Well, what a year 2020 has been. Aside from the state of the world, the year has been a bit up and down with astrophotography also. From a nice beginning with the 533mc Pro, a scorching summer and an abysmal winter. In this post I think I’ll take some time to recap, to look back over the year, and my images. So feel free to tag along for a trip down this year’s lane as we bid farewell to 2020, and welcome in another year of opportunities, targets, and incessant cloud cover.
2020 In Review
At the beginning of the year I was still using the ZWO ASI 533mc Pro that was on loan from First Light Optics. It was actually the first piece of equipment they had loaned me. I also had the Astronomik 12nm Hydrogen Alpha filter that was loaned to me from the Widescreen centre. It was certainly strange getting items sent to me, and definitely took some getting used to. The relationship with Widescreen Centre didn’t go anywhere, however I did get on board with First Light Optics as a reviewer and I couldn’t be more thankful for such an opportunity.
The key images I took early on in the year included the Rosette Nebula, Comet Atlas and M81 & M82. These were exclusively shot with the 533mc Pro and then I was able to make my review. Which was my first camera review. I think it came out well.
2020 also included a house move from one town in Northamptonshire to another. I also moved in with my partner so I actually missed a couple clear nights during that transition period. Trying to move house, sort internet out, unpack and image deep space was too much to do at the same time really.
The Rosette Nebula
The Rosette Nebula was also shot with the Optolong L-eNhance filter which was loaned for review also. The L-eNhance curried great favour with many of its former users, and the first time I began using it I could immediately see why it’s so popular. Just look at this detail for an uncalibrated 2hrs 45 minutes of data. This was stacked in Deep Sky Stacker and edited using Photoshop. I did make a video on my YouTube channel, the audio is a bit lacklustre due to equipment issues, but have a watch if you fancy it.
The Rosette Nebula is a nebulous region in Monoceros that includes a central star cluster. Known as NGC 2244 and 2237. I think 2237 is the nebula, and 2244 is the star cluster.
It’s actually really rather large. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the whole nebula within a field of view and a wider telescope is required. 400-500mm focal length with a standard DSLR size sensor (1.5x crop factor APS-C) is enough though.
The Rosette Nebula is an emission type nebula also. Which means it really responds well to narrowband imagery. You can definitely use broadband filters but isolating wavelengths using narrowband filters, or multi-bandpass will give you sharp and defined results. These could then be blended in for an RGB+Narrowband composite image.
This image could always do with more data. There’s always some benefit to adding more data. But for now it’s something I’m happy with.
The Leo Triplet
Galaxies never really were my thing. I always struggled with them. Probably because they have a certain approach that’s needed due to bright cores and dim dust lanes. Going to edit galaxies with a nebula mindset doesn’t usually yield good results I found. So it took me some time to get familiar with editing them. Instead of avoiding them, I decided to tackle them head on and actively pursue them.
The Leo Triplet, unsurprisingly, resides in the constellation Leo. It’s actually a viable target from late December/Early January. Rising above 25 degrees altitude by about 2am from my location in the Midlands in the UK. Of course this could vary depending where you are.
This image is 30 images of 2 minutes each for exactly one hour total exposure time. I used the brilliant ZWO ASI 533mc Pro camera again along with a L-Pro broadband filter. The main issue I had with this image though is the lack of any predominant colour. I’ve seen images of this cluster oozing with different colours and details, yet my galaxies always appear brown, or purple. I think it could be down to the light pollution filter, but I’ll keep editing and practicing, hoping to find a way to enhance my colours more.
The Leo Triplet actually comprises of NGC 3628 known as the Hamburger Galaxy (that’s the long flat one). M65 is the smaller flat galaxy and M66 completes the trio being the galaxy with the obvious spiral shape. Using a regular DSLR APS-C sensor and a 800-900mm telescope would give you nice framing on all three, leaving enough empty space around the edges for cropping.
The Pinwheel Galaxy
The Pinwheel Galaxy is a reasonably sized galaxy residing within Ursa Major. It gets its name from the appearance. The centre core resembling a pin and the outside being a circle. The pin would be pushed through a circular piece of card, and then spun on a tabletop. A pin-wheel. Normally my regular setup, being the Sky-Watcher Evostar 80ED and a Canon 600D wouldn’t have really given a nice close up appearance. It would fit, and there would be a lot of space around it. But I wanted to get closer. Again the ZWO ASI 533mc Pro came up trumps with its smaller sensor. It meant I had a closer field of view to begin with. Optically “zooming” is always far superior than digitally zooming with cropping.
