“I’m always excited to go out,” says Connecticut-based astrophotographer Eric Baker about his passion for night photos. He proves equipment isn’t necessarily a barrier to taking good images. Some of his most memorable night photos have been captured with an entry-level Canon Rebel T2i, and he tells us how he’s achieved this.
We often assume only the best, newest gear can get us top-notch results for night photography. Many people like myself avoided crop sensor cameras even for this reason. But Eric Baker shows you can make good images even with primary cameras if you know what you’re doing.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Eric Baker
Eric told us:
The Phoblographer: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Eric Baker: Hi, my name is Eric. I’m from Connecticut and live here with my wife and two children. My grandfather, father, and older brother were all into photography while I was growing up. My first camera was a 110 when I was only a few years old. There was always a lot of photography going on around me but perhaps, more importantly, a general appreciation and wonder at the natural world. A lot of PBS, science, model rockets, walks in the woods, and staring at the night sky.
The Phoblographer: What was your journey to astrophotography like? What prompted you to point your lens at the starry skies?
Eric Baker: I didn’t think about astrophotography until 2019. I was out in Wyoming a year earlier, and this guy had a telescope displaying onto a laptop screen the most amazing live image of Jupiter. I actually took some astronomy classes in college (many, many years earlier), where we had the opportunity to use the observatory on campus. I was amazed at what this amateur could see relative to what I remembered at the observatory. I told my wife I wanted a telescope for Xmas, and it evolved very rapidly from there.
The Phoblographer: What camera gear do you rely on for your astrophotography work?
Eric Baker: My setup today consists of a Celestron CGEMII equatorial mount holding a whole mess of stuff. I either mount everything at once using a T-bar so I can have two scopes at once or separately. For nebula and larger targets, I use a Meade 80mm triplet APO with a Hotech field flattener connected to a Canon Ra I purchased last summer. For alignment of the mount, I use Celestron star sense (which aligns using some fancy plate solving and saves a lot of time). For guiding, I use a ZWO mini guide scope with an ASI462mc astro cam. I use a ZWO EAF focuser.
All of this is connected to a Beelink Mini PC connected to my wifi network, so after everything is set up, I can remote into it and control the scope from inside the house. The other setup I use, mostly for planetary, is a Celestron Nexstar 127 SLT (127mm Maksutov Cassegrain) connected to an Astronomix flip mirror with a Canon T2i Rebel on the backend. The focus on the Mak is controlled by a step motor USB controller from The shoestring astronomy store. Similarly, everything on the planetary setup is connected to the mini PC, and I also use the same alignment and guiding approach. Also, I often use a 2x Barlow lens on the planetary setup.
The Phoblographer: The Canon T2i Rebel isn’t the first camera I’d think of for astrophotography. When you started out with it, were you apprehensive about the kind of results you would achieve?
Eric Baker: Actually, the Rebel T2i is a sought-after camera body for planetary imaging given its unique high frame rate 640×480 crop video mode with a 1:1 pixel resolution. This means that there is no resampling of what you are capturing, which is ideal for your exposure and makes it a great candidate for ‘lazy imaging’ where you take high frame rate video and use software such as AutoStakkert! to stack the video frames to isolate the detail (more info here).
The Phoblographer: Aside from the complex technique of getting exposures for astrophotography, there is probably quite a bit of post-processing needed. What are your favorite techniques to make your images more stellar?
Eric Baker: For planetary, my processing usually includes cleaning up the video files in pip and then using Autostakkert or Registax for stacking. Then I typically use Lightroom for post-processing/cleanup.
For nebula, I use Pixinsight for stacking and some processing (color balancing, cropping, noise reduction, etc.) and then Lightroom for additional color enhancement and noise reduction.
Some of the usual things I do is some star reduction to pop the structure, push up saturation and contrast and even use some targeted masking to reduce artifacts or pop out detail I want to highlight.
The Phoblographer: There are probably quite a few technical challenges in this field; what are some of the common ones you face during your nights out?
Eric Baker: Everything wants to mess up your image. Temperature differentials can cloud up optics, dew can be a real problem, and you have to be smart about what you insulate; often, you have to let equipment acclimate after bringing it out of the house. Wind > 5 kts can really mess you up. More and more satellites (particularly with Starlink up there). The moon phases, trees, etc. I like to be as sure as I can that it’s going to be a good night for “seeing” before I set everything up, so I check cleardarksky religiously. Also (somewhat within your control), a good polar alignment if an EQ mount is critical, and the further off you are, the more limited you will be in your captures.
The Phoblographer: Most astrophotographers start out shooting the Orion Nebula. What was your first astrophotography attempt? How did it turn out? Did you attempt it again later to improve it?
Eric Baker: My first target was Mars. At first, I was not using a Barlow lens and I was using my alt/az mount with limited tracking ability. After adding a Barlow and improving on the tracking it was much improved. I experimented with BYEOS (Backyard EOS) live capture mode (laptop connected to the camera) as well as the aforementioned built -n 640×480 crop video mode on the Canon T2i – I found the T2i to be the best.
The Phoblographer: All nights can’t be the same. What do you do on night outs when the skies don’t cooperate? How do you recuperate and refresh for the next shoot?
Eric Baker: Usually, if I don’t get everything on a good glide path after an hour (for whatever reason), I’ll pack it up. When I plan to be out but can’t be, I’ll often use the time to look back and perhaps reprocess old data.
The Phoblographer: Does it get boring at times? Or is there always some excitement and anticipation for you?
Eric Baker: I’m always excited to go out. I guess once you get everything set up for a multi-hour session; ideally, you don’t have to do anything but watch. But every image that comes through is just as amazing as the one before it, so I wouldn’t say I ever get bored. One thing that would be cool is to have one scope for capture and another for just looking around.
The Phoblographer: Have you captured any rare phenomena on a shoot? Tell us which one was your most memorable.
Eric Baker: Nothing ‘rare’ per se. I’ve caught satellites, trees, birds, planes, shooting stars, space junk galore. I think one of the coolest things that happened is that I mistakenly caught an image of the Orion nebula through the trees. I was struck by the comparison of the landscape to the sky. It piqued my interest in trying some wider field landscape astrophotography, but I haven’t tried it yet.
The Phoblographer: With camera tech advancing every day and sensors getting better and better at low light, how can astrophotographers help make their work stand out from their peers?
Eric Baker: It is amazing how fast things are advancing – but I think it’s really an advantage for everyone. Even though it’s getting easier and more accessible, I think the work that stands out will always be a function of the artists’ individual eye, composition, and creativity.