A Lesson in Patience

Patience and Practice Padawan…

One of the most important lessons to learn early in astrophotography is patience. Once a certain level of competence is achieved, our first impulse is to try and shoot as many objects in one night as we can. After all, clear skies are precious, and we must maximize the use of our time. After a short time of being told by all our family and friends that our work is AMAZING, we start to realize… our work really isn’t that great outside of the circles of people who are easily impressed by just about anything that looks like it’s from outer space. We realize that to take things to the next level, we need more than 16 x 1 minute sub-exposures to drive down our noise and get to the deeper fainter details. Now we shoot the same object all night, or for as long as we can before it goes behind the neighbors trees. This is a great leap forward in the quality of our work, albeit we aren’t cranking out four or five images per night anymore.

Our next great leap forward, also due to growing discipline and patience, is when we decide to spend more than one night on a target. Perhaps two… which depending on the weather might take a week or more. My first published image I spent a month on, getting a total of about 20 hours of narrowband data from my backyard a few hours at a time. Then there are those, of whom I am not worthy, who will spend many months or even a couple of years gathering data for extremely deep images or large mosaics. I am not only not there yet, I may well never be. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the patience thing down though for multi-night imaging… well, until I slipped recently, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about here.

A choice weapon for any star party!

I had the opportunity to attend the Texas Star Party this year (2017) as a vendor for Software Bisque, and instead of flying/shipping everything out, I drove. There are advantages to traveling light, but being prepared is not one of them, so I decided to drive so I could bring more of my own gear (last year I borrowed quite a bit). I brought my current favorite imaging setup, a Paramount MYT and and Esprit 150 refractor with an FLI Microline 16200 camera. A MoonLite NiteCrawler has been giving me exceptional focus with this combo and I was ready for the week with a list of images I planned to shoot with this and a shorter focal length DSLR system.

Hard to go wrong with wide field!

Most nights were good, but only three of them were good in the early morning when I wanted to shoot the Triffid Nebula (M20). I shot the region with the DSLR setup the first morning, and then gathered as much as I could on two additional mornings. Here’s where I got greedy. M20 really wasn’t high enough to shoot to gather sufficient data in only two nights. I tried getting the red subs while it’s elevation was around 30 degrees or less, and the blue when it was higher around 35 degrees (it never quite gets even to 36 degrees above the horizon here). This was foolhardy I know and I rarely will shoot even lower than 40 degrees, but I have had some good success exceptionally low to the horizon from Florida under “perfect” conditions (usually shooting out over the ocean) so why not give it a shot.

I have a core processing philosophy that if  I have to work more than a couple of hours on an image, then the data probably wasn’t good enough to begin with. I simply will not spend 40 hours doing all kinds of different deconvolutions, magic stretches, and witchcraft noise reductions. Don’t get me wrong… I WILL use these, but if I have to iterate that long then I’m just trying to turn straw into gold, and I’ll simply start over or get more/better data for the next time. One of the things I love about the ML16200 from FLI is that the read noise is very low, and it’s a grade 1 sensor. I can do amazing work with that camera with shockingly little data, even with an f/7 refractor (and that Esprit 150 produces amazing contrast and that doesn’t hurt either).

I could probably make this work…

I looked at the data when I got home, and decided not to even try processing the M20 images because the stars were so bloated. A few days later when cleaning up, I looked again and some where pretty good. I used the blink tool and tossed out some big fat star images, and decided to give it a go. I calibrated, aligned and stacked in PixInsight and got excited because the data was better than I was expecting. At least zoomed out, and after a few initial stretches it looked promising.

Bad red channel stars…

An axiom of astrophotography is that just about anything looks great if you shrink it down enough. Zoom in though and a serious problem becomes apparent. The root cause of all the reddish blotch around the stars in the image at right is that the stars in the red subs are larger than the stars in the blue and green exposures. I just tried shooting too low and the turbulence bloated the stars and finer details in the image. I’ve gotten this before, but only on a few of the brightest stars, and I will confess to fixing them with the blur brush in Photoshop. This time the problem is all over the place on perhaps a hundred stars or more in the image. A seemingly easy fix was the morphological tool in PixInsight on just the red channel. This helped a lot, but I still had many many stars with pink blocks around them. What I really need are some red subs shot higher up in elevation. Good clean data. Of course, I have good friends who will take me to task immediately… deconvolve, use the minimize, tweak

A good image, but I’m still really not happy with it. The red just seems… unbalanced (although there is a shocking amount of OIII here too).

rejection, blah blah. Yes, I know and do use these tools, but I think here it’s over using them… with 10 hours I could make an APOD worthy image I’m sure, but this just violates my own personal code of imaging. Data is king, not processing. I did this once before on a Thor’s Helmet image where the red was slightly out of focus. The resulting image was good, and even made the cover of a magazine… but deep down, I have always been unsatisfied with the image and feel the obsessive compulsive need to shoot it again (or at least the red channel) and do it over. I think I killed the red channel trying to “fix it”, and the overall tone will be different the next time.

I loved this framing on M20 and M21 and I’m not giving up yet. I’m a few degrees further south at my dark sky site, and the seeing is better in Florida to boot, so before summer is over, I may yet combine the best of the data from Texas with some new good data from Florida. I will just have to be patient with this one.



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Don’t be hate’n on the Moon!

It think it’s high time I came out of the closet and disclosed something to my fellow astrophotographers.

Most of my friends know me as a deep sky imager. Occasionally dabbling in a planet, or the sun, or maybe even the moon. Truth is though, the moon is my original love. It was the sight of the moon through a cheap telescope at the age of 7 or 8 and the sight of craters… that lit a fire in me that has never died. It was shooting the moon through a large reflector with my wife’s SLR on black and white film that was my introduction to astrophotography, and there is an unfinished lunar atlas I’ve started in my archives that is a project I still hope to return to one day.

How many times have you  heard someone at a club meeting, or on line, exclaim “Ahg, the moon will be up and ruin everything!”. Really? What the heck is wrong with the moon? The moon is wonderful and amazing, and it changes every night… actually it changes hourly! Yes, it’s familiar terrain, but it’s never quite the same exactly. The moon is beautiful through an eyepiece in a way that I still think no one has captured photographically. You can observe the moon through thin clouds that would ruin deep sky photography, you can observe the moon in the worst light pollution on the planet, you can even observe the moon in the daytime! It’s the ultimate astronomical target. Can’t stay up late… well, it’s an early morning target for part of the month. Can’t get up early? That’s fine for part of the month you can catch it after dinner. Oh, the summer is terrible for astrophotography because it’s too hazy? Ha, the moon doesn’t care about your haze! Suck it up and catch some reflected sunlight! Remember too, partly cloudy means partly moonshine too 😉

What about history and cultural significance? There are more songs about the moon, more cultural stories, traditions, and history associated with the moon than all 88 constellations combined!

If you’re reading this you are most likely already ruined by being exposed to astronomy too much. You’ve forgotten what it was like to be a noob. Stop showing people those fuzzy blobs in the eyepiece. No one is really impressed by how many light years away a formless shapeless barely discernible mist is…. really (sometimes when they say they see it, they are faking it too), I’m serious and I’m telling you this for your own good. The A-Number One most impressive object for just about any John-Q-Public to see through a telescope is… okay, besides Saturn… the MOON!
(I’ll give quarter to a cool Ha telescopic view of the sun… maybe… it’s too hot and it makes me sweat though… I might actually put that as a third place object).

Still doesn’t match the eyepiece view.

Low power, high power, 16 inch or 60mm telescope, the moon always delivers. You can also easily take a photo of it. With a cell phone, a pocket camera, or a DSLR. No long exposures, no deep cooling, or stacking. Just take a shot and maybe give it a tweak or two in Photoshop… and it’s beautiful. Sure, go crazy and get into lucky imaging with a video camera, or just stick to the eyepiece. I will never pass up an opportunity to look at the moon through an eyepiece. It has a dynamic range, a creamy sharpness that only the human eye can deliver when looking actually at the thing.

And… and.. and… well, there you go.

Hello, my name is Richard. I’m a deep space astrophotographer… and… I love the moon too.


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What does science tell us?

So often I see the phrase “According to science…”, or “Science tells us that…”, followed by a context that leads me to believe the author really doesn’t know what science is. Science is poorly taught in most public schools, poorly understood by most policy makers, vilified by some religious groups, and most certainly misrepresented by the mainstream media with very few exceptions.

Science is not a body of knowledge, as most people understand it. It is a philosophy and method of determining what is true and what is false. I learned the scientific method in grade school (clearly, it is well taught from time to time too!), and it has changed my life. The essence is simple; what is true, can be tested. What is true, is repeatable. What is true, can be reproduced (or observed) by others following the same procedure.

Science cannot be wrong, because science is not a thing that can have an opinion, but science is not a set of facts either. Science is a methodology for figuring things out. Period. Do not confuse science with the results science can give us.

A scientist is someone who uses science to figure stuff out (whether for a living, or just as their worldview). This can range from who killed the neighbors cat, to what stars are made of, or even how to keep children from getting measles. The practice of science is not infallible, it is self correcting though, and the fact that it can be corrected does imply that science can sometimes give us false answers… but that does not negate the fact that science is simply the most reliable and objective means we have of knowing what is true or not, and accurately understanding how the universe and our world works. Given enough data, science gets to the bottom of things better than anything else we’ve come up with.

Science is the difference between objectivity and wishful thinking. People have a natural tendency to look for evidence that supports what they believe, and reject evidence that disproves what they want to be true. Fear is also a powerful bias enhancer, and fear can make you believe almost anything. This is true of every single human being on earth. A scientist is simply someone who acknowledges this about themselves, and then proceeds to conduct a life long war on these personal biases. It’s not just a good scientist, but a good human being who can in light of new information change their minds. Human psychology however sometimes makes this exceedingly difficult at times. But when this happens, don’t blame science… as a friend of mine often says, “sometimes it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot”.

Richard is a Software Engineer who has worked in the sciences for most of his career developing software for medical instrumentation, visual simulation, and finally astronomy as a developer at Software Bisque.

