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A whole new sky…

That’s what I saw last night – or at least it felt like it. How come? Well, last night, three looooong weeks after buying it (CURSE you Cumbrian weather, and my inadequate tripods!) I finally managed to use my new iOptron star tracker camera mount and its new sturdy ££ tripod for the first time. And was it worth it?

As Sam Beckett used to say after each Quantum Leap – Oh boy

Last night, lured outside by the first properly clear sky for a week or so, Stella, our observing buddy Carol and I headed out of Kendal and up to our closest “dark sky site” in a church car park in the nearby village of Old Hutton. It’s not perfect by any means – a couple of neighbouring houses have security lights, and there’s a big bright streetlight down the street, but if you position yourself in the long shadow of the church you can block those out and spend a good few hours under a very pretty, very starry sky, and that’s what we did last night, in the company of another pair of EAS members, as I took the iOptron out for its initial shakedown cruise.

It took me longer to set up for the first time than I thought it would – it’s a heavy piece of kit, and setting it up is actually quite fiddly, in the dark,what with all that screwing and unscrewing of ball heads etc – but eventually, with valuable assistance from Stella and Carol, everything was assembled. Then it was time to polar align it and take my first shot. I knew that the mount, and my photos, would benefit from aligning on the genuine polar point in the sky, which is some distance away from Polaris, but I wanted to see what an image would look like with the mount aligned on Polaris itself first. So, setting the DSLR for its maximum set length of exposure, 30 seconds, I set it running… and got this…

ioptron first image orion 50mm 30s

..which at first glance looks pretty good! Lots of stars, the nebula shining brightly. Promising! But the focus was out (a common problem with modern DSLR astrophotography cos they go *past* Infinity… so annoying!!) and when I enlarged the image I could see the stars had trailed slightly…

ioptron first image orion 50mm 30s trails

Ok… so that’s what alignining on Polaris did. So I used the app on my smartphone to align the mount with the *true* celestial pole, a little way away from Polaris, re-focussed, and tried again, another basic 30s exposure, and got this…

2nd image orion 50mm 30s

Oh… look at that…. that looked *great* on the back of the camera… but had aligning on the true pole made much difference..?

2nd image orion 50mm 30s trails

Oh yes…! I looked at that and started grinning like a Cheshire Cat. I’ve wanted to take a photo of that nebula looking like that for years, ever since, in fact, I was a young boy starting out in astronomy, and there it was, on my camera. At the second try with my new toy – sorry, highly sophisticated piece of equipment. I couldn’t wait to get home and process that image! But I did, wait, I mean, we were there a few hours, and I took many more photos, gradually lengthening the exposure times to see what the iOptron could do, and of course as soon as I got home I fired up the laptop and got to work… and you can imagine my amazement when this appeared after processing – this is a 127 sec exposure…

0rion 50mm single processed 127s

…and when I cropped the nebula, and did a little more work, I got this…


Seriously, seriously chuffed with that. That is a crop of a single tracked processed image taken at a reasonably dark site. What that tracker will give me when I use it at a truly dark site – which I will be doing this coming weekend, up at Kielder Starcamp in Northumberland – should be nothing short of amazing.

First images in the bag, and faith in the mount fully established, it was time to play! 🙂

Here is a selection of the images I took over the next couple of hours, with technical details for those interested.


Pleiades, 135mm lens, single 82sec exposure.


M31, single exposure, 50mm lens, 51sec.

jupiter 135 60s

Jupiter, 135mm lens, 60sec exposure. Ok, that might be a *touch* over-exposed, but isn’t it pretty? 😉


Crab nebula (centre) – crop of tracked image with 135mm lens

But what I really wanted to try and photograph last night was Comet Lovejoy – and the iOptron didn’t disappoint. Here’s a single 30s exposure with the 50mm lens…

comet 1st image 50mm 30s

And you can clearly see the tail of the comet there. Faint, certainly, but there. A 2 minute exposure rewarded me with this…

lj 2m single tracked

Bit bright, that, but I kept going, trying different exposures and lenses, and when I got home I worked on the images I’d taken… and these came out…

crop single 62s

135mm lens, 62sec exposure, cropped and processed. Love that!

lj i1

lj i11

I’ll be honest, I’m absolutely delighted with those, but at the same time I’m kicking myself that I didn’t buy the iOptron months ago when I was originally thinking about it, cos then I could have used it on Comet Lovejoy when it was at its brightest and best. Idiot! I hummed and haa’d about buying one for ages, lingered by them at three different astro events, and didn’t take the plunge. Now I know that if I’d used the iOptron on Comet Lovejoy a month ago, when its banner tail was unfurled and flapping in the solar wind, I would have got beautiful images… oh well, at least I have in now, ready for the *next* bright comet which comes along! And I’ll get to use it at Kielder Starcamp next weekend – weather permitting of course.

But just how much better is it using a mount like an iOptron than taking images with just a camera on a tripod, which I’ve always sworn by? Well, see for yourself by clicking on the following images to enlarge them…

comet 50mm

m42 50mm

comet stacked

One image from last night shows just what is possible with my new piece of kit. I thought I’d give M1, the Crab Nebula a try with my 135mm lens. I’ve imaged it before, kind of, but it’s never looked better than just a faint, smudgy dot… so imagine my delight when I managed to get this…

m1 crop

As I said at the top there, it feels like I have a whole new sky for my playground now… 🙂


Many thanks to Carol Grayson for her help and for taking Stella and I up to the church last night; to fellow EAS members Ian Bradley and Simon White for their ongoing support and encouragement; and to Stella, as always, for accompanying me and supporting me on these (often futile) dark sky safaris 🙂 Also thank you to Jeremy Hunt, who very generously built me a manual barn door-type tracker – it was by using that I was able to see just how essential it was to take “the next giant step” from camera-and-tripod to something that moved on its own. And finally a big thank you to Marcus Grover at Grovers Optics for his excellent service, during and after the purchase of the iOptron and the tripod.