Friday, January 31, 2014

My 2-Year Anniversary of Informed Stargazing (Best Photos)

January 28, 2012 was the day I learned that my point and shoot camera has a long exposure mode. This brought the night sky much closer to home, and started me down a path I'd never imagined!

Starting with just a point-and-shoot camera (I didn't even own a tripod), it's amazing to consider how my hobby has grown. Two years later, I own my own DSLR camera, I was given a small refractor from my grandpa, I have two EQ mounts, and a plethora of other accessories and gear. I joined the Indiana Astronomical Society, I attended 3 public stargazing events where I let girl scouts, cub scouts, and other interested community residents look at the moon through my telescope. I attended a number of lectures, and got to tour the Link Observatory. Just this morning I was contacted to have one of my photos published in a book! (More on that later I'm sure).

As I did last year, I decided to post my best / favorite photos from the past year. These are the photos I'm most proud of, either because they represent new technical milestones, remind me of a particularly fun or challenging night, or just because I like them! Links to the original blog posts are included below to read more about the image or the story behind it.

mars mercury
Conjunction of Mars and Mercury: I made a special trip out to the Slippery Elm Trail in the freezing cold just to spot this conjunction. It turned out very sci-fi looking. This image might appear in a book in the near future!

moon stacking
First time using Registax: I remember being blown away by the improvement in sharpness when I learned how to stack moon photos. My workflow, and expectations for quality have never been the same!

Point and Shoot Star Trails: Nothing too fancy with this one, just a stack of photos with my point-and-shoot camera back in Bowling Green. I left the camera out unattended on the back step behind the laundry room. I ended up framing an 8"x10" print of this for my office.

earth shine
Awesome Earthshine: I've photographed Earthshine before, but I stacked this one in Registax to clean up the dark side of the moon for more detail and less noise. I really like this image!

Comet PanSTARRS: I stayed out in the cold for 90 minutes waiting for sunset, scanning to try to find the comet, and staying around until it was very low to the horizon. It had been cloudy and rainy for days on either end of this partially cloudy night, and I'm pumped I decided to go out looking in spite of the less than ideal conditions. What a great comet!

andromeda panstarrs
PanSTARRS Buzzes the Andromeda Galaxy: This image was a lot of fun to make! It combines a conjunction with a comet with deep sky stacking. It not only says a lot about what techniques I've learned over the past 2 years, but it's a rare and cool event that I remember fondly. 

Self Portrait: I took this photo on top of the hill at the Bowling Green golf course. It was a nice quiet spot, a little cold and muddy, but a fun change of pace for my typical locations. I did a series of self-portrait poses, and although it's a little cheesy I think it is a nice snapshot of me doing what I love. 

iphone on tripod
iPhone Gear: This photo reminds me of all the iPhone photography gear I got this year. It is also from the night I made a timelapse video of the moon and Jupiter setting over the BGSU Rec Center pond - which happens to be one of my better videos. 

gray milky way
Milky Way Wonder: This image is from my 3:30am spontaneous trip out to the Slippery Elm Trail to try to see the Milky Way before moving to Indy. It was after I already accepted my new job but before the move. I didn't realize how great the sky looked just a few minutes outside of Bowling Green. I wish I had gone more often, but at least I got a few good shots. 

bird and moon
Bird Silhouette: I love this photo! I have always liked the dead tree across the street from my apartment in Brownsburg, so when I saw about 50 birds in the tree at dusk I ran across the street to get a few shots. It turned out better than I planned. I also have this print framed in my office!

free moon phases photo
Moonsterpiece Moon Phase Composite: It took me from February to June to collect these moon phases, and I had to go out at all hours of the night. I'm very proud of this collection, but now that I have a better camera I feel like I should do it all over again! I like that they're not all the same color, it shows more variety in the moon's appearance. 

