Fast forward to October of 2019, I moved to southwest Florida. I spent much of the first year of our residency chasing after beautiful "beachy" landscapes, abundant wildlife (read Egrets, Herons, Gators, Ibis, Pelicans etc.). Fast forward again to October 2020. We're in the midst of a 100 year pandemic dealing with Covid 19.
I GOT A SKY TRACKER
My 65th birthday was approaching and my wife asked me if there was something special I might like. I told her a Star Adventurer sky tracker. Essentially a device you attach to your tripod, camera goes on top and it moves with the rotation of the sky so you can take longer photos of the stars! I'd always wanted a sky tracker and even though we now lived in a more light polluted area I thought I would get some good use out of it.
I JOINED AN ASTRO FACEBOOK GROUP
I had recently joined the Astrophotography for Beginners Facebook group. There were as many beginners there as there were seasoned vets and pros. The thing I REALLY like about this group is that there were loads of newbies like myself who were using similar equipment trying to get the same objects photographed. It was a great way to copy off their paper! The other thing I like is there are great pros who are usually very willing to answer questions and ALWAYS have great images that inspire me to keep working.
I JOINED MY LOCAL ASTRONOMY SOCIETY
One of the pieces of advice I received from the FB group was to join my local astronomy club. There was one about 30 miles from my house (and were were under Covid quarantine) so they were meeting on Zoom. I joined the Southwest Florida Astronomical Society for the affordable price of $25
I spent several weeks learning how to to set polar alignment, a crucial step to proper tracking of the celestial body. As I was learning this, the closest conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occured (on Dec. 21, 2020). So, of course I photographed that!
I should mention that I've found that shooting multiples of (non-tracked) astro photos lends itself to some great opportunities for time-lapse and layered photo blending.
I GO OUT SHOOTING
Now it's January in Florida! Perfect! Nice, long, mild nights, lower humidity and Bortle Class 4 skies in the area I'd been doing time-lapse and landscape work in. I decided it was time to start working the Star Adventurer. Now of course you have to know me to believe this but my first goal out of the gate was M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. "Yeah, that's an EASY one, I thought." Picturing myself coming home with an image(s) like the one to the right (NASA Hubble). Well, there's one problem with that approach. M31, The Andromeda Galaxy is approximately 2.5 million light years from Earth (and the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way). It's our neighbor, right? Should be easy to shoot!
I should mention (to readers who don't know me) that I'm 6'4" tall. My tripod is one of the best, but even with the Star Adventurer (the SA from now on) I had to do some serious crouching to see through the viewer of my Sony A7riii mirrorless camera. I had a 100-400mm lens on it. And, in mid January M31 is located HIGH in the western sky. I could see it in my star app on my iphone, but zooming in was an issue. I quickly discovered I didn't know what I didn't know about finding these rare gems in the sky. So, I decided to abort that mission for the time being and shoot something more achievable and not so high in the sky, Orion!
In the three images above you see the setting from which I was shooting. Babcock Webb wildlife mgmt area is a Bortle class 4 area about a dozen miles from my home. I'm facing east in early January. The lower left image shows the inset area (with another inset). You can see the three (recognizable) stars of Orion (the Hunter). The constellation Orion contains two of the ten brightest stars in the sky – Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) – a number of famous nebulae – the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), De Mairan’s Nebula (Messier 43) and the Horsehead Nebula, among others – the well-known Trapezium Cluster, and one of the most prominent asterisms in the night sky – Orion’s Belt.
My target was now M42, the Orion Nebula. Here's info on the Messier Catalog. I accidentally saw it in my viewfinder as I was doing test shots. Again, at this moment, I fully admit that I'm not an "eagle-eyed" star spotter. I knew of Orion, but not the intimate details of what it contained.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE ORION NEBULA
I had seen images of this on Facebook and recognized it in my camera's viewfinder and decided to give it a go! I repointed my lens and zoomed in a bit. Using a Sony A7riii full-framed camera and a Sony 100-400mm lens. I took 58 x 1sec shots (f4.5) at ISO 3200. I then took 39 Darks and 67 Bias calibration frames. More on that later.
I STILL HAVE MORE SHOOTING TO DO
True astro processing is done by shooting MANY, MANY images and then combining them in software to reduce ISO noise, camera sensor imprint patterns, and white balance. To get a have the chance at a nice astro image you need four types of images:
- Original images called "Lights"
- "Dark" image (these are shot in the field at the same settings [ISO, focal length, f stop, shutter speed]. You shoot your Dark images right after your Lights.
- Bias images. Again, shot just like the Darks, but using your highest shutter speed. This helps determine your cameras sensor's imprint pattern.
- Flat images. These are used to help determine the White Balance of the image. How to do these is up to a lot of discussion but I've been doing it by shooting through a white t shirt at a blue sky. I'll do another post on this.
So, bottom line is that I had to shoot my Flats before I could start post processing.
I START POST PROCESSING
As a seasoned photographer & teacher of Photoshop & Lightroom I'm very experienced in post processing of digital photo images. Astro processing was a totally different animal. Previously I had purchased a copy of Starry Sky Stacker, a MAC product. It came bundled with another product and cost me about $40. The Starry Sky Stacker does not use Bias images and seemed to be "a bit less intricate" to learn (and I had used it a few times before), so I started with that.
THE STARRY SKY STACKER
Up until 2019, the only reason I had to "stack" photos was to stack them for purposes of increasing depth of field for macro or detailed landscapes. The image to the left was my first attempt at "star stacking". I was impressed with how it turned out, how it brought out the brightness of the stars and reduced the "noise" in the hi (6400) ISO image. The ISO setting on a camera is what determines the sensitivity of the sensor to light.
Using the Starry Sky Stacker tutorial on their website I converted the "Darks" and the "Flats" to master files, so I only had to use one in the final stack.
For your "Lights" (the photos of the subject), you have to convert the RAW photo to a Tiff file format. (A RAW file is simply a digital image file that is stored on your camera or smartphones memory card. It is minimally processed and is usually uncompressed. Every camera manufacturer has their own RAW file format, for example Canon RAW files are .CR2 or .CR3, whilst Nikon are .NEF.). Serious photographers only shoot in RAW format. Once the Lights were converted to Tiff file format I I was ready to stack the whole bundle, all 60 files (58 Lights plus one Dark master and one Flat master). The software walked me through the process (Easy Peasy) and in about 10 minutes of processing I had the image on the top below.
ASTRO PIXEL PROCESSOR
Feeling pretty cocky, I then decided to dip a toe in the water of "big league" astro processing. I downloaded a free trial of Astro Pixel Processor. It was easy to download and I immediately received an email with a trial license. Full time or yearly licenses can also be purchased. I then Googled some YouTube videos on how to use the software and found a great tutorial done by a young man in Germany (who looked to be about 15). I'm here to tell you, this kid knew his stuff! I played the video through and through for most of the day. The actual processing time was probably a couple of hours. A MUCH more detailed and thorough integration processing than the Starry Sky Stacker. And, as you can see, the end result was much sharper, clearer, brighter, better detail of the nebula. Simply a MUCH better image, worth the time investment.
Ok, if you've made it this far reading my experience I sincerely appreciate it! If you're not a follower, please join the email list, I likt to document my experiences in photography as a means of helping myself and others. Also, if you have any questions, please feel free to use the email form below to contact me.