100 Days Until Totality! 50 Days Left – Photography Part 3: To Get the Shot with the Grand Teton

100 Days Until Totality! 50 Days Left – Photography Part 3: To Get the Shot with the Grand Teton

Want to capture the eclipse and the Grand Teton in the same frame? It’s going to be tough, considering the Sun will be at an elevation of 50° above the horizon. With a wide enough angle lens, there are a few spots you can capture the Grand Teton in the same frame as the eclipse. One of the spots is at Lake Solitude. The hike to the lake is arduous, being 8 miles one way with 2,982 feet of vertical gain. However, it will be worth the effort if you have the endurance! With practice and precision, it’s possible to get the Grand, the eclipse, and a reflection of the eclipse in Lake Solitude. For more information about this hike, or to read about the other hikes in Grand Teton National Park that you can take to get the Grand and the eclipse in the same shot, visit our store to purchase Aaron Linsdau’s “Jackson Hole Total Eclipse Guide”.

100 Days Until Totality! 51 Days Left – Photography Part 2: Technical Information

Credit: Mr. Eclipse http://mreclipse.com/SEphoto/SEphoto.html

Photographing an eclipse can be a tricky task. The brightness of the event requires careful choice of exposure times and a special solar filter to protect your camera from damage. If you are lucky enough to be experiencing totality you will be able to capture a picture of the Sun’s corona. The corona is very dim and will not be seen with the solar filter on, so make sure to take it off once totality begins. To the right is a table of suggested exposure times from retired astrophysicist Fred Espenak otherwise known as “Mr. Eclipse”.

Astrophotography Target: The Andromeda Galaxy

We’re kicking off a fun new monthly series of blog posts here on Wyoming Stargazing. This will be a monthly challenge to hone your astrophotography skills on a different deep-space target each month.

How to Find the Andromeda Galaxy

This month’s astrophotography target is the Andromeda Galaxy. Our nearest galactic neighbor can be found by looking north-northeast toward the constellation of Cassiopeia. At this time of year, after sunset, Cassiopeia is to the east of Polaris, the north star. It makes the distinct shape of an awkward looking ‘3’. Down from Cassiopeia and more eastward is the constellation of Andromeda. Three bright stars will form her bottom leg: Almaak (the foot); Mirach in the middle; and Alpheratz at the waist. From Mirach, you can jump up to her next leg at a fainter star. Then, hop up one more yet fainter star. To the right of the last star will be the Andromeda Galaxy, appearing to the naked eye as a fuzzy blob. If you look back at Cassiopeia, you’ll see the top three stars form an arrow that point directly to the galaxy.

Use whatever means you can to try to catch a shot of it: telescopes; astrophotography trackers; even just a camera on a tripod. When you have something you’re happy with us, share it with us on Twitter or Facebook and we’ll share the entries!

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest galactic neighbor and is 2.2 million light years away. It is bigger than our own Milky Way Galaxy and is often seen with a much smaller "companion" galaxy.

Orion and Comet Lovejoy by Mike Cavaroc Gets APOD

I recently took this photo of Orion and Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 in the night sky and shortly thereafter, was awarded Astronomy Photo Of the Day (APOD) run by NASA! Out of millions of photos submitted from around the world, this one was chosen and published relatively quickly, I’m assuming due to its timeliness. See the original post here: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150114.html

I took the image on the first clear night we had had in Jackson Hole in weeks. I was trying to get a close-up shot of the comet when I noticed its proximity to Orion. I zoomed out and noticed that the composition made it look like Orion was shooting Comet Lovejoy from his bow (his more widely-accepted shield had been put down temporarily for the sake of this photo). I began capturing many more images to stack together to create this image.

Visible in the image are nearly all of Orion’s wonders, including the Orion Nebula, Barnard’s Loop, the Horsehead Nebula, the Flame Nebula, and even the Rosette Nebula to the left, part of the Monoceros constellation.

Interested in learning how to capture an image like this? Read our Astrophotography on a Budget blog post to find out how!

