Mike Read – Amateur (Astro)photographer
That’s me, an amateur (Astro)photographer. I put the “Astro” in brackets as I also take pictures during daylight hours – then the subject has to be one of our cats or aircraft – I tend not to photograph anything else.
The Astro part started just prior to lockdown 1.0 in January 2020.We had just moved earlier in 2019 from a major town in Somerset to a small hamlet just between Frome and Warminster. One of the things we noticed as the evenings drew in , was how dark everything was. The hamlet only has ONE street light, and that’s far enough away from everything to prevent light pollution, in fact I get more light pollution from my wife's solar lights!. In the middle of November 2019 I started to take pictures of the night sky. I thought (at the time they were good…) Here is one of those first images:
I carried on experimenting and reading the manual for the camera, up to this point I would shoot my Canon 70D on “P” – your know the expression “All the gear…” – that was me. I persevered and managed to take a picture of Orion in early January 2021 :
This image was effectively my catalyst to throw myself into night sky photography and become a successful astrophotographer. This image started to flood back memories of my childhood. I grew up in a little village in Hampshire , the sky was very very dark, in those days it was a thrill and bonus to see a satellite (oh how things have changed). One Christmas my parents bought me a Prinz Astral telescope, it was white with wooden legs and twiddly controls to control the up/down and left and right (ALT/AZ). I would spend hours in the garden looking at Jupiter, Saturn, the Pleiades and Orion. You will never forget the first time you see the Galilean moons of Jupiter.
I was inspired by some of the images on twitter , a user was getting stunning results with the same camera as me. I wanted to rekindle my love of the night sky and start Astro Photography – how hard can this be!!!.
I managed to convince my wife that it was a worthwhile hobby and it would not cost an arm and a leg. So, after a lot of research, I bought my first telescope mount. An EQ6R pro:
The idea was I would put my little Canon and lens on this and produce some quality night sky photos, again, I thought easy – right?. I was still getting star trails , something I wasn’t expecting from a tracking mount, then someone asked – had I polar aligned? Erh yes I said – frantically googling polar alignment. PA in a nutshell is to get the telescope pointing at the polar axis of the earth of the mount and the earth rotate as one.
So, now I managed to PA – it took me a month to perfect it, I decided to buy a telescope. My first telescope was a Skywatcher 80ED, this arrived in March 2020 and fortunately Orion was still in view from my patio. Here is one of those first images of the Orion nebula – M42:
When this image appeared on the back of the camera – I was totally amazed, I had managed to photograph a distant object with such clarity, this was just the beginning.
I started to feel happy and very chilled (mentally – as I wrapped up well), sat outside in the dark, just watching images appear on the back of my Canon 70D. Here’s an early picture of Betelgeuse in Orion:
There is something about sitting in complete darkness and looking at images appearing on a camera screen when you consider that light left an object a few million years ago and arrived at your sensor in that moment of time. Also added to the darkness experience -the hooting of owls and lions roaring in the distance – yes we live in earshot of Longleat.
It was March 2020 and the news was talking about a little cold bug doing the rounds, as March progressed, things got real and the lockdown 1.0 was in full swing. I found during this time, taking pictures of the night sky helped my stress and ensured my mental state remained intact. At this time, I thought I would start sharing my pictures on the local village and town Facebook pages as I thought if this helps me it should help others?. I received a very positive response. Some of my early images: The Pleiades
I was really happy with this image, it was also my first image to be published in the Sky at Night reader gallery.
Here is the same subject, photographed in September 2021:
Again, one of my early Orion nebula:
And a more recent:
As I started to image the night sky and objects both within our solar system and beyond, I started to gain a greater feeling for the night sky.
I would look at the moon , our closest celestial body with a new enthusiasm. I would spend hours on a full moon (or partial) night and take lots of images, stack them and then slowly bring out the colour of the minerals on its surface. You tend not to see the beauty of the moon, until you reveal the true colours.
As winter of 2020 approached an old friend appeared on the horizon, it was like welcoming someone who I had known all my life, so I took his portrait:
I’m extremely happy to have progressed with my imaging skills and dark sky processing , that I can now tease out detail of Barnards loop, the nebula and deep star fields. This particular image has been chosen for the front cover for a book about Orion.
In about December 2020, I was posting regularly on the local Facebook groups, one morning I came down to a message from a BBC journalist, she wanted to do an article on how astrophotography benefitted my mental health. I was honoured, I was also interviewed on the local BBC radio stations Somerset and Wiltshire, even now I’m a regular for the astronomy type chats with the hosts. As a result of the media exposure I was invited to give a talk the Blind Veterans on astrophotography – that I have to say has been the most rewarding highlight of this journey to date.
So, as I started to grow with this hobby, I started imaging the planets. This required a different skill set, some required short, quick exposures. This was a learning curve all over again, however, I’m up for a challenge.
Here are some of my early images of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Mars and Uranus.
My first every image of Saturn taken in 2007
Compared to a few weeks ago
And Jupiter a few weeks ago
During the lockdown, we were lucky to have Mars appearing close to Earth, this was an opportunity too good to miss:
Inspired by the images of the ISS by others, I thought I would give a handheld shot of the ISS a go:
This was some of the most rewarding images, a small “dot” of light , moving fast across the sky . Zooming in with a Canon 90D and Sigma 150-600 . trying to get focus, exposure and the correct speed – happy – yes.
So, if we start back to the beginning of this article where I “bracketed” Astro as I also took pictures of aircraft. During the lock down , a local father and son aerobatic display team started doing displays over the village , to lift people spirits and support the NHS. So, I turned my camera skywards and used my new found knowledge of processing dark images to photograph them – they are Airborne Pyrotechnics, one of the leading pyrotechnic night time display teams in the country. Here are some of the early pictures:
I put these on the local Facebook groups, and the next morning I was contacted by the pilot – Tim. He asked if I would be interested in working with them for other photoshoots, of course I said yes. Here is some of my latest images with them:
This is a brief summary of my first year as an amateur (astro)photographer, I have found my first 18 months extremely rewarding, I have a learnt several new skills and feel I have hardly scratched the surface, I have had my images appear in print and appear on ITV Westcountry Weather, the BBC Instagram national and local pages and had my images appear on a US TV weather slot. For me the most rewarding is what I have been able to give back, sharing my images on the local Facebook groups and inspiring people to go outside and lookup and presenting my journey to a group of Blind Veterans. Thank you for reading.
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