Just like with the Leo Triplet, the Pinwheel is another galaxy that I actively sought out to image and edit, rather than thinking “ehh another nebula would work”. For the same reasons. Also, due to the fact the Pinwheel has a gorgeous face-on orientation it can show off all the glory of the colourful core, intricate dust lanes and its spiral arms.
Again though, the image originally came out of stacking with a very purple tinge to it. I tried my best to colour correct by compensating the amount of magenta in the image with more green in an attempt to colour balance, and from there it was tweaking several layers and levels by eye until I was pleased with the result. By far this was the longest editing job I’d done on a galaxy. I’m very happy and proud of it.
With a DSLR, 500mm focal length is plenty to get a good star field and the galaxy. 1000-1200mm will give you a much more full frame and capture even more detail within those stunning arms.
From my latitude, the Pinwheel Galaxy – M101 – is circumpolar. This means it never truly sets for me. Sometimes it may be too low though.
Bodes & Cigar Galaxy
M81 & M82. A very iconic duo of galaxies located close to the North Celestial Pole. Again within Ursa Major. This close pair make for ideal shooting as they’re always up. Sometimes though they’re too close to the zenith and your mount may not slew to it. Also, guiding that close to the pole could be difficult. Those these days guiding software has caught up and can compensate, as long as you calibrate it properly.
Again as before with the Leo Triplet and the Pinwheel Galaxy. This image was shot with the L-Pro filter and the ASI 533mc Pro. In hignsight I wish I rotate the frame a bit more and got some angles going for a better composition. The main difference is that I added in some Hydrogen-Alpha data to this.
You may not be aware of this but some galaxies – particularly the larger ones and the more face on ones, have some Hydrogen Alpha signal to give. It does involve much longer exposures though. Not only is the signal very minimal, it’s quite weak as well, and then factor in the narrow bandpass of Ha filters, it really makes it challenging. Also the Ha subs don’t seem to have anything going for them. A modest blend to a HaRGB composite image lifts this from one level to the next.
I’m not really satisfied with this image really. Like I mentioned, I want to re-shoot with a better composition. I don’t have the ASI 533mc Pro anymore though. However 500mm focal length with a APS-C sensor gives a generous field of view, and you could even capture the Garland Galaxy and get three for the price of one. Leo Triplet eat your heart out.
The image is a total of 163 x 3 minutes, 69 x 2 minutes and 20 x 10 minutes for the Hydrogen Alpha. That’s a combined total of 13 hours and 48 minutes. Such a long project (for me) is one reason why I’ve been hesitant to revisit this lately.
- ZWO ASI 533mc Pro
- L-Pro Broadband Filter
- Baader 7nm Hydrogen Alpha Filter
- Sky-Watcher Evostar 80ED
- Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro
The Bubble Nebula
The bubble nebula is a fascinating deep sky object located within Cassiopeia. It gets its name from the very obvious and apparent bubble appearance. NGC 7635 is an emission nebula. So that being the case I decided to use the Optolong L-eNhance filter again. It works so well. I absolutely loved this filter.
The first time I edited this photo I was happy enough with the result. However I decided to reprocess it again not too long ago and I ame out with the result I shared above. The ZWO ASI 533mc Pro and the Evostar 80ED provided such a nice field of view. I noticed I was able to get another two DSOs within the field of view. Those were the Cassiopeia Salt and Pepper star cluster towards the bottom left of the frame, and the Northern Lagoon Nebula within the top of frame.
It’s a highly nebulous region, nearby also is the Lobster Claw nebula as well but I couldn’t get that. I re-attempted this area of sky with the ZWO ASI 071mc Pro which afforded a much larger field of view. It was shot with the Optolong L-eXtreme, which is a duo-bandpass narrower filter than the L-eNhance.
As we can see in this picture, when compared with the Bubble Nebula above, the tendrils of the Lobster Claw nebula are just entering the frame. It’s interesting having a wider field of view against the more zoomed in frame.
Checking closer on the Bubble Nebula image above it seems like the star cluster looks a bit out of focus or wrongly sampled. Maybe it was a guiding issue, though the rest of the image looks fine to me.
Well. July. What a time that was. Our first national lockdown had ended in the United Kingdom and my partner was able to return back to Hungary to see her family. I wasn’t able to because of my work. It was at this time that a naked eye comet C/2020 F4 Neowise entered our solar system and got close to Earth. It was amazing.
