Astrophotography in the Big City

Getting back to the “good old days” when the Prince Georges County Maryland police paid a visit to my buddy and me… ah, nostalgia.  I will get around to the story in a moment, but first take a look at this:

Andromeda - Messier Object 31 and M110 [B_038508-22 DSS]

Photo 1: Andromeda (Messier Object 31) with M110

That is the Andromeda Galaxy, one of our nearest neighbor galaxies and it is visible with the naked eye in reasonably dark skies – or with binoculars in less friendly skies. Andromeda is almost directly overhead at midnight through the middle of October and directly overhead puts it in the best spot to photograph it (and the most pain in the neck to observe). Not surprisingly the Andromeda Galaxy is visible in the constellation Andromeda but the easiest way to find it is to look between the back of the Cassiopeia “W” and the large constellation Pegasus whose 4 dominant stars form a big square in the sky.

This image was taken from my backyard in San Jose, California WITHOUT a telescope but with a special apparatus called an Equatorial Mount. It’s actually not one photo, but more than two dozen. When I posted this image on Flickr many people asked me how I could get such detail without using a telescope. The answer is that Andromeda is very large. Here is a size comparison between Andromeda and the moon which may shock you:


Illustration 1: Size comparison between the Andromeda Galaxy and the Moon

The learning curve to do astrophotography is pretty steep, and if one is not careful or well informed it is easy to sink tens of thousands of dollars on astrophotography gear. My approach is much more modest. I am not a hard core astrophotographer. My relative newness to the field makes it easier for me to convey what good and bad choices I’ve made. If you want to learn what I’ve learned, I am offering a Webinar on “Astrophotography 101” that you may find well worth the cost of the class.

Back to my story…

As a teenager my friend and I checked out a telescope from our high school. The end of my street was a mostly vacant area and much darker than the surrounding suburbia. There was a nice flat sidewalk in front of a recently completed new home (which as far as we knew was unoccupied).  It was about 10:30 PM on a summer evening when we decided to set up to do some observing and attempt some photography. The problem was that the new home had a gas lamp burning in the front driveway. It was an annoyingly bright light. We discovered that we could turn off the lamp using a screwdriver on the gas valve. Problem one was now solved.  We also wanted to find a place to plug in our telescope drive motor so we could track the stars and take long exposures with our SLR camera. We knew the occupants of the other nearby house, but also could tell by the absence of light in any windows that they were asleep. We used our flashlights to search for exterior outlets to plug our extension cord into.

You can probably guess where this was going. More distant neighbors saw young males creeping about, turning off lights and searching about with flashlights. They justly reported suspicious activity to the police. The good news is that the police – after confirming with our parents – were pretty sure that we were doing what we told them we were doing: using a telescope! The fact that the telescope was there with a long extension cord running to it almost told the whole story.

These days I try to stick to places where my intentions are clear but even so I still sometimes find myself explaining to the rangers or the police what I’m up to.

And now I’d like to leave you with a stunning photograph made by a local astronomer: Erik Larsen:

Horse Head & Flame DDP

Photo 1: Long Exposure Astrophotography by Erik N Larsen; The Horsehead Nebula & Flame Nebula

What do you think about this?