How to Find Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

If you’re looking for a New Year’s miracle in astronomy, Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) is about the closest thing to it. Discovered back in August, the comet was never supposed to achieve naked-eye visibility, but it already has! It will continue to brighten when it’s expected to peak some time around January 7th where it will be near Rigel and the Orion constellation. As of this writing, it’s currently on its way out of Lepus and heading higher and higher into the night sky.

Sky And Telescope Lovejoy Map

Moonlight will distract from getting a perfectly clear viewing through early January as we reach a full moon on January 4th, but the moon will start setting later and later after that, making the second week in January ideal for watching the comet. Don’t get too discouraged now though! With a pair of binoculars aimed in the right direction, the comet can be easily found and viewed, and since it’s growing in brightness, it will get even easier to spot with the naked eye.

The comet was named after Terry Lovejoy from Australia who has found several comets in recent years. It was 4,000 dimmer than it is now when he first discovered it and its rotation around our sun takes roughly 11,500 years! Due to the planets’ effects on the comet, it’s expected to return in roughly 8,000 years.

Check out the great printable map from Sky & Telescope on the right to see exactly where to look. For more detail and information on the comet, you can also read their article on Comet Lovejoy.

Astrophotography on a Budget

Astrophotography can seem like a daunting hobby to jump into. Indeed, there are definitely learning curves to overcome, but if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing, our astronomers are always happy to help you along in your goal to capture some deep sky objects with your camera. To help you get started, I’ve written up a simple guide to help you get going!

The Camera (of course!)

Naturally, the first thing you’ll need is a camera to photograph the night sky with. Though many options exist, we’re going to stick to the more budget-minded route since that’s where most people will be coming from. The most accessible option would be to get a DSLR camera, such as a Canon Rebel. Under normal, daylight circumstances, both Canon and Nikon reign supreme in the field of photography. With deep space photography, however, Canon has embraced the market much more noticeably than their competitors. This is primarily because Canon sells a modified version of their 60D camera called the 60Da. What’s the difference? (Besides the ‘a’?) Every camera comes with a filter that covers the sensor that makes the sensor more sensitive to visible light. The 60Da comes with a modified filter that is able to "see" more light than the standard filter (or your eyes), specifically Hydrogen-alpha particles. Hydrogen-alpha particles are important to astrophotography because they make up a significant amount of matter in many deep space objects. If you already own a camera in the Canon line, you can have that custom modified to have that filter replace the standard filter since the process is relatively simple and routine (though very tedious). Keep in mind though that this will void any warranty on the camera.

For my own astrophotography, I bought a used Canon Rebel T4i and sent it off to Hap Griffin to have him do the modification. He’s done hundreds of modifications and only charges a small fee added onto the cost of the filter. Given what’s involved with the modification, I found it well worth the price.

Of course this could be enough to get you started with some wide shots of the Milky Way Galaxy, for example, but to really zoom in and get some deep space objects, you’ll need a way of moving your camera with the stars. You’ll discover soon enough that the stars move much quicker than you think, and getting a crisp shot zoomed in on an object simply won’t work with your camera fixed on a tripod.

To remedy this, three solutions are available to allow your camera to actually pan with the stars, giving you the opportunity to take as many shots as you need of any visible object in the night sky.

Vixen Polarie

Vixen Polarie

For those with a limited budget, the Vixen Polarie is a great option that will mount on top of a tripod. Your camera then attaches to the device which keeps it turning against Earth’s rotation so your camera stays fixed on the stars.

A couple of key specifications to keep in mind: it will only allow up to seven pounds of weight, so mounting heavier lenses probably won’t be a good idea for this particular unit. The Vixen Polarie will shine however, with lighter, prime lenses.

The battery life is also an important item to keep in mind. At near room temperature, the Vixen Polarie will last for roughly four hours on two AA batteries. On colder nights, that time will drop of course, not leaving you too much time to capture fainter objects.

