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  • Mark Byland and Astrophotography: "My God, it's full of stars!"

    Andromeda Galaxy & M32, M110 Satellite Galaxies

    Andromeda Galaxy & M32, M110 Satellite Galaxies

    When I see images like the one above, I am immediately stopped in my tracks. It is hard for me to comprehend the surreal reality conveyed by such an image, and yet I find it so beautiful. Questions like, "How can this exist out there, beyond the sky?", "What is this?", and, ultimately, "How was this taken?", all start to fill my head. I always assume a massive telescope planted in an observatory on top of a mountain with a team of scientists must have captured an image like this one. The truth behind how this image was taken is very different, however. If Mark Byland, the individual who captured this image, never started working for us several months ago, I probably would still assume capturing this image was only possible by a dedicated, professional team. Don't get me wrong, dedication is absolutely required (as you will see in how long it takes to capture and compose an image like this one), but obtaining images like the ones Mark captures of the night sky are closer within reach than I, and I assume many others, would think.

    The Pleiades

    The Pleiades

    Astrophotography, or AP, as this type of photography is called, is a serious hobby for Mark. Yet, when you talk to him about his AP passion, he is very humble about the whole experience. He has an "anyone can do this" attitude and is happy and eager to talk about AP with anyone.

    Mark started his journey into Astrophotography with an interest in Astronomy as a kid by a common interest with his father. It wasn't until 2009, however, that his interest in non-Earth objects propelled him into Astrophotography. He recalls:

    I managed to photograph the Lunar Eclipse in February of 2009 with a cell phone camera held up to the eyepiece of a 76mm reflector telescope. The feeling that overcame me having just captured my first ever pictures of a distant non Earth-based object has been the same feeling that compels me to do what I do every time.

    Lunar Eclipse

    Lunar Eclipse Captured by Mark in 2009

    Now Mark uses a setup that is a bit more advanced than a cell phone held up to a telescope. As he explains:

    I use a simple setup consisting of a two telescope "piggyback" rig on top of an automated, electronic mount that tracks the sky as it passes overhead (or as we move underneath it to be more technically proper). One telescope is sending information to a laptop via a CCD camera tracking a chosen star, which guides the electronic mount. The other telescope sits on top and has a camera hooked up to it for making the images.

    I use a modified Canon EOS Rebel XT digital SLR camera. The IR/UV filter has been removed from the camera to enable the capture of a fuller spectrum of light frequencies. A Baader Type II clear glass filter has been re-installed to keep the autofocus working, just in case I want to use the camera for every day shooting, which requires a Custom White Balance. I shoot unfiltered on the scope, but there is an image style called 'narrow band' that refers to using a set of filters to isolate certain light frequencies and create more accurate LRGB images. For what I'm doing, and the level that I am currently at, my setup suits me well and I do my best to push it to it's maximum capability.

    Telescope Imaging Rig

    Mark's Rig

    This setup wasn't acquired as a "ready-to-go" rig for the images Mark captures. It has taken him a lot of time and trial with different equipment and hardware to get it to where it is now. Still, Mark is humble about the image capture of distant objects:

    Image capture is the easy part after you get to know the setup process and understand the equipment capabilities. Most of the time, it's literally 'set-it-and-forget-it', just maybe check on things every hour or so to make sure nothing has gone wrong.

    And, check on things he does. Mark was telling me the other day that he was up until 4:30 in the morning working on some image captures the night before.

    Many people may think that the images Mark creates are a single capture. In fact, they aren't, and are actually a composite of many captures stacked and edited into one image. And, this is the part of Astrophotography that is perhaps the most difficult, and artistic.

    "In Astrophotography, it's the processing that will challenge any individual through most of their early years."

    The Horsehead Nebula & NGC2024

    The Horsehead Nebula & NGC2024

    Mark explains the process involved in creating the above image:

    This Horsehead Nebula image is from just a few weeks ago. When looking out at the night sky on a clear night, this time of year, the Orion constellation is very visible high in the sky during most evening hours. If you take a look at Orion's 'Belt', the far left star is called Alnitak. That's the brightest star in this image. The red glow you see is actually gas, mainly consisting of Hydrogen Alpha or Ha, for short. It shows up mainly red in images and this is what my modified came is geared to capture now that the factory IR/UV filter has been removed. The exposure consists of about 3 total hours of exposure at 3 minutes per frame, so there are actually many images captured of this scene. The captures were stacked and calibrated for noise in a program called Deep Sky Stacker. I then did output stretching and color level editing in Photoshop CS4 to come up with this final image. Total time to produce this one image was 4 hours for imaging and 4 hours for editing, for a total of 8 hours. I'm conservatively estimating the edit time, and that's for one single image. On a night where you may get 2-3 good images captured, you can spend the next week in edit mode stacking and tweaking to get things just right. Needless to say, I find it fun and much more a learning experience in gathering information about what I shoot.

    Mark encourages everyone to get in to Astrophotography and capture the night sky:

    It's really as easy as taking the camera outside on a tripod on a really clear night. Compose a shot with the sky, set the Camera to manual mode, set a 20-30 second exposure, ISO 800-1600, and stop the lens down to f/8-10 and see what the sensor brings in. For all of it's meaning, that's Astrophotography.  Some of my favorite shots consist of no more than doing this type of AP. It's easy to get cool results to load up on the computer screen. With a little practice you can compose some really cool shots like star trails, or time lapse movies using still frames, etc..

    If you have any questions for Mark, please feel free to contact him at mbyland@gmcamera.com. Also, Mark will continually post AP photos and updates in the category on the right labeled "Mark's AP Corner".

    All of the images in this article were taken by Mark Byland and are his property. Please do not copy or distribute these images without his sole permission.

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