could definitely be sharper.

I wasn’t about to stop there, of course. At night one of the brightest things in the sky is not a star, but Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. After a bit of fiddling about I was able to get my telescope aligned with the gas giant for a closer look.

Jupiter, of course, is a bit further away than the Moon – it’s between 600 million and 900 million kilometres away, depending on the time of year – so it didn’t fill the screen quite as much.

1/20sec, ISO 640
1/20sec, ISO 640

If you click the image above to see the fuller resolution version, you can just about make out what is perhaps the most incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen: the Galilean Moons.

Obviously, I was going to have to break out the cropamajigger to get a closer look.

1/100sec, ISO 400
1/100sec, ISO 400

I was constantly playing about with the exposure settings trying to capture the best shot of the planet, and getting the balance between its familiar surface or its visible moons – all four of the Galilean Moons were visible – proved to be tricky, especially whilst struggling to attain a sharp focus.

This next wide shot got the exposure of the planet a bit better, but the moons are sadly lost.

1/80sec, ISO 320
1/80sec, ISO 320

The other thing that amazed me was how quickly the planet moved out of the frame. The little ball of rock we live on turns relatively quickly, even though we don’t notice it that often, and it made keeping up with Jupiter a bit of a challenge. I really need to learn how to use the equatorial mount on my telescope better, as it should help a bit.

This final image is to me one of the most amazing images I’ve taken. But that’s just me. I cropped the image as much as I dared – down to a single megapixel – and in this shot (if you click on it to view the larger version) you can see a decent image of the planet Jupiter, and three of the Galilean Moons.

1/100sec, ISO 400
1/100sec, ISO 400

It was a genuinely moving experience for me, seeing Jupiter and its larger companions like that. I’ve always held a fascination for the infinite majesty of space, and this is the first time I’ve seen the moons of another planet with my own eyes. It was even enough to tempt my wife out into the cold for a closer look, and even though she fell on her arse and hurt her knee in the process, she agrees it was worth it.

This is my first step into deeper sky astrophotography. It’s my firm intention to travel to areas of less light pollution this year and capture a nebula – and there’s also a comet on its way which should make for some incredible viewing next winter. This is only the beginning.

4 Comments

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  1. Nice pics!! 😀 Very interesting read too!

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  2. Always amazed at how you are able to get into every facet of photography. I once got 10 exposures of a lunar eclipse on a single frame of 6×7 film, arcing beautifully across the image. If only I had take the dark slide out….

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