Welcome back to the Visibledark podcast. I’m Shawn Nielsen, an astrophotographer and amateur astronomer.
This episode is part 2 of How it all began. If you haven’t checked part 1 please feel free to do so before listening to this one.
At the end of part 1 I mentioned one of the last telescope investments I made to the hobby was a 10″ Meade LX 50 SCT. At this point my interested in the hobby was fading with other things in life emerging that were of more interest to me. I ended up not observing and not doing any photographing of the night sky for a long time.
I sold most of my equipment, the 14.5″ reflector, the LX50 SCT along with an assortment of accessories. I think the only telescope that remains from that era is the 4.5″ reflector which is still tucked away somewhere at my parents home.
Years would pass and the night skies came and went. I remember catching a view of comet in 1997 when it was very prominent in the northern hemisphere. I had gone out early one morning to look for it. It was a spectacular sight.
I would still occassionally pick up an astronomy or sky and telescope magazine and thumb through it. I had become more of an armchair astronomer, content to read the articles and look at what others had photographed.
It would be nearly 20 years before I decided to revisit old friends in the night sky, the stars and constellations. It was Summer of 2008 and the partying days of my youth were behind me, I was more settled at this point and looking for to do someting more, something interesting with my spare time.
I had a few astronomy magazines kicking around, including a skynews canada issue. I remember seeing all these new fantastic telescopes, computer controlled, with bells and whistles I could only dream of when I was younger. A partcluar telescope caught my eye, the Celestron CPC 800 SCT. It was a marval of technology and looked super cool.
At this point in time, there was now a small local telescope/astronomy store in my city. KW Telescope it was called. I paid a visit to it one afternoon and looked around. It was magical indeed. My interest in astronomy was being stirred up, brought to life again. I got to see a CPC 800 model first hand and fell in love with it. I wasn’t really aware of what I should be buying in order to once again image the night sky. In fact the sales person at the telescope store asked what I wanted to do with the telescope. My main interest was astrophotography. He then showed me what would be a better telescope setup to do the imaging with. It was a 10″ newtonian reflector on an equatoria mount. It was impressive, big and sophisticated looking. It didn’t have quite the same appeal to me as the CPC 800 did though. I remember buying the 10″ reflector and equatorial mount though being told it was better. I was so excited. My first outing with it would be at the family cottage in northern Ontario. It would also be a disaster of sorts.
I had packed my new telescope and mount into the car and set of one weekend to the cottage. Fortunately it would be clear there at night and give me a chance to try out my new telescope. I lugged the tripod and mount out onto to the beach in a spot that had a nice clear view all around. I carried and attached the counter weights and telescope. Hooked up my little power pack to the mount. I then waited for dark.
It was my intent to polar align the telescope. I opened the manual and read about how to do it. It didn’t quite make sense to me. I stumbled through it, looking through the polar scope and trying to get Polaris positioned properly. I rotated a dial, and then another, trying to match up stars, adjusted the altitude. It just wasn’t working out. I remember getting frustrated. I went through the polar align routine using the hand controller, and continued to try and position Polaris. It just wasnt happening. By this time, my little power pack was getting low. It just wasnt enough. It ran out of power and I was left with just manually moving the telescope and looking at some stars and objects I remembered. That’s what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t working out like that. Trying to find these objects, even in the finder scope wasn’t easy. I did manage to see the Moon along with Jupiter and Saturn. Impressive sights to behold. I had thought how it had been so long since I last visited with them. I tried lookiing for some other objects but I didn’t know my way around the night sky as well as I once had. With the power pack being dead, I could use the mount databases and hand controller to slew to objects. I was a little disappointed and found the whole setup rather bulky to transport and setup. I wished I had gotten the CPC 800 I remember thinking. Somehow that would have made things better or so I thought.
It was getting later and I decided to pack things in. I dismantled the setup and packed the telescope back into its box. I did the same with the equatorial mount. It wasn’t clear again that weekend so the gear remained in the my car. The weekend over, I headed back home.
I thouht about things driving home. I thought some more about things being back now in the city. I decided I didn’t like the 10″ reflector and equatorial mount. It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t able to get it working properly and it was just to big and bulky compared to what I wanted. I remember returning with it to the telescope store and discussing this with the sales person that sold it all to me. He assured me it was a better way to go, if I was going to want to start imaging deep sky objects. I wouldn’t hear any of it though, my mind being made up to get a CPC 800. And that’s what happened. I paid the difference, returned the reflector and mount and walked out with a brand new Celestron CPC 800 SCT telescope.
It was so much more compact and fit better into my car. I couldn’t wait to use it.
I think I had first taken it out to a local park and set things up. It wasn’t that hard to figure it. The harder part was navigating the hand controller and doing a three star alignment. But I figured it out. The CPC800 was an alt-az setup, not equatorial, so up and down and left/right. While I had used equatorial in the past, 2 decades ago, it was somewhat easier for me to use the alt-az mode. I don’t recall what the first object was that I looked at but I definately explored the night sky. Selecting objects from the hand controller was easy and then the telescope would “go to” it on its own and center it in the eyepiece. Wow! Fricken amazing!
