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Highlands Astronomical Society

Astrophotography Night

Added on 20 August 2023

Astrophotography night. Sat 19th August

"Why now, blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark. The storm is up and all is on the hazard!"

Saturday the 19th of August was to be the 'Astrophotography night'. An evening of 'hands-on' tuition and practice taking pictures of the night sky with Lisa and Dave and everything depended on clear skies and soft zephers. So what did the weather forecast predict?


You couldn't make it up, I know, and planning an 'astronomy night' is not like buying a ticket to the theatre or going for a drink with friends; if the 'weather Gods' do not favour us, then even the best-laid schemes are doomed to fail.

So we just went ahead anyway and advertised an 'eight 'til late' session at the observatory in defiance of 'gods' or weather forecasters. A risky strategy you may say, but what's the worst that could happen? If they do go against us, we just go home.

Now, what actually happened on the night of the 19th might read like an improbable fiction but luck was with us and here's how it went.

At 8 o'clock a warm wind was blowing at a gusty 20 knots from the south and it was very cloudy. Over in the West some weird clouds lined the horizon; grey filaments lying in great waves against the yellow evening twilight, rising up to mirror the shapes of the mountains below.

Beautiful, no doubt, but not conducive to our needs and they spoke of poor conditions for later when it would get dark. John Rosenfield was first to arrive followed soon after by Paul Moffett, Lisa Pattenden and Donald Boyd. It was good to welcome John back to the club after a long absence and he will be a regular again at our future meetings at Smithton. We spent some time in the 'warm-room' re-capping with a cup of coffee the details from the astrophotography workshop held a couple of weeks ago where we dealt with camera settings, alignments and all the paraphernalia of adapters and fiddly bits necessary to connect a camera to a telescope, and this done, we ventured outside for the practical element of the evening.

To our amazement, disbelief and delight, conditions had changed from the earlier remnants of 'Betty' to a windless, balmy evening with the clouds evaporating and the stars beginning to show in the vast azure dome of heaven! The 'summer triangle', high overhead, framed the glowing arc of the Milky Way, Arcturus, flaming red in the West, Capella, white and serene rising up from the North East, and kissing the tops of the distant trees, the sparkling beauty of the Pleiades. As if this were not enough, low on the horizon the faint but unmistakable purple and green of an aurora added new colours to the darkening sky. Hard to believe what a difference an hour or so can make. We took a moment to pause before we set to work on our mission, just to breathe in the wonder and majesty of the surrounding night. A lonely bat criss-crossed the yard in search of moths, darting soundlessly here and there on its quest. Carried on the ether of the tiny breeze from far in the distance, the faint sound of some early-season geese, yelping like a pack of aerial hounds. Wonderous things indeed. I thought of the current quest to colonize and explore Mars  --  WHY?  --  you won't find anything like this out there. Trash this glorious orb then look to live on a barren, red desert? It doesn't make sense.

Now we set about taking photos. Donald did the alignment on the star-tracker successfully and Paul switched on the telescope to look for some fuzzy dots in space. Lisa showed everyone how to take pictures with a phone camera and the results were just amazing! Everyone had a go at taking photos. Paul took his first ever image of a deep-sky object; the great spiral of M51 in Canes Venatici then moved over to Lyra to capture the green glow of the Ring nebula.

The results were astounding! Paul was right when he said that no amount of 'class-room' work compares with someone next to you, guiding your steps and showing you what to do. He was delighted, and rightly so. John had to be home by midnight and he had a long journey to get there so he left about eleven. He had not seen the process of taking photos at night before and was amazed at what he had seen and with what apparent ease it could be accomplished once the principles were understood. So we continued until nearly one in the morning, though it must be said that time seems to have no meaning when doing astrophotography; there are so many little things that require attention to detail; focus, exposure, ISO settings, exposure times and so on that you start pressing buttons at 8 in the evening and suddenly and without you noticing, it is 4 in the morning!

Another magical night had passed then. There will hopefully be many nights ahead of us to practice this hobby as the autumn and winter come upon us and if you think that spending an evening in the company of like-minded friends taking photos of some of the most enigmatic and hard to see wonders that hide in the darkness of space then you will be made most welcome at the observatory any night that the stars come out.

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