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About me & my journey into astrophotography

Welcome to my site on astrophotography. My name is Tim Schuurman, and on this page I intend to give you some insight in my journey into astrophotography in a blog-like style. I hope you like it.

I have been fascinated by astronomy since my childhood. However, besides reading some books on space travel and the universe, I never truly became active in astronomy. Until 2008, when we were out camping with my in-laws and their family at Camping Thyencamp in Drenthe, and the camping owner, Paul Tienkamp organized an astronomy night together with old neighbor Hugo Batema, and assisted by members of 2 regional astronomy clubs: VAS Zuid-Drenthe and VWS Noord-Drenthe.

Photo: courtesy of Paul Tienkamp

Photo: courtesy of Paul Tienkamp
We enjoyed a nice introductory presentation of Hugo, where he showed all attending campers the basics of astronomy and also his own results in astrophotography. With the splendid weather at that time, we experienced a wonderful night of stargazing following the lecture, with nice views of Jupiter, Saturn, M13, and M57, amongst others.

That night, I really got infected by the astronomy virus, and decided to buy my first telescope, a Bynostar 130 mm F7 Newtonian on a rather wobbly EQ2. At that time, I also became active on the Dutch national astronomy forum: astroforum.nl, and joined the local club; VAS Zuid-Drenthe. While surfing on the forum, I really got hooked by the great shots of deep sky objects, and decided to gather more information on how these astrophotos were made.
I visited fellow VAS-members Albert van Duin and Emiel Kempen, and received valuable information on how to start with astrophotography. Their first advice was: get the best mount you can afford. In my case this turned out to be an NEQ6-pro syntrek, which can be upgraded to full goto by the simple addition of an EQdir device, EQmod ASCOM driver, and the free-planetarium software Cartes du Ciel. Albert, who at the time was also running a small scale electronics company specialized in astronomy (astronics.nl, which unfortunately is no longer in business), supplied me with an EQdir.  During the summer of 2009, me and my family spent our summer holiday in the French Alps and fortunately I was able to bring my Bynostar 130 mm newton together with the NEQ6 to the dark mountains of the French Alps. Those 2 weeks, I goto-ed a whole lot of objects that were too low for me in my hometown skies.