yoda puppet
The Original Yoda Puppet: Chris and I went to the Star Wars exhibit at the Indiana State Museum, and I liked it so much I went back with my sister a few weeks later. My favorite piece in the exhibit was the original Yoda puppet! So cool! I know this isn't night sky related, but it's nerdy enough to qualify. 

iphone light painting
iPhone Light Trails: Nothing too technically impressive about this one, just a happy accident that turned out cool. It also reminds me of my other light trail attempts - that stuff is harder than it looks!

messier trio
Messier Trio: I really like this image of the Trifid Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, and M21. It reminds me of checking many Messier Objects off my list this past year. It also helped me realize I can photograph more of the deep sky than just the Orion Nebula. I think this image represents a lot of my technical improvement with deep sky stacking. 

cool sunset
Balcony Sunset: I love having a 2nd floor balcony on my apartment. This image reminds me of all the great sunsets over the year, and all the good use I get out of the balcony. I love leaving the blinds open so I can see the sky conditions during the golden hour. I love a totally clear sky at dusk with a summer breeze. 

nova del 2013
Nova Del 2013: This August event taught me a lot about star magnitudes, star hopping to find new locations, and about how stars work in general. It really forced me to learn more, and I remember being excited when I finally located this one. 

moon silhouette
Moon Silhouette: This image took several nights and a lot of patients to get! It was a fun little challenge, and forced me to learn more about the apps I use to predict the moon's location. It also taught me that although luck comes in handy, a little intentional planning goes a long way too.

cool lightning photo
Epic Lightning: Are you freaking kidding me? Who knew I was even capable of getting a shot like this. This has been my iPhone wallpaper since the day I took the photo. This photo makes me take a step back and realize I'm getting better at my hobby. Eric from 2 years ago could never have gotten this. 

cool lightning photo
Monster Lightning: My decision to stack my lightning photos on that perfect night paid off big time. Wow! Stuff like this makes me feel like a real photographer.

Personal Best Andromeda: I decided if I was gonna do Andromeda again that I would do it right. This image is the result of two nights of shooting and 3 full memory cards. A whopping 534 light frames! I can't wait to leave this image in the dust when I finally get out there with my new camera on an EQ mount - but it's nice to have a 'best attempt' using this gear and technique. 

telescope at sunset
McCloud Nature Preserve: This park sure lived up to it's name, with thin clouds all 3 times I went out. It was a fun way to get to know some of the guys from IAS, and helped me realize I know a good bit about the moon! I was able to describe the apparent motion of the sky to people from the community who came out. I had a line of 10 girl scouts at my telescope at one point! I can't wait to go back when it's warmer.

saturn with iphone
Saturn from iPhone Video: File this one under "I didn't know my gear could do that!" It was quite the ordeal to figure out how to get iPhone videos to load in Registax - but after a few days I was able to pull it off and it was worth it. It's Saturn! I took a recognizable image of Saturn! Wow!

comet ison
Comet ISON: This was the anti-climactic story of the year, and I'm pleased I was able to snag a photo of the bugger before it broke up around the sun. It's not a great photo, but it's a famous object, so I think it sorta evens out. 

Chelyabinsk Meteorite: I attended an IAS lecture at Butler University and got to get hands on with some meteorites! 

moon with iphone
iPhone Moon: My DIY iPhone telescope adapter paid off with this great image made from stacking a video of the moon. I had an idea, got to build things with my hands, and had it ultimately work out. I felt so crafty!

lunar halo
Lunar Halo Redemption: After not really catching the last lunar halo I saw, I was pumped this one showed up on camera. It was my second lunar halo and first 'real' photo of one. 

ISS pass
iPhone ISS Pass: I've done a lot of ISS watching from my balcony. I prefer to do it in the summer with a glass of wine, but this shot from December was worth sticking it out in the cold to use my fish eye lens.

geminid meteors
Geminid Meteors: The Geminids was the first shower I tried to photograph last year and I turned up with one likely candidate. This year, I caught 2 obvious Geminids. I put my camera out at 3:30am after getting back from The Hobbit movie premiere - when all I wanted to do was climb into bed - I'm glad I mustered the energy to set up my gear because I came away with one of my favorite composite images of the year!

orion nebula
New Personal Best Orion: I made this image with just 42 light frames from my new camera. It's exciting to think what I'll be able to do when I get the mount going. 

