Night Sky Photography

I am not a photographer, but I can certainly appreciate a great photo. I'm also not an astronomer, but I enjoy looking up at the stars. Ever since moving out to the country we've had some great views of the night sky. Planets shine brightly and on a clear night you can see the faint glow of the milky way. I'd really like to be able to capture some of these views, but I'm not willing to spend thousands of dollars on a camera (at least not right now). I'd love to have a high quality telescope too, but that is a pretty low priority right now. So I've been trying to figure out if the things we have around the house might allow me to take a passable picture of the night sky.

I did a little reading to see what I would need, and it turns out you can get a respectable picture with some simple equipment. What I had on hand was my smart phone with camera (Moto DROID v1) and my son's toy telescope (Gallileo 600x50mm refractor). The functions on the Droid's camera are pretty limited. For a night image, the most critical feature is the ability to set the exposure time, followed by setting the focus to infinit. The Droid does allow setting the focus to infiniti, but there are only three exposure settings: 0, +1, and +2. We had a clear night and a bright moon, so I tried to get a shot.

Not what I was hoping for. I mean, sure, you can tell there is some light out there, and it is vaguely crescent shaped, but you can't really say whether it is the moon or a flashlight.

Tonight was another clear night so I decided to try taking a picture through the telescope. I got the telescope setup on the tripod and aimed at the moon, which was again very bright and clear. I had a devil of a time trying to get the phones camera lined up with the eye piece, and absolutely no luck getting anything in focus.

I was pretty frustrated with the results. Then I had the thought to try the Logitech QuickCam Communicate STX web cam sitting on top of my monitor. It has a very low resolution (1.3MP interpolated) vs. my Droid (5MP). I found it was quite a bit easier to align with the eye piece of the telescope and I was able to get the image mostly focused.

I was surprised and very happy with the way this one turned out. The software for the camera allows for automatically adjusting the exposure and gain, but I found I got the best image when I turned that feature off and set the exposure and gain to their lowest setting. There is a bit of ghosting here based on how the camera takes a photo.

I have yet to try this with our point-and-shoot digital camera. I think I'll have to try that next.

UPDATE: I tried my hand at using our point and shoot, both unaided and through the telescope.

Unaided. Not much but a bright blob.

Using the telescope and playing with the cameras settings, I got this fairly nice shot.

Using the "Easy Mode" setting of the camera got this one.

The camera also has a "Starry Sky" long exposure / composite feature. I don't have a tripod, so I did my best to get the camera situated before clicking the shutter release. It took 60 seconds worth of sky, then composited the result. I'm not sure if the slight blur is due to the movement of the stars in the sky during that time, or from the slight movement of my pressing the shutter release. Either way, neat!


Jade Mason