Astronomy can be intimidating for the beginner. In many ways, astronomy is similar to learning a foreign language from the standpoint that there are certain things that simply must be learned.
For language, what must be learned are words, declensions, sentence structure, and so forth.
For astronomy, what needs to be learned are star names, constellations, right ascension and declination, the difference between an “M” object and an “NGC” object… even though “M” objects have “NGC” numbers while “NGC” objects do not always have “M” numbers.
You need to learn the difference between stars, planets, and nebulae, which leads you to understanding the color of objects. The colors of planets are one set of information while the colors of stars are another. In regard to stars, blue stars are hotter than red/orange stars.
Nebulae (or gas clouds) and their colors are reversed from stars. Pink/red gas clouds are hotter than blue and black gas clouds. Of course, you can’t see the color of gas clouds with the naked eye. This then leads to the subject of how one images the night sky so you can see these subtle color distinctions.
At this point, many of our readers might have given up on astrophotography, thinking, “I can’t even figure out how to look through the eyepiece of a telescope properly and now I need to learn all of this to learn how to take nice pictures of stars? Forget it!”
If the above sentiment reflects your experience with the relationship between astronomy and astrophotography, I beg you, Don’t give up!!! Yes, there is a learning curve to both, but once you embrace that curve, you’ll be stepping into a world of wonders that can feed you for a lifetime!
Therefore, I want to explore some astronomy/astrophotography basics that I wish I would have had someone explain to me when I started this journey. For those who are professional astronomers, this may be of little use to you. For those of you who may be brilliant in different fields, but are a beginner with astronomy and imaging the night sky, this post might help you out! And if our professionals see any errors, please correct them in the comments… I’m still learning too!
Learn the night sky – Understand your “neighborhood.”
The best thing about astronomy is that you don’t need anything other than the gift of sight to begin. For those of us who live north of the equator, it wouldn’t surprise me if you know how to find the “North Star” or Polaris. Ever since I was a child, I would love to find the “Big Dipper” (small part of Ursa Major) and draw the straight line from the front of the “bowl” out to find the North Star at the end of the “Little Dipper” (Ursa Minor.) Outside of the Moon, this is probably the easiest first step to identify objects in the night sky.
Of course, There’s an even easier object to find than the Big Dipper – presuming you have skies dark enough to see it. What is this easily seen object in the night sky? Its so easy, my mother saw it for years and didn’t realize what it was until I explained the object to her – The Milky Way. One night at home, when I “showed” her the Milky Way (which ribbons through the night sky from horizon to horizon) she simply said, “I just always thought that was a strange cloud that would set in on clear, dark nights.” It brought me great joy to see the look of wonder on my mother’s face, clarifying the misconception.
Taking your first mage on the night sky.
From this starting point, the universe literally starts opening up to you! The next step would be to learn the Constellations. Now as you learn them, you may be thinking, “Fr. James, I want to take my first picture of the stars! What camera should I buy?” Well, the good news is that if you own a cellphone made in the last few years, you already have a great camera to start doing astrophotography. Before you look to buying a camera, I would encourage you to learn what your phone can do!
For example if you have a recent Google Pixel or I-phone, you probably have an astrophotography mode that automatically adjusts your phone’s settings to shoot the stars. If you’re like me and your phone is nice, but doesn’t have an astrophotography mode, you need to go into “manual mode” on your smartphone.
At this point, you will need your first piece of astrophotography gear – a small tripod. You don’t need to get a heavy tripod designed for astrophotography, the old “big box” tripod you have will be good enough. The one thing you will need is a smartphone adapter to mount to the tripod, which are very inexpensive. Mount the camera and set your picture timer to at least 2 seconds. The reason you do this is to reduce shaking, giving you a clearer image. Make sure your ISO is at least 800, your shutter is at 20 seconds, turn “AF” to “MF,” select the “Mountain” icon in MF for infinity focus, click the shutter, and away you go! And what can you image with your smartphone? Here’s one I got at ACME of Orion.
The images you get are basic, but it’s a nice way to learn the night sky.
In my last post, I promised an explanation of the image I took a couple weeks ago of multiple deep space objects. My apologies for the delay. As I was putting that post together, I felt a need to start with this post in the hopes of first getting you outside before getting technical. So, my next post will explain the “M” and “NGC” type of information. For this week, get out, observe, maybe take your phone and a small tripod and start to learn our part of the universe. If you live north of the equator, find a clear view of your south, southeast horizon and try taking some pictures. If you live south of the equator, say in Peru for example, try taking an image of the sky directly above you. This might help prep you for my next post!