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Its been awhile

I haven’t been posting as much here as I’d like. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been taking photos, I have, but instead of uploading them anywhere I just sit on them and move on to the next project. I’ve been busy as hell this year. Started working as a freelance cinematographer the last few months. Did a music video, some product videos for my friends company, a dark comedy web series and about to start filming on a really dark bizzaro comedy I wrote called High Desert. So thats been that. I have been dabbling in an interesting timelapse experiment involving astroids and nebula but processing isn’t finished quite yet. I’ve also been using film again, even dabbling in film astrophotography. I don’t know how it looks yet because I still have to develop it. I told myself I’d do that tonight, we’ll see. I’ll post soon (I hope). In the meantime here is a big dump of photos!

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Sunset on the Sunrise Highway. Near Mount Laguna. Canon 5d mark III, Zeiss Jena 35mm @ f8.

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Santa Rosa Mountains area near Anza. Kodak Tri-x 400, Zeiss Jena 35mm. I don’t remember what settings.

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Milky Way from Toro Peak. Rokinon 14mm, Canon 6D, two remote strobes set up, one obvious one in the distance, another with an umbrella to light the underside of the trees. I think this was 5 minutes. Mounted on my iOptron Skytracker.

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Star trails with tri-x!

Thats it for now. I have more. Just need to remember what they are.

Death Valley 2014 PART TWO

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We left ¬†Eureka Valley, back through the Inyo Mountains and into the town of Big Pine where we fueled up. I must also note that the bathroom at this particular Mobile station is excellent. I’ve used it before and by God I’ll use it again. Nothing better than a nice flush toilet after crapping in holes and outhouses for days.

On that note we drove south on Highway 395 to our next destination, the (Huells voice) beautiful town of Lone Pine, California! Here we decided to get a hotel for the night. We needed a shower bad and had four more days of exploring to do. Plus, I’ve always wanted to check out this town.

We went into the darkest looking bar we could find. Can’t remember the name or if it had one. Probably something creative like “Two Doors”. Even out here they had some microbrews on tap. I think we got Coors. The lovely lady behind the bar asked us what were were doin in these parts. Why, on vacation in Death Valley my fair lady!

“Why the hell would you spend a week in Death Valley?”

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Death Valley 2014 PART ONE

I know I posted the images a few months ago after the trip but I haven’t gotten around to describing the experience in detail. I took notes along the way¬†and committed much more to memory but I figure I need to write this all down before the hazards surrounding my current field of employment (watching paint dry) destroy those brain cells containing those memories.

 

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Winter Milky Way around 0 deg declination

Went out to the mountains. Rather than focus on what I forgot to bring, I’ll list what I did have. Tripod, iOptron Skytracker, Canon 6D and a Nikkor 50mm. I was stuck shooting whatever was at 0 deg declination so I aimed at a big starry patch and took an hours worth of exposures. Stopping down does wonderful things for tiny star detail, to see what I’m talking about check out the high resolution version.

 

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Taken from the Orange County Astronomers site in Anza.

Joshua Tree New Years Eve

Headed up to Joshua Tree for New Years Eve to check out the recent snowfall. Quick trip but well worth it aside from the 10f temps.

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Rokinon 14mm is perfect for wide field astrophotography

Yes, its very good wide open. With a decent camera (as in low noise as ISO 6400) you can easily expose the Milky Way in 30 seconds. I’ve done plenty of that, I decided to see how good it was stopped down a bit and with a much longer exposure on an iOptron Skytracker.

 

14mm @ f5.6, ISO 3200 240 Seconds

 

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Thanksgiving weekend in Anza Borrego

Was fortunate enough to spend a couple of nights out by myself in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Didn’t really get much sleep, but that’s the point isn’t it?

A moonlit Sandstone Canyon
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One more from Death Valley

Forgot I had this one! Taken near Eureka Dunes.

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More pictures from Death Valley

I have a lot more to go through but I figured I’d post these for now. I also have a bunch of journal entries I need to edit but I’d like to finish a few things up first. Here you go for now!

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Nice weekend.

