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THE LAB

Take a picture of the universe for under $25


Forget the billion-dollar budget you can take images of space with your own digital camera

By Peter McMahon
Instruments like Hubble and the upcoming Webb Space
Telescope are increasing our knowledge of the universe and
providing some of the most amazing pictures ever taken of
the heavens.

What you might not know is that you can use the digital
camera you already own Cybershot, webcam (which you
can get now for under $25), camera phone to take your
own space photos.

What you need


Amateur astronomers use multi-thousand-dollar CCD cameras with exotic cooling systems
and a maze of wires. But who has the time or cash for that?
You can use your household digi-cam to get awesome cosmic pictures (even if it might not
lead to an awesome advancement in the field of astrophysics).
If you have a 2.0 to 5.0 megapixel digital camera,
get ready for a wild ride especially if its capable of exposure times of
more than 10 seconds (see your owners manual to find the longest
exposure time you can set your camera to, or to see if it has a bulb
setting, that will allow your cameras shutter to stay open as long as you
want.)
Its also handy if you have the ability to control the aperture setting, but again, were not
asking for studio-quality equipment here.
If youre going to use a

web cam

or

camera

phone, dont worry if you dont have any of these functions.

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THE LAB
Though not necessary for daytime or dusk/dawn shots of the Moon or Sun, a
any kind is good to have for shots of stars or planets at night. Most
digital cameras have the standard thread that mates them to a
tripod. For webcams or camera phones, strap em on with packing
tape (which wont leave a mark like duct tape will.

tripod

of

How to use it
If youre using a point-and-shoot digital camera of any level of sophistication, keep in mind
that youll want to change some of the settings to adapt to photographing small, dim objects
in the distance.
If you have the ability to adjust the shutter speed, youll
want to jump from the typical 1/250 of a second or so
youd use for shooting your friends or landscapes
during the day, to between 1/2 to 20 seconds for the
Moon, planets, or constellations.

STEP 2:
Adjust the aperture setting on your camera,
making it as LOW as possible. This setting (the
f-number) describes the lens opening and is
inversely proportional to the lens opening.
So, a smaller f-number, means a larger lens
openingwhich means more light can be
captured.

STEP 1:

Make sure you change the SHUTTER SPEED to


somewhere between 0.5 20 seconds. This
makes sure that your cameras shutter will
say open for a longer period of time,
allowing more light to be captured.

Your next highest priority is to see if you can adjust the


depth of field or aperture setting. For objects in space,
the lower the f-number the better. If you can get it down
to 1.4 or 1.8, youll be able to capture lots of stars in a
short enough time to keep the Earths rotation from
blurring the image over the length of exposure youll
need (15-20 seconds for constellations.) If your camera
can only get down to 2.5 or 3.5, dont worry. Go
ahead and see what you get. If its a little dim, raise the
brightness and contrast of your image in Photoshop.

And before you actually take each picture, make sure


your cameras focus is set to infinity (i.e., all the way
to the point where objects on the horizon in the
daytime would be perfectly in focus).

STEP 3:
Set the focus of your camera to INFINITY.

If

its not possible to take your camera off auto-focus mode, point it at something on the
horizon to focus, then quickly move back to the Moon, planet or stars youre trying to shoot
and press the shutter button down all the way. By focusing on the horizon, you are pretty
much focusing on infinity.

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If youre using a web cam or camera phone, keep in mind that most of these have less of an
ability to focus on extremely near or far objects. They may even have a fixed focus that
cant be changed at all. To take photos with either of these types of cameras, hold them up to
a pair of binoculars aimed at the object in space you want to capture.

Photography Tip #1:


If you can hold a camera up to the lens of a telescope or pair of binoculars, youll be
able to focus on images that are MUCH farther away
Take A LOT of pictures. This will give you the greatest chance of snagging a good picture
or at least leave you with enough sort-of-okay pictures to stack together in Photoshop or
specialized programs to create one good image (for more on how to stack images for this
purpose, click on http://www.astrostack.com/).

Photography Tip #2:


Using a TRIPOD will help prevent blurry pictures by making sure your shaky hands dont
interfere

What to use the technique on?


