Astro 9A/B/C: Astrophotography

Brief Syllabus and Grading

Instructor: Rick Nolthenius
Textbook: (Suggested, not required) "Photoshop Astronomy" by Scott Ireland

Office Hours (room 706a)
11am - noon, 6:15 - 7:15-6pm
Tue 6:15 - 7:15pm at 706a
Wed 11am - 12noon at 706a
Fri 5-6pm at the Observatory

Welcome! Astro 9 is a bit of an interdisciplinary class, bridging the worlds of astronomical imaging and the visual arts. Students from both areas enjoy these classes. Astro 9 is taught 7:00-10:00pm in the Fall semester, in the astronomy / geology lab room 705, when nights are longer and the skies usually clearer. Clear nights are spent at Cabrillo Observatory, cloudy and full moon nights in the classroom. With your camera and our gear, and will do our best to help you realize your own goals. Photographic subjects include star trails, widefield, telescopic moon shots, special effects, and both medium and high magnification digital imaging of nebulae, galaxies, comets, and star clusters. Our goal is for you to take home some beautiful and creative photographs of night sky subjects at the end of the semester. Returning students sign up for 9B then 9C. The class includes an optional overnight camping/astrophoto trip to a scenic dark sky location, often determined by first looking at the central California light pollution map, and a link to nearby dark sky sites ). Some of our photo trips in recent years have been to the crest of the Panoche Hills above Mercey Hot Springs. More typically we have gone to Bonny Doon Airfield on a night when the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club opens it for the astronomy community's use. However, the Bonny Doon site is no longer available.

The Astro 9A/B/C Courses...


Tentative Nightly Schedule

Lab: Selecting Your Deep Sky Targets

Lab: Processing Your Raw Images into Masterpieces

Image Processing: An Example Worked Through

Instructions for Sizing, Labelling, Formatting Your Image Submissions for Full Credit

Astro 9 Student Galleries

Astro 9 PowerPoints

Fun Photos - Astro 9'ers at Work

Links to Resources...

Photoshop - Quick Basics

Neil Carboni's Astronomy Tools for Photoshop

Photographing Satellites: Heavens Above Schedule for Cabrillo Observatory

Astrophotography techniques from 'round the web

Using the ST2000XCM CCD Camera

Making an Animation from a Series of Images

Lunar Photography with a DSLR

Moon, Planet Conjunctions: Photo Opportunities

S. van den Bergh Catalog of Reflection Nebulae

Sky&Telescope's eBook on Astrophotography


Our observatory was completed in 2008. Constructed by the CEM students under Chuck Mornard as well as myself, this 400 sqft building houses our 12" f/10 Schmidt Cassegrain on a G11 computer controlled mount, under a fiberglass dome controlled by infra-red dome sensors for positioning. The warm room has 4 computers, including one, "Spock", for student control of the telescope and of the ST2000XCM color CCD camera - a 1600x1200 single-shot color detector that allows us some beautiful pictures. The other computers in the control room are available for student processing of their digital images with a full collection of software and connections to the web. The construction of the observatory is chronicled here.

The Astronomy Department has 6 computers for student use in room 705, each loaded with Adobe Photoshop, C2A, CCDOPS and other astronomy-oriented imaging software. The observatory also has 3 computers for student use, and desk space for operating your own laptop on those nights when clouds come in early. The observatory has a Nikon D40 digital camera, and Canon ZR45MC camcorder which can be mounted for afocal work to our Meade telescopes. Our 12" Meade f/10 (w/ f/6.3 reducer) under the dome has an SBIG ST2000XCM CCD camera, and we have an additional ST2000XCM color CCD camera as well as a ST4000XCM color CCD camera for use on our portable telescopes - two Meade LXD75 8" f/4's on Losmandy GM-8 mounts, and aon a GM-8 mount. See my photo page for the kind of pictures this setup can do. For mounting your own digital SLR cameras, we have tripods, and we have an Orion ShortTube refractor and a Williams Optics APO 80mm flourite refractor. We also have a Nikon D7000 digital SLR cameras with a zoom lens, fisheye, and with a fixed 50mm lens. With these, students can do wide-angle digital images of star fields and foreground+stars compositions. A sensor cleaning link.

