University Lowbrow Astronomers


by Brian Ottum
Printed in Reflections: July, 2006.

I became hooked on astronomy when I was 12 years old. Someone pointed out Jupiter to me, and a couple months later I saw a lunar eclipse. Soon the UPS truck brought the obligatory 60mm Japanese refractor. Amazingly, its poor quality did not extinguish my passion for the hobby. When I was 16 I raked leaves, shoveled driveways, painted and did other jobs to earn enough for an orange Celestron 8. About that same time, I started doing photography for my high school yearbook. So it was obvious that I’d attach my camera to the telescope and take some of those amazing pictures I saw in magazines. Hah! Not so fast. My initial results were blurry, streaky, and unsatisfying.

So I concentrated on observing for the next couple decades. Like many others, I simply love showing others the Heavens through my scope. I’d guess that I’ve been fortunate to show objects to about 3,000 people. This still remains my #1 love. However, I’ve periodically been drawn back into astrophotography. And usually with poor results.

The highlights (and lowlights) of my early astrophotography career are:

Each time I’d have a positive astrophotography experience, I’d dive a bit deeper. But soon I’d hit a roadblock. There was something I did know how to do, or I lacked the proper equipment. So I stayed on the visual side of things.

During the 1990’s I started to see the impressive work being done by amateur CCD imagers. But when I looked into it, I saw that they were not only spending tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, but also hundreds of hours preparing and doing post-processing. Yuck.

However, I was also seeing worsening light pollution around my house. Using my backyard observatory for visual observing was becoming less fun. The last straw was the addition of new obnoxious lights at the prison a couple miles south of my house. Dark skies are rather distant, and I could not abandon my family for long periods of time.

The solution to my dilemma came when Canon introduced its affordable digital SLR, the 10D. I saw that I could use it for both daytime AND nighttime photography, so I bought it in 2004. The sensor allowed me to “subtract out” light pollution from the Prison Glow Observatory.

Over the past two years, I’ve come to realize that astrophotography/astroimaging is simultaneously gratifying and frustrating. For me, the benefits are huge but the investments in time & money are not trivial. I see that there is no learning curve. It is more like climbing a huge mountain. There are many techniques, tips and tricks to learn. Unfortunately, there is no one repository of information. I have started climbing the mountain using the various tools:

I’m only partway up the mountain. I can see how far I’ve come, but I’m daunted by the distance above me.

Over the next couple newsletters, I will lay out my take on astrophotography:

This edition closes with an offer. I’m happy to haul people up this mountain quickly by passing on what I’ve learned. Call me or email me.

Example Astrophotography: The Lunar Eclipse of October 27-28, 2004

The following photograph was taken during the total lunar eclipse of October 27-28, 2004. I stayed up to photograph the entire eclipse.

This mosaic was taken with a Canon 10D DSLR with a mediocre Sigma 80-300mm zoom (set at 300mm). This forced me to learn some new stuff in Photoshop.

The Lunar Eclipse of October 27-28, 2004 #5


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