You are on page 1of 16

ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY HOW-TO GUIDE

Prefaces
Purpose
The purpose of this guide is to explain how to photograph common "stuff" in the night
sky. The main part of the guide is organized by increasing level of equipment, starting
with a simple hand-held point-and-shoot and going up to an SLR camera mounted on a
clock-driven equatorial mount. This guide is for digital cameras. Though the techniques
are likely the same for film, I do not have a film camera and so it is not written for that.
The opinions and techniques expressed herein are solely mine. I give no guarantee of
success for you when using them, but I would be surprised if you are unsuccessful if you
follow my instructions. There may be other, better, techniques out there, the ones
expressed here are simply what I've learned over the past few years of doing this.
This guide is meant to be read straight-through. Though you can use it as a common
internet FAQ, I don't recommend it because it is not laid out that way. As it progresses, I
introduce new concepts, ideas, and notes that I do not necessarily repeat later on, even
though they may be relevant.
I have tried to make it easy to follow by including common features at the beginning of
each new section that describes what new things I will be addressing. I have also tried to
point out important notes with arrows ().

Assumptions
This guide assumes that you can find objects in the sky. It simply gives names and
advice on how to photograph, and it should not be used as a how-to-find-stuff manual.
This guide assumes you know how to work your camera and how to manipulate aperture
and exposure length. It also assumes you know how to manually focus.
This guide assumes you know what objects are in the sky or can look them up elsewhere.
I explain some terms, like "Earthshine," if it's a specific thing to be photographed. But,
common astronomical objects (like the Pleiades cluster, the Summer Triangle asterism, or
the Andromeda Galaxy) I will not provide explanations for because that is not the
purpose of this guide. Google is your friend.

Terminology
Field of View - This is how much you can see through your optics. A large field of view
means you can see a lot, whereas a narrow field of view means that you can only see a
little. Field of views are usually measured in angles.
Angular Measurements - There are 360° (degrees) in a circle. Thus, if you could see
everything around you, you would have a 360° field of view. If you can only see objects
from directly left to directly right, you have a 180° field of view. One degree (1°) is
divided into 60' (minutes, or arcmin), while 1 arcmin is composed of 60" (seconds, or
arcsec).
Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 2 of 16

Magnitude - This is a scale that astronomers use to refer to brightness. It is a logarithmic


scale; this means that if an object A is 10 times brighter than object B, the magnitude of
object A is not 10 times different from object B. Rather, because of the way the scale is
defined, object A is 2.5 magnitudes brighter than object B. Every change in brightness of
a factor of 10 results in a change in magnitude of 2.5. Additionally, fainter objects have a
larger magnitude, while brighter objects have a lower magnitude (this is for historical
reasons). Pluto has a magnitude of around 13, while the moon has a magnitude of around
-12. This is a difference of 25 magnitudes, which means that the moon is 10^10 (because
25/2.5=10) times brighter than Pluto.
Exposure Time/Length - The amount of time the shutter on your camera is open and the
detector (or film) is exposed to light. Longer exposure times result in a brighter image
because the detector has had more time to collect light.
ISO - This tells the camera how much to boost the signal that is recorded by the detector.
A larger ISO number will "increase" the sensitivity of the detector and hence the
brightness of the image. However, you don't actually get more light, and so while you
increase the brightness of the image, you also increase the brightness of the noise.
Noise - Any fluctuations in brightness that aren't part of the object you're trying to image.
In electronic devices, noise is generally the result of heat: The molecules that make up
the detector move around, and they move more the hotter they are. The more they move,
the larger the chance is that they will accidentally release an electron which then gets
recorded by the detector as a piece of light, creating noise. The cooler the detector or the
better made the detector, the less noise there will be.
Mean, Median, and Mode - Ah, those geometry terms you thought you would never ever
need again. Mean is the same as average, which is the sum of all values divided by the
number of numbers that went into the sum. Median is the middle number of a ranked list.
That means that if a list is {1, 5, 2, 3, 6}, then the median is 3 since that is the middle
number once the list is sorted. If there are an even number of values in the list, then the
median is the average of the two middle numbers. Mode is the most frequently occurring
number, and as such there can be more than one mode in a set of numbers. For example,
if a list is {1, 5, 3, 2, 3, 6, 4, 5}, then the two modes are 3 and 5.