My First Sundog: This is a great example of why it's awesome to have my iPhone camera always handy - and it reminds me that it's worth it to pull over on the side of the road if you see something cool!

Conjunction of the Moon and Venus on January 28, 2013

Chris usually gets up for work way before I do. On the morning of January 28, 2013 he called me on his way to work to let me know that an orange crescent moon was rising over the buildings to the southwest. He said it looked huge! I told him, well duh it always looks bigger close to the horizon but it stays the same size (smaller than your pinky fingernail at arm's length).

By the time I was up and taking Katie out to potty, the moon and Venus were higher above the horizon nestled among some clouds to set the scene. According to Stellarium, they were about 9ยบ apart (less than the width of your fist at arms length).

moon and venus conjunction
ISO 100, 43mm, f/9, 1/2 sec at 7:31AM

wide shot conjunction venus moon
ISO 100, 18mm, f/9, 1.3 sec at 7:34AM

After a few minutes the clouds rolled in and it actually started snowing later in the day. Another perk to taking the dog out to check out the sky conditions on a regular basis!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Waning Quarter Moon: Comparing the Rebel XT and T5i

I made this image of the waning quarter moon (47.3% illumination) with 26 individual frames taken on January 24, 2013 at 5:45am. I converted RAW files to cropped TIF tiles and stacked them in Registax to reduce noise. I finished it off with a High Pass overlay layer in Photoshop to bring out some highlights. 

waning quarter moon with canon T5i
26 frames each at ISO 100, 300mm, f/11, 1/40 sec

While I'm happy that I figured out how to take sharp moon photos with a single autofocus point using the T5i, I'm not convinced my moons are sharper than with the Rebel XT, only bigger. Here is a comparison below using similar moon phases...

moon photo compare T5i and Rebel XT
Comparison of moon photos using the Rebel XT and T5i

Both of these photos above were taken with the same Canon EF 75-300 III F4-5.6 telephoto lens, and now I'm wondering if that's the limiting factor in my moon photo sharpness? Maybe this is as sharp as this glass gets, and more megapixels will make the moon larger but not necessarily be able to scale up the sharpness?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hyades Cluster in Taurus with Major Star Labels

Another recognizable object that I've photographed before is on the IAS observing list for January. I'm happy to revisit the Hyades star cluster with my new camera! I took a series of short exposures and stacked the images in Deep Sky Stacker. Typically this brings out more stars which is great, but makes the original asterism less apparent - so I've included some labels and made a little star chart out of my final image.

hyades star cluster asterism with labels
Stack of 69 subs, 22 darks, 28 bias each at ISO 3200, 135mm, f/4.5, 2 sec

hyades star cluster in taurus
Stack of 69 subs, 22 darks, 28 bias each at ISO 3200, 135mm, f/4.5, 2 sec

jupiter and moons on january 21
Crop of Jupiter at f/11, 300mm, ISO 3200, 1/3 sec

That same night I also snagged a quick photo of Jupiter with my T5i on a fixed tripod. Still waiting for some warmer weather to take my mount out to play with it. It's going to be a low of -17°F on Monday. This winter is the worst!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Moon Alongside Spica, January 23, 2014

I was taking the dog out at 4:00am (that's how a lot of these blog posts start, huh!) when I saw the Moon alongside the bright star Spica. I went back inside to get my camera, and when I came back out the clouds had rolled in. I quickly snapped a few photos of the pair and went back inside minutes before it started snowing heavily.

