Search the Night Sky from your Backyard

IN THIS ISSUE DECEMBER 2009

Amateur Astrophotography
Author: Danielle Graham
Photographer: Michael A. Covington (www.dslrbook.com)

When the sun sets in the western horizon and the last twinkling of light fades into austere darkness, they appear en masse: planets . . . stars . . . constellations . . . as far as the eye can see, set against midnight black. Beyond question, the sight is mesmerizing and stunningly beautiful.

There are those of us who are inspired to engage those jeweled lights in serious scientific study and become the professionals who are paid to bring new knowledge forward into our collective awareness. The rest of us are known humbly as “amateur astronomers,” but whether or not star gazing evolves into a career choice or remains a compelling hobby, the vault of heaven is omnipresent. It calls to an inner connection that ties us to our ancestors since before contemporary recorded history.

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Amateur Astrophotography

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
on October 13, 2006.

This is a stack of several exposures
taken with a digital SLR camera and
300-mm lens.

There are times that we appreciate the whole of the evening sky in its totality; other times, we might be attracted to specific stars or groups of stars, known as “asterisms,” that lie within the greater bodies. Perhaps we have a penchant for looking into the northern sky for the “big dipper” that forms part of the Ursa Major, Latin for “great bear.” Or perhaps we look into the direction of the equatorial constellations for those three stars known as the “belt of Orion,” part of a greater asterism commonly known as “the hunter.” Wherever our attention rests, from the grandiose expanse to a single bright light, we stare into the night with wonder.

Film image of southern Orion on December 15, 2006.
Two 10-minute exposure with Nikon 180/2.8 lens at
f/2.8 and one at f/4, Nikon F3 body.
Scanned with Nikon Coolscan III, stacked, and
processed with Photoshop.
Taken about 2 miles south of Danielsville, Georgia.

As telescopes and photographic equipment have become inexpensive and readily available, more and more “amateurs” have begun to artistically photograph the night skies. Surprisingly, these photographs often compare in quality to those generated by the professionals who utilize technology that is far out of reach for those not involved in serious astronomical research. Of course, ground based astrophotography is incapable of capturing the ultra deep field galaxies that the Hubble telescope is famous for, but the depth of field attainable to anyone today would have been the envy of astronomers only a few decades ago. Undoubtedly, technological advancements have made it possible for anyone with the desire to capture the glory of the evening skyscapes to do so.

Amateur Astrophotography

Rosette Nebula
Canon 40D (unmodified), Canon 300/4 ED (non-IS)
lens at f/4, stack of eight 6-minute exposures at ISO
800, corrected with dark frames and flats.
Taken at the Deerlick Astronomy Village near
Sharon, Georgia.

Astrophotography is a popular hobby and there exists volumes of available information on the subject. At the very least, a camera, tripod and a cable release for shutter activation to prevent the camera from wobbling are required. For those people interested in shooting stars with “old school” film, the exposure of light on the film must be under one minute and thus requires the use of “fast film” – at least ISO 400 speed or higher and the faster the film (800, 1600 or even 3200), the grainier the image. Subsequently, balance between the clarity of exposure and the clarity of the photo becomes the artist’s challenge.

Amateur Astrophotography

However, with rapid technological progress coupled with decreasing costs of digital cameras, most people have moved to DSLR photography. For the absolute beginner who requires basic information about how to start, professional sports photographer Jerry Lodriguss offers an excellent overview on his website, www.astropix.com. He provides instruction on photographing twilight, moon, planets and constellations with a stationary camera as well as galaxies and nebulae by adding a telescope.

Amateur Astrophotography

For those who advance and want to add the capacity to remotely control their telescope/camera combinations from the comfort of their homes, Andy Raiford of www.andysshotglass.com is on a mission to provide information for amateur astronomers on a budget to get the most out of the equipment they can afford. Raiford finds the viewing and photographing of the universe addicting and his light-hearted approach to helping the midexperienced photographer is both informative and endearing.

Advanced photographers ready to take on the challenges of highquality publishable photos that are virtually indistinguishable from those created by NASA and other research-based sources turn to Dr. Michael A. Covington, a professor of linguistics at the University of Georgia. He has been photographing the stars since he was twelve. Growing up in a small rural town, he felt connected to the rest of the world by looking up and seeing the sky and was drawn to the natural beauty as well as the technical challenges of identifying and photographing the night sky objects. Intuitively, he understood that the sky he peered into was the same as previous astronomers and sky watchers – all the way back to prehistoric times.

Amateur Astrophotography

Film image of North America Nebula (NGC 7000) on September 17, 2003.
15-minute exposure on Ektachrome E100GX film.
Nikon 180/2.8 lens at f/2.8 on Nikon F3 body.
Scanned with Nikon Coolscan III, stacked, and processed with Photoshop.
Taken about 2 miles south of Danielsville, Georgia.

Dr. Covington is the author of four books for the advanced astrophotographer and has generously allowed SuperConsciousness Magazine to print his excellent photographs.

Amateur Astrophotography

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