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Astrophotography Q&A with Richard Randall

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Astrophotography, the art of taking photos of the night sky, produces images of breath-taking clarity and depth that possess an almost surreal quality. It’s easy to assume that images of this type were taken by the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescopes, but Richard Randall takes many of them right here in Cornwall using specialist equipment, expertise and patience… Richard is a very busy man but he kindly agreed to have a discussion with us and to answer a few questions on the huge and fascinating topic of astrophotography. The images below are all taken by Richard (from Planet Earth!)

Jellyfish Nebula

Hi Richard, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. On a personal level I could ‘geek out’ and spend hours grilling you on the technical elements of this wonderful topic, but in order to not lose many of our readers early on, I’ll try to keep the questions a bit more broad! The first question is, have you always been fascinated by the stars and planets or can you remember if there was a moment when you looked up and were struck by the beauty of the cosmos?

Yes, ever since I can remember really. I always used to watch Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night and wonder at those fuzzy images of the planets, especially Saturn. Then to watch technology progress and now see the images of the Hubble and more recently the JWST is just awe inspiring.The memory that stands out the most for me was seeing the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. It was in the night sky for so long, maybe months and was quite sad to see it quietly disappear.

Can you remember seeing images of space that particularly moved you? When did you decide to start capturing your own astro-photos?

For me the Crab Nebula has always fascinated me. A star went supernova in 1054, which is very recent in astronomical terms, and left behind not only a beautiful nebula but inside of it the star’s remnant, a neutron star. It’s 12 miles in diameter, spinning at 30 times a second. One teaspoon of it would weigh more than Mount Everest!

Is an expert knowledge of the stars and galaxies necessary to be able to successfully take professional photographs of the night sky? The level of detail visible in your images is absolutely breath-taking, and it really blows the mind when one realises just what is out there!

Absolutely not. I had very little to no experience in cameras, telescopes or anything else connected to Astronomy. Technology has improved by leaps and bounds and also the equipment became more affordable. Also, there is so much information on the internet that any problems one may encounter there is a solution for it.

The details in my images are mainly down to the advancement in cameras to capture the faint light of the cosmos. Also, the ability for a telescope mount to precisely track the night sky.

Rosette Nebula and Richard Randall (in his happy place!)

Finding the correct location must be a top priority for getting the best shots. Where is your favourite place to set up and start shooting? Has your passion taken you to any interesting places?

You will always get better quality images from a dark site like the Lizard or Bodmin Moor. These have a Bortle (a measurement of light pollution) rating of 1, whereas a city like London will be 9. Using special filters you can still block out a lot of the light pollution.

I now have built my own observatory (basically a shed with a roll-off roof), which can be controlled from my PC at home, so my days packing everything into my car are almost over. But I did enjoy going to the local beach car park, setting up all my gear and waiting for the sun to go down. It was always exhilarating to see those first images come up, I do miss being outside in the dark watching the night sky, but not the cold!

To the layman, there is a mind-boggling array of photographic kit out there! Your choice of equipment must be critical, in a nutshell what type of set-up do you have, and how do you configure it to pick up such fine detail?

I started out with a fairly decent kit to begin with as I was sure I would love this hobby. There’s no point in spending a fortune for kit if you are unsure you will enjoy it. 

My camera I started out with was a Canon T-9 but recently upgraded to a Zwo 2600mm. The mount (probably the most important piece of equipment you can have) is a Skywatcher Eq6 r pro. The telescope is a Skywatcher Esprit 100ed. Over time I have added more equipment, not essential but very handy. For instance an electronic focuser (Zwo Eaf), an electronic filterwheel (Zwo 7×2″), and more recently an automatic rotator (Pegasus Falcon Rotator). 

When I upgraded my camera to a Zwo 2600mm, the detail captured was remarkable. It’s a monochrome camera so I have to use red, green and blue filters to generate a colour image. It’s more time-consuming as you have to capture three images for every one of a colour camera.

This gear is by no means essential, many people are even taking decent picures with just a mobile phone!

Horsehead Nebula

For anyone looking to get into astrophotography, what would you say are the five most crucial pearls of wisdom that you can pass down so that they know what to expect?

1) Do not buy a big mount and a big telescope to begin with. Many people have spent a fortune on kit, not realising the bigger the scope the more precise everything has to be in tracking the object, they then give up and sell all their equipment. Start small.

2) You will have problems from time to time, whether it’s dew on the telescope lens, connection problems to your gear or even those pesky clouds! I have had so many things go wrong in my time but the rewards of seeing something like the Horsehead Nebula in all its glory is more than rewarding.

3) Social media is a huge help along your journey. I joined many groups on Facebook and was never afraid to ask questions. People are more than willing to help.

4) Astrophotography is not cheap. As your skills improve you will probably find you want bigger and better gear, but the quality of your images will improve. You will have choices of which processing software to use. I use Photoshop (£10 per month, but many use Pixinsight, which is a one-off payment of around £260). Gimp is free and fine to start.

5) The last thing is just enjoy it! It can get very involved at times, trying to get that little bit more detail in your images. Many times I look back at my first ever image, this faint outline of the Pinwheel Galaxy but I was so thrilled! 

Do you have a favourite photograph that you have taken, and why is it so special?

There are many spectacular objects in space. Whether it’s the Andromeda galaxy or a nebula like Orion, but my favourite image is of the Markarian’s Chain. A group of at least 7 different galaxies all in one shot. To see so many galaxies, each of which contain billions of stars, it makes you think that actually, we’re quite small! It’s my miniature version of the famous Hubble Deep Field image!

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Astrophotography is a fascinating topic with many different elements that we could discuss forever, but it’s good to have learned a few things from the perspective of an expert. One final, but very important, question. Do you believe that there is life on other planets…?

Quite simply, absolutely. It’s estimated that in our galaxy alone there are 100 billion planets, in the observable universe an estimated 200 billion galaxies. Just a matter of maths, chance and a small piece of luck! 

Bat and Squid Nebula

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