A Newbie takes their first Saturn photos


by Jeff Booth

It’s not true, you know.

The planets aren’t necessarily “out there” … millions of kilometres away. Beyond your reach.

They can be as close as … well, right outside your door.

It was with just this frame of reference that one novice recently attempted to photograph the sixth planet from the Sun.

Why Saturn?

Well, because said novice had just been out under the evening sky testing a fresh-out-of-the-box digital camera by taking general photos of the heavens. Things went well.

DSLR - Big Dipper

DSLR picture of the Big Dipper

At that same time, Saturn was in the same evening sky and visible for about an hour or so. It must have been teasing me, ya know. The planet was low, though, just over 20 degrees above the horizon.

The attempt to get an image of this far-off neighbour was also seen as being a crucible of experience where one could learn more about our telescope and about astrophotography, among other things. Getting any kind of recognizable photo of the second-largest planet in our solar system would be a bonus.

While multiple attempts were made, over a period of three or four weeks, it was evident  – and this is worth  emphasizing – that each attempt was easier than the previous one, and each attempt showed what needed to be improved, and each attempt showed what else needed to be learned about the equipment that was being used.  Best of all – each attempt produced better results than before. First efforts used a digital camera, later attempts a CCD camera, both attached to a telescope.

Attempt No. 1 took place in Binbrook, where the skies are noticeably darker than here in light-polluted Oakville. Had the digital camera mounted to the rear of a telescope. Easily found Saturn. But found out that focusing the camera on what was a tiny dot of light was rather difficult … so multiple attempts, each with different focus and different exposures. Each photo was taken by physically pressing the shutter release, which also produced noticeable “camera shake” in the photo.  Could not do a polar alignment, so used a digital compass to point the mount to the magnetic North (wrong, but more on this later).

Pretty well every image ranged from a smudge of light to a different smudge of light. Arguably, a total failure.

However, also equally arguable, good lessons successfully learned; get a remote shutter release to eliminate camera shake, find out if there a better way (for me, anyway) to photograph a planet than with a digital camera.

Also a success that evening: My wife and I did get to see Saturn and its rings through several eyepieces. The planet and rings were bright and whitish-grey.  (Growth point: Next time, use some eyepiece filters to bring out detail on the planet). Bonus this evening was meeting several other enthusiasts who had gone to the same location to photograph deep sky features later that night.

Since Saturn had appeared just as bright from our backyard as it appeared in Binbrook, it was agreed Attempt No. 2 would be from the ol’ homestead, from right beside the tomato plants. Would love to actually do a polar alignment here, but Polaris is blocked by the house, so kept on pointing to the magnetic North (wrong again, more on this later).

Saturn - Attempt #2 - DSLR

The second attempt at photographing Saturn

This produced a better image; at least we had something that was recognizable, albeit kinda small.  Made good use of our new remote camera release, too (no more camera shake). Lessons learned: next time, try that entry-level CCD camera (Neximage5) instead of a digital camera to get a larger image, have a can of bug spray (mucho important in late summer!)

CCD Camera - live input to laptop - note low elevation of scope

CCD Camera – live input to laptop – note low elevation of scope

Third and fourth outings, again out by the tomato plants and this time — mercifully — with a can of “Off” at the ready. Test drive with the new entry-level CCD camera.  A family of raccoons seemed interested – but only for a moment.

Attempt #3 - using a CCD camera

Attempt #3 – using a CCD camera

Using a CCD camera is waaay different. It requires a whole new set of image-specific skills such as: how to find a planet when the field of view is vanishingly small when compared to a normal camera; how to focus using this technology; getting familiar with the computer software that is used to capture the image into a computer; then getting familiar with the software that is used to process the images that are captured by the CCD camera’s video feed. All new directions of learning. Head only hurt a bit.

Attempt 4 with a CCD

Attempt 4 with a CCD

Big take-aways from 3rd and 4th outings: Study how the capture and processing software work and can be used; do a better job of aligning the telescope because with the CCD camera’s small field of view it becomes more critical to be properly aligned.

CCD Camera - live input to laptop computer

CCD Camera – live input to laptop computer

Final sojourn to the edge of the veggie garden was in mid-September. This time the telescope would not be aligned with the magnetic north – as in all earlier attempts — but aligned in such a way as to compensate for  the variance that magnetic North has from true north for my location (about 10 degrees magnetic declination, according to all-knowing Google).

This was the last newbie attempt, as Saturn was getting just too low on the Western horizon for much time to do anything with it.  However, Attempt #5 was also the effort that resulted in the best image yet, as it was also the attempt that brought the most-lessons-learned to the moment.  I am blown away by the fact that in that image you can see the shadow of the planet on the rings behind it and perhaps the shadow of the rings on the front of the planet. Ditto for some detail on the rings themselves. Lessons learned here: how to use the CCD camera’s image capture software (iCap) with greater facility; better alignment of the telescope tracking (the planet does not rush out of the field of view but actually stays put (how novel!),  better facility with the image processing software (Registax and PhotoShop), there are fewer biting bugs in mid-September.

Saturn - Attempt #5 - CCD camera

Saturn – Attempt #5 – CCD camera

A few weeks after this, the I-wanna-take-a-picture-of-Saturn newbie dropped into a couple RASC Hamilton Centre meetings as a guest, liked what he saw … and signed up.

Have since figured out how to get a larger image of Saturn.  Now … gotta find out when that ringed beauty will next be high in the sky …  can’t wait!


One Comment

  1. Jeff, Great write-up and an enjoyable story to read. It also gives others encouragement to try this themselves. Ed

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