During the following months, I patiently managed to get more of the much needed gear to start astrophotography. Despite the general advice that is given to starting astrophotographers to do planetary imaging, or start at a short focal length, I decided to just take the plunge into the deep and get myself the primary imaging instrument that would fit my alround needs the best, a 200 mm F5 Newtonian from Skywatcher. I had already bought a second hand Canon 350D from our local photography shop, and got a USB bulb device from Albert van Duin's astronics.nl again. For autoguiding, I decided to save me some weight, and mounting equipment for a separate guide scope, like a short tube refractor, and opted for a finder guider combined with monochrome guider camera. So I ended up with a QHY5, which is a little bit less sensitive compared to a lodestar autoguider, but also half its price.
So with the minimal needed gear now in possession, I had to wait another month or 2 to put the gear to work, as winters in The Netherlands tend to have a habit of much cloud cover. Finally, early March 2010, I was able to shoot my very first astrophotograph ever, Messier 51, with an hour of unguided 90 second exposures. Although I still was a complete NOOB with regards to image processing, what came out off Photoshop CS3 after using Jerry Lodriguss excellent CD books really astonished me. After this first shot, I imaged M81/M82, NGC4565, M97/M108, and M101 in early April 2010. In addition, that year I learned a lot with regards to autoguiding, making 5 minute exposures possible. However, as probably goes for every astrophotographer in its early days, the amount of possible targets and limited time available, prevents from exposing a target properly, and makes one quickly skipping to the next one. This was also partly caused by having to exchange the camera battery every hour. To solve this, I made an 12V to 8V DC power converter to feed the Canon 350D. In addition, I also build a flat field box to start using flats on my M27 image.
  So, that following summer, I again took all my gear with me on holiday to Southern France and spent 2 weeks with my family near Nyons in La Drome. Although this period wasn't planned to good from an astronomical point of view (2 weeks surrounding full moon), it did show what dark skies can do, as I shot very nice images of M20, M33, NGC7023, and M16 with only 60-90 minutes exposures. Also under nearly full moon, I was able to capture a glimpse of the bubble nebula near M52. However this made me realize that my Canon 350D needed to be modified in order to capture more of the so important Ha signal, so at the end of 2010 after shooting NGC6939/6946 and M45, I decided to replace the standard UV/IR cut filter by the Baader ACF filter. While doing this, I had also planned to build me a cooler box, but after Emiel Kempen told me, he had found his cooler box filled with about 1 cm of  water that had condensated after 3 nights of continuous shooting and nearly dripping onto his 13.8V DC power supplies, I decided to go for a more extreme cooling modification and peltier cool the CMOS imaging chip directly. This was done during the winter of 2010/2011, after my first test shot with the Baader MPCC on the double cluster.
With my Canon 350D now modified, I had to put it to the test, and while the winter of 2010/2011 was poor with regards to astronomical conditions, I had taken my time in modifying my camera. In between, I managed to capture my first supernova with the family Canon 1000D in NGC2655 sn2011b. So in the end I had to hurry to get it all reassembled in time for our Spring Star Party at Wateren. Unfortunately, due to technical problems and clouds moving in from time to time, I only managed to obtain 45 minutes of data on both the horse head nebula and M64 that weekend. Fortunately, the spring of 2011 turned out to be e great one, with lots of imaging time. By now I had also realized that I needed to up my total exposure time in order to improve my images. And so I did on images of the Leo trio (2 hrs 10 min), M63 (2 hrs 50 min), M51 (3 hrs), M64  (4 hrs 5 min), M101 (4 hrs 15 min), and M13 (5 hrs 30 min), and this really paid off. This also introduced multiple night imaging on a single object.  During the spring I also started using my MkII flat field box, based upon an old laptop back light.
After some issues due to a blown 555 timer IC, peltier cooling finally saw its first light during the warm summer months, when I was imaging NGC6888. NGC 7129/7142 proved to be too much from my backyard, with respect to the dark clouds in the surrounding area. Cooling really proved useful when going to France again that summer with my family on holiday. In the nice town of Die in the French Alps, I shot 3 objects, NGC7023, IC5146, and M52/NGC7635. However, I also suffered some additional problems associated from using peltier cooling with regards to autoguiding. These two didn't seem to combine very well, and in the end I resolved it by not cooling during the night when exposing, and using peltier cooling to shoot darks at the average night time temperature. Later on, it turned out that calibrating PHD with peltier device on solved this issue most of the time.