I should point out one of things I did was join a local astronomy club. There i met like minded people and was able to learn from others. One friend I made told me it would be a good 2 years of practice before perfecting the art of astrophotography. As it turned out it did take that long but I had a lot of fun getting there. Nowadays I think you never perfect art but just keep learning.
Back to the story, I also added a camera. That happened pretty quickly within a month or so of buying the CPC800. I bought a refurbished Canon Rebel 350XT and was able to get the needed hardware to attach to the CPC800. I didn’t even have a reducer at this point so was running full F10 focal length and no guiding! Yikes. Somehow though I managed to take some images. Not great but for me at the time certainly very exciting and only fueled my interet more. One of my first shots was of M31 the Andromeda Galaxy. A whole 8 minutes worth of data that I stacked together and processed in Photoshop! The core of it filled my camera’s sensor. The image is on my website and not much to look at, but was I ever thrilled with it. I went on to take images of the ring nebula M57 and other objects. These were short exposures of 30secs to a min. I even tried taking some photos of Jupiter and Saturn which while not perfect, were incredible to be able to capture like that.
It was 2009.
one of the things I quickly learned was that taking long exposure images using an alt-az setup wasn’t going to work. There was this pesky little thing called field rotation that occurred. It was about a year into my return to the hobby, 2009, and while I loved the CPC 800 I realized the telescope store sales person was right about using the equatorial mount for astrophotography. It was a lessoned learned but I wasn’t defeated yet because a friend at the time told me about an equatorial wedge for the SCT telescopes. Effectively turning CPC 800 into an equatorial mounted telescope from alt-az. Super I thought! So I bought a used milburn wedge at the telescope store, they just happened to have one luck enough, and I attached the wedge to the tripod base and then attached the CPC800 to the wedge. Ta-Da! The CPC 800 SCT was now new and improved for astrophotography.
One other thing I learned the hard way was about focal length and how the longer the focal length made it more difficult to take images and you’d need more exposures due to slower light gathering abilities. The F10 was 2000mm… a friend lent me his .63x reducer and I was able to attach that and lower the CPC 800’s focal length to F6.3 – this brought it in around the 1260mm focal length. Faster light gathering and wider FOV.
Now I was ready to rock and roll. It was now 2010.
I had I upped my game in astrophotography by now purchasing a used modified Canon 350XT (to capture more of the H-alpha wavelength).
I should note the modified camera was purchased from Ron Brecher of Astrodoc.ca – I had met him while he was doing a talk at the local telescope store. We’d end up forming a friendship and to this day we regularly chat about imaging and have coffee together.
I also had decided at this time to buy a small widefield refractor. It was a Skywatcher Equinox 80mm and I had a .8x reducer/flattener with it so it made it a fast focal length of just 400mm and very wide field. The refractor was piggybacked on top of the CPC800.
In addition to all of this I was introduced to PHD for auto guiding and Nebulosity for acquistion of the images. Both of these softwares were instrumental in my becoming a better astrophotographer.
I had a lot of fun taking images with the widefield refractor. It was more forgiving than the longer focal length CPC800. By now it was 2010 and I was head long into astrophotography. I was able to capture some larger deepsky targets using the widefield refractor, like M42 the Orion Nebula – I also imaged M8 and M20 together in the same field. M31 was a target once again and this time I took the most amazing 2 hour image – at least to me it was. The colours and details of the galaxy really popped out. I was so proud. I made a lot of use of that refractor piggybacked on the CPC800 and wedge.
While the widefield imaging was fun and easier to do I wanted to go back to the longer focal length of the CPC800 SCT and give my luck a try. I would end up taking a number of images with the CPC800 on the EQ wedge and the modified Canon Rebel XT DSLR camera. Two of the better ones was of the horsehead/flame nebulae and also an image of M8 the lagoon nebula. Both images were published actually and the horsehead/flame image won an award.
I continued to image the night sky for a couple more years using the CPC 800 SCT and the Equinox 80mm refractor. Both were capable telescopes and gave me not only some amazing images but also memories out under the stars. I was traveling to dark sites to do the imaging.
It was 2012 now and I was also lucky enough to be given a Skywatcher EQ6 mount by my good friend John. He at the time was also into astrophotography and had just bought a new mount so didn’t need the EQ6. This was an interesting turning point as I was almost back to what I had started with in 2008.
I ended up buying a an Orion astrograph reflector, it was a 10″ with a fast focal length of F4/990mm. This reflector was mounted on the EQ6. Now I was definately back to where I started… a reflector on an equatorial mount.
Through 2013 I imaged the night sky. I even began to travel to remote dark sites with friends and stayed up until dawn imaging the deep sky objects of the Spring, Summer and Fall.
It was around 2014 when I decided to try imaging from home. The traveling and long nights out in the cold, staying awake and then having to go to work the next day, were becoming to difficult. The light pollution would be a problem for sure and it wasn’t going to be a like a dark site but I thought I’d give it a try anyhow. City astrophotography.
