October 26, 2007

Planetary Astrophotography: The Web Cam Trick


Of all the expensive CCD and DSLR cameras available for astrophotography, a surprisingly cheap alternative exists for planetary photography that many video bloggers actually might already have: the web cam.

The premise is simple: a web cam essentially takes many camera shots, stitches them together, and then creates a video. Anyone interested in astrophotography knows that the sharpest, most colorful, most detailed images come from stacking multiple exposures on top of each other. If we take that same principle and reverse it by dissecting the video created by a webcam, we essentially have many multiple exposures in a relatively short amount of time. This works well on planets because we don't need very long exposures to extract tons of light because we'd just have a big blur if your telescope already has the planet in sight.

Connecting the webcam to the telescope is the most beautiful part: you don't need any special parts, just point the webcam down the eyepiece of your telescope!

Webcam astrophotography is not only very cost-effective (decent models can be purchased for $200 or less), it actually is almost unanimously considered the best way to photograph planets.

To get started, you will need the following:

  • Your telescope

  • Webcam

  • Software

For your telescope, use a larger focal length, because the higher magnification does not show up properly on the developed images. The webcams simply can't handle massively magnified moon or planet images.

Your webcam should have a CCD chip for best results. Philips Vesta Pro is a popular and highly recommended webcam.

Your software arsenal should include the following programs for the best results:

  • Adobe PhotoShop (For image color and attribute tweaking; also works as a stacker)

  • AstroStack (Freeware Image stacking software for astrophotography)

  • K3 CCD Tools -or- Registrax (Freeware CCD utility that can help "reverse engineer" webcam video to create stackable images)

**Photo is courtesy of http://www.webcam-astrophotography.com/.

My Sources and Additional Sources:

Web Astrophotography FAQ

AstroPix

K3 Astrophotography