Digital Astrophotography

Digital Astrophotography Cover
In the 80’s there were a series of commercials for Reeses Peanut Butter Cups that revolved around the theme of accidental meetings between chocolate and peanut butter. The individuals would realize that the two tastes that they loved separately were even better together. Two great loves for many card carrying geeks are digital photography and astronomy. “Digital Astrophotography” by Stefan Seip is a great guide to bringing these two wonderful pursuits together.

The first question that came to my mind was Stefan’s credentials in regards to the topic. A quick visit to his web site indicates that he is eminently qualified. His site boasts a wide array of beautiful and sometimes amazing photographs of celestial objects. This is obviously a writer who has extensive experience in the topic and knows how to get results. Robert Gendler’s strong endorsment in the forward also inspires confidence.

The book follows Seip’s step-by-step path to astrophotography. That path is scenic snapshots, piggyback exposures, images through the telescope, a web cam through the telescope and finally deep-sky images. At each step and level Seip gives guidelines for equipment. He has very helpful charts that focus on the features of cameras, telescopes and the accessories that one can use to bring them together. The complexity and cost rise as the reader moves further down the path. The progression, though, is not as steep as one might think. There is a lot that can be done to create really nice images of objects within our solar system that does not involve as large an investment as I had thought.

There is a chapter devoted to each type of camera. As the camera gets more complicated, and the types of suitable subjects grow, the chapters get appropriately longer. For each type, digital compact, web cam, dslr and astronomical ccd, there are sections on desirable features, selection criteria, suitable subjects and the pros and cons for the device. There are also instructions on getting suitable photographs and then step by step instructions on processing the photos. Each type of camera has the pros and cons explained as well as being laid out in an easy to read table.

There are two pieces of software used in the explanations of processing images. Adobe Photoshop and RegiStax. RegiStax is closed source freeware as far as I can tell. A windows executable is available for download, but the web site and user manual both give instructions on running RegiStax on
Linux via Wine. I don’t own Photoshop myself, but I had no problem working through the processing instructions with the Gimp. Working the processing steps is possible without even going outside, as the beginning files, as well as additional instructions and help are available for download from Seip’s web site. Those sections of the book have been valuable for me as I feel a much higher level of confidence in getting good images out of the time spent out at night as well as having learned more about using the Gimp and image processing in general.

The digital compact camera chapter is the shortest and simplest but the results possible are by no means trivial. Seip does a very good job of showing how to get the most out of the camera and processing. Many of these techniques do not require a telescope. The first example is just a very nice shot of a night sky with just a glimpse of the the sun’s last light as it sets in the west. With some simple processing tips a rather bland shot is quite nice when everything is done. There are instructions also on using a telescope and guidelines for getting good shots of the sun and moon.

The section on web cams was a pleasant surprise. The books instructions are generic enough that many brands of camera could be used, but there are also specific stats for a few cameras including a Philips model which is available for around $50. I had no idea that such an inexpensive camera could be teamed up with a good telescope and produce very impressive results. Seip lays out in detail how to setup the camera, telescope and then how to use RegiStax and Photoshop to complete the captured images. There are example photos in the book that any geek would be proud to display as one of their own, and many of us already own almost everything we need to get started. There are web cams made and marketed for astrophotography. Some of them have features put them outside the scope of the instructions in this book. I think that a lot of the processing instructions and tips on getting a good shot will still be useful, but the reader wont be able to follow them verbatim. Of course I’ve already been doing such adjustments to use the Gimp and I can say it isn’t too much of a jump. I think the book is well worth the purchase for the guidance in this area alone. Everything beyond this I considered to be bonus material, though it would be essential for the more serious enthusiast.

DSLRs are more expensive than the previous two options and more capable. The examples given are at times stunning and extend beyond planets in our solar system to even include deep-sky objects. The processing screen-shots and instructions are very detailed and show the reader how to arrive at results similar to the examples. I don’t have the equipment to do these kinds of photos myself, but again I was able to follow all the examples on my own computer using the Gimp. Much of it revolves around stacking layers. The only warning I would give is that reading this chapter has left me with a long wish list of equipment that I would like to acquire. I have already imagined the framed photographs up in my study showing many of the places I have visited in my mind, will never actually visit, but love to look at.

The final chapter is one that in all likelihood I will never use. It revolves around astronomical ccd cameras. Seip states that entry level models start around $700 and go up rapidly from there. One of their strengths is a wide array of accessories, many of which are not inexpensive either. My current level of interest and finances mean the DSLR level is probably as far as I will ever go. But I still found this chapter to be quite interesting. For those headed down this path, as with the others there are detailed instructions on selection of equipment, setting up, getting the shot, and processing. It is possible to create amateur photographs that rival the professional work I grew up on in publications like National Geographic.

The book closes with a short conclusion and an appendix that gives a chart rating types of cameras on suitability for various tasks and another chart with angle of view information for 4 different specific types of camera matched against telescopes of varying focal lengths. There is a resource section that includes links to useful web sites, hardware companies, magazines, books and other media. There is also a field of view comparison chart, a short glossary and a list of data in regards to all the illustrations in the book. There is no index.

The book itself is very attractive and well made. It is 8 x 10 and I found that having it be a bit larger than many of my other books, and thinner, makes it very easy to lay open. This will be handy as I plan to bring it out into the field with me. The paper is somewhat glossy and does a great job of showing off the many color photos. The full page shots that begin each chapter are very nice. The software screen shots are also full color and very easy to read. This is a book that looks capable of lasting quite a while with proper care. The cover has flaps that I found handy to mark my place. I don’t think I could bring myself to dog ear most of the pages in this book.

This edition is a translation by Elke Schulz of the 2006 edition “Astrofotografie digital” published by Franckh-Kosmos Verlags-GmbH & Co in 2006. But the book must have been reviewed and updated for this version as all the tables that give pricing on equipment say that they are accurate as of June 2007. I also checked on the availability of things like equipment, web sites and software and it all was available.

If you are at all interested in getting out and capturing digital images of what you see in the night sky, I highly recommend this book. It is full of great tips, instructions and lessons learned by experience that can accelerate your entry into the hobby. If you’ve tried in the past and been frustrated or thought the equipment was just too far out of reach, I would also recommend this book. Since I don’t have a lot of experience in this area, I can’t say whether or not the individual who has been doing this for a while would find this useful or not. I know I enjoyed it quite a bit and will be recommending it to many of my friends who spend time out gazing up.

Title: Digital Astrophotography
Author: Stefan Seip
Pages: 150
Publisher: Rocky Nook Inc.
Rating: 10/10
Book ISBN: 978-1-933952-16-1
Tagline: A guide to capturing the cosmos.

Posted under Astronomy, Photography Tags: , , , ,

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