I didn't have time or patients for a composite image, so this is actually one frame - however, I juiced up the brightness of Spica in Photoshop so that it's more apparent.

moon with spica
Single frame at ISO 100, 300mm, f/11, 1/40 sec

moon and spica screenshot
Screenshot from StarWalk app

moon and spica screenshot
Screenshot from Stellarium

Moon with Auto Focus (AF) Point Selection: Manual Selection vs. Auto Selection

My Canon T5i has 9 point autofocus, and similar to when I was shooting with the Rebel XT, I figured the camera would select the center point when focusing on a single object in a black field - such as a bright star of the moon. After shooting several moon stacks with slight fuzzyness, I determined using the auto focus point auto selection isn't as crisp as using the manual selection with the center point.

moon compare autofocus point selection
Comparison between Auto AF Point Selection and Manual AF Point Selection in single frame

This seems to resolve the problem I was having with my T5i moon photos being less than crisp around the edges even in decent viewing conditions.

The result of a stack of 39 images in Registax, with some modest High Pass in Photoshop...

waning gibbous moon canon t5i
Stack of 39 frames in Registax, each at ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 sec, 300mm

That's more like it! Now I just need to replicate this for each phase of the moon! Kidding... but I'll probably get around to it eventually anyway.

Parhelia: Rainbow Columns or Lights on Both Sides of the Sun

Having a camera in your pocket at all times (iPhone) is a huge benefit for rare atmospheric events like this! I was getting into my car in the morning to go to work and I saw this vertical column of orange-raindbow light to the right of the sun. I noticed a second one on the left at the same distance and knew it must be a sun dog (parhelion, or plural parhelia).

rainbow around the sun lights on both sides
Parhelia on either side of the sun, taken with iPhone
As I was pulling out of the apartment complex, I tried to get a photo from my car. After driving down the road a bit, I found a good flat place with a view of the horizon and I actually pulled over on a state route, stepped out of my car, and snapped these photos. It was freezing cold but so worth it!

sun dog lights on both sides of the sun
Panoramic photo stitched together on iPhone
The sun dogs or parhelia look like lens flares, but the crazy thing is this is actually what they look like to the naked eye! Two huge columns of orangeish rainbow light at the same height as the sun, with the hint of a circular halo. It's my understanding that these form in the same way as a 22° halo around the moon - with hexagonal ice crystals in the atmosphere.

lunar halo circle around the moon
Example of a 22° lunar halo, I took this photo back in November

Monday, January 20, 2014

Canon T5i with Orion EQ-1 Mount (Dry Run) Gear Update

Orion 9011 EQ-1 Equatorial Telescope Mount
This is my final setup with my Canon T5i mounted to the Orion EQ-1 with motor drive

Orion 9011 EQ-1 Equatorial Telescope Mount
Another view of the same setup

orion EQ-1 mount with sheet
I originally put a sheet down over the balcony so I wouldn't lose any screws through the boards (it's happened before) but the wind made the sheet more of a hazard than a help.

Orion 7826 EQ-1M Electronic Telescope Drive
The Orion 7826 EQ-1M Electronic Telescope Drive

orion mount leg lock bolt
My mount was missing one leg lock bolt when I got it out of the package. After a few emails back and forth with Orion, they said they will send me one, so now I'm just waiting on that!

By the time I got set up, I realized I didn't have my camera in focus, and the clouds were rolling in. Next time I'll get into focus on a regular tripod, because it's difficult to swing this thing around to the right spot (especially since I have to disengage the motor to turn the RA arm or risk damaging the motor). I'm very anxious moving this thing around, I definitely don't feel confident using it, and I wish I was learning in warmer weather on solid ground and not up on a balcony. I wish I had a house with a backyard!

ear muffs and touch screen gloves
On a lighter note, my behind the head ear muffs and touch-screen gloves are coming in really handy! Gotta love new gear, especially 50% off after the holidays.

orion mount leg lock knob screw
Woohoo! Replacement leg lock knob came today. I appreciate the free replacement since my mount only came with two. Thanks Orion!