Drove up to Pine Mountain Club this weekend to help Stephen do some work on his new truck (a beautiful 1990 Toyota Pickup 4×4) and got a chance to do a bit of help with his 17″ CDK project. Scope is almost ready for first light but it required three people to fix it to his mount.

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And of course one of my favorite parts of visiting PMC is this amazing view looking down the Grapevine towards Bakersfield and the Sierra Nevada

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Cepheus Mosaic

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And a labeled version!

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I’ve been working at capturing data on this one for a number of months now as sort of a real first light image for my 6D. A total of eight nights (only two of which were consecutive) and at least 40 hours of imaging time. This is a partial HaRGB Composite image. I say partial because no HA data was taken for the left side of the image as I really did not deem it necessary.

Imaging Location: Little Blair Valley, OCA Anza, and Julian Starfest.
RGB Data: Canon 6D unmodded with a Nikkor 180mm AI-S @ F4 ISO800
HA Data: Canon T3 full spectrum with a Nikkor 180mm AI-S @ F2.8. Astronomik 12nm HA filter. ISO1600. Camera cooled to 7C.
Mount: Orion Atlas EQ-G Guided

40+ hours exposure time.

Processed in Pixinsight and Photoshop. Processing was a huge challenging, taking 1.5 days of focus.

This was what the original image looked like after calibration and alignment:

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As you can see it needed a lot of work. Hardest part BY FAR is overcoming sky gradients from light pollution and airglow. I also did a terrible job of aligning my frames, this is something I’ve always had issues with.

Julian Starfest!

Spent the last new moon weekend of August at Julian Starfest, a fantastic event near the beautiful town of Julian in eastern San Diego County. Three perfectly clear nights and four comfortable days, absolutely wonderful to get out of the heat of lower elevations. I finally finished capturing data for my huge mosaic of Cepheus and now I’ve got a three day weekend to process it!

The drive out there was spectacular, some mid summer thunderstorms had been pounding the deserts and mountains and I caught the tail end of them as I was driving up highway 78 through Ramona and on to Julian. Saw a real bonefide double rainbow which in Southern California is pretty rare as it hardly rains, especially the last couple of years. What struck me was how brilliant the colors were all the way down to the ground.

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Arrived at the Menghini Winery around 7PM to a wet and muddy field with maybe 50 observers waiting to set up. Took a look at the Wundermap radar and it seemed that there would be no more rain for the night so I excited started unpacking the Toyota and began setting up. The night stayed clear but the seeing was pretty bad (no big deal since I was just going to be imaging at a focal length of 180mm) and the dew was horrible. I have a blow dryer for dew but no AC power to plug it in to and it uses a lot more power than I’m comfortable putting through my inverter. No matter, a periodic equipment wipe down was all I needed.

Went to bed in the back of the Toyota around 1 am but not before setting an alarm on my phone to wake me up every 2 hours to check on things. The night got much colder than I anticipated, what with the damp ground and moisture in the air. I had neglected to bring some of my normal cold weather gear as its the middle of summer in Southern California, who needs thermal pants? I did.

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Morning came. I had parked with the rear of the truck (where I was sleeping) facing east which resulted in a harsh dose of the one astronomical object that is hardest to avoid, the sun. I tried denying it for awhile, putting the sleeping bag over my head while trying to ignore the rapidly rising temperature. Eventually I had to come to grips with the fact that I was being baked alive in the sleeping bag. Alright, I’m awake. Stumbled out of the truck and started planning breakfast.

Whenever I do these multi day trips my biggest source of stress isn’t money, shelter, weather, navigation, fuel, local regulations, clothing, entertainment or forgetting crucial pieces of equipment. That stuff is easy, its static, matter of fact. Food is hard. I hate planning my meals, I hate having a predetermined amount of cooler space. I could care less what Dan two days from now wants to eat. I am too impulsive with food to even think about what I want for dinner. So planning for multiple days, even a week is a major annoyance. Sometimes I can just solve it by buying a couple of boxes of clif bars and tossing them in my backpack. Or at least I think I can solve it, on day three of eating cliff bars I get pretty cranky. Water is easy too, one gallon per day + four gallons for the truck in case I loose a radiator hose or something. But food? I’m out here working, not here to eat.

