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Digital cameras bring new dimension to astrophotography

Mike Lynch says even smartphone cameras can capture good pictures through a telescope.

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SW PHOTO A FOR JAN 21-23, 2022.jpg
A picture of the moon with a smartphone through a telescope.
Contributed / Mike Lynch

While my first love is still visual astronomy, I've also fallen in love with astrophotography over the last dozen years or so.

While you can get a great view of the Rochester heavens with your naked eyes or through your telescope, visual astronomy has limitations, especially when seeing fainter detail and color.

I'm not knocking our eyes or telescopes. Both are highly efficient at gathering light. The problem is that our eyes only process a limited amount of light.

However, a camera can accumulate and store much more light than our eyes, even if you’re using a telescope. Photos can bring out a lot more detail and color.

In all honesty, one of the biggest disappointments people have when they buy a telescope and look through it is that they don't see the same detail and color that’s seen in astronomical photographs.

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Again, it's not the telescope. It’s because your eyes cannot accumulate light the same way a camera does.

In the old days, astrophotography using film was real drudgery. Among the many limitations, you had no idea how good or bad your shot was until you developed the film, and most folks had to pay somebody else to do that.

In the 1990s, digital photography changed everything. You could instantly see your results — no more waiting for days to see how your shots turned out.

One of the simplest forms of digital astrophotography with a telescope is taking a smartphone camera or any other camera and shooting right through the scope's eyepiece. You can get some amazing photos, especially with brighter celestial objects like the moon, planets, or even some bright deep-sky targets like the Orion Nebula, now available in the evening sky.

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The biggest challenge is holding the phone steady enough over the eyepiece. On some of the latest models, you can set the camera app on your phone to night mode to significantly reduce or even eliminate camera movement. I can tell you from personal experience that the iPhone 13 has this option.

You can also purchase adapters that will hold the lens of the camera or smartphone steady over the eyepiece of the telescope. You can buy these adapters for anywhere from $25 to $100.

Most of them are universal and will fit most phones. I'm a fan of the Orion Telescopes SteadyPix Pro Universal Camera/Smartphone eyepiece mount. You can purchase one directly from Orion Telescopes for $49.99. As the name indicates, you can attach a smartphone or a small digital camera to it.

With some of the newer smartphones, it's also possible to take wide-field images of the night sky without a telescope and get some amazing results. You can capture entire constellations, especially in the darker countryside. You don’t have to, but it helps to use an adapter to attach your phone to a tripod.

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SW PHOTO B FOR JAN 21-23, 2022.JPG
The constellation Cassiopeia taken with a smartphone and telescope.
Contributed / Bonnie Olson Jans

Another thing to consider when taking astrophotography with a smartphone and telescope is the exposure time. You won’t need any more than just standard exposure time for images of the moon and the brighter planets. But to get more details and better colors from fainter objects, you'll need more exposure time. Because of Earth’s rotation, your absolute limit for exposure time is 30 seconds, and that may be pushing it. Otherwise, your targets will appear blurry and streaky. You can usually get by with an exposure of 10 seconds or less.

Have fun with your smartphone or camera — with or without a small-to-moderate size telescope. Capture the light, but be patient.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to mikewlynch@comcast.net .

The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org .

Starwatch — Mike Lynch column sig

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