Unfortunately, during the fall of 2011, I ran into another problem with my peltier cooling, what later on proved to be a broken temperature sensor on the cold finger inside the camera. Despite those cooling problems, I still managed to get some fairly good images of IC5070, M33, NGC891, NGC281, M74, and finally M1, which  proved to be my longest exposure at that time, with 5 hours and 50 minutes. Then came the Dutch winter again with lots of clouds, and I had to wait from the end of October 2011 until mid January 2012 for some clear skies again.
Finally, in January and February of 2012 the winter brought some good clear freezing nights and I was able to shoot the Rosetta, NGC2903, and M81/82. Also, I aimed my scoop on a very difficult target, dwarf galaxy Leo I near the bright star Regulus, to see what can be achieved from my backyard. It turned out really nice, even with Regulus in FOV. In March, the annual Spring Star Party was at hand again, and we got 2 clear nights of imaging, although they were both with high humidity. I got 3 images that weekend, but despite the dark skies (21.4 SQM), the moisture did them no good. M106 was alright although I misjudged my framing due to bad preparation. On NGC6939/6946 on the other hand, I had to work with my secondary heater on, causing extra spikes on the brighter stars. M44 was shot on the second night and turned out very nice with only 30 minutes of exposure, but unfortunately after that my finder guider dewed up, ending my imaging session in Wateren.
In May, we again had a nice couple of clear nights, and I shot M94 on the first 2 nights, trying to capture the outer halo of this bright galaxy. After a fruitless attempt last year, It took 6 hours and 30 minutes of exposure time to reveal this faint outer halo. To further improve on it, it will require even more data. The 2 following nights I captured NGC6960 and M57. Despite high clouds moving in at the time of shooting NGC6960, it turned out reasonably well. M57 is also a tricky subject, as it is really bright and tends to blow out the colors when overexposed. I think I got a nice colorfull image out if it, even with shooting 10 min subs.
After struggling with my smaller scope and the mounting of my Canon 350Da + Flattener to it, I suspected that my T-ring was moving around, causing the imaging CMOS device to be out of line with the focal plain. I therefore glued the T-ring to the camera body, and unfortunately cannot use camera lenses anymore. I wasted 3 good imaging nights to this issue in July 2012. On the other hand, I also improved my image processing skills by using a more "CCD"-type approach; The DSLR-LRGB method of Scott Rosen. The first image I reprocessed in this way truly shocked me: I finally got "brownish" dust in NGC7023. Soon after this first reprocess, I also took another 3 images under construction: M101, NGC891, and IC5146. Although with galaxies the effects are not as pronounced as with the dusty patches of nebula, it still allows more sharpening and improved stretching of the image due to the use of a synthetic Luminance image created from the RGB data. This was another giant leap for me in creating better images.
To accommodate more accurate focusing, I made a computer controlled, Arduino based motor focuser, which is very easy to build. Furthermore, I resolved my peltier cooling issue by installing a new temperature sensor on the cold finger, without having to do extensive surgery to the camera again. As the summer holiday arrived, we again packed up our car, and my imaging setup, and me and my family drove off to sunny Southern France and settled near Aubenas this time. Not as dark as the places I had visited earlier in France, but still very good. I really wanted to reshoot some of the objects in low South that I can't reach from my home town, but it turned out that I had to shoot them right over the city of Aubenas with a lot of lights, including some at the camp site. Also my position where I had setup the telescope proved to be very attractive to the remaining campers. Not such a big issue with the interested adults, but when children are running around until 2:30 AM, I was not relaxed enough to catch some sleep alongside my telescope during image acquisition.
So the next clear night I relocated the imaging gear next to our caravan and had only a small window between the trees to shoot through. I was therefore forced to shoot some more of the dusty regions near Cepheus, which I really like, so no big deal at all. The Southern objects will just have to wait a little longer. I managed 2 images that holiday: VdB 152 and B150. Back home, only 1 image of NGC7380 was acquired in September 2012. During the final 3 months of 2012 and the first 3 months of 2013, again clouds were among the regular menu. So in the mean time, I opted to resolve a known issue with the (N)EQ6 mounts, which is the problems with the altitude bolts. I had already changed them to stainless steel ones, but they turned out to be eating into the weaker aluminium cast of the pedestal. So I modified the bolts by putting on nicely rounded stainless steel caps and took the advantage of having dismantled the pedestal to install an extra pin for the lower altitude bolt to push on. Everything runs much smoother now, although the only drawback is that mount is now only usable between 40-55, but as I don't intend to take this heavy mount any further, this is OK. 
Finally in March 2013 the clouds cleared again, so I took another go at M106, but this time with the intended framing, including its neighboring galaxies and colorful starfield. I had intended to go for 7-8 hours of data, but due to incoming high clouds lost about 6 hours of the acquired 10 hours.  New moon in April 2013 brought another series of clear nights and those were well spent on NGC4565, NGC4725/4747, and NGC5005/5033. Some of these images, in my humble opinion, reflect the progression I have made over the past year, with the most important lessons learned; long total exposure times (my minimum goal is to aim for 6 hours, but if I see what for instance Scott Rosen achieves with 10+ hours of data, makes me longer for more and more data) and image processing using the DSLR-LRGB approach. I'm surpised on the amount of detail and color that can be captured from a modest conditioned sky with affordable equipment, as illustrated by the crops (~40%) NGC4565 and (100%) NGC5005 below.
In May and June of 2013, I started shooting narrow band H-alpha (Ha) images with my DSLR. In this way, I can also image during the 2 weeks surrounding full moon. In addition, I discovered it also provides more imaging time during new moon in the summer when the nights have become the so called "grey nights" when astronomical darkness does not occur (sun doesn't pass under 18 below the horizon) in The Netherlands. Combining the Ha data with RGB data, however proves to be another learning curve that needs to be taken, which I am currently underway on. My first Ha images where from M57, NGC6888, and M27. For the last 2 images, I also used 20 minute subexposures for the first time. Also my EL panel has been modified with white opale perspex sheets as a dimmer for the brightness. This works great for Ha, but remains to be tested for RGB imaging.
Shooting the Ha images has the intention to bring more detail and reveal more weak Ha structures to color data obtained from the same object. I first tried to do this in combining my Ha data from NGC6888 with the RGB image aqcuired 2 years earlier. Creating this HaRGB image proved another steep learning curve, but with the help of some fellow astrophotographers I managed to get an acceptable result in the end; NGC6888 HaRGB. With this result in mind I started thinking of a new HaRGB project in order to see how deep I could go from my backyard; Project Messier 27. In the end I ended up with 9 hours 40 minutes of Ha data, accompanied with 10 hours of RGB data, which resulted in the Ha image below on the left side and the HaRGB image to lower right. This project proved a personal exposure record of 19 hours 40 minutes on a single target and started showing the outer halo of M27 in both the Ha and HaRGB image, that was only discovered in 1992 by professional astronomers.
In July, me and the family left for our summer holiday to the Belgian Ardennes, with splendid weather forecasted. All my gear was once again transported along with our camping gear and I set up along side our camping car. However, I suffered from several equipment issues (faulty USB cable, and later on a setting change in the camera) ruining 2 good imaging nights. This was however, all put behind as in between I mananged to shoot Van den Bergh 141, a dusty reflection nebula in Cepheus, which are some of my favourite objects to image. Despite a 70% moon shining bright during most of the exposures, the image turned out very satisfactory, with dust all over the place and excellent star color still present. An effort to capture CTB 01, a very faint supernova remnant proved to be to much for only 1 night. Although it was present in the Ha stack from 3 hours 40 minutes exposure, it was only barely visable and will require much more exposure in the future.
August 2013 again brought some clear nights, so I took a shot at the Eastern Veil Nebula. Unfortunately this also showed some major issues with the alignment of my mirrors, so I decided that my imaging newton would need a big service to resolve this issue and also to flock my OTA and focuser in an attempt to further increase the contrast in my RAW images. After this work I realigned my mirrors with the help of Emiel Kempen and his excellent collimation tools, which has resulted in me getting spoiled by the ease of use and perfection crafting of these tools, so I will need to do some expensive purchases in the future with Cats Eye and Howie Glatter items. During the full moon I did 2 HaRGB projects with Van den Bergh 142 in IC 1396 (Ha) and IC 1805 (Ha), and during the processing of these shots I finally discovered a slight addaptation of the Starizona Method #1 for HaRGB combining that seems to work for my workflow.
In September 2013, we had some of the hottest September days in the Dutch history with temperatures of arround 30C. Last year I had taken on NGC7380 and I wasn't satisfied with the outcome of that image as it suffered from collimation issues and also I wasn't able to pull out enough details in the nebula. So I decided it was time for a rematch (Ha) but this time with the advantage of doing it in HaRGB. Despite partly ruining my RGB imaging run by forgetting to turn on my alarm clock to wake me for performing a meridian flip, resulting in only 3 hours of RGB instead of 7 hours, the image turned out really well. Again my self addapted Starizona 1 method worked perfect and the struggle in combining Ha with RGB seems to a thing of the past for me. Unfortunately the hot Indian Summer weather has now been forced out of the country and Fall has set in firmly. Let's hope for a better Fall/Winter season as compared to last year, as back then it lasted nearly 6 months until I had some clear skies again.

All content on astrovirus.nl 2010-2013 by T. Schuurman