Sizes of Common Objects


Sun and/or Moon - 0.5°. So if you have a true 300 mm lens on your camera (so on my
Digital Rebel because of the 1.6x crop factor this would be a 188 mm lens to get a 300
mm equivalent), then you will have a field of view of about 4.5°x7°, meaning the full
moon will take up less than 1% of the total area. With my 1000 mm lens (1600 mm
equivalent), the full moon covers just about the entire vertical size of my detector.
Stars - Stars are point-objects (except for the Sun) as seen from Earth. Unless you're
going for an interesting effect, then the stars should be no larger than 1 pixel, otherwise
you're using a poor lens or your lens is out of focus.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 3 of 16

Constellations - This varies by constellation. There are very small constellations like
Dolphinus or Canes Minor to very large constellations like Virgo, Draco, or Ursa Major.
I'm not going to list the sizes of all 88 constellations, especially because the size varies
depending upon how much you want to see. A few of the more photogenic ones, with
their largest dimension to get most of the good stars are:
Orion - 27°
Hercules - 34°
Leo - 30°
Cygnus - 27°
Gemini - 22°
Böotes - 30°
Canes Major - 19°
Asterisms - These are not "official" constellations, but they are other groupings of stars
that have common names, such as the Big and Little Dippers, the Hyades, or the Summer
Triangle. Some of the more common ones:
Little Dipper - 20°
Big Dipper - 26°
Hyades - 20° or 4° (depending upon how much)
Summer Triangle - 38°
Planets - Very small. The largest as seen from Earth is Venus, which when new gets up
to 1 arcminute, but when full shrinks down to about 10 arcseconds. Jupiter is second-
largest, which gets up to nearly 50 arcseconds. Saturn can appear nearly as large as
Jupiter because of its massive rings. Mars gets up to around 25 arcsec, but it usually
hovers closer to 5. Uranus, Neptune, and Mercury are closer to a few arcminutes, and
Pluto is a point-source.
What is impressive and can be captured in a very big zoom lens (generally need more
than 500 mm equivalent) are the moons of Jupiter, which can span several arcminutes
across. You won't be able to resolve the disk of the moons, but you'll easily be able to
see their positions relative to the larger, brighter planet.
Astronomical Objects - Without a telescope, there are really only two other things I can
think of that you can capture with a normal camera lens: The Pleiades (AKA M45) and
The Orion Nebula (AKA M42). The former is 1.8° in extent while the latter is about 50
arcmin (the part visible with reasonable exposures, anyway … it's over 80 arcmin).

About Photographing the Sky at Night


Photographing the sky or objects in the sky at night is very different from photographing
during the day. This is mainly because of two things. First, objects in the night sky are
much fainter than objects are during the day. The brightest nighttime object - the moon -
is a factor of one million times fainter than the sun. Because objects are much fainter,
they require longer exposure time. This brings up the second issue, which is that the
night sky rotates over Earth (this is a true statement -- relative to Earth, the night sky
moves). So, in order to not see this motion, you need to take short exposures, or have
some way to compensate for this motion.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 4 of 16

What Can Be Photographed with Just a Point-and-Shoot Camera


Note: When I say "point-and-shoot," I assume that you know how to use your camera
and can use manual settings for exposure and aperture.
Required Equipment: Camera with manual focus, exposure, and aperture.
What Can be Photographed: The Moon
Major Limiting Factor: Camera steadiness.
----------
The short answer is "not much." Mainly, you can photograph the moon. This is because
the moon is, well, pretty bright. However, unless the moon is between first and third
quarter (half-full or more), you still may need a tripod in order to properly expose the
moon unless you have a fast lens (which is rare with the point-and-shoot cameras).
As far as exposures are concerned, many people say to stop down the aperture to f/8 or
even f/16. I, however, completely disagree with this unless it's a focusing issue or flaring
issue. My philosophy is that you don't have a tripod and so you're trying to take as fast a
picture as possible to minimize hand movement. Thus, my advice is to use the largest
aperture (smallest f-number) you can, and then experiment with exposure length. And
use the largest optical zoom you can (unless things have changed, digital zoom is pretty
bad and you're just as well off using image editing software to blow the image up).

Adding a Tripod
Required Equipment: Camera with manual focus, exposure, and aperture. Tripod.
What Can be Photographed: The Moon. Artificial satellites (trails). Planets as points.
Pleiades.
Major Limiting Factors: Earth's rotation and limited exposure time.
----------
A tripod opens up a few more options. With a tripod and a point-and-shoot camera, you
should be able to take an exposure for up to 30 seconds, which allows you to do a few
more things.

