Shooting The Pillars of Creation

The night sky is a completely awe-inspiring and wonderous place. If you allow yourself, you can become completely lost in it, and feel like you’re among the stars yourself, drifting on the stellar winds, feeling the warmth of a hundred billion suns on your skin, floating through the tenuous membranes of nebulae, watching new stars being formed, old stars dying and collapsing. I know, because I often do this. For me it’s not just about capturing the image, as incredible as that can feel. It’s the feeling of peace and oneness with the entirety of creation that it can invoke.

Some of us have that “one” image that they long for, and that image is as personal and diverse for everyone as the sky itself is. For me, that has always been the Pillars of Creation, in Messier 16, The Eagle Nebula.

The Pillars of Creation, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Copyright NASA

This is my story about how I went about capturing the most soul-touching place I’ve imagined in the night sky. This is a story into the very heart of what astrophotography and astronomy means to me.

There’ll be some technical stuff in this post, and that’s because there needs to be. But I’m going to talk more about how what I do, and in particular this place, gets to me on a more soul-level. All too often we get lost in the technical side of what we do, and although it’s a necessary part of the process, let’s instead get back to the basics of WHY we do what we do and what it means to us on a more personal level.

Join me, as I set about capturing The Pillars of Creation.

Why The Pillars?

As I alluded to above, some of us have that one image that they’ve always wanted to capture. For us it’s not just about capturing an image that we regard as our personal “crowning achievement.” We’re in constant awe of the depths of space anyway, and the beauty and wonder that it contains. I personally feel quite privileged and incredibly lucky to be able to indulge in what I do.

Most of us, and I generalise here, go through our lives in our own little insular bubbles, rarely taking the time to appreciate the wider world around us. I’m not exempting myself from that statement either.

Even more rare do we allow that world to truly touch and speak to our inner selves. And it does that constantly. The universe is constantly speaking to us. We just need to pause and allow it in. We need to listen with better ears than we’ve been doing. And when we allow it in, to not run away from it. Instead, embrace it, accept it, give it the room inside your heart that it, and you, deserve.

For me at least it’s as much about capturing that one place where we feel our hearts belong, where we receive that complete sense of oneness and peace. Our spiritual home if you will. When I’m out imaging at night, I don’t just sit there and stare at the rig, or research, although I will do the latter at times. Instead, I’ll sit back, look up at that beautiful panorama above me, and understand that me and that aren’t two separate things. We’re the same thing. It’s pretty much accepted as scientific fact now that the stuff that makes us all up, you, me, everyone around us, the plants, trees, animals, clouds, moons, the planets in our solar system, the stars and galaxies, are all born from the same basic elements. The universe is as much a part of US, as we are of it. Allow yourself to feel as though you’re drifting through it, not as a separate entity, but as an intrinsic part of it.

And it doesn’t matter if you don’t talk about it with others, because it’s not their journey. It’s yours. And it can be as deep and as spiritual as you want it to be. It’s all about how open and honest you’re prepared to be with yourself.

So, for me at least, the Pillars of Creation are that one place where I can feel my heart and my soul guided to, where I feel that I can be at my most honest with myself, where I find the most peace within me. It’s that one place that feels as though it truly resonates within.

The Technical Stuff

Aquisition

Manually platesolving in APT due to losing the ability to connect to the mount in anythinng other than the SynScan App

So far, this hasn’t been any easy one to get onto. Not only has my guidecam gone down and needs replacing, but the mount is now refusing to connect to anything other than the SynScan App in Windows (honestly, I’m tempted to do a fresh install of Windows JUST to try and solve the issue!) So I’m limited to using her in tracking mode only. The one saving grace is that she’s now more or less permanently set up outside and no longer needs packing up at the end of the night. Instead, I’m now covering her in a waterproof cover that I’m tying down. Saves a lot of set up time.

However, all that aside, I’m still without “proper” Go-To functionality. My workaround for the time being consists of doing a 2 star alignment in SynScan, and then using that to get close to target. I’ll then platesolve in APT and use the manual slew controls in SynScan, and rinse repeat until I get exactly onto the target coordinates in APT. So far I’ve used this on M13 and NGC 6888, and now on M16. It’s slow, but sometimes it’s good to slow ourselves down a bit and learn how to appreciate that with a fully computerised mount, we’ve been somewhat spoiled.

For the first run at it, I’ve chosen to go for broadband data. This is data that is captured without altering the configuration of the camera. Using it “out of the box” as it were. The ASI178 is a one shot colour camera (OSC), so it captures a full colour image. Bearing in mind the limitations of using an OSC over a monochrome camera with separate colour filters (something I’ll cover another time). My initial setup is the 72ED (Miranda) with the ZWO ASI178MC (uncooled) on the EQ5 Pro mount. The 72ED and ASI178 are a good combination for image scale without needing to resort to binning. There’s a great talk by Ruzeen at AstroFarsography about how to understand image scale and the factors that affect it. It’s pretty comprehensive so I won’t go into it here. But definitely check out Ruz’s other videos for some great information and tutorials. I also already knew from checking the FoV (field of view) in Stellarium with the above setup that I’d be able to capture the entirety of the Eagle Nebula itself and still have some room to spare.

As my rig hadn’t moved since the last time I’d used it several weeks previously, I didn’t bother too much about polar alignment, one of the advantages of a semi permanent setup. Although it still doesn’t hurt to check it from time to time.

Because I’d used Miranda at the kids house with their Star Adventurer I still needed to check balance etc, which took me a whole 5 minutes to pinpoint again. At which point off I went on a two star alignment, using Regulus and Arcturus as my alignment stars whilst using the opportunity to check and lock off my focus as well. I also took the opportunity to realign my finderscope with the OTA.

