January 10th – Astroboy, the Magic Lantern and the Intervalometer

Sample Star Stack

The other night I posted a cryptic clue on the Facebook page. This is what I was alluding to.

A camera, cloudless skies, and photo’s taken at regular intervals.

The last part I never really understood. Sitting beside the camera for hours on end never made much sense, so I did a little reading.

The crucial piece I was missing was an Intervalometer. A device to take photo’s at regular intervals, while I watched TV from the comfort of the couch, many metres away. The average camera however isn’t equipped with an intervalometer, so that’s where Magic Lantern comes in.

Magic Lantern is a custom firmware available for my model of camera (and many others). It adds certain features not initially supplied by the camera manufacturer, and may not be supported.

Important – See my notes at the end of this post regarding installation of Magic Lantern. There are hardware intervalometers, but I opted to use Magic Lantern.

Using a memory card with Magic Lantern installed, I set the camera up on a tripod staring at the stars to the south. Using the intervalometer function of Magic Lantern, I configured the camera to snap a new 13 second exposure, every 20 seconds. I set the timer for 500 photo’s (a little over 2 hours), but was forced to abandon an hour or so into the project as clouds moved through.

So now that I have hundreds of photo’s of the same thing, what next?

Enter StarStax. Starstax is freeware software that you feed your number of images,  and it will produce the final image complete with streaky stars within a minute.

I fed my 80 or so images into StarStax, with the above result.

Accidentally fluking the location of the Celestial (south) Pole was an added bonus. It makes for a potentially stunning image. Unfortunately with the clouds that floated through, some of the stars were blotted out.

There are some amazing examples of this technique, often using static foreground objects for dramatic effect.

I hoped to try this again with an old dairy on our property in the foreground, but that meant leaving my beloved camera gear in the middle of a paddock, which I wasn’t willing to do.

Now with a taste for this, I made another attempt the following evening. With clouds to the south I opted for a different outlook – this time to the east. Here is a single image. Note I chose a higher ISO number (1600), because it was much darker without a moon). I finished with about 280 images, again including of a cloud cameo.

Northern Rivers Skies

I loaded a selection of my 280 photo’s into StarStax – the first 110, and the final 80 -which allowed me to generate an image devoid of any clouds. The result was a big improvement, without any of the stars blotted out.

Of course the moon also rose during this attempt – rookie error. I think the higher ISO selection has resulted in chunkier lines.

This was the outcome;

Star Streaks

Disappointingly there were no more entirely cloud-free evenings, and in retrospect knowing that I could exclude photo’s from the final result, I could have allowed this attempt to run for much longer.

I also tried a different technique in capturing the Orion constellation, but I’m yet to successfully process this. In this technique you take a number of shots of the sky containing a particular star, planet or constellation as they meander across your sensor, then feed them into “Deep Sky Stacker“.

The difference here is that DSS will effectively process the final image, while calculating the stars movement. The final image results in great clarity of an object a very, very long way away.

Special thanks to astrophotographer enthusiant John Mills for some of his insights (and inspiration).

On a final note, an intervalometer can also be used to create amazing time-lapse movies of static objects, like flowers opening, or electrical storms approaching.

Important note from this photoblogger regarding custom firmware:

Magic Lantern is an alternative firmware available for my model of camera (and many others). It adds certain features not initially supplied by the camera manufacturer, and may not be supported by the camera manufacturer.

As with any custom firmware, use at your own risk.

I did manage to stuff up the first install of Magic Lantern, rendering the camera inoperable for a short time. And of course I tried the installation 5 minutes before we were meant to jump in the car to see friends. Damn you Murphy.

Although I found this easily recoverable, this is coming from someone who is technically savvy. Make sure you read any installation instructions before attempting any of this.

Magic Lantern is installed onto a memory card. This means if I use an alternate memory card, the custom software is not loaded, and the camera operates unmodified. This is terrific because it means I can limit my use of this modification.

The process of installing Magic Lantern includes (in most cases) installing the latest manufacturer firmware. With some cameras you may need to load an older manufacturer firmware than the most current – again, proceed at your own risk.

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