One of my goals this year is to take some astronomy pics of various things – moon, planets, stars, DSOs. While some people take shots of the sky with just their cameras, in my limited experience, there are four ways to capture images through a telescope.
1. DSLR mounted on the back of the scope (for my setup anyway), looking through the scope;
2. Webcam in the eye-piece;
3. Point-and-shoot camera mounted on the back of the scope and looking through the eyepiece; or,
4. Smartphone mounted at the eyepiece.
When people talk about astrophotography (AP), they normally mean option 1 or 2.
Option 1 is considered the best option by most amateurs, not because you get the best visuals, but just a combination of cost and quality. DSLRs are awesome machines with proven technology to capture photons. You can even get ones that have modified sensors explicitly to improve capturing night skies with limited light.
Option 2, the webcam, is great if you can afford the high-end cameras but even the lowest end requires another piece of equipment — a laptop to capture what the webcam is seeing. Lots of people debate Option 1 and 2, and while you might get an agreement that “technologically” the high-end webcams will produce better output, you’ll likely never get agreement on what is better or easier to work with for a given individual or at a given price-point.
Option 3 for a point-and-shoot camera was created by people who wanted to take some photos but didn’t have a webcam/laptop or a DSLR. There are little adapters that you mount the camera on, hold it in place over the eyepiece, and bam, you can take a photo. It is, however, highly finicky to adjust everything and get in place to take a shot. I never had much luck with it myself, but I gave it a try, just as I tried the other two above as well. Some people found it just as easy to hold it steady above the EP as anything else.
Option 4 — the smartphone — was basically a simple modification of Option 3 and has grown out of the desire of many people to do exactly what they are doing for regular photography instead of using DSLRs … take shots with the camera they already have on them rather than lugging something else.
Early adopters simply held the smartphone up to the eyepiece and snapped shots. I’ve done this myself, and got a couple of okay early shots of the moon, but anything else was beyond me. I just can’t hold it steady enough. I also don’t have the patience.
Moderate adopters bought simple adapters that came out from various manufacturers and basically gives a series of little clamps to lock on to your phone in one part and an eye-piece in another. It sounds simple enough, but it’s misleading. For one thing, all phones are different sizes so the phone clamps have to be adjustable i.e. not exactly perfectly sized or lined up. Particularly because some phones put the camera in the corner of the back, others put it in the centre, others in the opposite corner, etc. So after you mount the phone to the adapter, you have to centre a mounting ring over your eyepiece to get it lined up (most newbies make the same mistakes I have done which is to try and centre the camera over the eyepiece rather than first centring the eyepiece ring over the phone’s camera port and then adding the EP last).
Current adopters are excited by seeing some of the great work that is out there (like Andrew Symes’ on Twitter — @FailedProtostar) and seeing just what is possible. For these adopters, and to some extent the others, you quickly divide into two camps: iOS users and Android users.
- iOS — Those with recent iPhones are blessed with two things. First, the iPhone cameras are good, solid cameras. Are some of the new Google Pixel, or Samsung cameras better? Doesn’t matter, really, the point is that the iPhone cameras are good and have decent abilities to alter the options/settings since night-time photography at a telescope eyepiece is not your “default” setting for any common camera. However, they get a second benefit. There’s an app called Night Cap(ture). It exploits the benefits of the iPhone’s abilities to the max, and just about everyone who uses the iPhone for night shots doesn’t even bother to try anything else. It’s the default go-to app and produces awesome results.
- Android — Within the Android world, all the cameras are different: some support API1, some API2; some have great cameras, some have good; some let you play with settings, some don’t; some will save in RAW, most won’t. But even without the variations in the hardware, there is no clear winner in the app world on the scale of Night Cap. If you go by popularity, probably Camera FV-5 comes the closest, and it has lots of power. Although it doesn’t include a video mode, that’s a separate app. Sigh. Anyway, the point is, it’s just not as robust or streamlined as the iOS option. Just about everyone out there who is doing AWESOME stuff out of the gate is using an iPhone. Despite the larger Android market share, I would say “awesome smartphone AP” is about 90% iOS and 10% Android.
Enough context, what am I doing?