And thats what made Julian Starfest great. There are food vendors on site! There is the town of Julian a couple of miles up the hill! Markets, restaurants, gas station crap, its all there! All I put in the cooler was some energy drinks, beer and a six pack of hot dogs. How great is that?

I power my equipment in the field using a deep cycle marine battery hardwired into my trucks electrical system. The battery is recharged by the alternator which is really great, not having to worry about finding some AC power to steal is a big relief. But this necessitates me driving around for an hour or two to fully charge the battery back up. While the battery should easily last me two full nights I like to be on the safe side and top it off every day. Which means I get to drive around Mount Laguna, one of my favorite areas of San Diego County. Drove around Lake Cuyamaca which is pretty low at the moment (drought!) and stopped at a few overlooks on the side of the Sunrise Highway to get some photos of the Anza Borrego Desert down below. Witnessed quite a few cliff diving swallows in my general vicinity which was a pretty cool treat, I had never noticed them before.

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Lately I’ve been on a layered mountains (?) kick. Can’t help myself, not one bit.
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I just picked up a Rokinon 14mm Cine lens for the 6D, great lens for the price. Even though its the cine version I really love it for regular photography, the de-clicked aperture ring is a real treat when trying to get the perfect exposure. Almost no coma in the corners, great color rendition and while there is a bit of distortion its quite easy to correct in software. The real trick is trying to get the perfect angle, a small movement in any direction completely changes the whole feel of the image.

