Orion

orion nebula M42 barn door tracker

Orion is one of the most recognisable and celebrated sights in the winter sky. The constellation has been documented, worshipped and woven into fable and legend for thousands of years. The supergiant stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are two of the brightest in the sky, and the vast amount of nebulosity in the region make Orion an excellent target.

I tried my hand at capturing the legendary Orion nebula (M42) in the sword region. The nebula is among the brightest in the night sky, so I was optimistic for a pretty good result. But seeing it final result stacked in DSS with all its stunning detail, I couldn’t help but be blown away once again!

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 56 minutes (112 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

horsehead nebula taken with barn door trackerOrion’s belt also contains the famous Horsehead nebula, which I thought would be neigh on impossible to capture due to its faintness and fairly low position in the sky as seen the UK. It’s a target made even tougher due to its red colour, which regular unmodified cameras don’t capture well.

It took the longest exposure I’ve managed to date (1 hour 12 minutes) to draw out the detail, but the final stacked image just about shows the Horsehead nebula, along with the beautiful flame nebula.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 72 minutes (144 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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Triangulum Galaxy

Since testing out the new Nikkor 180mm f2.8 lens on the Andromeda galaxy, we’ve been cursed with almost 3 solid weeks of cloud and moonlit nights. This is pretty typical, as anybody who’s just bought some new equipment will tell you.

The stars finally came out for an hour or so last night, allowing me to grab some shots of the Triangulum galaxy (M33). Being much smaller and fainter than the Andromeda galaxy (magnitude 5.7 vs 3.4) I went for a MUCH longer exposure, taking 50 shots at 80 seconds each, for a total of 1 hour and 6 minutes.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 1 hour and 6 minutes (50 x 80 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

The lens did a great job once again. Below is a side by side 10 minute exposure comparison between the 50mm f1.8 with the new 180mm f2.8 lens. As you’d expect, there’s a massive difference!

Messier M33 triangulum galaxy 50mm f1.8 vs 180mm f2.8 barn door tracker

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Andromeda Galaxy

First attempt at imaging the Andromeda galaxy with the new Nikkor 180mm f2.8 ED Ai-s lens. I was able to grab just 2.5 minutes of exposure time before the clouds rolled in, but the resulting image stacked in Deep Sky Stacker blew me away!

The lens is incredible. It can be shot wide open at f2.8 while still producing sharp contrasty images, with very little coma. There is more detail visible in a single 30 second exposure with this lens, than a full 5 minute exposure with the 18-105mm. The spiral arms and dust lanes stand out nicely in the final image, with the two satellite galaxies M32 and M110 easily visible. The colour the lens produces is another welcome improvement over the flat colours from the old lens, and something I hadn’t expected.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 2 and a half minutes (5 x 30 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

andromeda galaxy evolution

This sequence shows the progression over the last 2 months, from single 10 second image, to the most recent tracked and stacked image. All images were taken with the Nikon D7000 at iso 1600:

  1. View – Single frame with Nikkor 50mm f1.8, on fixed tripod. 10 second exposure at f2.5.
  2. View – 30 frames with Nikkor 50mm f1.8, on fixed tripod, stacked with DSS. 5 minute exposure (30 x 10 seconds) at f2.5.
  3. View – 3 frames with Nikkor 18-105mm f3.5-5.6, tracked with barn door tracker and stacked with DSS. 5 minute exposure (3 x 100 seconds) at f5.6.
  4. View – 5 frames with Nikkor 180mm f2.8 ED Ai-s, tracked with barn door tracker and stacked with DSS. 2.5 minute exposure (5 x 30 seconds) at f2.8.

The key to improvement was building the barn door tracker which allowed for longer exposures, along with Deep Sky Stacker to reduce noise and bring out the details. I should be able to improve on the sequence even further once the weather picks up!

Update…

After 3 weeks of bad weather and moonlight, I eventually had another go at the Andromeda galaxy. The final image (below) is a definite improvement as the galaxy was near zenith at time of shooting, so there was less atmosphere in the way. At 6 minutes and 30 seconds (13 x 30 seconds) it’s also a longer exposure. I think it would be possible to improve still further, but I’d need to go to a dark sky site and use ‘sub frame’ exposure times longer than 30 seconds.

andromeda galaxy M31 barn door tracker

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 6 and a half minutes (13 x 30 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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Sagittarius from Menorca

lagoon and trifid nebula

A recent trip to the Spanish island of Menorca gave me an chance to see Sagittarius at the heart of the Milky Way, a rich region of sky not easily seen from the UK.

