My name is Nick De Villiers, I decided to document my journey into Astrophotography in the hope that my experiences might assist fellow amateur Astro-photographers in our never-ending quest to produce better images.
I have retired from corporate life a few years ago and have been imaging for the past three years. Anyone that has attempted astrophotography, or is doing it currently, will know that this is no easy hobby but they will also know that the first image, regardless the quality, produces a feeling of immense satisfaction. My website will probably not be of much use to the expert astro-photographer, their images we amateurs can only drool over. Input from those in this special group of people will be highly appreciated.
It is not my intention to make this into a technical discourse; there are many websites that go into the technical aspects of imaging, some to the point where we mere mortals are even more confused. Having said that, all the knowledge I do have, was gained from these websites. I will refer to them when the occasion arises and I encourage you to continue to read as widely as possible with the purpose of gaining as much insight and background information as possible. I enjoy DIY and am fortunate to have a well-equipped workshop which certainly makes my projects easier but what I have done can be achieved with hand power tools and alternative construction methods. Corporate life taught me the doctrine of sufficiency, not necessarily perfect, but if it works, it is usually good enough.
I marvel at images the result of many hours of exposures, at the detail they have and the technical quality of those images. The images in my gallery are not of that quality and it is unlikely that I will ever achieve that level of expertise. They are published as they come off my laptop and are not in the correct orientation.
I image within the limits of my equipment and a budget that prevents me from achieving perfection but I do try for perfection within those limitations. Most of the images in the gallery are the result of stacked light frames with individual exposure lengths of not exceeding 240 seconds.
Apart from the camera drivers, I use only four software packages, PHD(free) for Auto-guiding, Nebulosity(very affordable) for image acquisition and processing, Registax(free) for planetary imaging and a little bit of Picasa(free). I have found Nebulosity to be capable of doing what very expensive software takes a lot of effort to achieve.
My equipment ranges from a modest modified Celestron Nexstar SLT mount with a modified Canon 1000D together with a selection of very old prime lenses to a Celestron, CGem mount, both guided by a GSO finder-scope and an Imaging Source guide camera. I use a 8" optical tube assembly of a Ritchey Chretien design. Most of the imaging is done with an Atik 460EX and an Atik 314L+ mono cooled astro ccd cameras. The equipment is by no means the most expensive available but I believe were the best possible that I could afford with my budget. I take flat frames when applicable using a simple DIY constructed Light-box the materials of which are easily sourced. This device will also be the subject of a separate article.
Local South African equipment suppliers provide an invaluable service and should be supported but I was forced to import the cooled cameras and the 8” OTA as well as some of the other goodies as no local supplier was able to provide all of the above. The world has become rather flat and courier services are of such a standard that anyone can source products from all over the world.
I intend to in separate articles describe my equipment and their use in greater detail as well as my reasoning behind the purchases. It is not my intention to go into the technical detail. For me if it works it is good enough. All the technical specifications like read out noise, anti-blooming abilities and a myriad of symbols and values are mostly tech-speak and somewhat above my head. If the image produced has little noise, stars are sort of round, the image is sharp and pleasing to the eye, then the equipment utilized to produce it is of acceptable quality.
I will also share with you my exposure durations and other settings for Deep-sky and Planetary targets. The PHD settings that work for me as an example differ widely depending on the accuracy of the mount and the focal length of the guide-scope. Without attempting to explain in detail why it works I will elaborate on the techniques used in producing the results I have achieved. There are Websites authored by much better qualified imagers that explain all of this in detail and where appropriate I will refer to them.
I have started out imaging from Pretoria, South Africa. I built a wooden deck on top of an outbuilding to serve as an imaging platform. I soon found that this platform was not rigid enough to support quality imaging. I then casted concrete supports into the building on which the mount tripod stood. This was a huge improvement but still left me and my equipment exposed to the elements.
The next obvious improvement was an Observatory. Unable to source one locally and not able to import one at a reasonable cost I decided to build one myself and so SkyNest 1 Observatory was created. I used the stitch and glue method commonly used in the construction of light weight marine ply boats. Certainly a method within the capabilities of a moderately skilled DIY-er
For the last two years I have battled increasing light pollution to the point where narrow band filters were all that could be used for deepsky imaging. With a new Hotel and Casino development being planned close to my house I decided to move to a dark site in the Klein Karoo as the resultant increase in light polution would become unmanageable.
Building SkyNest 2 proved to be a major undertaking that took me a year to complete as owner builder. A design parameter was that the dwelling had to incorporate observatory access from inside the house. This parameter necessitated rebuilding the dome taken from SkyNest 1 to allow for the opening and closing of the shutters from inside the observatory.
The project was completed the end of 2013. The quality of my imaging has improved substantialy due to a combination of having the Cgem mounted on a pier and dark skies at the new location.
The enjoyment of the pristine night skies and the tranquility country life offers made the effort and expense every bit worthwhile.
SkyNest 2: Klein Karoo, South Africa
I have provided more details of this major undertaking under the heading Articles: Observatory Construction.
Life is an exciting journey to be enjoyed thoroughly. Being a lifelong student acquiring new skills and knowledge throughout has made mine more meaningful.
Clear skies and happy imaging!