Seven Habits of a Highly Effective Astrophotographer

There’s just one thing that I don’t want to learn, and that’s a lesson.
– Homer J. Simpson.

Generally, I find that as I make astronomy easier, I tend to do more of it. This note is about the lessons-learned that I have applied to make astronomy easier, and then do more of it.


As my setup is quite sophisticated, setup and tear down time for every observing session can be as much as two hours. By having a telescope on a mount with decent polar alignment shortens the time to about twenty minutes to uncover the scope, add a camera, and add power. There have been occasions that I have unexpectedly woken up in the wee hours of the morning, found clear skies, and decided to go out to the scope, and add a camera and power for an imaging session. I seriously doubt that I would ever do a from-scratch setup in the middle of the night. Two keys to making this possible are a 365-day cover, and a couple of pavers set into the turf to prevent the telsecope legs from sinking into the soft soil.


Sitting alone in the dark to manage an imaging session is not fun. Doing it on a freezing cold night is even less fun. Being able to spend 15 minutes to prepare for a session during the daylight, and another 15 minutes to polar align and get an initial focus position removes a lot of imaging downside. Being able to conduct an imaging session from a warm house after polar aligning and focusing is fun. The two keys to making this possible are having an extra computer so that I can leave one connected to accessories at the scope, and another computer that can remotely access the scope-side computer from in the house or camper. The other key is a nano router that enables remote access when away from the home WIFI network.


I use many accessories to automate various aspects of my imaging sessions, which include mount controller, electronic focuser, guide camera, filter wheel, and main camera. These accessores require 12vdc power or data (USB) connections, or both. My single cable consists of about ten individual wires. In the bundling. At some point in the development of my setup, the wires hanging off of the back of my scope made it look like a ghilley suit, and I had a rat’s nest of wires beneath the tripod. Slewing was hazardous because wires were dragging behind the scope, and prone to snag. My solution was to bundle wires so that a single cable runs from the scope, connects to the mount controller, and then to a power board on the ground. I leave connection ends where they need to be to connect to their device. Running each of these wires separately, and then zip tying them to prevent snags takes a considerable amount of time and effort. With my present setup, I pick up one cable (instead of ten wires) I spend about a minute making wiring connections, and I need to add only one zip tie.


This item goes to the Jim-ism, you won’t remember as much as you think that you will.

Write and use workflow documents. Common mistakes that I make during an imaging session are forgetting to do something important, doing it in the wrong sequence, or just plain doing it wrong. This goes to the Jim-ism, you won’t remember as much as you think that you will. I add the word “use” to the title of this section, because I notice several instances of making rookie mistakes by going off script. In addition to keeping me on track, a write work flow is a great place to insert an obscure new step that I learn, and might be otherwise likely to forget by the time of my next imaging session. For me, it is so tempting to just forge ahead on my own, but looking at a script keeps me on track. In places were I know the procedure very well, I might read (glance at) several steps, execute them, then read again to make sure that I covered everything. I tend to pare down the steps as I become more proficient. I no longer need the details, so polar alignment, for instance, has become a single step. I consider my workflow documents to be as important as my equipment and my skills. I do better astronomy and have fewer imaging sessions end badly when I stay on script.

Write up observing reports. By writing observing reports, I have a record of what I have done, and useful patterns emerge. I also document the problems that I had, so that I can track them to resolution. Just the act of writing them alone forces me to think more deeply about what I have done during a session. I can also just look at the titles and see overarching patterns, like how many sessions have been dedicated to one kind of astrophotography or another, or how long it has been since I have devoted a session to a certain kind of session.


Even if I have the gear, I must be sure to wear it when appropriate. I have had imaging sessions ended by cold weather because I tried to tough it out early on, and then found that I couldn’t wam up after having let myself get cold. I have heard it said that the best way to stay warm is to never let yourself get cold. My warm weather gear consists of a warm hat, a parka under which I wear several layers, ski pants under which I wear several layers, insulated boots in which I can put battery powered feet wamers, and thin and thick gloves in which I can put chemical hand warmers.


DSO imaging at a dark site is more efficient than at a bright sky site. For DSO imaging in my backyard under a Bortle Class 6 sky, eight to ten hours of image data collect is required to support a high quality image of a dim nebula. At a dark site, two to four hours of collection is sufficient for many dim targets. As my DSO imaging skill improves, I expect to collect on multiple targets in a single night at a dark site.


It is my habit to do a scan soon after I am awake every morning. I conduct this scan with an eye toward what astronomy things that I want to do on that day. First, I want to know what my commitments are. That can take out small or large parts of day, take out a whole day, or take out several days. Before deciding on the day’s activities, I make a weather and conditions-based decision about what imaging that I might want to do. For example, if the moon is out, I might image it, planets, or star clusters. If the moon is away, I might choose nebulous targets. The seeing and transparency forecast might affect my decision. After deciding that, I consider what daytime work might be needed to support that evening’s imaging. I also consider other equipment work or tweaks that I can accomplish.

Do daytime work during daylight hours. I am constantly alert for opportunities to accomplish every task that I can during daylight hours. First of all, any task is likely to be easier in the daylight, so why not do then what can be done then? Secondly, clear night skies are a rare commodity, so why defer tasks more appropriate for daylight hours until darkness?

Make the best use possible of marginal nights. One of my chief goals is to be as prepared as possible for collecting the highest-quality image data on nights with the best transparency, in the darkest sites. If I defer testing and tweaking of equipment, for instance, to these nights, then I have squandered premium image time on something that very well could have already been done. For instance, if I can tune my autoguiding on marginal nights, then I am prepared to collect image data when a rare premium night comes along. Other tasks are even more obvious. I would never attempt a delicate backlash adjustment at night.

Practice. This section goes to another Jim-ism, one must learn new things quicker than onld ones are forgotten in order to improve one’s skill. All aspects of a session need to be practiced. If I set up during an afternoon that promises marginal skies that evening, and then it is completely clouded out, then I have paracticed setting up. If I work with my autoguiding system on a marginal night, then I have practiced imaging. If I have spent most of the summer and the entire fall on planetary imaging, then I have not practiced DSO imaging, and it will take me a while to get good at it again.

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