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How is an astrophotograph made?
We have all seen the amazing pictures that are captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released to the public. The public relations department of the Space Telescope Science Institute maintains a collection of them at the Hubble Heritage Project. What most of us don't know, though, is that with recent advances in CCD cameras, computer guided telescopes, and digital SLR's it's actually possible to capture your own pictures of deep sky astronomical objects even from suburban locations. The pictures on this web site, for example, were all captured with comparatively modest equipment from a heavily light polluted location.

So what's the catch? Why can't I just grab a DSLR, a telephoto lens, and a tripod and snap away? First, let's describe a few misconceptions about astrophotography in particular and telescopes in general:

Before and After

Unlike in many forms of photography, the objective in Astrophotography is to maximize resolution and signal to noise ratio, not necessarily to have the best possible result straight out of the camera.

So how do you go about prime focus astrophotography? Here is my technique as it has evolved for the particular equipment I use. It's not an instruction sheet on "how to become an astrophotographer", but it should give you a good idea of just what is involved in the craft.

Image Capture

Post Processing

Sound like a lot of work? It is. Most astronomers never take up astrophotography, and the primary reason is the steep learning curve. Capturing good results requires patience, skill, and dedication. There is nothing more frustrating than spending two hours driving out to your dark sky site, setting up your equipment, adjusting and aligning your camera and telescope only to find you forgot to charge a battery, or to have the clouds roll in. Still, there is nothing like having that first image pop up on the computer screen showing detail you had never seen through the telescope visually--being able to share your views through photographs with your family and friends without dragging them out on a cold night to look at a fuzzy blob through a dim eyepiece.

- Jared Willson


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