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Okie-Tex Star Party

Welcome to Okie-Tex!

Welcome to Okie-Tex!

The Okie-Tex star party is held every September around new new moon at camp Billy Joe in the Oklahoma panhandle. Friends have told me that the skies are better than the famed Texas Star Party, and that attendance often swells past 500. Hint… hint… “Richard, it’s a great star party to attend as a vendor”.

So this year I did, or rather we did. Steve Bisque and I both were in Maui for another conference that overlapped the Okie-Tex this year so we could not make the entire week, which is a shame because I understand the weather was phenomenal until we showed up! After a day’s recuperation and repacking, I flew to Denver to rendezvous  with the the rest of the Bisque crew, and we drove down that Wednesday. We had quite the caravan, with one SUV, and a large pickup truck towing a trailer full of goodies. Steve Bisque, his daughter Sarah and her new husband Scott along with Don McFarland (production manager) came with me and we brought five Paramounts. One of each model, save the largest Taurus 600.

The Paramount Parade!

The Paramount Parade!

It’s about a 5 to 6 hour drive down from Denver, and the site is quite remote. The last 30 minutes or so is all via dirt road with the only infrastructure around being farming communities. Hilariously, I had just switched my cell phone service from AT&T to Verizon because I was tired of my friends with Verizon all having cell service at star parties when I did not. Of course, this time the universe had the last laugh and only AT&T cell service was available! Fortunately the camp had WiFi service and I was able to send smoke signals back to my family upon occasion, and check on social media and emails. Although the WiFi did go up and down a few times, it was much better speed wise than many other star parties I’ve attended.

Her name is "Victoria" ;-)

Her name is “Victoria” 😉

Five Paramounts on the field was a hit, and I recount some of this on my Software Bisque blog. We brought a few telescopes, including a large 20″ to put on the big Taurus 500 equatorial fork. I carried my Veloce along on the flight and shipped an imaging train based on the FLI Microline 16200. This is an amazing imaging setup, and it was the only mount imaging ready for the star party we had setup. The others were mostly for show, except we did put a solar scope on the MX+ during the day. I hate flying with imaging gear, and would much rather drive from home, but this was just too far for that to be practical.

A week long star party greatly increases your chances for clear skies, and the previous nights were “glorious” if friends also in attendance are to be believed. We were there just two nights however, and the skies were mostly either cloudy, or hazy most of the time. We had

Best Milky Way anywhere. Period.

Best Milky Way anywhere. Period.

some fun with the Veloce doing short exposures of several objects just to show Sarah and her husband what raw data looked like coming off the scope. I managed a decent Milky Way shot the second night, and got almost enough data on the horse head region to make a decent image. I got enough of a sampling of good skies to make me lust for more. These were quite simply the darkest skies of any star party I’ve ever attended. It was a close match to my favorite, and darkest sky site I know of in the Dry Tortugas (and much easier to drag a lot of equipment too!). I was very impressed with the Milky Way at the Nebraska Star Party last year, but the Okie-Tex Milky Way wins hands down. It was truly awe inspiring.


A shiny ring was exposed at the front of my light shield on the Veloce, and that created a little artifact on the

Not quite as much data as I would have liked.

Not quite as much data as I would have liked.

horse head (you can make out the ring from Alniltak). Internal reflections are always a challenge no matter what optic you use, but at f/3 those curves are dangerous at high speeds! A little additional velvet at the front will nip that in the bud for next time.

The location for the star party is simply beautiful, especially for me being from the eastern US I’ve only seen terrain like this on TV westerns or on the occasional visit out west. The web site showed just north of 300 registrations, but the registrar on site said we had close to 500 people total. I’m not sure the reason for this discrepancy, but it certainly did feel like a 500 attendee event. There were several other vendors in attendance as well, and a meal service was provided that was quite good for star party food. Certainly more convenient that us cooking meals while also trying to “work”.

Just a part of the field.

Just a part of the field.

Also of importance is that ample power was available. This is great for imagers, or anyone who needs to charge batteries, laptops, etc. Power was not available on the “RV Scale”, but certainly enough to run your imaging or visual rig for the night. The weather was warm during the days, and cool at nights, and hot showers were also available. I would not call this “glamping”, but fussy people who like to stay in hotels would not likely be comfortable; an RV might be a better choice for them. I grew up camping, so I rather enjoyed it.

dinotrackscroppedThe area around the Black Mesa is a natural history wonderland. There is a nearby volcano (extinct) you can visit, native american petroglyphs, and a friend took me to a spot where there are preserved dinosaur tracks in a creek bed! The next time I attend, I will make some extra time before or after the star party to do some additional sight seeing. I’m a sucker for museums and nature hikes, and opportunities for nature photography abound. Alas, two days “working” was not enough to truly sample the area as a tourist. Next year our conference in Maui falls right over the new moon, and not only intersects, but completely overlaps the Okie-Tex. Instead of imaging from great Oklahoma skies, I will have to settle for the peak of Haleakala. Something tells me I will be okay with this.



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