The Amateur Backyard Astronomer

Steve Owst

Look up

One of the things we really enjoy about the outdoors is exploring. Whether it's travelling, hiking or just taking a new turn off to see where it goes.  The thrill of exploring never leaves us. I guess another thing I should add to that list is to look up. Looking up specifically at night to explore all that we can see in the night sky. 

We find it just so interesting.   I will always remember the excitement in my wife's voice as she grabbed the binoculars and saw Jupiter's moons for the first time. Yes, you heard right. Our birding binoculars that I mentioned in a previous blog revealed Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede. Now agreed it's not always obvious which ones are which and not all our visible at all times but with the help of our favourite phone app "Stellarium" it's very easy to not just find Jupiter, but zoom in and identify wha'ts what. At the bottom of this blog I will list all the software and hardware we use. My eyesight is not quite as acute as hers, but I can always make out one or two of the moons.

What's in the bag

So let's chat about the basics: What's in the bag etc. in this blog entry. I will just discuss shooting with the camera and we will visit the Celestron another time.

Binoculars. As I mentioned before our go to binoculars are the Bushnell Trophy  Realtree Xtra 10 x 42mm.

Camera. This one was easy for us as we have been photographers for many years and still had a lot of our equipment from our wedding photographer days.  For the stars though we used our Canon 5D MKIII and usually our Sigma 150-6700 mm lens.  If we are chasing the Milky Way then we will swap the zoom for our Sigma 1.4 24mm

Telescope. Our go to telescope is the Celestron 31051 AstroMaster 130EQ .   This particular one works equally well for daytime and nighttime viewing. It is easy to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn with this one.  Of course any similar telescope will also do the trick.

Stellarium App.  We have been using this app on our phones for years.  It's simple to operate, will display exactly what you are looking at by just holding the phone in front of you, and best of all it's  FREE!  It shows a realistic sky in 3D --  just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.

Telescope Camera Adapter.  These adapters allow you to attach your  EOS camera to the telescope with standard 1.25 inch Eyepiece Ports.  Basically you drop your telescope eye piece into it and connect it to your camera.  You then attach the whole unit into the telescope.

Tripod.  Any stable tripod will do, our go to to for many years has been Manfroto

Wireless Remote Shutter.  This is an important piece of equipment as camera shake is the enemy.  I set my camera up, hold my breath and fire the shutter through the remote.

Lightroom (Software). We have been using Lightroom for years as our go to software for post processing. It allows us to fine tune the images, remove a bit of noise etc.  We also have been using Capture One lately, but to be honest I still prefer Lightroom.

What do we see

Using just our Binoculars and camera there is lots to observe.  A lot of it though depends on where you are and how dark your sky is.   We are lucky in that we have a deck with lots of Northern and Southern sky but not so lucky in that we are not far from the city so the lights are a constant thorn in our side.  But that does not deter us too much as even with that amount of light several moons and planets are quite clear most nights.  So what can I expect to see I hear you ask.  Well firstly let's consider where we are.  We are in the Northern Hemisphere just about on the 49th parallel ((Vancouver)  so our observations are based on this.

The moon is always an easy target (at least when you can see it - it is) and is very easy to photograph.  Let's talk about the image at the beginning of this blog for a second.   This was taken on July 29th, 2020 and is called a Waxing Gibbous (80.25% Full).    Wow I sound really smart huh? Well with a little help from this site  -  you can identify the different phases of the moon.  Also it allows you to enter any date (past or future) and it will tell you exactly the phase of the moon on that particular day.

The trick in taking photos of the Moon (or any bright object) is to jump into manual mode on the camera.  For instance, the Moon is very bright so to take this image I needed a decent shutter speed and a low ISO setting.  In this case it was 250/sec at f/6.3 and an ISO of 100.  Being in manual mode allows me to experiment; you don't want the camera thinking at this point.  See below for my setup used to obtain the actual photo.

Another thing to consider is that nothing is stationary so if you are shooting the stars etc. you have to be aware that with a long exposure they are going to move so how long you leave the shutter open for is critical.  If you are shooting with a wide angle for example you would be lucky to get away with a 20 second exposure before you get star trails.  My advice is to experiment. It's all good learning.

Canon 5D mkIII Sigma 150 - 600mm lens and a Manfroto tripod.

The photos below are all from the Canon and Sigma 150-600 mm lens..  Saturn, Jupiter, Jupiter and 4 of its moons. 
The last image is from Stellarium and shows the names of the moons.

Next I think I will have a go at the Milky Way and Andromeda. This will need a dark sky and a much more advanced setup, so our back deck is not going to work.  Stay tuned and I will add more later.

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