Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Backyard astrophotography on the cheap

One of my Facebook friends has recently entered the world of astrophotography. Even though he's still learning his way around both the techniques and the sky itself, his results are strikingly beautiful.

My camera is a Nikon Coolpix L4, a digital point-and-click snapshot camera designed to be simple and inexpensive. While it offers a wide range of settings, it really isn't designed for astrophotography. At all. But I have mastered some tricks and techniques and have been able to get passable results with sufficient massaging.

Last night I had reason to go to my as-yet-uninhabited house across town. I noticed as soon as I stepped out to get into my car that the sky was exceptionally dark and clear. When I had completed my task I stepped into the back yard and looked at the sky.

My back yard isn't completely shielded from light. There's quite a bit of light trespass, both direct and reflected. But the yard does have a largely unobstructed view of the Southern and Western skies, and with a little effort I can find shadowy spots where the glare is kept at bay.

The view last night was stunning. The sky was dark, the stars were bright, and hazy patches here and there told me of the presence of things just beyond my range of vision. If only I had had binoculars with me - or a camera!

I decided to go back tonight with both. Unfortunately, wispy clouds in the late afternoon warned me that I wouldn't be experiencing the same crystal clarity I had enjoyed the night before. And the night sky did have a pearly murkiness to it, the stars were less intense, and the hazy patches were less evident. Still, I set up my tiny camera on my tripod, set it to "Night Landscape", activated the ten-second timer, and hoped for the best.

I have had to drastically enhance the contrast on these images to bring out the stars. I could see stars much dimmer than those visible in these photos, and the light reflected from neighboring houses was not as glaringly bright as it appears here. The V-shaped formation to the left of center is the Hyades cluster, with Aldebaran the bright red star at the upper left tip. Just to the right of center is the tiny dipper shape of the Pleiades, one of the most strikingly beautiful naked-eye targets in the sky. Appearing just over the roof of my shed is Bellatrix, the star in the upper right shoulder of Orion.

Panning slightly to the left, we now have a much clearer view of Orion, including red Betelgeuse in the left shoulder (or armpit!) Now Sirius, the brightest star in the sky is peeking out over the roof of my shed!

One view that really made me wish I had a camera last night was the Big Dipper nestled neatly between my house and my neighbor's house. Unfortunately I set up about an hour later than I should have, and by that time the Big Dipper had rotated well beyond this position. Still, here it is soaring over the roof of my neighbor's house.

I packed up my stuff and decided to call it a night. But even before I set foot into the house I had a change of heart. I slung the binoculars over the back of a chair to become permanent residents at my house and then set up the camera and tripod once again, this time on my tiny back porch. Shooting over the top of my dormant and denuded grapevine I was able to get this shot of Orion and the Hyades. Look closely about three-quarters of the way across the image, just below the centerline, and you will see a diagonal reddish line - a satellite or distant airplane streaking across this multi-second exposure.

Panning right I was able to get (most of) Orion, the Hyades, and the Pleiades all in one image. Now the red streak is nearly at the stars of Orion's belt.

Finally, I angled the camera up and hoped for the best, aiming it at the site of many of the hazy patches from last night, squashed-pentagonal Auriga. While they are not clearly discernible in this image, they were most likely the star clusters M36, M37 and M38.

And with that, I finally packed up my camera, my tripod, and my copy of Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, and headed back across town.


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