A colourful conjunction

Comet lovejoy and the pleiadesComet Lovejoy continues to impress as it swiftly passes through the winter sky. A conjunction with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus set up a beautiful wide-angle photo opportunity last night for which I was lucky enough to have clear skies. The intensely green comet, the electric blue Pleiades and the vibrant orange of Aldebaran formed a colourful celestial triangle.

This is the first image I’ve taken using the excellent new softon filter which really makes the brighter stars in the constellations pop out, as well as emphasising their true colours. It should be especially good for wide-angle shots as a way of making the constellations more recognisable. As with all the filters I use, I bought the largest size possible, then simply use step-up rings to fit them to any of the lenses.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 50mm f1.8 at f4. 8 minutes (8 x 60 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter and softon filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Lovejoy imaged with Nikon D7000 at 180mm f2.8Despite painfully cold fingers, I persevered with the hand-driven barn door tracker to capture a few closer shots with the 180mm lens. The comet has certainly evolved over the few days since the last shoot.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 5 minutes (5 x 60 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Lovejoy stacked in DSS Using Deep Sky Stacker’s comet mode lets you fix the comet’s motion, revealing more detail in the structure of the tail.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 10 minutes (10 x 60 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Jacques – C/2014 E2

comet Jacques 2014 passing the heart and soul nebula
Comet Jacques is now perfectly placed for Northern hemisphere observers. Visible all night for the next month or so, it’s path takes it directly along the spine of the Milky Way. This should make for some interesting conjunctions, and some good photo ops in the coming weeks, as it slowly fades away.

Although Jacques has turned out to be a lot dimmer than predicted (with an especially faint tail), I still wanted to capture the comet’s flyby of the famous double cluster in Perseus.

I’ve had mixed results with comets in the past, so this time I decided on a tactic of maximum light gathering. This involved stepping down from the usual 180mm f2.8 lens and instead using the 50mm f1.8 lens for maximum aperture. The lens produces a lot of coma around the stars when shot wide open, but as the comet is so faint and diffuse, it isn’t actually affected by it. The 50mm focal length also allows for longer exposures than the regular 180mm lens due to the larger margin for error. The comet’s movement through the sky also becomes much less of an issue.

Taking a series of 3 minute exposures, I was pretty happy with the composition. What I hadn’t realised at the time was that I’d captured something else in the frame. It wasn’t until I began to process the images that the nebulae appeared. Amazingly, the comet sits right between the Heart and Soul nebulae, which I had no idea existed beforehand. These two very faint nebulae should make a great target with the 180mm lens later in the year when they move overhead.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 50mm f1.8 at f1.8. 18 minutes (6 x 3 minutes) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Jacques update: August 21st

Comet Jacques 2014 taken at 180mm with barn door trackerComet Jacques 2014 stacked to cometAnother clear night allowed me to shoot the comet Jacques for a second night in succession. But this time with the 180mm lens.

The comet had moved further than I thought in just 24 hours, now sitting right beside the brightest part of the Heart nebula. It’s exactly this speed of movement which makes shooting comets so tricky. The 18 minute image above (stacked on the stars) captures the nebula well. But the comet, and especially the tail, is blurred by the movement.

The second image (stacked on the comet) freezes the motion to finally reveal the thin, wispy tail in a bit of detail.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 18 minutes (36 x 30 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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

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.

Deneb & Sadr

Rummaging through some old camera gear, I found a neglected looking cross filter from back in my old film camera days. I guess it’s more of a novelty effect filter, but I was intrigued as to what it might do to my star shots. It polished up nicely with a microfibre cloth, so I laid it on the 50mm lens (the filter size is way too small) and took a few shots straight upwards in the direction of Deneb.

cassiopeia crop smallI think the effect works well as long as there aren’t too many bright stars in the frame. Here’s another shot I took of Cassiopeia with several more bright stars, which perhaps gives it a slightly cheesy/tacky look. I think using a 4 cross filter instead of an 8 cross would improve the effect, but overall I like the result. The colours of the stars really stand out with the diffraction of the filter.

As an added bonus, the barn door tracker worked really well tonight, even with longer exposures the stars showed up as sharp pinpoints, without a hint of trailing.

Details: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 50mm/f1.8 at f3.5. Single 30 second exposure at iso 1000. Using cross filter and didymium filter. Tracked with barn door tracker.

Perseid meteors & Andromeda

It’s been many years since we last had clear skies for the peak night of the Perseid Meteor shower. Thankfully that run came to an end last night, when skies were as clear as the come around these parts.

Making use of the D7000’s ability to take a long series photos automatically, I set it up to take 50 10 second shots every 11 seconds. Capturing a grand total of 3 meteors from a total of 400 shots is not the best ratio, but I’m happy with shot no.347! In hindsight a wider angle lens would have captured more, but I wanted the light gathering power of the 50mm f1.8 lens to be sure the meteors showed up.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 50mm/f1.8 at f2.5. Single 10 second exposure at iso 1600.

Comet PANSTARRS & Andromeda

At the mercy of the weather for the last couple of weeks, I finally managed to grab a shot of comet PANSTARRS C/2011 L4 with a clear sky. Luckily for me, the clear night coincided with the comet gliding past the Andromeda galaxy. Still quite low on the horizon, it was only just visible to the naked eye, but this 15 second shot (with the help of some tinkering in Photoshop) picked the pair out nicely.

Details: Nikon D70Nikkor 50mm/f1.8 at f2.2. Single 15 second exposure at iso 800, using fixed tripod.