Astro journey 2016

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A new adventure

My astro Journey 2016 should perhaps be called my astrophotography journey as I seem to have embraced this side of astronomy since moving to France. I am very fortunate, I know, to enjoy such wonderful dark skies and a micro-climate giving as many sunshine hours as the South of France. Having spent the previous 8 years in the North West of England, I was more used to grabbing a couple of hours on a rare clear night and making the most of it.

The advantage I have here at Astrofarm is not just the fact that I have an observatory or that the climate is much warmer than England, it is the fact that last year we had about 85% clear nights with the longest run being 52 nights on the trot. This allows me to practice, practice, practice and then practice some more. I now have the opportunity to plan and to start projects over many nights, not something I could have done previously. This has meant that I have been able to develop my deep sky imaging throughout the year and of course be able to keep trying different things until I am happy with the results.

I am learning from my mistakes and listening to advice from those who evidently know what they are talking about by the quality of their own images. Being humble enough to accept that I am not and never will be as good as some of them, but I know my limits now and those of my equipment. What I do know is that I have made some massive steps in both my capturing and my processing. The common denominator in both is patience. I know that is hard when you live in the UK and have to make the most of every available second of clear sky but even then it pays to be patient. I am pleased with my progress this year and know that my astro journey will continue for many more years and my skills and knowledge will expand in line with new technology and kit!

I have also been fortunate enough that I can do what I am doing and that gives me the freedom to pick and choose what and when I image. I have also been very lucky to have had some great mentors on my journey with me this last year. Tracey Snelus, Matt  Foyle, John Slinn, to name but a few, who have made great contributions to my “distance travelled” during 2016.

Social media has been a great tool for learning and gaining advice from seasoned professional and those more advanced in different techniques. I have again been fortunate enough to have some top astrophotographers who are only too willing to pass on their experience and help you develop.  One person, who I follow on Facebook, stated something which in principle sounds very simple but, that has stuck with me now and always springs to mind when pushing the sliders in the processing tools.  His comment was “remember, the sky is never totally black”, how right he is, even here at Astrofarm, the sky is very dark, but never black.  So why have I been trying, all these years, to process it out to black?  Great lesson learned, for me anyway.

My astro journey 2016 in pics

My 2016 astro journey began back in January when we were lucky enough to have a good run of clear nights and I was able to spend a few nights imaging Comet Catalina. It had been a long time since I had spent time trying to capture a comet. Catalina was a good one for practice as it was rather bright and like most things; the more you practice the better you become. The Horsehead nebula is a very tricky object and many before me have struggled and many will after me, it is just one of those objects that is a proverbial pain in the nether region and the Orion nebula is the other and funnily they are both in the same constellation and too far, optically, from each other.

Image 1 was taken in January 2016 and image 2 taken in January 2017. The thing to note here is that the second was taken with the new and improved ED80-R from Altair. Both of these images were taken with the same un-modified Canon 600D DSLR, Image 1 is a total of 16 min exposure no darks, white or bias and image 2 is a total of 52 minutes. Lesson: Data (lots of data) and above all good guiding and focus. Then you can home your processing skills with good information. Early in the year we had some very nice conjunctions of planets. This was taken just before dawn and shows Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Mars. Just out of shot to the right is Jupiter.

The castle at St Germain de Confolens is probably one of my favourite places to take visitors to Astrofarm. At 11:30pm every evening they turn all the lights out and it makes a wonderful backdrop for Milkyway and constellation shots. This is just one of many I took while visiting last year and shows the constellation of Orion through one of the old windows. More recently I took a picture of the castle from over the river and Photo Shopped the Moon in behind it to demonstrate the Super Moon. The image now hangs on the wall of the Mayor’s office.

Astro Journey St Germain de Confolens

During Matt’s visit we spent some time drift aliening the mount in the observatory and getting the guiding sorted properly. This was only possible after Tracey spending a few days downloading software, installing them and plugging everything in and making sure it was all talking to each other.  The rosette nebula was probably my first really good Ha and OIII image taken with my Atik camera. I think this was the turning point for me in my imaging. The guiding allowed me to expose for much longer than I had ever done before with the longest exposures now being over 20 minutes each. Another personal success was having one of my images printed in the French Astronomy magazine.

Processing was always going to be basic as we didn’t want to invest in expensive software that required hours of learning. We made the decision very early on to stick with the free software. This allowed us to show beginners that they can process images to a good standard with no cost. Photoshop CS2, DeepSkyStacker, PhD, Starstax, Registaxs and AutoStakert are the main programmes we show beginners. This allows them to then use them back home at no cost and if they so wish they can upgrade when they are ready to do so. The only software we have purchased is Backyard EOS and Astronomy tools for Photoshop.

These two images of the Whirlpool Galaxy show the difference in both exposure and processing; The left was taken in March 2016 and right taken at the end of 2016 in December.

Pleiades Astro Journey

These two images show just how much better my images and processing has developed through 2016. The left taken back at the start of spring 2016 and right taken October 2016.

Astro journey Orion

My final example from my astro journey is probably my favourite of all images, The Great Orion nebular. These images are two examples of images taken back at the beginning of 2016 in Ha and the final image was taken on the 6th January 2017 with an Altair Astro Colour Hypercam.

Last word

I have had a fantastic time in 2016 with so many brilliant people visiting Astrofarm and getting to enjoy my hobby for a living night after night! Thank you to everyone who has offered advice, support, encouragement and feedback – it really is much appreciated. If you would like to continue following my astro journey then do sign up for the monthly newsletter and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. I would love to hear from you and hopefully see you here at Astrofarm in 2017.




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Andrew Davies
Astronomer at Astrofarm
Andrew is the resident astronomer at Astrofarm residential astronomy centre in the South of France. He has been hooked on the night skies since a schoolboy and has never tired of both solar and night time observing as often as he is able. As a teacher of both astronomy and photography classes Andrew has a wealth of knowledge and likes nothing better than to share with others.

He founded both the Mid Cheshire and Runcorn & Widnes Astronomy clubs and organises and presents the annual North West Astronomy Festival. He excels in outreach and inspiring beginners and loves to share his knowledge as well as to learn from others. In addition, Andrew is a keen photographer of both the night sky and the world around - you will see examples of his interest and skill throughout our website