Ways to Improve Your Astrophotography (Even When it’s Cloudy)
June 10, 2019
Written by guest writer Trevor Jones
The experience of photographing the night sky is exhilarating, and like nothing else. Whether it's through a telescope or a basic camera lens, there is something about astrophotography that begs you to come back for more.
Astrophotography has many challenges, but there is one crucial element that can be particularly painful to experience, and impossible to control. The weather.
As if there weren't enough potential roadblocks that stand in your way, this hobby requires a clear night sky to participate. Often times, this is the ONLY thing that stands between you and your next incredible image.
Fortunately, astrophotography requires a lot of planning and preparation, and it's on these cloudy nights that you accomplish some of your most important work.
I actually think cloudy skies are a good thing. Before you call an ambulance to take me to the ER, hear me out.
If it were crystal clear every single night of the year, I wouldn't long for the sight of my favorite seasonal constellations the way I do now.
Have you ever gone on a business trip without your partner? How happy are you to see them when you get back?
It's a refreshing reminder of how amazing it is to have them in your life, and somehow it's easier to remember this after they've been gone for a while.
As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
If you've been waiting for a clear night for weeks, the next one is magical. It's the anticipation that makes these nights so memorable and appreciated.
I, for one, don't want to get used to a clear night sky. I want to treasure each one. I'm not sure this would be possible if I lived in the desert.
Now that you know the questionably positive spin I put on a poor forecast, let's get into the things you can do to prepare for a clear night of astrophotography.
Set up Your Gear Inside!
This one feels a little silly at the time, but will save your butt when it comes time for the real thing. I call this "the dry run," and it can be surprisingly fun to do.
Set up your telescope mount, tripod, cameras, i.e. everything you will eventually need to be working in harmony when the clouds part.
Don't forget to power up all of your gear and run through each action of the acquisition process.
This process will identify several potential issues from a bad cable connection to a crucial software update.
The only part of the experience missing is the actual night sky to photograph and unfortunately this means there are a few items you won't be able to test until showtime.
- Polar Alignment
- Star Alignment
- Test Images
I realize those are some pretty important pieces of the image acquisition stage to leave untested. The truth is, there are certain aspects of this hobby that need to be done during crunch time.
The goal is to have as few "surprises" as possible when it's time to image.
Take comfort in the fact that you have ruled out headaches such as a lengthy Windows Update(s) or the 12V DC socket that has stopped working (these have both gotten me in the past, by the way).
Practice Your Image Processing
This one is a fan favorite. Image processing is the second lap of the race and the one that can get really interesting.
Whether it's experimenting with a new pre-processing step in Deep Sky Stacker or trying out a new action set to put the finishing touches on your image in Adobe Photoshop - this can all be done during a monsoon.
If a rainy forecast has got you down, pull out some old data and give it another go. Processing an astrophotography image is time consuming and requires a focused effort.
For those that have been capturing images for a while now, there are not enough cloudy nights in a year to re-process your old images at your current skill level.
There are new image processing tutorials being posted on YouTube every week, from Astro Pixel Processor to PixInsight. Get comfortable and hone in on your image processing skills so that your next project is your best yet.
Plan Your Targets for the Season
The "old me" would wait for a clear night, set up all of my deep sky astrophotography equipment, and say "now to decide what I'm going to shoot tonight."
This is a terrible idea, because every minute wasted on this decision-making process is one less minute of exposure time on your subject. When the lights go out, you better know exactly where your telescope is headed.
The selection process can all be done beforehand, with a strategic and logical approach. Instead of choosing a target that is surprisingly small in your field of view, or doesn't fit, why not select one that compliments your current gear and imaging style?
For example, as a wide-field refractor telescope aficionado in the city, it makes sense for me to focus my attention on large regions of nebulae that cover a lot of sky.
So, I've created a "hitlist" of the largest nebula targets that are observable from my location at any time of year. I include the time they reach an altitude suitable for imaging, and links to example images online that I admire.
Software tools like Stellarium and Bintel allow you to enter in your telescope's focal length and camera sensor details. You are presented with a preview of the image scale you can expect, and exactly how much of the frame your target will fill.
This is incredibly useful when planning your next project.
Online astrophotography galleries often include an area for the user to input all of the equipment used. Search for your telescope/lens and camera combination, and see what they've captured.
Write down a list of all of the targets you want to shoot, and then research where they will be, and at what time.
That way, when the forecast improves, you'll already have 2-3 subjects in mind before you even step out the door.
I hope that these simple tips and strategies have reminded you that there are plenty of things you can do to improve your overall astrophotography experience, even when it is cloudy outside.
It’s true, the most exciting part of this hobby takes place when the sky is clear, but you can practice and improve many of your astrophotography skills at any time.
The only thing worse than a long stretch of cloudy nights is a clear one when you are not prepared!
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