First Attempt at Planetary Imaging
I think it’s a safe assumption to say that whenever anyone gets into astronomy their greatest desire is to be able to take pictures of what they observe. The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly true of astrophotography. There is certainly a great joy in observing the universe with your own eyes at the eyepiece and that should unequivocally be any amateur’s first love. Given the mass-availability of photography equipment and astro-imaging software and techniques it is no surprise that astrophotography has risen to such popularity in the 21st century. All someone has to do is watch a couple of tutorial videos on YouTube and you have a pretty good sense of what equipment and software you need and it’s easy to practice the techniques employed by more experienced photographers.
I’ve decided to jump on the astrophotography train myself. Mind you, I don’t own a fancy equatorial mount for my telescope or even a DSLR camera for that matter so I have to try a slightly different method to get images. By far the best and easiest way to do astrophotography with a Dobsonian mounted telescope is with a webcam. This method is really only useful for planets, the moon, and sun given that images of deep-sky objects requires long exposures that would produce star trails if not tracked. However, it was extremely rewarding producing my first planetary image.
I’m not going to go into detail on how I captured my images because that would just be an incredibly long post. Instead, I just want to share the equipment and software I used to give you a sense of how easy (and inexpensive) it is.
My telescope is an Orion XT10i Dobsonian which already provides very nice planetary images in the eyepiece. Images are always sharp and bright when in focus. For this experiment I purchased a Microsoft HD Lifecam from my nearby Staples office supply store. I went with the Lifecam because it has a body that is perfectly designed to fit inside any 1.25″ focuser tube. The Lifecam can also shoot 1280×720 720p video at 30 fps (after some tinkering) which is something special for a webcam. I followed the instructions provided by Gary Honis, who is the authority on all things webcam photography related, on his website, found here. I didn’t use the 1.25″ barrel extenders like he did, rather I used a film canister. The film canister seems to work just fine and it fits snugly into the focuser.
To capture the video I downloaded a piece of software called AMCap which is freeware video capture. It’s available for a free download but a donation is asked for, but not required. Also, a jpeg video codec is needed to capture the raw video in .avi format. Any jpeg codec you can find will probably work but Gary recommends a particular one on his software tests page. Finally, I used Registax 6 to stack the images from the raw .avi video and touched it up a bit in Photoshop CS6 an voila! a nice, crisp, clean image of Saturn.
This method is very easy to do for anyone without a tracking mount and what’s best is that it only cost me $35 plus shipping and handling. If you have a Dobsonian telescope this method is definitely for you.