Starwatch: What you need to know to photograph the stars

October 13, 2018

My first love, as it has been for over 50 years, is still visual astronomy and always will be, but about 10 years ago I added the dimension of astrophotography, mainly thanks to the blossoming of better and better astronomical digital cameras and innovated adapted optics.

As good as you can observe visually through a telescope, visual astronomy has limitations, especially when it comes to seeing fainter detail and seeing color. 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.

Astrophotography is much simpler than it was even 20 years ago. Not all that long ago, astrophotography had to rely on film cameras. That made it much more laborious, expensive, and painstaking.

Among many 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. I tried astrophotography and came to a very rapid conclusion that it just wasn’t worth the time, expense, and heartbreak.

Once digital photography came along, it changed everything. You could see your results right away, saving a lot of time and giving you much more control.

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 such as the Orion nebula or the great Hercules cluster.

In fact, I think smartphone cameras with their flat surfaces are your best bet because it’s so much easier to get the lens of the phone against the eyepiece in your telescope. If you have a protective case on your phone, you may have to take it off so your camera lens can get close enough the lens of the eyepiece. Some cellphones do a better job than others. Personally I really like the quality of the cameras on Samsung Galaxy smartphones.

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 your camera it can help, but it will still be a bit of a challenge.

If you’re using a cellphone a tripod won’t work, but a really handy tool that’s come out in the last few years is a platform that you can attach to the eyepiece of your telescope that steadily holds your smartphone camera in place. That makes it a heck of a lot easier. I think the best one out there for both smartphones or most conventional cameras is the “Orion SteadyPix Pro Universal Camera/Smartphone Mount” from Orion Telescopes. 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 honestly have to spend a lot more money and be willing to invest the time to hone your skills You’ll need to get a more sophisticated camera like a DSLR or an astronomical CCD camera. They can gather 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.

Astrophotography is best done with Schmidt-Cassegrain type of telescope. With their sophisticated electronics they can do better job at tracking stars with greater precision. That’s the type of telescope I use. 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 Horsehead Nebula and Triangulum Galaxy.

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 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, Ariz. Dean Koenig, the owner of Starizona, developed a special adaptive lens called Hyperstar. In my opinion, that has revolutionized digital astrophotography.

With the Hyperstar lens attached interfaced with your astronomical camera and your telescope, you can pull in the light from whatever you’re photographing much, much, much faster into astronomical camera. A total exposure that takes 60 minutes without Hyperstar can be achieved in less than two minutes with Hyperstar.

In my book, using the Hyperstar lens is a no-brainer when it comes to astrophotography. I think 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. They have a great website at starizona.com, where they also have great tutorials on more advanced astrophotograpy.

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.

CELESTIAL HUGGING THIS WEEK: On Sunday and Monday night the new crescent moon will be hanging out next to Saturn in the early evening low southwestern sky. On Wednesday and Thursday evening the first quarter moon will be parked next to Mars in the evening southern sky.

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