Trip to the White Mountains

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Day 1 5/22/2014

Left Rancho Santa Margarita around 10 am after spending the previous night packing everything up. Ordered Pizza the night before as I figured I was going to be eating simple camp food the rest of the trip.
Didn’t hit any traffic, arrived in Victorville around 11:40 and fueled up. Jumped back on the 395 for a few hours, traffic was again light (a benefit of leaving on a Thursday). Hit a few rain showers on the way but it was pretty patchy, nothing that concerned me. Got to Big Pine aroud 3:00 pm, fueled up and then took the 168 to Death Valley Road. Next destination was supposed to be Eureka Dunes. The drive was a lonely one, only passed one other vehicle near the beginning. The paved road wasn’t in too bad of shape. Passed through a cool canyon with some interesting anticlines (I think thats the right term), a Joshua Tree forest in what I think is Papoose Flats and then the road spit me out into Eureka Valley. From here it was an unpaved 12 miles. Road was a little bit washboarded but nothing 40 mph couldn’t take care of. The general area of Eureka Dunes was coming into view when all of a sudden several lighting strikes broke out of the dark clouds above. I could see them hit the ground around the area I’d be staying at. I reached the end of this section of road and turned onto Eureka Dunes Road (I think). The washboard here was much much worse, similar to the road on the way to the Racetrack. Granted, this was only 10 miles vs the 30 mile road to the Racetrack, I didn’t want to get a flat by myself out here. A few more lightning strikes directly to the ground a few miles away from me convinced me to turn around and head 1.5 hours back to Big Pine. The storm seemed to follow me, a light rain on Death Valley Road turned into a torrent once I hit Big Pine. Hail started coming down, could barely see anything in front of me. I seeked cover in a Shell gas station parking lot and waited the storm out. Since I had reception I figured I’d call Kaela and update her on the situation.
Rain seemed to subside after 30 minutes and since I still had a bit of daylight I got back on the 168 but this time headed up to White Mountain. Very twisty steep road, down to one lane in a narrow rocky canyon section. I was alternating between 2nd and 1st gear the whole way up, this was a result of all the equipment I decided to bring. Arrived at Grandview Campground (8,400 ft elevation) and began unpacking the basics. Skies were still cloudy but looked like they may clear. I didn’t want to take a chance on my gear getting soaked so I just got the tent set up. As I was in the middle of preparing my home for the next five days it began snowing! Quite a contrast from last week in Southern California reaching temps of over 100 for five days in a row. Ground temp seemed to be too warm to support much snowfall so it melted right away. Snow eventually trickled down to a little flurry and I could see the sunset poking through the clouds. Drove up 2.5 miles to the Sierra Viewpoint where I actually got cell phone reception. That was great to know for the next few days as I like to check in with Kaela and make sure she knows I didn’t drive off a cliff.
Took a timelapse of a beautiful sunset over the Sierras from the viewpoint and headed back down. The sky had cleared up but things still felt very wet as if the clouds would roll in and it would start snowing again any minute. I opted not to set up my equipment, rather just two cameras for timelapse work. If it did begin to precipitate they would be much easier to cover up than two scopes, laptop, etc.
Next morning I awoke to below freezing temps. Got dressed, made a fire to cook some brats on and then headed further up white mountain for a bit more exploring. I checked out the Schulmann Grove but it was too tourist oriented for my taste so I headed further up the unpaved roads. Some some awesome landscapes, all dotted with the Ancient Bristlecone pine.
That night two engineers from JPL had come up for the much hyped Carmeloesdidis meteor shower and they joined me as we waited for the sky to clear. It didn’t. I was briefly able to show them Jupiter and Saturn in the XT8 but that was all the sky allowed. It wasn’t exactly cloudy, just a thick haze that completely destroyed the wonderful clarity this site boasts. Instead we discussed working at JPL which of course I found fascinating. Their names were Danny and Mike, roommates. One of them an electrical engineer, the other one mechanical. They worked on science packages for satellite missions. They also had only worked there a year but it was still interesting to hear them talk about. Like many professional astronomers and space-faring engineers I had met they knew little of the night sky and amateur astronomy but they were still up there so at least they had some curiosity.
The next day I went further up White Mountain, nearly all the way to the Barcroft Gate but deep snow hindered me. While the BF Goodrich All Terrain K/O tires are fantastic for dry off roading they are terrible in mud and snow and I didn’t want to get stuck. I spent several hours photographing some of the more desolate looking Bristlecone Pines. The landscape up there is very stark, I’ve seen pictures but it really looked like what I’d expect dry frozen tundra to look like. Just sand, light scrub and a few Bristlecones. The sky was bright too, being at 12,000 feet elevation sunglasses are 100% necessary.
After exploring for hours I eventually returned back to camp. Skies looked much better this night, just a few cumulus clouds. No haze, no looming thunderheads, just deep blue sky and a few puffy clouds that would disappear once the sunset.
I couldn’t believe how dark it gets up here. And I use the word dark not to mean how little I could see but I use it in the sense astronomers use it. The darker a site is, the more you can see. The zodiacal light was clearly visible, airglow flashed in the upper atmosphere above me. The milky way looked light a bright cloud rising from the east and the few clouds that were floating around where completely black. That is a very cool site to see, normally you expect clouds to be brighter than the surrounding sky but here its the opposite, just like ink blots wandering around.
From the east side of the campground you can look down into the beginning of the great basin that stretches all the way across Nevada and into Utah. This is a land where supposedly no water escapes and hardly any other water reaches. I’ll have to get out there some time.
The milky way rose over the great basin and it was clearly visible even right on the horizon. I have not been fortunate to experience that before, normally its hard to make out from the background muck until its maybe 20-30 degrees overhead. I stood at the edge of this overlook for an hour with the 6D and a tripod taking a timelapse and then a panoramic shot of the milky way rising over the mountains.

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New Site

Hello all, I will no longer be updating pocketrubbish. All new stuff will be posted at my current website, danwattphoto.com

Screw that, I like this site. Portfolio sites are stupid for a hobby.

Death Valley 2013

Got a week off of work in early November and decided to take the time to get out to Death Valley. I had initially planned on going up to the Sierra Nevadas earlier in the year but wasn’t able to get any time off, by the time I could it was far too cold. But you know what? I’m glad I got to see Death Valley, what an amazing place.

 

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Update!

Long overdue upgrade of the equipment page, check it out.

 

Trifid to Lagoon Processing Details!