For more information about the Vixen Polarie, visit their website here.

iOptron Skytracker

iOptron Skytracker

For those willing to spend just a bit more than the Vixen Polarie, the iOptron Skytracker is well worth the extra money. The setup and operation is roughly the same as the Polarie, mounting onto a tripod, but the iOptron Skytracker supports 7.7 pounds and will also last for 24 hours at near room temperature on four AA batteries. Again, that time will drop in colder weather, but in that category, the Skytracker beats the other two options listed here.

This is the unit that I use and have been very pleased with the overall functionality and usability of it.

For more information on the iOptron Skytracker, visit their website here.

AstroTrac

AstroTrac TT320X-AG

The AstroTrac retails for about twice the price of the other two options, but is solidly built, lightweight, and combined with the wedge (sold separately), can support the heaviest of lenses for reaching deeper into space, supporting up to a whopping 33 pounds. Its battery life on eight AA batteries is 10 hours, which isn’t too bad, but you’ll definitely want to look into rechargeable batteries for this device. For the price, its features and functionality are unrivaled. Polar alignment is also significantly easier than both the Polarie and Skytracker, something that can easily take a few nights to really understand.

For more information on the AstroTrac, visit their website here.

Polar Alignment

Each device will have to be polar aligned, that is, aligned with the north star, Polaris. This is to ensure accurate panning and rotating. This step can be a learning curve in itself, and each device handles it slightly differently. The AstroTrac handles the alignment the simplest and smoothest, while the Polarie and Skytracker are a bit more cumbersome, but can still get the job done well enough once the quirks of each system are learned (ie, tightening knobs causing the alignment to shift slightly). In order to successfully align each device, a polar scope or similar tool will be required to hook onto the unit, and each will have instructions on how to correctly align the unit.

Why Prime Lenses

Many people instinctively want to get their best telephoto lens and zoom all the way into an object. After hours and hours of exposures, what they’ll find is that there’s a slight inconsistency found throughout all their photos, ruining the entire night of work. The reason is that as the temperatures begin dropping over night, the temperature changes will cause the lens itself to "creep" slightly throughout the night, changing both the focus and zoom. To avoid this, most people recommend using a prime lens, meaning, the lens itself is only one fixed focal length. A few popular examples are 50mm, 105mm, and 400mm. One trick I’ve found to avoiding this is to also use Canon’s 100-400mm L lens, which is one of the few on the market that can be "locked" to a certain zoom anywhere in its range. This has so far proved to be an effective workaround to the "creeping" which affects other telephoto lenses.

Image Capture and Post-Processing

Deep Sky Stacker

To capture your image, you won’t be taking a single exposure. There would be too much noise to be cleaned up and if your polar alignment is only slightly off, you’ll see trails from all your objects. Instead, the system that works for most people is to take a series of individual shots and "stack" together in a program such as Deep Sky Stacker (discussed below). That way, if a jet or satellite happens to fly through your image, you haven’t lost hours of work.

I’ve often simply set my camera to 30 seconds, which is what most cameras will max out at before going to Bulb exposure where you can specify a longer length. How many exposures you capture is entirely up to you. You can get a nice image with 20 shots, for example, but the more you capture the more information can be brought out in the stacking process. Some people will even capture objects for multiple nights in a row throughout each night. This will give you the most detail and bring out the faintest objects.

Think you’re done once you’ve gotten a bunch of shots? Not quite. This is just one of many learning curves. To counter the noise that will built up in your stacked images, you’ll need a series of what are called Dark Frames. This can be 15 or so images with the camera settings set exactly as your other exposures, but with the lens cap on. In simple terms, this will simply let the post-processing software know what’s noise, and what’s supposed to be in the final image.

As mentioned, Deep Sky Stacker is the preferred image stacker for most amateur and even professional astronomers, and it’s free! There’s a vast amount of features and options, many of which you’ll never click on, but it’s best to give the Frequently Asked Questions a quick overview before jumping right in.

Conclusion

In astrophotography, the word, budget, can be a very relative term. All the gear and techniques listed here though, are the least expensive ways to get in on the fun. If you have any questions, feel free to leave some in the comments, or come out to a free stargazing event where we’ll be happy to answer a couple of questions. If you’d like a more personalized experience, we’re also available to do private astrophotography sessions with you as well.