Despite a full moon, and Sagittarius hanging low above the Mediterranean, on the final day I couldn’t resist having a go with the D7000 to see if Deep Sky Stacker could pick out some of the detail.

The final processed image nicely captures the golden mass of the galactic core, intersected by the Great Rift. Objects visible include four bright nebulas; the Lagoon nebula (M8), Trifid (M20), Eagle (M16), and Omega nebula (M17) along with globular cluster M22 and several open clusters.

I’m happy with the result given the conditions and lack of barn door tracker, which limited shot time to 2-5 seconds. The images below show how well the stacking technique works, even on a bright moonlit night.

Deep Sky Stacker Sagittarius before and after

Details: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 50mm/f1.8 at f4. Untracked 14 minutes (168 x 5 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter and stacked with Deep Sky Stacker.

lagoon and trifid nebula

Here’s another close up of the Lagoon and Trifid nebulas taken at 105mm with the Nikkor 18-105mm lens. It picks them out reasonably well, with quite a bit more close up detail than the longer 50mm shot. However, I’ve realised if I want to improve these shots than I’ll need to use a lens better suited to the job. I have my eye on the ‘legendary‘ Nikkor 180mm f2.8 ED.. I’ll have no excuses then!

Details: Nikkor 18-105mm/f3.5-5.6 at f5.6. Untracked 3 minutes 20 seconds (100 x 2 seconds) at iso 6400. Using didymium filter and stacked with Deep Sky Stacker

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Cygnus nebulae

This is easily the best astro shot I’ve managed to date. Taken using a combination of the cross filter and the new didymium / red enhancing filter which really draws out the nebulosity in Cygnus. The North America nebula, Pelican nebula and Butterfly nebula can all be seen in this 1000 second (10×100 seconds) exposure.

I’ll probably try the same shot again, but without using the cross filter. I think it can work well in single exposures, but Deep Sky Stacker has a hard time with multiple exposures, and the effect gets a bit too distracting.

Details: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 50mm/f1.8 at f4. 16 minutes 40 seconds (10 x 100 seconds) at iso 800. Using cross filter and didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

north american nebula red intensifier

A few days later I had a go at imaging the North America nebula with the Nikkor 18-105mm/f3.5-5.6 lens. I accidentally took the photos as 70mm, so there isn’t much difference to the 50mm; just a lot less light gathering power!

Details: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 18-105mm/f3.5-5.6 at 70mm and f5.2. 18 minutes (12 x 90 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Update…

Since purchasing the Nikkor 180 f2.8 lens I’ve had another go at the nebulosity in the Sadr region. I’ve been experimenting with ISO settings, taking this image at ISO 6400. However I think I’ll stick to lower ISOs in the future (1600 and below) as the results at higher ISOs begin to deteriorate.

Cygnus Gamma Cygni Sadr region nebula

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 7 minutes (14 x 30 seconds) at iso 6400. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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Testing out the barn door tracker

Looking to test the newly improved ‘barn door’ tracker to its limit, I dusted off my old Sigma 75-200mm/f3.8 with 2x tele-converter. But with a hefty 600mm 35mm equivalent focal length, I was prepared for the worst.

barn door tracker image of M13 Globular ClusterAfter less than a minute of polar alignment, and unable to frame the shot through the viewfinder (due to an awkward angle), I pointed the camera vaguely in the direction of the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, and opened the shutter for a 30 second shot. Without a watch to count the seconds, I manually moved the dial round, counting the seconds off in my head.

Checking the screen, to my amazement, there it was! Not only had I centred the cluster first time, but there were virtually no trails. I know the shot is pathetic compared to most, but for a home-made, hand guided barn door tracker, cobbled together for under £10, I was blown away by the result.

Shown here is a single 30 second exposure (iso 2000) without the didymium filter, giving it much more colour than the final stacked image.

Details: Nikon D7000, Sigma 75-200mm/f3.8 (at 400mm with 2x converter). 5 minute exposure (10 x 30 seconds) at iso 3200 with didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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