The Backyard Astronomer: High tech puts astrophotography in everyone's hands

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      Over the past decades, we have witnessed and embraced the advancement of technology in cars, TVs, computers, and phones. The list goes on and on. We have the opportunity to learn anything via reputable websites over the Internet as well as YouTube videos.

      But although technology has changed, the night sky has appeared the same for countless millennia.

      Back in 1965, when I fell in love with astronomy, spacecraft—not humans—ventured into the cosmos to discover the unknown. Humans only stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969.

      The few discoveries made by ground-based telescopes were usually buried in small newspaper columns or dedicated astronomy magazines that only came out three months later. Books usually took a year or more.

      Today’s ability to keep up with “breaking news” no matter what the topic is, literally, at our fingertips. A discovery or recent photos taken from Mars or the cosmos can be delivered to our laptops and smartphones within hours.

      We can also use state-of-the-art techniques to learn and image the night sky. Along with smartphone astronomy apps that might cost a few dollars, such as Sky Guide for IOS, there are also free programs (freeware) anyone can download from the Internet, such as Stellarium, which portrays the night sky that has been seen for thousands of years. I highly recommend this download.

      My younger days would find me at the Dow planetarium in Montreal. The mighty Zeiss projector showed a dark, starry sky setting, including the Milky Way and the visible planets, on the ceiling of the dome. I stared up in amazement and set my path in wanting to learn more.

      DSLR image of a 2006 total solar eclipse shot using a tripod and 500 mm lens.
      Wikimedia Commons/Ross Berteig

      At the time, photographing the night sky was only accomplished with film and a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. Everything changed with the introduction of the digital variety (DSLR) in the mid-1980s. What used to take hours could now be accomplished in mere minutes, thanks to CCD chips in the camera.

      As well, free programs such as DeepSkyStacker and RegiStax help in combining multiple images (subs) and processing the results. Smartphones are great for daytime shots but not so much at night.

      The "Pacman Nebula" (NGC281), shot using a DSLR attached to an amateur telescope in a suburban location.
      Wikimedia Commons/Stub Mandrel

      So the next clear moonless night, set up your DSLR camera on a sturdy tripod and with a cable release (intervalometer), so as not to touch the camera. On the lens, switch to the manual-focus setting and carefully bring a bright star to a pinpoint focus. Set the ISO (light sensitivity) to 1600 and open the camera shutter at a bright constellation for about 30 seconds using the cable release.

      You will be amazed at what the camera will record. Welcome to the world of astrophotography. Remember that pixels are free, so experiment. (And feel free to contact me with any questions via my website.)

      Till next time, clear skies.

      Known as “The Backyard Astronomer”, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker, and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has been interviewed on more than 50 Canadian radio stations and local Ottawa TV. In recognition of his public outreach in astronomy, the International Astronomical Union has honoured him with the naming of Asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator or his website: