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RAS 200

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) will be 200 years old in 2020. In celebration there are to be projects to reach out and encourage newcomers into astronomy. More details of the planning are given on the RAS 200 page, where some preliminary ideas for projects are outlined (as of 2014 August).

I have my own suggestion, as follows.

 Exploit the digital camera

Quite ordinary digital cameras are ideal tools for getting people interested in astronomy.

Probably most people in Britain now own some form of digital camera, even if it is just part of their phone. Sadly most of them also live in urban areas where artificial light reflected by dust in the atmosphere prevents them from appreciating the night sky. Consequently they do not realise that their cameras can be used to take amazing pictures of the night sky, without requiring much other hardware.

It is very satisfying to take such pictures for yourself rather than only seeing them in various media.

Having taken your own photographs naturally leads to wondering about various aspects of them, not only about the astronomical content but also about such things as technical aspects of photography, optics, atmospherics, the nature of digital images, and the physiology of the eye. Some of the questions that might be pursued are listed below, under the heading Things to think about and explore.

Trying to improve your own photos also leads you into aspects of the experimental methods used in science.

To start getting results it is certainly not necessary to have a telescope. It is not even necessary to have a motorised mount to follow the stars, nor any kind of guiding system. Quite dramatic photos can be taken using a fixed camera, ideally on a simple tripod. And I do not mean photos showing star trails, though they can also be instructive and dramatic.

What you do need is

So this project would mainly be aimed at owners of suitable cameras, to assist and encourage them to get out and be amazed at what they can photograph in a dark night sky. Advice could also be given on cameras to buy, and on how to go on from here with equatorial mounts and then telescopes. Meetings would provide the guidelines to show people how to start. Such meetings would generally be at venues where the real photography can be done. There are now many designated dark sky sites around Britain which may have the right facilities.

On present trends the cameras of 2020 should be even better for the job: more sensitive and yet with less noise and lower cost.

Perhaps a consumer camera maker could be interested in sponsoring the project. They may like to offer suitable cameras at a special discount for participants. My favourite would be Canon because I know from experience that both their compact cameras and their DSLRs work well. Unusually among camera makers they have also produced some cameras tailored to astrophotographical needs.


 Things to think about and explore

Hopefully taking some photos of the night sky will prompt some of the following questions, and many more. It is by pursuing the answers that we are likely to become more fascinated in the subject.

Such questions are addressed in the rest of my web site and also in my book, aimed at digital camera owners who have not yet tried photographing the night sky.

 Examples of photos taken on a fixed tripod

The Milky Way in Scutum

Comet C/2014 E2 (Jacques) in Cassiopeia

How to find the Andromeda Galaxy and photograph it with minimal equipment

The Milky Way from a fixed tripod

NB: Those used NO telescope, NO motorised mount, NO guiding. You really can start with just a camera plus some FREE stacking software. Although these examples were taken with a DSLR that is not necessary either: much cheaper cameras will work (I plan to demonstrate that soon too).

I also used no dark or flat frames, complications which I believe put beginners off. Some think I am a heretic for suggesting this but my reasons are given in some detail here and here.

Note also that the techniques involved here are quite different from those used for planetary photography and are in many ways simpler for beginners.

 Something more advanced

But still on a fixed tripod! Experimental, as explained if you follow the link.

H-alpha regions around Monoceros

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