Earthshine
One of the first - and very often over-looked - is Earthshine from the Moon. The Sun
shines light on Earth, but it also shines on the Moon. That makes day on Earth and day
on the Moon, and where it's day on the Moon, it appears very bright (what we normally
think of when we see the Moon). But there's another reflection that goes on: Light
reflects off Earth, onto the Moon, and then back to Earth (so we can see it).
There are two differences with this light. The first is that it's much dimmer since Earth is
far from an ideal reflector. The second is that the light from Earth reflects off the entire
surface of the Moon that is facing Earth at that time, as opposed to just the sun-lit day
side. This means that when the Moon is in a crescent phase, you can still see the entire
disk of the moon due to the Eartshine off of it. The newer the Moon's phase (the thinner

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 5 of 16

the crescent), the brighter the Eartshine will appear because there's less of the sun-lit
portion showing.
And you can photograph this. It requires an exposure of a few seconds, and the Sun-lit
part of the moon will be completely saturated. But, you can see it, as in the example
below, which was an 8-second exposure, tripod-mounted shot at 18 mm (28.8 mm
equivalent) at I think f/3.5.

Other Stuff
Other observations that open up are satellite passes (they appear as bright streaks in a
time-lapse image) soon after dusk, the Pleiades, and planets (if you don't have a long
enough lens, then you can at least record any interesting conjunctions, like Jupiter and
Venus being close together in the sky, for example).

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 6 of 16

Having a Bulb Setting


Required Equipment: Camera with manual focus, exposure, and aperture; ability to set
exposure length to "bulb" which means you can expose as long as you want. Tripod.
What Can be Photographed: The Moon. Artificial satellites (trails). Planets as points.
Pleiades. Star Trails.
Major Limiting Factor: Earth's rotation.
----------
Star Trails - Length
The Bulb setting allows you to take an indefinitely-long exposure (as long as your camera
battery holds out). The main benefit to a bulb setting at this stage is that you can take
pictures of star trails. Star trails are just that -- trails of stars that are made as Earth
rotates. Here is how you can figure out how long the star trails will be for a given
exposure length:
1 1 hr 1 min exposure length in seconds
360° ! ! ! ! [ exposure length in seconds ] =
24 hrs 60 min 60 sec 240
So take your exposure length in seconds and divide by 240. The result will be how many
degrees long your star trails will be. For example, take an exposure for 15 minutes (900
seconds) and the trails will be 3.75° long. It's that simple.

Star Trails - Effect of Aperture


As far as aperture is concerned, this is another case where I've often heard people say to
use f/8 or so. Unlike the Moon where I whole-heartedly disagree with this advice, your
aperture will give you different effects with star trails. One thing to keep in mind is that
the sky glows: If you just set your camera facing up and leave it exposing overnight, it
will probably be a fully saturated image when you check it in the morning. As such, you
need a very dark location if you're doing star trails for more than hour-long exposures.
One thing that helps this is the aperture: Stopping down (increasing the f-number) the
aperture will decrease the amount of light that exits through the back of the lens and so it
will decrease the glow recorded from the sky. However, it will also reduce the number of
stars that are recorded because the camera detector will not have a large enough dynamic
range to record them. So aperture is a compromise with star trails. You can either stop it
down and be able to take a longer single exposure with less stars, or you can leave it open
and get a whole lot of 'em, but it will need to be a shorter exposure or you'll saturate the
detector.

Star Trails - Aesthetics


The trick is how you want them to look, which is done by your field of view and where
you center your field of view. In the Northern Hemisphere, stars appear to orbit around
the North Celestial Pole (NCP), which is marked by the star Polaris (the end of the Little
Dipper), which is not a very bright star, but it is visible even with moderate light
pollution. In reality, Polaris is about 3/4° away from the NCP and so it will show a trail,

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 7 of 16

albeit very small. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no bright star to mark the South
Celestial Pole (SCP), though the constellation of The Southern Cross spans across it.
If you aim your camera at the pole (you only have one choice unless you're on the
equator, in which case the poles are on the horizons), then the star trails will be arcs with
a center at the pole. If you aim your camera away from the pole, then you will get arcs
with no on-camera center. They can both produce interesting effects as shown in the next
two example images:

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 8 of 16

Another issue to keep in mind with star trails is that foreground objects, such as the
mountains in the top one and the trees in the bottom one can serve to make the trails more
interesting.

