Foraging & Outings Frontiers 2018

Photographing distant skies

Dawn Planets at Duffus Castle by Alan Tough
Written by Howie Firth

Alan Tough got his first compact digital camera back in 2003. “There was a spectacular aurora in November of that year and I was able to get some grainy photos of it. My interest in astrophotography really grew from there,” he says.

His first digital SLR camera was a Canon EOS 300D. “I was able to mount that on a tripod and take longer time exposures of the Northern Lights.

 Gradually, over the years I’ve built up my camera and telescope equipment. The equatorial mount I got for my telescope enabled me to track astronomical objects and take much longer time exposures without ‘trailing stars’.”

Processing images

I started using image processing software in earnest around ten years ago. It was a science event called Going Nova, and Bill Leslie had set up a link to give access to the Faulkes Telescope in Hawaii so that we could capture images of deep sky objects from that location. Bill, myself and a few some others had a go at processing the data to produce full colour images of the objects Bill had carefully selected. I learned a lot about image processing in those early days.

Image processing makes a huge difference to the quality of the final image. With the digital camera you don’t get the best night sky image ‘straight out of the box’: you do need to process it in order to bring out the colours and improve the contrast.”

Also for deep-sky objects, where the image is quite faint, you boost the signal and reduce the noise by taking several images and stacking them. So you go from a single image, which can be fairly grainy and with poor contrast, to a much better-quality image with beautiful, deep colours and very good contrast.”

Comets and meteors and the Northern Lights

I like to photograph transitory astronomical events – such as comets, meteor showers, and eclipses: and also, of course, the Northern Lights, where each display is different from the previous one and you never really know what you’re going to get.

I used to photograph deep-sky objects from Elgin but, since 2014, I’ve been using remotely-accessed telescopes in Australia and America. Most of my deep-sky imaging nowadays is done using these remote telescopes.”

Alan regularly has images published in the British magazine Astronomy Now and had images short-listed in the 2016 and 2017 Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competitions.

About the author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.