I have been interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember. I grew up reading Science Fiction and my interest in SF led to an interest in science. My favorite writer was Isaac Asimov, and I devoured his science and history books as readily as his fiction.
I was never a serious astronomer. I have owned various telescopes over the years, but never a real instrument. I would occasionally make my way to a star party and look through other peoples telescopes, but I’ve never had a telescope good enough for astrophotography.
When I was younger, the bar for serious amateur astrophotography was fairly high, at least relative to my income. You needed a decent telescope, with a drive to track the movement of the stars, and you needed decent camera equipment. There was always something else that seemed more important to spend my money on. But I still tried to get out to the dark whenever I could to see real stars.
If you are not interested in stargazing, you might not realize that most people do not live where they can see any but the brightest stars. The problem is called light pollution, and it is a real obstacle in many areas. Artificial light reflecting from the clouds and dust in the air, drowns out most of the stars. Many people go years without ever seeing the milky way. Some people have never seen it, and have no idea what they are missing. There is even an organization dedicated to preserving the dark places. The International Dark Sky Association.
Over the years, I found other hobbies that took my time and money. Living in Fort Worth I seldom found the opportunity to get out to the dark places. One weekend in June 2015, when Ren was out of town, I found myself missing the stars. A quick search online showed that there was a park about three hours away with particularly dark skies. Copper Breaks State Park. I was fortunate that many of the darkest places to see the stars are in Texas. If I had lived east of the Mississippi, it would have been much harder to find real darkness.
I grabbed my binoculars and my tent and hit the road. Copper Breaks is an International Dark Sky Park. That means it is rated as being an excellent place to see the skies as they should be seen. There are darker places, but this was the darkest I had ever seen, and the Moon would set about an hour after sunset. This is important because the moonlight will drown out the stars as well.
I spent an amazing evening under the stars, it was glorious. I was in heaven and I realized that I never wanted to go that long again without this. Even more amazing was that I just happened to arrive at the peak of the firefly mating season, and Copper Breaks had more fireflies than I had ever imagined seeing. It was truly magical. The entire valley was filled with them.
I tried in vain to get a picture of the stars and the valley with the camera on my cell phone, but that camera was not capable of what I was asking from it.
When Ren came home I told her that I wanted a real camera. Ren and I try to support one another when we feel strongly about something. She called up a friend of ours who was a photographer and asked if he could help get me started, and he asked me over and loaned me his backup camera, a Nikon D70S, a few lenses, and a tripod. Things had changed a lot since I was younger. The technical bar to getting good star photos was much lower. Camera technology had improved considerably. Even that older camera was capable of getting decent results.
I started watching every YouTube video I could find about photography. I set out to learn the camera, and was quickly obsessed. The next new moon, I found a place that wasn’t quite as dark, but was much closer, and headed out for my first astronomy shoot at Tucker Lake just outside of Strawn Texas. About 90 miles from the house. Those first shots were not amazing, I was still learning, but I was getting out beneath the stars, and I was learning something new.
Photography is now a huge part of my life. Astrophotography is only a small part of that, not because I love it any less, but the necessary conditions do not come together very often. It needs to be near the new moon, I need to have the time and money to get somewhere dark, and need not to have to get up and go to work the next morning, so it needs to be a weekend, and then I have to hope that the sky is not cloudy. It’s a lot of work. I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much if it were easy.
I have since improved my gear, though I still shoot with a relatively modest camera, the Sony A6000. If we ever stop traveling long enough to save up some money, (snort!), I’ll invest in a better lens, but I get pictures I am proud of with my current equipment, and getting to amazing places seems a better use of my resources than collecting camera gear. One of these days I’ll get a telescope, but for now, I’m content.