 The Effect of Clouds


And a second item to keep in mind with any long exposures of the sky are clouds. Even
if you can't really see them, it doesn't necessarily mean that there are no clouds. In the
minimum case, they'll form small whisps as in the top image. If they're thicker, then they
will start to become redish-orange streaks that can take away from or add to the
composition, depending upon your point of view, as in the second image. Note that
clouds will generally appear red in astrophotography, and they will come out brighter
than you'd think because they reflect lights on the ground.

Blurring for Colors


One interesting technique that I have tried with very limited success is to take a
photograph of star trails but to purposely have the camera out of focus. Take it as far out
of focus as you can. Then, approximately every 30-60 seconds (pick an interval and stick
with it), bring the lens slightly more into focus. Continue this until it's completely in
focus, let it expose another minute, and then stop.
The result should show cones of color (the color being the star's color which comes out
more when it's out of focus) that gradually shrink in size until they form a point, which is
where the star was brought into focus.
This can be a very interesting effect, though it takes some practice to get it right, and you
probably need a pretty dark sky site to get the colors to come out well.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 9 of 16

Adding a Motorized Equatorial Mount


Note: At this point in the guide, you should be using an SLR … unless your point-and-
shoot has a bulb setting and a wonderful range of lens lengths.
Required Equipment: SLR Camera. Motorized mount that tracks the sky.
What Can be Photographed: Anything.
Major Limiting Factors: Sky brightness, detector noise, aperture, focal length, and
atmospheric turbulence.
----------
Limiting Factors at this Point
This is where things really get interesting and you're more limited by sky noise, detector
noise, the length of your lens, the size of your aperture, and atmospheric turbulence. As
such, I'm going to briefly talk about why each of these is a limitation now.
But first, why they are a limitation: By using a motorized mount, you can now
compensate for Earth's rotation and no longer see the trails of objects as Earth rotates
under them. Consequently, you can now take a (if you wanted) 30-minute exposure of a
star and it would still look like a point-source. That is why you are no longer limited by
how stationary you can get an object and more by other aspects of your viewing location
and equipment … which are:
Sky glow - No matter where you are, the sky has some finite brightness, and light from it
will be recorded by your camera sensor. This is greatly reduced if you are in a dark
location, such as the middle of a desert, the top of a mountain, etc., as opposed to - say -
the middle of New York City. To give you some idea of this (and refer to "magnitude" in
the Terminology section if you don't know what that is), the faintest star that the human
eye can see is around magnitude 6. That's in a dark sky site. When I was in New York
City, I had trouble finding Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which is around
magnitude -2. Granted, taking a long exposure will help you to see fainter objects, but
keep in mind there is a fundamental limit to how faint you can go depending upon your
site.
Detector Noise - The other limit to how faint you can go is noise in your detector. Leave
the lens cap on, and take a 5-minute exposure at your lowest ISO (should be around 50 or
100). I'll wait. Alright, now look at that image, and it should be perfectly black.
However, it isn't. It might display rows and/or column streaks, cross-hatching, globules
of brightness, etc. This is caused by imperfections in the detector, the physical
temperature of the camera, and other things. Now do the same thing, but up the ISO to
something like 800. See the difference? This is why I say that for astronomy, buy a
tripod and use the lowest ISO you can. The longer the exposure, the more noise you get,
and the higher the ISO, you get even more noise recorded.
If you have software that can do image arithmetic, then you can pretty much get rid of
this effect. What you'll want to do is to take an image with the lens cap on using the
same exposure length as you do for the images of objects you're photographing. Then
you can simply subtract this image from the object image (this is called "dark-
subtraction"), since this noise is merely additive.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 10 of 16

Aperture - Assuming at this point you're going for deep-sky objects (pretty much
anything but the Moon, though planets are sometimes not considered deep-sky objects),
then you want the largest aperture you can get your hands on. Otherwise, you'll need to
take much longer exposures. The amount of light that gets through is proportional to the
square of the f-number. So, for example, my kit lens goes down to f/3.5. A lens I want
to buy is a 50 mm prime at f/1.4. Squaring the two and dividing shows that to get the
same amount of light to come through the lens and onto the detector, I would only need
an exposure 16% the length as I would need with the f/3.5. In astronomy, it's all about
aperture -- bigger really is better, and that's why we're always trying to build bigger and
bigger telescopes.
Exposure Length - There is no rule of thumb that I can give you for exposure of
astronomical objects since it will totally depend upon (1) the object, (2) how dark your
observing site is, and (3) your maximum aperture. The best thing to do is to guess-and-
check.
Atmospheric Turbulence - The atmosphere moves. That's why we have wind, weather,
etc. But, the atmosphere does not move all at once, and it has many different layers that
move on their own. This creates turbulence, and due to various optical properties, it
causes the positions of various parts of the object you're trying to view to move around.
This makes it appear blurry, and it can shift positions slightly between exposures (if
viewing a very small object like a planet). There is no way that you can correct for this at
this level (look up "Adaptive Optics" if you're interested in how astronomers deal with
it). The only thing you can do is to try to minimize it by only photographing during calm
weather, having low humidity, or being at high elevations (like on a mountain).

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 11 of 16

Earthshine Revisited
At this point in the guide, as I said at the beginning of this section, you should be using
an SLR. Attach your biggest camera lens and set up your mount. Take an image of the
crescent moon for a split second (for me, around 1/20 sec at 1000 mm f/16) to properly
expose the Sun-lit portion of the Moon. Then, take around a 20-second exposure. Then
make a nice montage like the one below (though I used a telescope for the Sun-lit sliver,
you can just use the same super-duper telephoto):

 This is a good point to talk about adding images to get better ones. Going back to the
"if you have software that does image arithmetic," you can take several photographs of
the same object, take them into the image arithmetic program, and then take the average
of all the images. This will help to reduce the effects of the noise in the detector, noise in
the sky, and noise that the atmospheric turbulence adds onto the image (it's more for the
atmospheric turbulence that we average in astronomy). See the "Averaging Multiple
Images" sub-section in the "Advanced Techniques for Better Images" section for more
information.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 12 of 16

Constellations and Asterisms


Next up are constellations. For these, you'll want a standard lens since constellations are
generally around 30° across on the sky.
An effect you may want to add is a blurring filter (either physical or in post-processing).
This helps to make the stars seem to "glow" more and bring out their color. An example
of the blurring is in the image of Orion, below:

Another piece of equipment you may want for constellations is a cross-screen filter to
produce diffraction spikes on the stars (what some people call "twinkling" though
"twinkling" is caused by something completely different). In real science images,
diffraction spikes are bad (they are caused by the support "spider" that holds secondary
mirrors in place) because we want the stars to be circles and not have their light spread
out all over the place. However, in "pretty picture" astronomy, diffraction spikes
generally make the image look more interesting and they help to bring out the color of the
stars.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 13 of 16

An example of adding the diffraction spikes is in this image of the constellation Böotes
and Corona Borealis (the bright orange star is Antares):

Other than those suggestions, the best advice for constellations are to expose as long as
you can without getting too much sky noise, use the largest aperture you can, and take
several images and average them (this is also sometimes called "stacking").
 Unfortunately, there is another effect that will come into play at this point that I have
not yet mentioned, and there is no easy way to get rid of it: Vignetting. Vignetting is
when the corners of the field appear darker than the center. The degree of vignetting is
heavily dependent upon the lens. One way to get around the vignetting is to simply mask
out everything but a circle in the center of your image. However, that can be very
unsatisfying. There are several advanced techniques that can be used to remove
vignetting; for more information, see the "Dealing with Vignetting" sub-section in the
"Advanced Techniques for Better Images" section.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 14 of 16

Small Stuff
You may notice that this section of the guide is quite short. That's because the small
objects - such as planets, nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies - are, well, really small for
the most part. In order to properly photograph them, you need to have a powerful
telephoto lens.
For example, on a standard camera, a 1000 mm lens will give you a horizontal field of
view of around 2°. In contrast, most telescopes give a field of view of around 20% of
this, around 20 arcmin. Compare this with the largest planet size, Venus, which at its
largest is 1 arcmin. Galaxies and globular clusters, meanwhile, are generally around 10-
30 arcsec in size.
So unless you're going for the largest deep-sky objects - Andromeda Galaxy (AKA M31,
approx. 3° across), Pleiades (AKA M45, approx. 2° across), and other open clusters
(generally around 30-50 arcmin for the larger ones) - you're entering into the realm where
you need a telescope. And if you're going to buy a telescope for astrophotography, you
should be reading a more advanced guide than this.

Advanced Techniques for Better Images


The key word in this subject is "images" since it is not what a purist would call a
photograph. The purpose of this section is to talk about a few things you can do to make
a better final product.
What you need for this is software that can do image arithmetic. This means that you
need a program that is capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing one
image or group of images by another. PhotoShop CS2 and later will do this through the
Image > Calculate option (earlier versions might, too), and there's other software out
there, as well. As I have assumed throughout the guide, though, it is up to you to figure
out how to use whatever software you're using -- I'm just describing the general
workflow.

