The Astrophotography Learning Curve
When you start on your journey to becoming a competent astrophotographer of deep sky objects, you’ll hear that the learning curve at the start of the journey is very steep. While the equipment, tools and software you’ll need has become easier and more affordable to attain, there is some very important advice to heed to get you over the curve with the least amount of pain and suffering. Here are some tips to help get you going and keep you on the path to success.
- I recommend the first piece of equipment you obtain is a solid mount. Get the best mount you can afford - this will greatly improve your chances to getting the best tracking performance and resolution possible from your data. The mount will also determine the best quality of optical tube you can match it with. If you try to go cheap on a mount, the best quality optical tube will still produce poor results.
- Do not overspend on narrowband filters; good quality filters should not break the bank.
- Plan your imaging session - this planning should include planning where and when you’re going to image as well as the targets you intend to image. It will be very frustrating to go to a site that does not have a clear view of the sky, doesn’t have level ground or isn’t very safe. Don’t be ambitious with your target selection; selecting an easy, very visible target well within the capabilities of your equipment will increase your chances of a successful and productive night.
- Practice setting up your equipment during the day so that you’re comfortable knowing how to get everything together and it will work. You should develop a checklist for setting your equipment up so that it is done the same way every time and you’re not stuck trying to remember how to correctly connect and cable everything together. This also includes understanding how to use your software program to connect to your equipment. All of this work will reduce the chance of surprises happening when you’re out in the field and its time to image.
- Understand what calibration frames you need and take a sufficient number of them; I usually aim for at least 50. Darks are easy and can be taken anytime, especially when the weather is not good. Flats are usually taken at the end of a session. Doing calibration frames will improve the signal to noise ratio of your final image and well worth any effort.
- Take the time to get and maintain optimal focus. You won’t be able to correct for out of focus sub exposures. Use a bahtinov mask to initially get focused and check and monitor the air temperature throughout the night. You should plan to perform to do a refocusing if the temperature changes dramatically.
- Dither your sub exposures - this will mitigate any fixed pattern noise in your sub exposures after they are calibrated.
- Have a thorough understanding of how guiding works. I would even recommend setting up your equipment and taking time to just doing an active guide only session part of a night. PHD-2 is easy to use but you should practice with it a couple of times to understand how it works and get comfortable with it.
- Recruit a mentor; it really helps to have someone who’s a veteran at this to help you with the learning curve. They can explain how to work through and solve problems, talk through ideas and provide suggestions and advice on topics and issues you’re not familiar with. Its lots of fun observing and imaging with someone else rather than being left on your own.