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.

Leo Triplet


Small telescopes aren’t ideal for galaxies, unless you aim to snap a picture of the Leo Triplet.  The area around Leo has many galaxies, but the three below (M65, M66 and NGC3628) are brightest and most recognized.

Leo Triplet - M66 Galaxy Group

Leo Triplet – M65 (right), M66 (below) and NGC3628 (upper left)

All three galaxies are of the spiral type, but look different because of their orientation.  NGC3628 is edge-on and the dark band in the middle are dust lanes that cut across it.  This trio is located 35 million light years away.

Skywatcher 80ED
Canon 400D (ISO 800)
32 x 30sec

Faint Images of Galaxies M95 and M96


Galaxies are always a challenge… Imaging objects such as nebulas within our galaxy is much better suited to my small telescope.  At 700mm focal length, galaxies over 30 million light years away are rather small and lack detail.  Nevertheless this is my go at Messier 95 and 96 in the constellation of the Lion.

These galaxies were discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781 with a 12in telescope, nearly 4 times the size of mine.

Galaxies Messier 95 and 96 - Benoit Guertin

Galaxies Messier 95 and 96 – Benoit Guertin

The image was scaled to 30% and I’ve added insets of the galaxies.

Telescope: Sky-Watcher 80ED
Camera: Canon XTi (ISO 400)
Image: 30 x 30sec

Photons From 200 Million Years Ago


Yesterday when I processed and posted the open cluster Messier 44, I noticed I had captured a faint galaxy in the background.  So while the stars in the open cluster are within our galaxy at a distance of 577 light years, that faint galaxy UGC 4526 is located at 200 million light years away.  Therefore the photons captured by my 80mm telescope lens in my backyard and counted by my Canon camera exited the stars within that galaxy at the start of the Jurassic period when dinosaurs just became the dominant vertebrate on land.  The light travelled 1,903,000,000,000,000,000,000 km to land on the camera sensor where each pixel is no bigger than 5.7micro-meter.  Pretty mind-blowing when one thinks about it!

Magnitude 14 Galaxy UGC 4526 in M44 Benoit Guertin

Magnitude 14 Galaxy UGC 4526 in M44
Benoit Guertin