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A Resource for Astrophotographers: 'The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide'

A Resource for Astrophotographers: 'The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide'

In a previous article (Easing into Astrophotography with a Telescope), I listed a few resources for stepping up to telescopic astrophotography. Beyond learning the basics of sky navigation and learning to extend your photographic equipment knowledge into long exposures, an introductory overview of astronomy is a good idea so that you are aware of the photographic possibilities available to you and the wide array of equipment that may be needed.

If you are like me, as technology has advanced, I have been getting less and less of my information from books and magazines and more from web pages, eBooks, and online videos. While having resources at our fingertips on the internet is great,  the problem with these sources of information is the scattered, fragmented nature of their organization. If you are aware of a topic and know now to optimally phrase a search query, the depth of information available is amazing. But downsides are the sometimes questionable accuracy or out-of-date info and poor presentation of the information.

Seeing the Broad Overview

For these reasons, when getting into a wide-ranging subject such as astronomy, having a comprehensive introduction is essential.  For this reason, I’ve been recommending “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” by Terrence Dickinson and Alan Dyer as the best introduction to astronomy everyone should get first.  And particularly timely for you if you’ve been contemplating getting into astronomy/astrophotography is that the fourth edition is just days away (September 15) from general availability. This is a much-needed update to the previous edition published over a decade ago. Keeping up with the technology of astronomy is as challenging as keeping up with the technology of photography, but this update has caught up to the present.

To tackle the challenge of presenting a broad overview, the book is organized into four major parts:

  • Getting Started: Basics for getting familiar with the night sky with your eyes and binoculars
  • Choosing and Using a Telescope: understanding technology of telescopes and accessories and factors you need to consider when choosing one*
  • The Telescopic Universe: what you can do and see with your telescope
  • Capturing the Cosmos: astrophotography equipment, techniques, workflow, and post-processing

 * Warning: one telescope doesn’t fit all needs!

It should be clear from this book’s organization that Fstoppers readers are coming into astronomy via the back door. While some of the technical knowledge about cameras, optics, and light is a definite advantage, the basics of astronomy and its specialized terminology are important too. First of all, “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” does a very good job of covering what is up in the sky from as close as the edge of space (aurorae, meteors, noctilucent clouds, etc.) out to what we might consider as normal astronomy (stars and galaxies). This opens our photographer’s eyes to potential subjects for astrophotography as well as lets us know what kinds of specialized equipment may be necessary.

The other subject this book covers well is when targets of interest may be available for observing or photography. At an introductory level, a part of section one is devoted to what constellations and parts of the Milky Way are visible in different seasons for both northern and southern hemispheres.  

Telescopically, in section three, a nice succinct summary of the sky in each season is presented as telescopic “sky tours,” with descriptions for northern and southern hemisphere highlights. Coverage of southern hemisphere objects is sparser, but nevertheless, this is an excellent way to get an understanding of the variety of available targets and of the timing and planning required to shoot different targets or astronomical phenomena.  

For the less frequently occurring phenomena, such as eclipses, summary lists for the next decade are included, allowing us to do some really long-range planning.

A similarly organized tour of the Moon, ordered by the lunar lighting phase, walks through the interesting features of the lunar surface. This is something that may be of interest even to experienced astrophotographers who may have been actually avoiding shooting on nights when the Moon is up.

Another important, but perhaps subtle feature of this book is that most of the photographs are from Earth-based, amateur-class telescopes. These may be at the high end of what is achievable but are more realistic to beginning astrophotographers than the false-color, planetary probe, and Hubble space telescope images dominating the internet.

Fuel for G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

Of course, an important aspect covered in this book is broad coverage of the wide range of astronomical equipment available and discussions of what types of astronomy and astrophotography require them. Equally important are the included text and diagrams showing how the equipment unique to astronomy is used.

What’s Not Covered

From the astrophotographer’s point of view, a few specialized topics are not covered, such as high-resolution solar and planetary imaging. Both of these require very specialized (and very different) techniques from “normal” deep-sky astrophotography, so it’s understandable that there are limits to what is included in this book.


And finally, as a bonus, appendices cover several topics important to anyone seriously getting into astronomy:

  • Polar alignment
  • Cleaning optics
  • Collimating (aligning) optics
  • Testing optics

For astrophotographers, understanding polar alignment is key to all but the simplest astrophotography projects and often not well understood. Modern computerized aids are very convenient, but a basic understanding of the alignment theory and process should be something as well understood as the concept of depth of field for conventional photography.

The remaining three appendices should not be ignored, as most astronomical equipment is subject to exposure to the elements much more than conventionally used camera lenses. In addition, for the sake of saving weight, many telescopes have an open frame instead of a sealed tube, exposing even more surfaces to the elements during use.

Keeping Up With the Times 

One of the disadvantages of an infrequently published physical book is that it goes out of date quickly, particularly when technology is involved. To combat this, the book’s companion website includes current reviews of equipment as well as covering the equipment featured in the book itself. Many entries link to interesting detailed astronomy gear review sites such as Astro Gear Today.

Waiting for an Electronic Version?

Are you waiting for an eBook version? Checking the book’s website as well as Amazon, there is no indication that an electronic version will be released, and that makes sense to me. Creating an electronic version of this book, with over 400 large pages and high-resolution photos, would make a file much too large for eBook readers and impractical to display on e-ink or even high-resolution LCD screens. Though well organized, it’s also not a book to read through only one time. Instead, I recommend skimming through it completely at least once to get an idea of the broad coverage, then selectively backing up to sections of particular interest.

In its large, hard-cover form, this book is meant to sit on a coffee table, standing by for perusing on those cloudy or rainy days for inspiration on the next clear evening!

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Thank you for this!

I still have a copy of "Exploring the Night Sky" 1988 ed. by Terrance Dickenson.

While I wouldn't call this the "bible" of astrophotography, I will say that this is the BEST book for folks starting off in astronomy and astrophotography that's available. It's difficult to let folks who aren't already into amateur astronomy know how important it is to have a solid grounding in general astronomy prior to attempting to delve into proper astrophotography. If you don't have a firm understanding of what's going on above your head, as well as how you photograph everything from untracked wide field Milky Way shots to tracked close ups of galaxies and nebula ... you will literally wind up pulling your hair out. I can't recommend this book highly enough! I've been into the hobby of astronomy and astrophotography for many years now, but I still purchase each new edition of this book ... it's that good!