This was the first time I had seen a naked eye comet. I believe once I saw Hale-Bopp when I was much younger. But I couldn’t remember that at all. On Friday I had taken my partner to the airport. It was kind of cloudy but at 2am I went to the end of the street and I remember seeing it there. Just hanging in the sky. Even through bright LED street lighting over an industrial estate the nucleus was so bright, and the tail was apparent. I knew I had to capture a picture.
The Saturday after my livestream the weather forecast was incredibly hit and miss. I decided I was going to try it out and go for it. It was a ‘now or never’ kind of ordeal as the rest of the forecast for the weeks coming was abysmal. I decided I want to go out of town to capture it.
Looking on Google Maps I discovered Pitsford Reservior, and found a nice embankment to setup that would give me a nice foreground and background. I also invited my friend Luke to come along.
The video I made for my channel photographing Comet Neowise actually remains as one of my own personal favourite videos I made. It’s probably due to how special that night was. It sounds strange but my own video helps me remember and look back to those feelings of awe I had.
This was simply shot using a Neewer Tripod, a Canon 80D and an 18-55 f/3.5 – 5.6 STM IS II lens. I kicked myself for forgetting to step the aperture down a bit to prevent the coma in the edges of the frame. But I can’t go back and fix it, I don’t really let it personally detract from the image.
The core values I wanted from the picture was the comet and the landscape. The fact that me and Luke figured out we could get the comet’s reflection in the lake – and them captured that – was the icing on the cake.
The Moon is a constant, always there target. It’s so welcoming, and sometimes it’s a nice change of pace from deep sky astrophotography. This was shot in February, a 12 day old waxing gibbous Moon. Once again the hero was the ZWO ASI 533mc Pro. I was testing its video quality for the review I was writing and boy did it – combined with the ever reliable Sky-Watcher Evostar 80ED – deliver.
The Moon was one of them targets that was my first real success. Back in 2016 I shot what was my best Mineral Moon image ever using a Sky-Watcher Explorer 150P-DS Newtonian and a Canon 760D. I shot individual still images – about 800 if memory serves right. Then I stacked them up and made a tutorial on how to edit a mineral Moon. That was my first editing tutorial. Who’d have known it was going to pave the way for what I do these days?
Getting back to this Moon from February. I was extremely surprised at how excellent the image came out. I can see it’s still maybe slightly overexposed towards the bottom. But otherwise I’m happy with it. The Moon is always there, and it’s always wonderful to look at and image. I should probably budget more time for imaging our satellite sometime I think.
There’s only 115 frames in the video clip I shot, and I stacked the best 100. These days I probably would’ve shot 2000 frames at least and stacked 70% of them. It may sound strange throwing out so much data. But your end result could be better eliminating sub-par frames than trying to include them. It may increase your signal to noise ratio, but it could be at the cost of finer and sharper detail.
The East Veil Nebula
In the summer I was given the Optolong L-eXtreme filter for review. It hadn’t been long since I finished my L-eNhance review and then I was actually approached by an Optolong representative and asked to review. I agreed, but stipulated that it must come from First Light Optics. Because that way I’ve been given the filter from an independent retailer and can maintain impartiality.
The first time I was shooting this target was actually with a modified Canon 600D. This wasn’t ideal in the middle of a heatwave summer. It was roasting. Even at nighttime the sensor pushed 25 celsius. Plus, being a really narrow filter, the exposures had to be much longer. The L-eXtreme filter is a duo-bandpass filter that lets through Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen III.
I think, and worried, that the extended long exposures with such high temperatures might’ve caused some damage to the sensor. If you enlarge the picture to the left you’ll see significant sensor banding across the image. I have since been able to somewhat calibrate this out using another software that I’ll be looking at soon. But otherwise it wasn’t an ideal result. Sure the Ha and OIII looks great, but it isn’t a nice photo.
It was after my purchase of the ASI 071mc Pro that I decided to go again. A cooled, dedicated astronomy camera surely would make a difference and help me pull the potential out of this filter.
And it really did.
The image I shown at the start of this segment is that very image. Where the DSLR image was 10 minute frames at ISO 800 and 25 celsius. These images only had to me 3 minutes long (due to the much more sensitive sensor), Unity gain and -5 celsius. The difference cannot be understated. It really was night and day.
The final image is comprised of 70 x 3 minute images. For a total of 3.5 hours integration time. Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker and edited in Photoshop. I finally had an image of the East Veil Nebula that I was happy with, and it was down to the combination of a sensitive cooled camera and a great filter.