Using a Bahtinov Mask to achieve pinpoint focus whilst carrying out a 2-star alignment

And then off we went to image M16, using a combination of the SynScan app in Windows, and the platesolving abilities in APT.

Using SynScan to get to Messier 16 due to connection to mount issues outside of this app
Manually platesolving in APT used in conjunction with manually slewing in SynScan

One of the major issues imaging M16 at my latitude is that it doesn’t achieve much more than 20 degrees above the horizon at any time. The maximum is 23 degrees in about late June/early July, so it’s pretty way down in the muck of our atmosphere. Due to the unpredictability of the average British weather, and the small window of opportunity to have a go at it at all were my main deciding factors in having a shot at it this particular night.

It was already gone midnight by the time I was slewing to it, and thankfully it had cleared any obstructions between me and it by this point, so I was lucky enough to be able to pretty much get straight onto it.

Even though I was restricted to using tracking mode on the mount, I was still pretty hopeful that I’d be able to obtain some decent data on this, my first ever run. I’d already set zero gain, with an offset of 30 on the camera, and once I established on target, I started running a 15 seconds plan, that apparently being close to the optimal settings for my setup.

I then sat back and kept an eye on things from the comfort of the summer house.

The moon was a bit of an issue, as were threatening clouds.

I spent much of that session contemplating my place in the universe, as I often do, and had to keep in check my excitement at finally imaging something I’d been after for so long, and one that meant so much to me personally. However, as the hour was late (or early, depending on your point of view) and the fact I’d been at work most of the day, AND had a busy couple of days imaging with the kids before that, I eventually nodded off for an hour, wrapped up in a nice warm throw with the doors wide open.

By the time I woke again the moon had shifted and M16 was on the downward path, so I made the decision to call it a night there, and quickly fired off 50 dark frames after parking the mount.

I was incredibly eager to start processing this immediately, but refrained, all too aware that often we make mistakes when tired, and end up doing several iterations of the same image with the same data because of it. I wanted this to be as perfect as possible from the outset, something I felt more befitted how I felt towards it.

Processing

I took my laptop into work with me the following day with the intention of starting the pre-processing whilst on my various breaks.

I’ve adjusted my workflow over time and now have a pretty solid and consistent methodology, although I’m sure it will evolve even further going forward.

The first thing I always do is go through the frames and pull out any bad ones. These will be ones that have been “bombed” by passing satellites, or meteors, or cloud has passed through, or, and this is the most common reason for me, tracking / guiding errors that cause elongated stars. Thankfully, because I was shooting wide at 420mm, and my exposure times were relatively short, there were very few bad frames, although I did pull out some that had interference patterns, almost like a bad TV signal. I’ll do this by loading them up into DSS and then registering each frame so I can get a “score” for it. I’ll then go through the lowest scoring ones and pull those out, and then take the remaining ones and work through those.

Unusually for me, I decided to do my initial stack in DSS, so loaded up the calibration frames as well and left it stacking.

When I returned to it on my next break at work, I was almost mortified. The image was absolutely god-awful!

I started the process all over again, this time in Astro Pixel Processor (APP), which I’ve found is far superior to DSS when it comes to stacking data. The process is a lot more involved however, but the end result, and it’s ability to do some initial calibration and stretching makes it absolutely worth the extra time investment.

The interface in APP is a lot more involved than that of DSS, but the post-stacking abilities make it so much more worthwhile

My usual approach once the stack is complete is to do an initial crop to tidy up the edges and frame the subject better. I’ll then run light pollution removal, background calibration and star colour calibration, before saving as a 16bit TIFF file and importing into Lightroom.

From there I’ll make some subtle global adjustments for exposure and further tightening up of the framing before editing in Photoshop. With Photoshop I’ll do an initial levels and curves adjustment before carrying out per channel edits.

The red channel I start off with some minor noise reduction, then star reduction in the blue channel, before returning to the red for highlights, subtle sharpening, and a little further noise reduction before tweaking the levels and curves. If it needs it I’ll also use the select and mask tool at this point to bring up selected colours for saturation and vibrance before flattening and saving back into Lightroom, where I’ll make any further small global adjustments before exporting the finished image.

This sounds pretty complicated if you’re not an experienced Photoshop user, and frequently I still find myself referring back to tutorials to make sure I’m doing things right. I’m sure there’s probably more editing that I can do to further enhance the images, but this is where I’m currently at.

The Pillars of Creation in Messier 16, The Eagle Nebula

What I’d love to do at the next opportunity is to add some Oiii data to the image, and also shoot some more broadband to tidy it up more. But for just over an hour, on my first attempt, I’m seriously happy with this iteration. No, it’s not up to Hubble standards, nor is up to the same standards as some versions I’ve seen. Those images take a LOT more time than I’ve currently had available to me so I’m cutting myself a great deal of slack releasing this version.

But it’s not always about getting the “perfect” image. Sometimes you just need to go with what you have and accept that the rest of it will come later. Hopefully, given the small windows of opportunity that this target provides at my location, I’ll grab that further time and data this year. But if not, then the stars aren’t going anywhere and I’ll have another go at it next year.

I’m happy with what I have so far, and the place inside ME that it’s taken me to, and that should be enough for anyone. We often want “more” and this is no less true for astronomers and astrophotographers as it is for anyone else. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity I’ve been afforded to visit this place, for however long nature and the universe has deemed fit.

So, I give you the Pillars of Creation, in the Eagle Nebula. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. For now, clear skies!

The Eagle Nebula with the Pillars of Creation, my spiritual “home”

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