I haven’t had a chance to write anything over the last few weeks because I’ve been sucked into yet another obsession: astrophotography. To those who are unfamiliar, this type of photography involves capturing images of celestial objects. Until a couple months ago, I didn’t even realize this hobby existed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always appreciated images of other planets, the Milky Way, and distant galaxies, but I never gave much thought about who was taking the pictures. I guess I just assumed that they were all provided by various government space programs around the world.
On February 24, the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter aligned in the night sky in the shape of a triangle. I found out about it through the emails that I get from SpaceWeather.com. I’m normally someone who unsubscribes from everything, but I highly recommend their free email subscription: emails are only once or twice per month, text is short and to the point, and I’ve never received spam. I went outside and peered at this beautiful display in the sky, but didn’t think anymore about it.
A couple days later, I started seeing lots of amateur photographs of the celestial triangle appearing on the internet. I was really impressed with some of them and at that moment, I “discovered” that anyone can take pictures of the sky! I know how absolutely silly this probably sounds; why didn’t I realize this before?
I have always had an interest in photography. My very first gallery is actually still online, hosted at DeviantArt. I haven’t used that site in years, so please accept my apologies for the crude language of my angsty teenage/young-adult self. I never owned expensive cameras or lenses. I never took any formal classes. It was just something I did because it was enjoyable. I have fallen away from it in the last couple years because life got crazy, but I spent those years enjoying the work and art of many others. Below are my four favorite shots from my old gallery.
Like photography, astronomy has always been one of my passions. I wasn’t very old when I started peering into the night sky. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was growing up. I believe my love for space comes from the very early influences of my grandmother on my mother’s side. I can remember spending countless Saturday nights as a child, sitting in the darkness of night in her yard, gazing at the stars. We would play “spaceship” and imagine that we were traveling to Pluto. She would read to me from various astronomy books by authors like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. Once a mind has been open to the cosmos, there’s no turning back.
Despite my age doubling nearly three times, I still have that same imagination. Although instead of playing “spaceship”, I am actively thinking about the future of space exploration. At times, I get frustrated when people are complacent about space. People go around, living out their lives, worrying about the most ridiculous stuff. Meanwhile, we are on a giant rock, spinning around a star, in a vast sea of turbulence, confusion and chaos! There is nothing more important to me than understanding where we are, how we got here, and where we are going. If the human race intends to survive, it will need to find a way off this planet.
On March 25, I received another Skywatcher Alert from SpaceWeather.com.
A month ago, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon aligned beautifully for evening sky watchers around the world. Tonight it’s happening again. On March 25th and 26th, the three will form a bright celestial triangle in the western sky at sunset.
This was my chance to snap some photos of the sky. For the first time in my life, two of my favorite worlds were about to collide. I immediately dragged my girlfriend to Wagman Observatory at Deer Lakes Park. I don’t have anything special, just a point and shoot Nikon Coolpix S550 and a basic tripod. I’m familiar enough with the settings to get decent star photography with it, but I plan on replacing it with a digital SLR in the very near future. The pictures turned out amazing for such a low budget shoot.
When I put these photographs out there, I expected an apathetic response at best. Instead, I received a pretty good response from Facebook, Twitter, and email forwards. Unfortunately, email is still necessary; there is still a small percentage of people who boycott social media.
Astrophotography catapulted me right back into photography. I spent a week studying everything I could find about lens technology: the history, how they work, the different types, aperture, focal length, and so on. I read other blogs and websites dedicated to astrophotography and found a plethora of information. Traditional photographers will probably want to go with a Telescope Camera Adapter solution, which allows them to mount their Digital SLR camera onto a telescope. Photographers looking to photograph space exclusively usually mount a liquid cooled CCD camera directly onto their scope. The later provides much clearer, noise free images of space, but it isn’t practical for taking pictures of anything else.
If I am going to dump that much money into a camera, I’d like to use it for more than just the stars. After reading countless reviews, I decided to go with the Canon 5D Mark II Digital SLR. The kit I want comes with a 24-105mm lens, which should be fine to start. I’d like to eventually get two Ultra-Wide Zoom lenses: 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM and 17-40mm f/4L USM. These lenses will provide the type of view needed for capturing the night sky.
Eventually, I’ll need to save up the money to get a telescope, which essentially can be used as an “Ultra-Telephoto Zoom” lens (example picture below). There’s a variety of brands and models to choose from, but I’m really impressed with both the Tele Vue 85 and NP101is scopes. They are located about six hours from me, so I called their office to ask questions. A great guy by the name of Al spent almost an hour educating me about astrophotography and various telescopes.
Al invited me to the Northeast Astronomy Forum to test and try out all of their models. This annual conference is geared toward both regular astronomy enthusiasts and astrophotographers. It’s being held during the final week of April. I’m really hoping to make it out there. Nothing I will ever read online can compare to hands on experience. Having the chance to pick the brains of other die hard enthusiasts is priceless to a beginner, such as myself. I’d hate to invest tons of money in a system, only to find that it doesn’t work right or takes poor quality photos.
Hopefully, I can at least get a DSLR camera and an Ultra-Wide Zoom lens together in the meantime. My girlfriend and I plan on traveling to Scottsdale, Arizona in August to watch the Perseids Meteor Shower. We are going to rent a car and drive about 50 miles into the desert for the light show. It would be incredible to capture photos of it.
But in the meantime, I’ll be using my cheap point and shoot sans telescope. It really isn’t that bad for a beginner. I’ll end this article with a photo of my hometown at twilight, taken a couple weeks ago. (This photo got superb feedback on Facebook.)