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Astrophotography   -   2009/05/26Viewed 86 times this month, last update: 2009/08/12


Having tried landscape photography, portrait photography and macrophotography, and mastered none of them, I of course turned to astrophotography, taking pictures of the night sky.

I had some success with just my camera on a tripod:



I wanted to take it to the next level. For that, I would need to freeze the motion of the stars, so I could take a long-exposure image without everything streaking through the frame (star trails). I didn't want to spend a whole lot of money, and I wanted something somewhat modular, so I could throw it in the truck and head for the hills. What I did, was buy a used Orion "Sky View Deluxe" telescope kit. This came with a nice, simple 90mm reflector telescope, tripod and "equatorial mount" head. The equatorial mount is what I really wanted. It's basically a tripod head made to align to the rotation of the stars, so instead of left-right/up-down, it moves in the declination/right-ascension planes. Once lined up to the north star, only one knob needs to be moved to keep everything frozen in place.
This knob of course, needs to be rotated constantly to keep things frozen. For that, I rigged up a beefy stepper motor, and control board. The controlling a stepper motor is simple: Apply voltage to wire 1, then 2, then 3 then 4, repeat. Four transistors and an Arduino microcontroller later, the mount stays stuck on target.

I found that the EQ (Equatorial) mount had threads on the bottom that were (nearly) the same as the threads on the top of my every-day tripod. So, I made a mounting plate for the EQ mount to have that same thread on top, and so now I can unscrew the ball-head that is normally on my tripod, mount the EQ mount to the tripod, and then mount the ball-head onto the EQ mount. Shebang: A star-tracking mount with a ball head for easy use.



The motor controller needs 5 volts, so using a cigarette-lighter power supply, I can power the unit from a vehicle, or with an adapter, a small 12v battery I can carry into the field.

With this rig, I can now take pictures like this:



I have a lot of fun driving out into the boonies and doing night-sky photography, and hopefully I'll get better!

Update: 2009/08/12
In preperation for the LCROSS impact event, that I'm going to try to see/photograph, I've been experimenting with through-the-telescope photography. These are the result of last-night's efforts. They're terrible, but for being taken from Orange County on a summer night, not too bad!


Comments:
Jon (2009-05-28): I've been really eager to do some astrophotography. But the cost for a setup that would take photos good enough to make me happy always stops me. Getting planet and nebula shots would be my goal, but doing it right would just cost too much.

What sorts of things ae you planning on shooting with this?

Erik (2009-05-30): Planets and nebula are hard, you need a telescope, SLR adapter, and a lot of patience. I'm sure I'll get into that bit, but my goal with this setup is different: My interest right now is to get good wide-angle star field pictures with interesting foregrounds.

I think you (or anyone), who doesn't want to build their own setup like mine, but would buy the gear can do it with just a few hundred dollars. A great resource in your neck of the woods is Oceanside Photo and Telescope. They've got very knowledgeable people, and all the gear needed. I got my telescope->SLR adapter there.

jon (2009-06-01): I was wondering how you'd get a foreground with the camera rotating to follow the stars. How does that work? I feel like I'm missing something fundimental here.

Erik (2009-06-01): Digital fakery, and/or end-of-exposure artificial lighting like a rear-curtain flash. I'm just starting though, so as I get this all figured out (or not) I'll update.

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See also: September 26th, 2009 - Night Photography In Frazier Park

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