By Mike Lynch
To this day I absolutely love visual astronomy, using all types and sizes of telescopes to gaze at the celestial treats above. I’ve spent many wonderful hours and have seen many wonderful things, and after nearly 50 years of amateur astronomy it’s still as much fun for me as it was when I was in my early teens. It’s a real kick.
While my first love is still visual astronomy, within the last decade I’ve been making more and more inroads into astrophotography thanks to digital cameras. They make it so much easier. In the old days (about 20 years ago) all we had were film cameras. Astrophotography was certainly possible, but it was much more laborious, expensive and painstaking. Among many other limitations, you had no idea how good or bad your shot was until you developed the pictures, and more than likely you had to pay somebody else to do that for you. After experimenting with film astrophotography yours truly, along with so many others, came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t worth the time and expense.
Then digital photography came along and changed everything. Gone were the days of buying and developing film. You could see right away what you were doing right or wrong, and you had more control as to how you captured your heavenly pictures.
As good as you can see with your naked eyes or through your telescope, visual astronomy has limitations, especially when it comes to seeing fainter detail and seeing color. I’m not knocking our eyes, nor am I knocking your telescope. Both are extremely efficient at gathering light. The problem is that our eyes, with or without optical aid, can only gather and accumulate so much at once before the image is passed on to the memory files in our brain. A camera, though, can accumulate and store more light which can bring out a lot more faint detail and color to whatever you’re shooting in the sky. In all honesty, one of the biggest disappointments people have when they buy a telescope and look through it is that they don’t see the same detail and color that is seen in astronomical photographs. Again, it’s not your telescope. It’s the inability of your eyes to accumulate light the same way a camera does.
One of the simplest forms of astrophotography with a telescope is to take any digital camera, even a camera on a cell phone, and hold it up to your telescope and hit the shutter button. You can really get some amazing photos, especially with brighter celestial objects like the moon, planets, or bright deep sky objects like the Orion nebula or the great Hercules cluster.
Forget about trying to get a selfie with your favorite celestial object. It’s hard enough just to be able to hold your camera steady enough to see your image on the viewfinder or screen before you shoot. If you hook a tripod on to your camera it can help, but it will still be a bit of a challenge. If you’re using a your cell phone a tripod won’t work, but a really handy tool that’s come out in the last few years is a platform attached to the eyepiece of your telescope that steadily holds the lens of your smart phone camera in place. That makes it a heck of a lot easier. I think the best one around that really works well is made by Orion Telescopes and it’s called the Orion SteadyPix Universal Telescope Photo Adaptor for Smartphones. Check it out at www.telescopes.com. By the way, one of the best smartphone cameras in my book are on the newer Samsung Galaxy phone (appropriately named don’t you think?) In many cases you’ll be amazed at the quality of photos you can get even at this beginning level.
To make your astrophotos even better though, you’ll have to spend a lot more money . You’ll need to get a more sophisticated camera like a DSLR or an astronomical CCD camera. They can gather more light more efficiently. You’ll also need to take pictures with longer exposure times, from at least 30 seconds to several minutes. That’s extremely tricky to do properly, though, because of the Earth’s rotation.
No astronomical target stays still in the sky, so unless your telescope can keep up with the Earth’s rotation and with your target in a precise manner you’re going to see smudgy streaks instead of stars. That means you will need a more expensive sophisticated scope that will track stars across the sky. Taking longer exposure photos is the most difficult aspect of astronomical photography in my opinion, and one that can darn near make you pull your hair out and just give up. That’s where extreme patience comes into play. As you can see in the picture the photographic telescope-camera system I have is pretty complicated, but with a lot of hard work and practice you too can get some really cool pictures like the ones I have here of the Orion nebula and the Pleiades star cluster.
Astronomical photography is also a little easier with computer software that makes shooting and processing much easier than it was. In just the next few years technology will improve more and more, and I can see the day when most telescopes will have easy to use photographic capabilities. In the meantime, if you want to get into this more serious astrophotography, be prepared to make fairly sizable investments of time and money.
Many astronomy outlets around the county can help you get started and get you deeper into the realm of astrophotography. I think one of the best places is Starizona in Tucson, Arizona. Dean Koenig, the owner of Starizona, developed a special adaptive lens they call Hyperstar. In my opinion this is a tremendous advancement. The faster you can “suck in” light to your telescope and astronomical camera the better, and the Hyperstar is supersonic in its ability to gather in the photons. Even the International Space Station is equipped with a Hyperstar lens on one of its telescopes, taking incredibly high-resolution photos of targets back down on our beautiful Earth. If you’re really serious about astrophotography my strong advice is to contact Starizona through their website and find out more about the Hyperstar lens. They’ve helped me and many other people nationwide. Their website is starizona.com, where they also have great tutorials on more advanced astrophotograpy.
There are many books and resources to help you learn more about astronomical photography. Again, check out the Starizona website that I mentioned. Another good resource is a CD-ROM by world famous astrophotographer Jerry Lodriguss, titled “A Guide to Astrophotography with Digital SLR Cameras.” You can find it on Amazon.com.
Give at least basic astrophotography like this a try and see how you like it, and maybe boldly go a little deeper into space. I have to warn you from experience that you can really get hooked on it. Also remember patience, patience, and more patience. Don’t take it so seriously that it takes the fun out of it. When things don’t go well …lighten up and try again.
Capture the light — but be patient.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist.