Backyard Astrophoto – Improvements in the Last 10 Years

When I first started astro-photography you had people like me who were just starting off and did it on the cheap with a webcam, a small newton telescope and basic mount, or you could fork out an astronomical amount of cash to get really specialized gear.

Below is a photo of Messier 101 the Pinwheel Galaxy taken last week with a $500 Skywatcher80ED telescope and Canon80D DSLR on an unguided mount.

Messier 101 - Pinwheel Galaxy
Messier 101 – Pinwheel Galaxy (Skywatcher 80ED and Canon 80D)

I agree that it’s not as fancy as some of the research grade setups or some other hobbyist out there, but it’s many times better than my first try in 2008 (below).

My results of Messier 101 in 2008

What has changed? Well for starters the optical quality of beginner and intermediate telescopes has dramatically improved, largely thanks to automated and computerized lens and mirror shaping and polishing. Yes they are made in China, but so are most carbon-fiber bikes and the latest smart-phones. As the process is automated, quality can be tightly controlled and the results are hard to beat. A quality image starts by being able to collect and focus light properly, and for $500 you can get some really descent optics.

Another great boost is improvements in camera sensors. DSLR became a go-to solution because it was a cheap way of getting a large sensor with low read noise and good sensitivity. Of course there are still monochrome specialized astro-gear available for backyard astronomers, but the one-shot color results of a DSLR are hard to match. DSLRs offer ease of use, compatibility with most software and are the biggest bang-for-your-dollar compared to specialized astro-cameras.

And the third major improvement in 10 years is computing power. A night imaging session can easily generate 1GB of RAW images that need to be processed. Transferring and storing data is now cheap, and software has followed in lock-step to handle the increase in image size and quantity. Registering and stacking software can easily handle at the pixel-level hundreds of images each with millions of pixels. Sure it might take 20 minutes to process 120 photos from the DSLR, but that is a far cry from the hours of computer crunching. If your parameters were wrong, you just wasted a hour….

So while light pollution is choking the stars out of the night sky, one easy way to gain access to the universe is through astro-photography. It’s now easier and cheaper than ever to get good results with a simple setup.