The Amateur Backyard Astronomer

Steve Owst

Exploration is a treasured activity of ours when we immerse ourselves in the great outdoors. Whether it be embarking on a journey, trekking through nature or simply taking a new path to see where it leads, the excitement of venturing into uncharted territory never fades. Another exhilarating experience we have discovered is gazing up at the night sky.

This is something we find captivating, and my wife's eagerness was palpable as she reached for our birding binoculars and glimpsed Jupiter's four largest moons for the first time - Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede. It's true that differentiating between the four moons can be challenging, as they are not always visible simultaneously, but with the aid of our favourite phone application "Stellarium," it's easy to locate and distinguish them.

The software and hardware we use to enhance our stargazing experience will be listed at the conclusion of this blog. While my eyesight may not be as sharp as my wife's, I can still discern 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

There is a plethora of celestial objects to observe using only binoculars and a camera, though visibility depends heavily on one's location and the degree of light pollution in the area. Fortunately, we are fortunate enough to have a deck that provides a clear view of both the Northern and Southern skies. However, being located near a city means that the lights can be a persistent hindrance. Nevertheless, we persevere, as even with the illumination, several moons and planets are often visible on most nights. Our location is on the 49th parallel in the Northern Hemisphere, and our observations are based on this.

The moon is an easy target for observation and photography, as long as it's visible. Let's discuss the image at the start of this blog for a moment. This photo was taken on July 29th, 2020, during a Waxing Gibbous phase at 80.25% full. With a little assistance from the website, we can identify the various phases of the moon and even discover its phase on any specific date in the past or future.

When photographing bright objects like the moon, it's essential to switch to manual mode on the camera. For example, the moon is very bright, so a low ISO setting and a decent shutter speed are required. In this case, the settings used were 250/sec at f/6.3 and an ISO of 100. Being in manual mode allows for experimentation; you don't want the camera to do the thinking for you. Refer below for the equipment used to capture the image.

Additionally, it's crucial to remember that nothing is stationary in the sky. If you're taking photographs of stars or other objects, keep in mind that long exposures will cause them to move, so the length of time the shutter is open is critical. For example, if shooting with a wide-angle lens, a 20-second exposure is typically the maximum before star trails appear. My advice is to experiment and learn through trial and error.

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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