Subtracting Noise
The more advanced DSLR cameras these days will actually do this for you. But for those
of us who don't have one, you can remove the thermal noise and hot/cold pixel noise by
taking what is known as a "dark" image. To do this, you take a photograph with the lens
cap on for the same length of time as the object you imaged (called the "object" from
now on). Technically, you should do this 3 or more times and take the median of the
dark images, or if you can't do that, take the average (mean). Practically speaking for this
level of photography, you can more realistically take a single dark image.
Once you have your dark, you simply subtract it from the object image. And that's it,
since the detector noise adds linearly to the object.
Alternatively, you could simply use the "Dust and Scratches" filter in PhotoShop to take
care of the hot pixels.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 15 of 16

Dealing with Vignetting


At this level, there is no easy way to get rid of vignetting effects. In astrophotography,
the "real" way to take care of vignetting and other optical imperfections is to take what's
called a "flat" image. This is done usually by taking a picture of a white, evenly
illuminated circle that hangs in the dome that the telescope is. You take several of them
and average them together. An alternative method for taking a flat is to photograph the
twilight sky because it is assumed to be relatively evenly illuminated, as well. And the
best way to take a flat is to take several images at various locations in the night sky.
Then, take the median of all of them (mean doesn't work for this). This is known as the
"super sky flat."
Based upon this, there are a few things that you can do to try to fake a flat. One is to go
with option #2 and take several photographs of the twilight sky and average or median
combine them. Another is to use option #3 and median combine them. The key is that
you must use the same lens and not change its focal length from the flat to the object
images. If you're using a prime, this isn't an issue.
A fourth option relies upon sophisticated software that can fit a 2-D polynomial to the
image, which should take care of most of the vignetting effect. This fit would be the flat.
Once you have your flat image, you need to subtract the dark from it, as well, unless you
went with option #4. Then, take your dark-subtracted flat, and you need to normalize it
by the mode (you could use mean or median, but you should use mode). This means that
you take the value that is most common among all the pixels and divide the entire image
by it. This will result in the mode being 1 in the flat, which is what we want. This is so
that the average value of the final object image remains the same.
Once you have the normalized dark-subtracted flat, you divide it into the dark-subtracted
object image. To put it all into an equation:
object ! dark
calibrated object =
flat ! dark
where the brackets <> indicate the normalization.

Averaging Multiple Images


The next stage in standard astronomical image reduction that you can more easily do - in
fact, if you only do one of the three things in this section, this is the one to do - is to take
the average of many photographs of the same object.
To do this, use whatever image arithmetic software you have, add up the images, and
divide by the number of images. In PhotoShop (at least the CS2 version), you can use the
Image > Calculations… option to average two images together. Note that you can only
do two at a time with this method, so you will have to take 2N images where N is an
integer. For example, you could take 22 = 4 images. Then you can average image 1 with
2, and average image 3 with 4. Then you can average the 1-2 average with the 3-4
average to get the average of all four images. Admittedly, this gets rather tedious, but the
results of averaged images are usually much sharper than a single image.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins


Astrophotography Guide Version 0.5 Page 16 of 16

Focusing Advice
Let's face it: It'd be nice if the "infinity" focus location on the camera lens really did
focus at infinity. But - in my experience - more often than not the infinity focus position
is "past" infinity, and you need to back-track slightly in order to get the camera lens
properly in focus. But how can you tell on that tiny little view-finder if your star is in or
out of focus?
One way that I've used is to focus on the Moon. It's big enough that you can usually tell
when you're in or out of focus without taking a picture.
The second method I use - for when the Moon's not out - is to take a picture of the
brightest object in the sky (Venus, Jupiter, Sirius, or another bright object), and then
zoom in all the way on the LCD screen on the photo. If it looks like the bright object is
too big, I adjust the focus slightly and try again. I continue this until I've gotten it as
good as I think is reasonable.
The third method - and I only do this if focus is extremely important and I'm imaging for
a long time on deep-sky objects - is to do the above method, but have the image pop up
live on the computer screen (requires proper software and cables). I can then zoom in in
the camera's software or PhotoShop and actually measure how many pixels across the
object is. I can then adjust the focus slightly and repeat the process and see if it got
better.
If you use method 2 or 3, I would suggest starting at the farthest "infinity" setting your
camera lens has. Then work your way downwards from there.
Also keep in mind that on many zoom lenses (in my experience) the exact "infinity"
focus location will change slightly depending upon what focal length you have your lens.

© 2007 Stuart Robbins