The Heart Nebula
Long had I yearned in my heart to capture a picture of The Heart Nebula. Previously I had imaged the Soul Nebula in SHO narrowband, but I never had shot the Heart. Because I actually didn’t have a setup wide enough to capture the whole thing. I still didn’t, but I could get most of it in the frame. Again using the ZWO ASI 071mc Pro and L-eXtreme, a combination that was quickly proving its worth, I set about imaging this enormous emission nebula in Cassiopeia.
Again with this target I could see that I had also captured NGC 1027, an open cluster to the left of frame. That was a nice welcome addition to this image. IC 1805 is the designation that people give the entire nebula. Though it also has what is called Melotte 15, the core of the Heart Nebula. That’s what you can see in the dead centre with what looks like other pillars of creation. At the very tip of the Heart lies the Fishhead Nebula. IC 1795.
The final image is quite noisy because I didn’t drop that much time into it. Despite using a dedicated cooled camera, you can’t beat integration time. This image has only 53 x 300s for a total integration of 4.4 hours. That sounds like a decent bit, but it’s actually rather dim and could’ve done with probably double that.
Faking SHO Pallete
One awesome thing about the L-eXtreme – and the L-eNhance filter – as well as other brands of filter that does the same is you can create Hubble Palette images. You may wonder how you can make SHO style images using a duo-bandpass filter. Using a program like Astro Pixel Processor you can split the channels into Ha and OIII. From there, you make a simulated S channel by blending the Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen-III together.
From there it’s a case of a bit of editing, and some colour correcting within your editor of choice. Again, I used Photoshop. I’m happy enough with the final “Fubble” image, but of course it would’ve been better using a mono camera and proper SHO filters.
The golds look okay and the blue’s always fun. The Oxygen is usually what draws me the most to SHO pallete images. I love the blue tones.
A classic winter target. M45 – The Pleiades. The Seven Sisters. An open star cluster associated with reflection nebulosity located within the constellation Taurus. You can usually see this with your naked eye, even from light polluted towns – especially if you use averted vision. It’s up there with iconic targets and one that a lot of beginners target. This is the second time I’ve shot this star cluster nebula.
This image, I’m not entirely happy with. I shot it with my Canon 80D, a stock camera. Now you don’t need a modified camera for reflection nebulae. The modification helps for hydrogen alpha detection. Whilst a reflection nebula doesn’t contain any. This would’ve been perfect. I intended to shoot it completely unfiltered, yet somehow I totally forgot my Hutech IDAS NGS1 filter in the imaging train. Unfortunately that ruined this for me, but the filter itself worked really quite well.
That filter still needs a review. I don’t doubt it’s a fantastic filter, but it just didn’t work well for this. I include it because it was shot in 2020 really. The editing was a bit easier though than the first Pleiades I shot back in 2019.
This image of M45 is composed of 75 x 120s images for a total integration time of only 2.5 hours. That might be another reason why the image isn’t great. Shooting through light pollution again, the best thing you can sometimes do is just lay on the integration time.
The California Nebula
NGC 1499. A legendary target for me and quite possibly one of my favourite targets of all time in the night sky. Located in Perseus and very close to the Pleiades. The California nebula, named because of its resemblance to the state of California in the United States. A sizeable emission nebula that lends itself very well. 300-400mm focal length really lends itself to capturing the full beauty of this, and including the gorgeous star Menkib.
Again shot with the Optolong L-eXtreme and the ZWO ASI 071mc Pro, one of the final shots I took before I had to return the filter. You may notice by how I write about this target that I am extremely fond of it. It’s got everything; gorgeous details, wispy tendrils of dust, blooming pillars of clouds within.
I do dream and intend of making a true SHO Hubble Pallete of this image, HaRGB or even just broadband images still look lovely though. The NGC 1499, also known as the Dragon Nebula (according to Stellarium at least), was the first target I did a long project on. In February 2019 I did a 20 hour project between Ha and RGB. One of my favourite images. My favourite target.
50 x 300 seconds for a total of just over 4 hours integration. Again, more time would always be beneficial, especially with narrowband imagery.
2020 Wrapped Up
So that’s it. These are my favourite images I shot in 2020. It was a nice adventure, I thoroughly enjoyed myself – even though we could’ve had some more clear skies. I hope you enjoyed this trip down 2020’s memory lane. Here’s to 2021.
As always, I wish you clear skies. Keep looking up and keep them cameras clicking. See you later.