I tried webcam stuff, but it was something I pushed to the back-burner after a few tries, with the intent to focus on visual observing until I felt that I had that well-covered. Five years later, I don’t have it nailed, although the alignment process is fixed. I tried DSLR and have all the parts, just haven’t quite nailed the process and set up yet, but again, put it to the back-burner. The point-and-shoot option is still on my list once I nail smartphones as I would like at some point to take four images of the same thing(s) with all four just to show what I can get with a bit of practice and minimal skill.
This leaves me in the beginner’s AP world of snapping photos at the eyepiece with my Android phone running Camera FV-5. I tried a bunch of other apps, none were even close to giving me what I want on my Samsung Note 4. I can’t save in RAW, but I’m fine with JPGs. I’m aiming more for souvenir web photos than printing enlargements or giant murals. I’m getting a few shots, but nothing spectacular, and it’s hard to figure out where I need to make my improvements. There are x steps in the process.
- Mount the phone in the bracket.
- Adjust the phone to the right height and angle of the eyepiece ring.
- Find an object in the scope.
- Mount the eyepiece ring over the eyepiece, thus mounting the camera.
- Adjust the focus of the scope.
- Adjust settings for the camera.
- Snap the photo or record the video.
Step one: Mount the phone in the bracket
That sounds like it should be easy enough, right? Except here’s the deal. I have a Meade smartphone adapter and it basically consists of a “U-shaped” holder, you lie the phone flat in it, and then squeeze the U thinner to pinch the sides of the phone. A small screw knob (1) underneath tightens to hold it perfectly in place. Except there’s a small variance with the next step.
Step two: Adjust the phone to the right height and angle of the eyepiece ring.
So here’s the deal…the eyepiece ring has an inner bracket that clamps on to the eyepiece and an outer bracket that connects to the phone bracket. A screw knob (2) holds them together.
To align the phone at the right height above where the eyepiece will be, you use screw knob 2 which allows the phone bracket to move up and down in height about half a centimetre. Screw knob 1, which holds the U together, also allows the horizontal phone to move forward / back and left / right in the bracket to allow it to centre itself over the eyepiece ring.
In other words, you have to keep both knob 1 and knob 2 loose enough to allow movement but tight enough that everything stays together. Grr…
Step three: Find an object in the scope *
I confess, this is NOT the next step in my process, but I’ll talk about that later.
Usually, this is the normal next step. Pretty straightforward. Locate something in the scope that you want to image, put it in focus, get it tracking if you have a tracking scope.
Step four: Mount the eyepiece ring over the eyepiece, thus mounting the camera *
Again, this is not my usual order, but the standard one. With EP in the scope, and the camera phone mounted on the adapter, you then place the adapter on the eye-piece, tighten it up, and it’s installed. You hope.
Step five: Adjust the focus of the scope
When you did your initial focus, it was to see the object in the EP. Now that you’ve got a camera a bit above the EP lens, you need to tweak your focus a bit. A friend uses a magnifying glass to make sure his stars are pinpoint sharp. Others eyeball it on the screen as they adjust the focus knob.
Step six: Adjust settings for the camera
If the camera isn’t already set for the right settings — infinity focus, duration and ISO — then you can set them now.
Step seven: Snap the photo or record the video
With everything looking perfect on the screen, time to record the video or snap the photo. Since most phones will shake a bit when you touch them, lots of people use a 2-second timer delay for the shaking to stop or a remote trigger or even voice controls.
* My modified steps
I essentially swap steps three and four. Normally you use the EP to find an object and then mount the camera on top. In my case, I have an extra EP, so I first mount the EP I intend to use to the camera and THEN find an object with the other EP. When I am ready, I swap the EP+camera for the spotting EP. It saves a few steps on the fly and increases the likelihood that my EP will stay attached.
How am I doing?
Not that well. Way back when I started using the adapter last summer, I could get an image like this:
This month, I was lucky to get this:
I tried for Jupiter. Last July, I got this:
This May, I was lucky to get this:
I fiddled, I adjusted, I tried again:
Some people have been doing video and converting, so I did two 10s videos, ran them through an astroimaging software to process them for stacking and then through an actual stacking program, plus converted to JPG. This is the best I have so far:
I moved on to DSOs and got nothing. Totally black images. I checked the sensor to see if it was even registering stars, and I managed to capture Castor:
But it is hardly pinpoint and there is nothing showing around it? Seems odd to me.
So I’m messing up somewhere in the seven steps to get from A to Z. Just not sure where yet. I’ll keep trying.