When Astrophotographers CAN Astrophotograph

Ask any astrophotographer and/or astronomer in the UK and they’ll tell you that we don’t get out and image nearly as much as we’d like to. In line with that great British tradition of us moaning about the weather, we moan a LOT about the weather here, and to be fair, with a great deal of justification. We’ve learned not to trust the weather apps, or the forecasts and have pretty much given up on getting excited about any clear nights that are showing on the forecasts. Even the forecasters pretty much just throw their hands up and say “the weather does what the weather does.” Which is fair. After all, we can’t control it (despite China’s attempts to do just that.)

But when we DO get clear nights…oh my days do we ever get excited! A lot of them seem to occur around a full moon when they do happen, and unless you’re either imaging the moon itself or shooting in narrowband, you’re pretty restricted on what you can and can’t image. That being said, sometimes it’s nice to shoot our nearest neighbour, although we’d prefer not to HAVE to do it for lack of anything else after two months of not being able to image anything at all other than clouds and rain.

As you’ve guessed clear nights are few and far between, one of the reasons I don’t do mono imaging. Because you have to do multiple runs with different filters on the same target, getting that time is, at best, problematic. Which is why I choose to shoot with a duo narrowband filter such as the ZWO Duo Narrowband. These allow you to capture multiple wavelengths at the same time, and although they’re not as pure as the dedicated single bandpass filters, they still allow you to capture more specific wavelengths and mitigate the washout from the moon and man-made light pollution to some extent.

NGC 281, the Pacman Nebula in the constellation Cassiopeia, in the HOO (hydrogen, oxygen, oxygen) palette

The above image of NGC 281 was taken across several nights over a couple of months, and was shot using the ZWO Duo Narrowband Filter and ASI178MC and then processed in the HOO palette. What this means is that the two wavelengths of hydrogen alpha and oxygen were extracted separately and then placed into the RGB channels, in this case hydrogen in the red, and the oxygen into the green and blue. Personally I prefer this to the SHO palette that a lot of astrophotographers lean towards. But it shows what can be done with quite modest equipment when we get the opportunity.

One of the biggest issues that I face is that I want to capture images of everything. Which in itself is a pretty cool idea. However, because of the limited times we have, obtaining a good image of anything is problematic. I’ve been trying to go against my own instincts the past year and instead sink as much time as I can into single objects, and I think it’s starting to pay off as my image quality has improved significantly.

Both the main and the portable rigs out at home. It’s important to enjoy what we do but also to maximise the time we get as well.

Of course if you’re lucky enough to be blessed with consistent decent skies then this becomes less of an issue. Another way to mitigate lack of opportunity is to run a dual rig setup, which is what I now try to do as much as possible. What this means is that you can image two different regions at the same time, or even the same region at different focal lengths, both of which I do from time to time.

This week has been blessed with significantly clear skies, not just on the odd night, but for the better part of almost 10 straight days. Obviously I’m off ill for this (genuinely, I had bloody covid!), but thankfully I had the foresight to setup before going down with it. This means that all I had to do was tell the mount where to point as I’m managing to avoid having to strip it down like I usually do. The downside is that I can’t get across to see the kids because I know they’d be loving imaging as well at the moment.

First night of a 10 night run. The bright star is Sirius

One of the nice things now is that the rig is in a position whereby I can tell it what I want it to do, and pretty much leave it alone, so I can split my time between the astrophotography and spending time with Amanda instead of fighting the setup constantly, which is what I used to do.

The bottom line is that when we’re able to get out and do our astrophotography thing, we’re quite happy little amateur astronomers and astrophotographers. And happy people are great to be around because our enthusiasm has regained its momentum, and we’re not miserable! We love what we do, and we so want to show you what’s up there beyond our own planet, and hopefully instill in you the same sense of wonder and excitement that we feel.

Thank you for reading, and for now, clear skies all!

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