Okay, here goes. I’m going to try my best to remember all the steps I took but I’ll probably leave out a lot of details. This image is actually going to be displayed in an upcoming art show called Stellar that is space themed. AFAIK I’m the only astrophotographer participating out of maybe 30 some artists.

First, capture. I had planned to go to the dark site for three nights. The targets don’t get up above the horizon until near midnight so I had plenty of time to perfect my polar alignment and play with the new scope (again, first light for this 8″). I brought my 6″ along just in case something was horribly wrong with the Orion and thankfully there was nothing major. Only issue I could find was that the secondary nuts on the outside of the tube were tightened far too much from factory and actually bent the spider vanes slightly, but enough to make for some big ugly diffraction spikes. I twisted them back into shape as good as I could but I’m going to have to take them out and use some tools to get them perfectly flat. No matter though, onward!

The first night was plagued with dew, humidity was near 100%, not something I’m accustomed to dealing with in the mountains of southern California. It got so bad the PRIMARY actually dewed up, never had that happen before. I decided to instead spend the time building a decent model and getting the polar alignment perfect using EQAlign. I then did some testing with the new scope to estimate what my exposure times would have to be. I started with the usual, 10 minutes @ ISO800. Completely over saturated! That’s a good thing! I decided to try some 5 minute exposures @ ISO800. Still too long. Awesome! Went for 3 minutes, perfect. Definitely overexposed but without clipping the highlights, just the way I like it.

Spent some time planning out the framing. I should mention that was wasn’t my intended target for the weekend, I was originally going to do a mosaic of the Elephants Trunk Nebula area. I discovered that my north eastern horizon was right in the light dome of Palm Springs… I’ll have to come back to the Elephants Trunk from a different site. But the south east looked good so I decided to go for a mosaic of M8 and M20, something I’ve always wanted to do. I haven’t imaged those targets since I first started in AP a few years back so I was excited to see what I could pull out now. Anyway, I noticed that to do a mosaic of M20 to M8 I could keep the X and Y axis of the sensor chip lined up with RA and DEC without having to rotate. AND I can slew in DEC from M20 to M8 and they both fit in the frame. How easy is that?! So I took three frames with a decent overlap of around 25% so I could plan the imaging run for the weekend out. Went to bed at that point because as soon I was done blow drying the optics they went up dewed up all over again… the temp was below freezing too, again, not something I expected at this time in the year but the mountains always surprise me.

Spent the next two nights capturing the data. I split the center frame up over both nights. The quarter moon set at midnight the first imaging night and around 1 am the second night. Before sunset second night I realized I had enough time to get an hour per frame of hydrogen-alpha data and still have plenty of time to capture the final frame in RGB after the moon set. Did some quick tests to determine my exposure time and set it to 10 minutes @ 1600 ISO. This proved to be a mistake as I was overexposing the cores past the dynamic range of the camera but I didn’t notice during the tests exposures because I was so concerned about the background detail being raised cleanly above the sensors noise floor. I had to set my alarm and wake up every hour to change the frame. Around 2am or so I woke up to remove the HA filter, refocus and reframe the shot. Skies were still perfectly clear, seeing looked excellent and the temp was around 40 degrees. Plenty low enough to keep noise under control while doing 3 minute exposures.

Had to wake up a final time around 3:30 to do a meridian flip, refocus and frame again. It’s been awhile since I imaged with a steel tube and I was concerned with focus shifting due to temperature, even a tiny bit at f4 could spell disaster. Got another couple hours of sleep, woke up at 5 am to pack the car and drive three hours to a full day of work!

After work I was far too tired to attempt any processing (in and of itself a HUGE lesson. It’s very tempting to get excited and process your image after you’ve pulled an all nighter. I get far too sloppy without enough rest) so I stuck the camera in the fridge and had it take dark frames all night, I didn’t have any 3 minute frames in my library since I’ve never had a scope fast enough! I did organize and group all the images into the proper directories along with their associate flats and such.

