My Astrophotography Journey – Year One

This is a brief description of my "first year" in astrophotography.  The journey actually started five years earlier, on 21 August 2017, but came fully to fruition as "astrophotography" in 2021 with Paul's gift of Big Bertha for Christmas 2020.  

First Came the Sun

It all started in Grand Island, Nebraska on 21 August 2017 – our 30th wedding anniversary (yes, really, in Nebraska!) – and the total solar eclipse. Paul facilitated the beginning of the journey with a 150-600mm lens, Canon T4i, a book about shooting eclipses, a sun filter, and a tripod.

Although I had zero understanding of anything but landscape photography and couldn’t figure out why the sun kept moving out of the frame (yes, really – even with that degree in physics!) – I was able to capture several great shots of the eclipse, including the image below – the diamond ring (how’s that for appropriate for our 30th wedding anniversary!)

Then Came the Moon

From that August 2017 solar eclipse, through late-2019, my “astrophotography” was limited to the moon – either the full moon by itself, (failed) attempts at lunar eclipses, or the moon setting on Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods. In the name of artistic honesty and integrity – the image below is a composite. It’s the full moon taken separately (at the same time and location – just with the lens zoomed in) and then blended into the spot in the landscape scene where it was setting at the time

The Beast: Dispersed Camping in Dark Skies 

In November 2019, we bought “The Beast” – a Winnebago Revel on a Mercedes Sprinter van chassis – in preparation for my 60th birthday (NOT until the following year in October 2020!). It is perfect for boondocking and dispersed camping in dark sky areas.

Camping in the Beast allowed the start of Milky Way photography adventures with the first trip in November 2019 to Picture Canyon in the Kiowa National Grasslands, Colorado. Throughout 2020 we camped at: Holt Canyon in the Comanche National Grasslands; Mills Canyon in the Kiowa National Grasslands; Browns Park in NW Colorado; Rio Chama Basin; Gardner (near Westcliffe), Colorado.

the Beast photo

Zeus and the Beast dispersed camping in Comanche National Grasslands


Big Bertha arrives: Stars, Galaxies, and Nebulae Beyond our Own

For Christmas 2020, Paul again kicked into research mode and upped the game, giving me the tools to capture the astrophotography images I never thought I could do, when Pat Swanson had mentioned it earlier in the year!

To start me off on this leg of the journey, he bought an Orion 8″ f/8 Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph Telescope (we affectionately call Big Bertha or BB for short) and her supporting cast: Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Equatorial Mount, Orion 60mm Multi-Use Guide Scope, Orion StarShoot AutoGuider Pro Mono Astrophotography Camera. When she arrived, I stared at the open box with no idea how to put Bertha and her support equipment together, even less of an idea of how to operate them, and finding a target was a complete mystery.

Zues night sky photo

Big Bertha shortly after arrival – Christmas 2020 – with Zeus in his standard “helping” spot


I’m certain that Paul imagined his research and expenditures were complete – haha – truth be told, we were at the very beginning of that journey too! Throughout the first half of 2021 we acquired (not a full list): three laptops meant to control the mount and imaging sessions, multiple software packages to be the driver for said controlling, two astrophotography DSLR cameras (one astro-modified and one “dedicated” (the trials and tribulations of the Canon EOS Ra shall not be discussed!)), cables to connect said cameras to computer (again, the trials and tribulations of the cabling shall not be discussed!), a telescope-size Bahtinov lens, etc. There were also several purchases of items I came up from our downstairs exercise and YouTube video training center “needing” (e.g., Telrad Reflex Sight with Mounting Base) that upon further learning became unnecessary.

Finally, Paul quickly realized that there was no way I was going to be able to level a ~50-pound equatorial mount and telescope by adjusting the tripod legs, so he set his scientist and acquisition professional role aside (momentarily) and turned field engineer – designing and building an ingenious field leveling stand that we use to support, level, and secure Big Bertha at our dark skies locations.

Dispersed camping in the Beast; Big Bertha and the Southern Cross on their Baye-designed and fabricated field levelers

2021 was a year filled with learning and wonderments; lots of trials, tribulations, and frustrations; but ultimately finishing the year with an incredible passion for and joy from deep space object (DSO) astrophotography. The image below, M8 Lagoon Nebula was captured during a trip in the Beast to Rocky Reservoir in northwest Colorado – when all the year’s learning – starting from “how do I put this thing together” came together in three successful nights of imaging!

M8 Lagoon Nebula

Once it all came together, the second half of that first year included successful captures, that are included in the galleries of this website, included: NGC6960 Witch’s Broom Nebula (portion of the Veil Nebula) captured at Rocky Reservoir on 10 July 2021; M45 Pleiades (the Seven Sisters); M33 Triangulum Galaxy captured at HCH on 25 September 2021; NGC7380 Wizard Nebula and IC405 Flaming Star Nebula both captured at Mills Canyon Rim on 4 November 2021; and M42 Orion Nebula & NGC1977 Running Man nebulae captured at HCH on 26 December 2021.