I am very much a point and shoot photographer and don't know much about the technical side. And when I first started back in Astronomy I had no intention of becoming involved in AstroPhotography other than a bit here and there. So I bought a Philips webcam SP900NC when one became available as it was cheap, and a small point and shoot replacement camera which might also be suitable for Afocal work. But visual observing was the main aim. AstroPhotography seemed to me to be more about Photography than Astronomy. What changed my mind?
Well, over the course of these past few years I have used a small manual 80mm Refractor, a 130mm Reflector with a RA motor - both on equatorial mounts, a 150mm Alt-Az Goto Catadioptric and now the 235mm Catadiopric on an equatorial mount that is now y main scope. I have dabbled in as many aspects of visual observing as possible - and tried my hand at sketching.
At first I didn't have an observatory and constantly came up against the problem of intruding lights. It didn't matter that my mostly southern aspect was clear, it only needed a slight turn of the head to catch a glimpse of a distant street or house light interfering with and destroying my night vision. And there was the constant hassle of setting up the scope, not to mention the exposure to the elements. So I bought myself a Pulsar 2.1m observatory and it has been an absolute godsend. 5 minutes and I can be up and imaging. No stray lights, no wind, no problems dropping items and losing them.
But why the change in mind about imaging?
Well, the impression I had was of someone stuck in front of a telescope for hours on end in the freezing cold. Now, I can be patient but not that patient. I had also found that as far as visual observing is concerned I am not patient enough. I found that staring into an eyepiece for several minutes at a time in order to catch the fleeting moments when the atmosphere is clear enough to give a good view wasn't really giving me that much satisfaction. And it was soon forgotten.
Yes - there is a certain WOW factor, especially with the Moon. Indeed, the Moon terminator through my binoviewer is a very impressive sight. But Jupiter - well yes, I could make out the bands but the red spot - no. Orion was impressive and a number of the other Messier objects which I managed to locate thanks to the Goto - never managed much manually I'm afraid to say as I am not much good at star hopping or judging star distances. But with the Messier objects - as expected - all you can see for the most part are faint fuzzy objects. No colour and even Jupiter only showed a trace. Ok Albireo is a very pretty double, as are some of the others.
My first attempts at webcam imaging weren't very successful. The VLounge software that came with it is not easy to use and although I did manage a couple of reasonable shots of Jupiter and the Moon, it wasn't until Steve Wainwright suggested I use Wxastrocapture that I really began to image. And it has made a big, big difference to my astronomy.
Instead of being limited to whatever magnification the atmosphere allowed on anyone night I can put in the 2x Barlow and effectively ramp it up to the maximum. And on my computer screen Jupiter is then a reasonable size and in colour. Ok, the image on the screen is fuzzier than a good visual, but that is just the start. The real magic starts afterwards when you process the image. For the first time I saw the red spot - indeed there were 2 red spots, the great one and the junior one.
Because Jupiter rotates so fast you need to limit the length of the webcam video to about 2 - 3 minutes. This suits me fine and I am quite happy to sit there for 3 minutes and watch the computer screen. With an alt-az mount this is necessary anyway as the tracking is not 100% and the planet usually drifts a little. Indeed sometimes I had to stop the video if it looked as though it will wander off screen. But I am only spending minutes, not hours at the telescope and in half and hour or so I can capture half a dozen or so videos which I can then process in the comfort of my own home. Indeed, I spend more time processing the image than capturing it, but in the comfort of the house not out in the freezing cold. Ok, this may not be to everyones taste, but it does mean that when the weather is bad that some astronomy can be done.
As well as Jupiter I have also imaged the Moon, Mars and Saturn. Different objects requiring different settings but again no need to spend a hours stuck at the scope. But perhaps the biggest benefit for me personally is that I have learnt so much more about the objects that I am imaging since I started.
In particular the processing and stacking images in AutoStakket!2 and Registax using the wavelet option is where the details start to come to light. And that really sticks in the memory in a way that the fleeting glimpses that you get by direct viewing don't. Another very important point to remember is that it is said that the combination of what is in effect long or multiple exposures, together with the subsequent computer processing probably adds at least 2 magnitudes more to what you can see with any scope. It gives a whole new dimension to the astronomical experience. And you have a permanent record of your observations so that you can look back any time. No more reliance on fleeting glimpses and fickle memories.
My next step is into Deep Sky imaging and with the introduction of the relatively cheap Orion StarShoot G3 CCD, together a focal reducer, it won't break the bank. Watch this space for further news.
Finally, to paraphase a comment from a post on the Stargazers Lounge Forum.
Our Photographic view of Astronomical objects are largely what we make of them. No one has managed yet to physically travel to any of our favourite targets and bring a photograph back, so almost any interpretation of the data is valid so long as it does not verge on utterlry ridiculous. It is mostly a matter of subjective taste.
Jupiter with Io, Europa and Ganymede and Ganymede's shadow on Jupiter
Saturn at opposition showing the Seeliger effect
(brightening of the rings).
Moon at first quarter showing Mare Crisium
19 images of the Moon stitched together in the
MicroSoft ICE program