Preprocessing (calibration) and image integration: I decided to do the HA data first since processing monochrome data is quite a bit faster than RGB and that way I could get a good feel of the processing needed for the RGB image. I used Dark Library to scan my dark files for some that were within 2C of temp difference and wrote those down. Took about 100 bias frames (why not, it’s quick and easy) and checked my flats to make sure the dust motes would match.

Pixinsights new preprocessing script was used over my traditional method of using Deep Sky Stacker and I am glad I did, it gave far better results than I could get out of DSS and I’ve got a bit of experience with every possible setting on DSS… Pixinsight worked perfectly using the defaults.

I lined the three frames up to see if I would have to do any dynamic background extraction and only a very tiny amount was required. Again, this was the hydrogen alpha data so I shouldn’t be seeing any drastic gradients from light pollution, just the moonlight. I usually use around 4-6 points per row with a pretty low tolerance (.5-1.0) because the last thing I was to do is remove any nebulosity nor do I want to remove the glow from the milky way. A few attempts and trial and error and I was on my way. I used star alignment to register and merge the images together. I found that I didn’t have to move on to GradientMergeMosaic, frame adaptation in star registration was all I needed. So in the HA image there is zero feather edging between seams and you better believe I was pleased with that.

After merger I did a touch of deconvolution to better resolve the faint wisps of dust. I used the DynamicPSF tool to determine the right psf parameter to use and then spent quite a bit of time building an appropriate deringing support image (basically a star mask). Finally got the StarMask settings right, made the mask and then had to play with the deringing parameters for quite awhile until it looked perfect. Never get sloppy with thise! No matter how fantastic an image looks if there are deringing artifacts on stars they stick out like a sore thumb.

After deconvolution I think I did my initial histogram transformation. Played with this awhile until I was satisfied with the dust levels in the background and of course the nebula was blown out. HDRMultiscale Transform took care of that. I don’t remember what exact settings I used but they were not wildly different than the default, I think a bit less aggressive if anything. I kept the nebula brighter than the background gas and dust as this is what you see when you look in a scope. Then I used a star mask and ATWT to enhance contrast on both small scale structures a tiny bit on really large scale structures, this helped the background to really pop. I am sure I did another curves adjustment somewhere along the line.

Once the hydrogen alpha image was to my satisfaction I then proceeded to start work on the RGB image. I did the same initial steps that I did to my HA image… DBE, deconvolution and then merged the images together. The seams were still visible, even with frame adaptation enabled so I went ahead and merged the images with GradientMergeMosaic using a feather amount of 5 pixels. Looked good so on we go.

Went ahead to color calibration. I don’t bother with the camera white balance, since the camera is full spectrum I just leave it on a custom daylight setting, since we are working with raws it doesn’t matter anyway. After color calibration I started my histogram transforms until I got the RGB image looking similar to the HA image. Spent quite a lot of time building a good star mask and applying a morphological transformation to reduce star size, this was done using morphological selection rather than minimum as I feel this gives me more control. All the stars were a big bigger than I would have liked since again, this scope was faster than I expected. Collimation could have been off a tiny bit, I had used a barlowed laser but I’m sure the focuser moved around a bit from the weight of the camera. Star shape was still good and everything was definitely in focus, something made easier by the dual speed focuser (I’ve never used one before!), especially when getting HA focused. This scope is fast enough that I could actually use liveview to focus with a bahtinov mask through an HA filter!

Anyway, I could not be as heavy handed as I would have liked to be with the star sizes as they would have blended into the background and made weird looking worm like structures everywhere. Time to move on.

I registered the HA image to the RGB image, had to play with the settings a bit to made sure every part of every frame lined up. I was easier than I expected this stage to be and the Baader MPCC did a fantastic job of keeping coma in line at the edges of the frames.

HA and RGB were then blended using PixelMath. There is a great HaRGB script for Pixinsight written by silvercup but I feel I have more control using pixelmath. This is were my memory is hazy. I know I blended the images on two or three different scales with slightly different ratios. I also blended the HA with the red channel, around 25%ha or so. The blend on the lum channel may have been as much as 70%ha but I really don’t remember. After the blend I needed to do a little bit of work getting the color to look right again. Saturation was enhanced in the background and I believe I raised the blue saturation to better show the blue-grey dust around M20.