Film Photography: Astrophotography has migrated completely away from film use. It's just far too limited in its ability to capture astronomical subjects, and the processing options are just not competitive with software today. However, if you are a self-motivated student and want to do film work, then talk to me. We do not have access to the film lab in the lower campus. If you bring proof that you are registered with an art photography class and therefore have access to the photo lab, and will do your film processing, developing, printing, and mounting at the photo lab, then it is possible we can work out a project scenario for you. However, I will not be able to supervise you. As a film student, you should expect to use their own camera. However, we do have an Olympus OM-1. These can be mounted on the department's tripods, or on a mounting board which is carried on our GM-8 mounted for long exposure guided shots. I need to verify that you indeed do film developing, processing work yourself (vs. just turning it in to Bay Photo!)

Our field trips will take advantage of some of our favorite local dark sky sites.

We continue our evolution from a primarily film-based class to a primarily digital astrophotography class. Unlike the old photo lab, the current film photo lab is not suitable for the digital photography that we do, and so our class is held in the Astronomy/Geology lab classroom 705. This will make our digital work MUCH easier to accomplish. Those who would like to do film work can still do so, however they will need to pay the Art Photography department (not the astronomy department) their lab fee for use of the photo lab and arrange their own times for use of the lab. Also, I will only be available for help with the film photographing itself and not much on the developing and printing.

Projects:Here's suggested projects for students. You must turn in 5 finished photos complete with documentation and processing details, as .jpgs ready for posting in our online gallery, and your two best need to additionally be printed (8x10"), framed and annotated; suitable for mounting in our Observatory Gallery walls if so selected (or your own walls!) Each photograph needs to be well documented - part of the process of learning and refining your techniques is solid documentation! Here's an example of what you should turn in as far as documentation of each photo.

Must turn in your best 5 photo projects. Two must be mounted and framed. These two must include a typed label on the front with your name, object, date, exposures. On the back of the frame must be another typed description of the digital processing techniques you used. Digital images are submitted by email to me as full resolution .jpg's. You must also submit a label for every photo, and another typed description of all the software and steps done in producing the final image. See the Syllabus for the grading scale. An example of a framed digital image with labels is on this page

Optional Field Dark-Sky Field Trip
We traditionally have a Saturday night overnight field trip to a dark sky location so you can get a chance to really photograph faint Milky Way star fields and nebulae using our portable telescopes and digital cameras. It's optional, but is a highlight of the class, and you'll need every opportunity you can to get photos with our limited amount of equipment. Past trips have gone to Bonny Doon Airfield with the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club (probably where we'll go - it's a much shorter drive than...), and also to Mercey Hot Springs 2 hours southeast of Santa Cruz (directions) in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and a special trip to Pleasure Point to photograph the total lunar eclipse in Oct 2004. More on this as the semester gets going.

Other (Out-of-class) opportunities for Astrophotography:
There are now impressive telescopes at observatories in pristine dark skies and which can be "rented" remotely by amateurs like you. You pay a nominal fee, fill out the forms which allow your object to be queued and photo'd, and it's quite a nice experience!... If you decide to try this, keep your receipts and forms and I'll give you some extra credit for turning in any images gained by this way.

Global Rent-A-Scope. The scopes are big and frankly you'll get a MUCH more impressive photo with this route than anything we have at Cabrillo (stunning though our best Cabrillo photos are). I'd recommend the $20 starter month, which gives you 1 hour worth of combined exposure times on a single-shot color camera (like ours) on a big scope in a dark sky in either the Northern Hemisphere (New Mexico) or the Southern Hemisphere (Australia). Check out the starter trial here.

LightBuckets. They've got two observatory locations in New Mexico, and one in France. Their largest scope is 24" ($75 per hour of exposure time) and will give beautiful images! See their procedures here.




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