I also decided at this time to go back to a widefield refractor. This time i purchased a William Optics Zenithstar 71mm refractor and it came with a reducer/flattener giving it a very fast focal length of just 334mm! It was an amazing widefield.
I mounted the Zenithstar 71 on the EQ6 and attached my modified DSLR. I imaged a number of object with that setup and was quite happy with it. The results while not as good as if taken from a dark site, were still good and I was enjoying being at home and imaging.
One thing I never had tried up to now was a CCD camera and filter wheel. This was an interesting experience. It was very different from using my DSLR camera. I was fortunate enouh to have the opportunity to borrow an SBIG 8300 and FLI filter wheel with 7 filters in it. This would allow me to take light frame using luminance, red, green, blue, H-alph, Oxygen 3 and Sulphur 2 wavelengths. Indeed the narrowband imaging, using the Ha, O3 and S2 filters is ideal for light pollution situations. It blocks out most of the light we don’t want and only allows through particular wavelengths, like tuning a radio to specific station. Taking narrowband images in the hubble palette was fun. I was able to set things up in my driveway, across from a street light, and take images of deep sky objects. One object I imaged using this setup was the North America Nebula NGC 7000. It was chosen as picture of the week by Skynews magazine at the time.
In 2017 I took the plunged into cooled cmos cameras. Specifically the ASI 1600mm cool. These aren’t CCD cameras but can give similar results and the come in at a lower price point. I had bought a Celestron 9.25″ SCT tube assembly from a friend so I thought I would test the ASI cooled cmos camera on that. Along with the ASI 1600mm cool I also purchased a 5 position filter wheel. I attached everything up and the next clear night I was imaging! That night I only took luminance images but I had a lot of fun and was quite thrilled with the results. One thing I noticed with the cooled cmos camera was download times were considerably faster – difference between 20 sec downloads and 3-4 secs. I also like the ASI 1600mm cool because it was capable of recording video as well. I used it to record a solar eclipse from my driveway as one example.
Using the ASI camera for a couple years gave way to the opportunity to buy a high end CCD – a Moravian G3 16200 with enhanced cooling. My before mentioned friend, Ron Brecher was selling it and upgrading. So I jumped at the chance. This CCD has a built in 5 position wheel and came with a full set of Optolong filters – LRGB and Ha.
To my arenal of gear I also invested in a telescope pier from Skyshed. There were a couple motivating factors for this, the two most prominent being I had moved the telescope from the driveway to the backyard because there was just to much unwanted light from the street lights (now LED) and neighbours putting up bad lighting and leaving it on all night and we were putting in a thick concrete patio. Moving things to the backyard came at a price though… I was losing a significant amount of sky due to a forest adjacent to our property. 70ft trees that blocked my view from the East all the way over to the South.
Having ditched the tripod legs and installed the pier has been a great experience. The pier is rock solid, stable and even though its attached to floating concrete (the patio), it’s a large patio and thicker layer of concrete than needed or normal. This really helps a lot and works well for keeping the mount polar aligned I have found. I’ve had to do little adjustment even through seasonal temperature changes and ground freeze/thaw. I highly recommend the Skyshed Pier if you’re looking to setup a permanent location for your imaging gear or like me semi-permanent – I call it that because there’s no observatory walls or roof … but the scope and mount are permanently installed on the pier and remain outdoors all the time, covered. It’s been quite effective and has made setting up much quicker and I’m able to get more imaging done now that ever – this combined with imaging from home now, the luxury of leaving the scope running all night while I go to bed!
My interest in astronomy and astrophotography as well as online marketing and merchandising also has resulted in me starting a youtube channel in 201. I spent a lot of time growing it, producing videos that discussed the hobby, astrophotography, hardware and software that would be of interest to the astro community. As of this podcast I have 3.5 thousand subscribers. The work I’ve put into my astronomy/astrophotography youtube channel has allowed me to forge new contacts and have some interesting opportunities where companies send me gear to try out, test, taking images with. I’ve had a long time relationship with Optolong filters and also did some reviews for OPT Telescopes. That was actually very interesting getting to test out the new Triad Quadband Ultra Filter – Its for OSC cameras and is a specialized narrowband filter, allowing for tuning in Ha, O3, Hb and S2 wavelenghs. I used that filter with a QHY168C cooled cmos camera to take images of IC1396 – I did images with and without the filter to demonstrate the difference and capability of using the filter plus being able to image from a light polluted area. There’s a video on my channel where I disuss it and also a blog post on my website, visibledark.ca. It’s been a lot fun! You can find me on Youtube by searching for Visibledark Astro or Shawn Nielsen (spell it!). I encourage you to check out some of my videos and by all means subscribe to my channel if you like!
I continue to image the cosmos, capturing light from the past, thousands or millions of light years old. I enjoy meeting up with old friends of the night sky, the familiar stars and constellations I’ve known since childhood. Thank you for joining me on this podcast. Tune in to upcoming podcasts where I discuss imaging from the city and will also be having special guest, astrophotographer Ron Brecher on the show.
Thanks for listening. Until next time, clear skies everyone!