Every camera model is different, but heres a quick look at what to shoot your first night out
and how to find out how to take it to the next level once youve got some shots you like:
The Moon
Start easy. Pick a time when a first or last quarter Moon will be out in the day
(http://www.almanac.com/astronomy/moon/index.php).
This way, youll have a big, easy-to-find object you can
play around with while you can still see the display on your
camera without having to squint in the dark of night. When
zoomed in as far as your camera can go, almost any
model will be able to resolve the low contrast between the
blue sky and the white Moon, allowing your camera to get
a crisp, clear image.
See if you can match up the seas and craters in your
photo
with
a
map
of
the
Moon:
http://www.space.com/images/skywatchers_moon_map.gif

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Exposure: 1/250 second (just before dusk)


Aperture: f3.5
Camera: Kodak Z740 (5 megapixel)
Photographer: P. McMahon

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The Sun
You can do this with the Sun as well, if and ONLY if
you use Number 14 welding glass in front of your
cameras lens, and DO NOT LOOK INTO THE SUN
WITHOUT SUCH PROTECTION. If youre lucky, you may

Exposure: 1/250 second


Aperture: f3.5
NOTE: A piece of no. 14 welders glass
was used in front of the cameras lens
Camera: Kodak Z740 (5 megapixel)
Photographer: P. McMahon

be able to capture a few sunspots cooler areas of


magnetic
disturbance:
http://solar.physics.montana.edu/canfield/ssu_images/su
nspots.gif
If youve mastered the daytime sky, youre ready to try your
hand at constellation photography

Stars and planets


There are all sorts of books on astrophotography considered one of the toughest facets of
amateur astronomy but heres the five-second
primer on the settings you want to use to start
experimenting with constellation shots:
Shutter speed: 8-25 seconds
Aperture: f 1.2 to 3.5 (the closer to 1.2 the better)
Zoom: as tight as possible - (i.e. enough to get as
much of your subject as possible in the frame. NOTE:
Stop before you go into "digital zoom" if your camera
has it. This will actually degrade the image quality
most of the time.)
Because your cameras shutter will be open so long
in an effort to capture all these little points of light,
you must keep it mounted on a tripod in order for
those points to stay points, not trails or blobs.
If possible, use the timer function for each shot too,
so theres no chance that youll move your camera
while pressing the shutter button.

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Orion

Exposure: 8 seconds
Aperture: f3.5
Camera: Kodak Z740 (5 megapixel)
Photographer: P. McMahon

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Once youve got a few dozen shots that look at least okay in the preview screen on your
camera, take it inside to dump onto your computer and see what youve got.
If youre impressed with what you seeright-on! If
youre disappointed, dont delete anything yet.
You can use any number of functions in Photoshop
or other common image processing programs to
improve the sharpness, colour, or contrast of your
night sky photos.

The Big Dipper

Exposure: 8 seconds
Aperture: f3.5
Camera: Kodak Z740 (5 megapixel)
Photographer: P. McMahon

The universe awaits


Astrophotography isnt just for authors and scientists
anymore, thanks to emerging technology thats
getting better, cheaper, and faster everyday! You
can cover your wall, fridge, or desktop with views of
the cosmos you caught yourself, while on a deepspace safari that started in your backyard.

For more on basic settings for lunar or constellation photography


http://home.hiwaay.net/~krcool/Astro/asthwto/TriAst.htm
For more on free image-enhancing programs for astrophotos
http://www.astrostack.com/
For more on how to bring out the best in your astrophotos in Photoshop
http://www.dl-digital.com/photoshop_basics.htm
For more on what objects in the sky will be out when
http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/
For more on using web cams for astrophotography
http://exn.ca/Stories/2003/02/15/51.asp?t=dp
Places where you can actually get web cams for less than $25:
Best Buy http://www.bestbuy.ca/
Factory Direct: http://www.factorydirect.ca/
Future Shop: http://www.futureshop.ca/

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Peter McMahon is an award-winning science writer and a frequent speaker on wilderness


stargazing. When not scoping out the skies under his home in Port Hope, Ontario, he works
as a New Media Producer for Discovery Channel Canada

Did it work??? Did you get spectacular pictures, or ones


that arent quite ready for National Geographic?
Send your pictures in to us and well post them online
for all to see! And dont forget to Let us know what
settings you used on your camera.
Email: info@cramscience.ca

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