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Mars opposition is coming!

Mars opposition is coming!

Mars opposition is coming!  As a relatively inexperienced planetary photographer, I am often amazed at the high quality of images I see from a very wide range of equipment and workflows used by amateurs.  There are obviously many ways to skin the cat and much can be done with surprisingly little equipment.    This improves my odds of finding one of them!

As with all astrophotography projects, planetary work requires a few basic building blocks:

  1. A target, in this case Mars
  2. An observing time and place (culmination times, wind shelter, dark sky, cool surface, etc.)
  3. Optical means of collecting light from the target (lens, telescope, etc.)
  4. A device to record the image (DSLR, cell phone, CCD or CMOS sensor, web cam, etc.)
  5. Means for holding and pointing the hardware at the target (Tripod, mount, etc.)
  6. A method of making the exposure (prime focus/afocal/EP projection, collimating, focusing, camera sensitivity, exposure times, subframes, etc.)
  7. A method of processing the resulting recoded image (stacking, sharpening, stretching, color balance, noise management, etc.)
  8. Someone reliable to compliment the results, regardless of the quality

While this general list exposes numerous ways to get something “wrong”, I prefer to think each of these elements contribute to the quality of the result and improvements in virtually any of them will improve the image.  I should add that thinking this way does not prevent me from getting something wrong…  Each of these areas deserves consideration, yet even with everything optimized natural conditions such as seeing, transparency, temperature and wind affect the process.

Almost by definition, astro-photos are limited by something other than the target itself.  You can stretch and tease out details only so far before limits imposed by something on this list halt your progress.   Perhaps one of them easily dominates, but usually you can see benefits from a little work on any of them.

As an example, a friend sold me a beautiful 130mm f/8 APO refractor and for years it has delighted me in both visual and photographic use.   A couple of years ago I replaced the original focuser with a Baader Diamond Steeltrack focuser, and with that the telescope just leaped to another level.   My photos are so much better now!  I have had similar experiences with filters, mounts, guiding, and cameras.  It may seem obvious that better equipment can give better results, but it is hard to judge how much impact a given upgrade can have.  And it is hard to know how far you are from fully utilizing what you already own.   

For Mars I am planning to use the next months to get better at using the tools I have now.  I am practicing on Jupiter and Saturn (great fun by itself!) and taking some preliminary images of Mars.  I am trying different telescopes, cameras, camera settings, barlows, and processing tricks, and paying attention to the sky conditions as I do.   Along the way I get to observe incredible sights in the sky.  By opposition time this fall I will have more skills, realistic expectations, a collection of photos to look at, and that happiness that comes from many great nights out under the stars.

Mike Allyn 

Next article Preparing for Mars Opposition

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