After this I did a very minimal noise reduction using ACDNR on only the darkest areas, the rest of the image was clean enough. Masks are your best friend with noise reduction.

I probably did quite a bit more tweaks in curves and another iteration of morphological transformation to better get the dust to pop out from behind the stars. Also had to do a bit of work blending the cores of the nebula. The highlights were clipped in the HA image so that was a problem.

So there you have it, if anybody wants me to clarify anything please let me know. I’m probably going to end up reprocessing the image completely from scratch again… I’m waiting on a color calibration card from X-Rite so I can calibrate my monitor as this image is going to be printed and put on display in a big lightbox. Never had to do that before so I’m a bit nervous.

Biggest lessons you can take out of this:
1. Star size reduction does wonders to enhance background detail
2. Don’t get sloppy with your flats if you’re doing a mosaic
3. Fast scopes are magical to use

And the Hydrogen-Alpha:

Progress

Every winter I turn my scope to the Orion Nebula and it’s proved to be a good way of tracking my progress through the years.

The first entry is rather embarrassing. It was taken on Christmas Eve 2009. I had driven out to Tierra Del Sol by myself for a night of imaging since I didn’t have anything better to do for Christmas. It was cold, clear and dark. I was the only person there and I arrived after sundown so it was quite spooky trying to get my bearings. It was only my third month as a member of SDAA so I was still trying to get the hang of things. Tons of weird noises out in that desert.

I was having issues with my camera control software for my Nikon D60 so I ended up having to take each exposure manually. Since I was using a CG-4 equatorial mount without autoguiding I was limited to 30 second exposures so I had to sit there in the cold pressing the remote release, waiting, pressing the release… waiting… on and on until I decided to pack up. Wind, periodic error and high clouds limited me to around 65 usable frames totaling about 32 minutes in exposure time. Pretty bad considering it was a two hour drive to get there and I was facing another two hours to drive back.

Got home, loaded the images in Deep Sky Stacker and I was blown away.

My second attempt I came better prepared. I had a new mount (Celestron CG5) and an autoguider which enabled me to go up to 5 minutes if conditions were perfect. This particular night (February 5th 2011) was a bit breezy so I had to limit the exposures to 3 minutes. Still much longer than my previous limit of 30 seconds with the CG4. And I still had to throw away about half my frames leaving me with around one hour worth of data. A new Baader Multi Purpose Coma Corrector helped with star elongation on the edges. Fantastic!

Flash forward about a year and I’ve got a new mount (Orion Atlas EQ-G) that allows me to get as long an exposure as I feel like it. Sky conditions at the dark sites I go to limit me to around 10 minutes or so per subframe, a fantastic improvement over what the CG5 was able to do. I’ve got a new camera as well, a Canon 350D modified with a Baader IR filter. My setup is nearly automatic now… I just have to polar align, build my sky model, focus and start shooting. I’ll usually set my alarm when it comes to meridian flip time so I can be certain everything is still lined up… I don’t quite trust auto-meridian flip yet. I got about three hours of data, some in 10 minute exposures with the 60 second and five minute exposures thrown in for the HDR combination. I was wary of blowing out the core as was the case in my first two attempts.

In addition to new equipment I purchased Pixinsight, a fantastic bit of software for processing astronomical images. Learning my way around that has been a bit daunting but as I progress it becomes clear how sophisticated it is compared with other photo editing software such as Photoshop.

I like this image yet I recognize I still have a very long way to go. First order of business is to purchase a newer camera. The 350D was a great camera in 2006 when it was released but there have been tremendous improvements in sensor technology since then. The noise is very hard to control on the 350d and the amp glow in the corners is a nightmare, even with properly applied dark frames. Currently looking at a 450D for it’s low noise and liveview feature.

The image could also use more exposure time, as well as a blend with some hydrogen-alpha data. I could do a better job of taking flat frames and a better job of framing this. But until next year, this is it.