DSLR astrophotography interview 1 – Maurice Toet

Interviews with astrophotographers

There are many interesting people all over the world that are photographing the wonders of the heavens with their camera’s and other equipment. Every astrophotographer has his/her own interesting story and I’m going to post regular interviews with them here. Because this blog is about astrophotography with DSLRs in particular, I’m going to focus on the astrophotographers that are using a DSLR to create their artwork.

Interview 1: Meet Maurice Toet

Maurice ToetI’m going to start with an interesting guy from the Netherlands that is very experienced in astrophotography; meet Maurice Toet. He has a lot of his work published already in many different places and also has had his part in a APOD as a contributor. Make sure you visit his site for more stunning pictures and info about this work after reading this interview. www.DutchDeepsky.com
Let’s hear what he has to say (and show:)):

What got you interested into astronomy in general and astrophotography in particular? How long ago was this?
Since childhood, I have always been interested in nature and science. When I was 16 years old, comet Hale-Bopp made an appearance in the sky which I followed with fascination. As I only had a department store telescope at that moment, I started to save money for a real telescope. Almost a year later, I acquired a 114 mm Newtonian reflector.

In 1999 I met a Dutch astrophotographer who invited me to join him on his trips to the ‘Veluwe’ (a relatively dark nature reserve in the Netherlands). He explained me everything about astrophotography and got me hooked ever since. We became close friends and still are to this day.

What do you like/love the most about this hobby?
Astrophotography has many sides. What I like the most in this hobby is being outside under the stars. A remote dark site lit only by the distant stars of the Milky Way puts everyday ‘problems’ into perspective. Another important aspect that drives me to pursue this hobby is mastering the techniques and challenges involved in taking a good astrophoto. To freely quote John F. Kennedy from his Moon Speech in 1962:

“we don’t do it because it is easy but because it is hard”.

What was your first camera and other gear (scope/lenses) you used for astrophotography?
My first camera was an Olympus OM-1 (35mm SLR). I did a lot of piggyback work back then. My first serious prime focus astrophotography attempts were made with a Lichtenknecker Optics F = 500 mm f/3.5 flat-field camera on a Losmandy GM-8 equatorial mount.

I upgraded from 35mm to medium format by acquiring a Mamiya M645 In 2001. I switched to digital astrophotography by buying a QHY8 CCD-camera in 2008.

What gear and camera are you using right now?
My main imaging equipment consists of Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR (IR-modified with a Baader BCF filter), a Takahashi Epsilon-180ED Hyperbolic Astrograph, an INTES MK-69 Maksutov-Cassegrain, an Astro-Physics Mach1 GTO equatorial mount and a Lacerta MGEN standalone autoguider.

Do you have a specific reason to use a DSLR for astrophotography? If so, which?
I like the fact you don’t need a computer to operate a DSLR. During the days I owned a QHY8 and an SBIG ST-8300 CCD camera, I caught myself staring at a computer screen all night long. The cooling fan on a CCD camera produces noise that I find disturbing. It makes it impossible to notice and enjoy the almost absolute silence of the night on a remote site. I want to be able to hear night life animals and feel lucky when an owl visits me during an imaging session.

An economic benefit of DSLRs is that they provide a higher sensor resolution per imaging detector area per invested capital than CCD cameras. Name me a full frame 21.1 MP CCD camera for less than 2K and I’ll eat a big chunk of my 5D Mark II.

What is your favourite image you made?
Difficult question. Two of my favourite images date from the time I used a Mamiya M645 camera.
They can be seen at the following links:
Sagittarius and Cygnus
A more recent result which I’m very content with is a deep field M81 & M82, showing the Integrated Flux Nebula. Something that would have been impossible to capture on film.

The image can be seen here in full resolution:

What is your favourite subject to photograph?
That’s an easy one: I definitely am a wide field guy. There is a lot to explore up there. Digital cameras have made it possible to discern very faint nebula structures from the background sky.

What skies are you used to where you do your astrophotography?
I always try to image from the darkest site as possible (i.e. a sky brightness of > 21.0 magn/arcsec²). That means I have to drive for at least 1 hour from where I live. I like to go on imaging trips to Southern France once or twice a year by means of an astro holiday.

Which software do you use for processing?
There a several programs I use. As I grew up with Photoshop, most of my processing and retouching is done with that program. I use PixInsight for data reduction (calibrating raw data etc.). PixInsight will take a while to get familiar with when you are used to Photoshop, but it’s a very powerful program.

What is unique about your photos, what distinguishes your work from others?
That’s a question for other people to answer. I think it’s very important to develop a personal style. A good astrophotographer can be recognised by consistency in his work and way of processing.

What are the common pitfalls you see other people doing?
Trying to pull the last photon from the background of an image that has been exposed for too short a time and has been captured from under a street pole. Nothing, and I do mean NOTHING beats a dark site for deep sky astrophotography.

I notice people are prepared to spend several K on astronomy hardware, but are worried about spending 1 or 2 hundred euros on proper astronomy software. According to me it’s a bad idea to process your images with freeware software that has limited capabilities.

Do you have tips and/or suggestions for our readers?
Although a great deal of the astrophotography process takes place behind a computer, the images still have to be made under the open sky outside. Prepare your imaging sessions and take time to properly align your equatorial mount and focus your camera. Have fun, but be aware Gremlins are always near in this hobby.

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