Take an Astrophotography Picture of Saturn

Saturn’s closest pass in 2013 occurs on April 28th, 2013. Saturn is a magnificent object to behold in your telescope’s eyepiece. First-time viewers are almost fascinated with how it looks so this makes a great object to show your friends who haven’t seen Saturn “up close and personal”. Saturn is also another great object to take a picture of and will elicit “ooo’s and ah’s” from those who see it.

The rings will change in appearance over time and storms can be photographed so it’s never a dull subject. Titan, it’s the largest moon also makes a nice photography object. Its colors can be detected in your pictures whereas it usually looks white to the naked eye on “regular” telescopes. It’s fun to photograph Saturn and its moons (in separate shots) and then to overlay the two images to show what it would look like if you were approaching Saturn in a spaceship (for example). The relative brightness of Saturn (brighter) to its moons will overexpose Saturn if you try to photograph the whole family together.

How Do I Get Ready?

Saturn is usually pretty easy to find in the evening sky because it is fairly bright and has a yellow tint to it. Also, planets don’t “twinkle” like stars do because they are a tiny (tiny) ball instead of a point of light. Many websites have finder charts and your GPS-enabled smartphone app can help as well. But, if you lived 100 years ago and wanted to find it this year (you know what I mean), the old-fashioned way would be to look north and find the North Star (Polaris). Then follow the “arc” of the Great Dipper to a bright white star Arcturus. Then, “speed over” to Spica (going in the same general direction – not exactly), another bright white star. Then, put your fist out at Spica so it’s on your knuckle and look a little below your fist (and to the side) for a bright, yellow object which is Saturn. You’ll have to get up early in the morning to see it before opposition, stay up late at opposition (it rises the same time as a full moon at opposition), or see it earlier and earlier in the night after opposition. Of course, your best, brightest pictures will be around opposition (all other things being equal).

What Do I Need to Have?

You may refer to my article on Jupiter for more detail but simply stated, you need a camera with at least a long telephoto lens to get a picture of Saturn and maybe Titan. Depending on the lens’ length and total magnification (with a teleconverter if you have/need one), you can imagine the rings of Saturn as well. A telescope with a camera will work much better. The two keys are gathering enough light using a large aperture (up to the limits of atmospheric turbulence – maybe 8-14 or so inches depending on the night) and magnification. Aperture is basically how big the diameter of your telescope is. Magnification is related to the focal length of your telescope and any add-ons (like a Barlow or image magnifier). You can use a point and shoot camera through a telescope eyepiece (good), DSLR camera with an adapter – no eyepiece (better), or a special astrophotography camera designed for taking pictures of planets (best – usually – some DSLR’s may be better than some low-end astrophotography cameras).

Okay, What Else?

After you get your basic equipment, then you can start honing your craft. Saturn isn’t as bright as Jupiter, Mars, or Venus so you won’t need to take snapshots as quickly. If I am taking RGB (red/green/blue) monochrome shots with my Imaging Source camera, Televue Powermate (image magnifier) and my Celestron CPC-1100 scope, I might take 1/15s shots on a good, still night. I can see the camera’s histogram on my laptop so I adjust the exposure length until it’s barely bright enough. If I am not using the Powermate, then I might get a 1/60s exposure on Saturn. Some nights, the atmosphere isn’t still enough to use the Powermate.

In the Jupiter article, I talk about the benefits of getting as many shots as possible and stacking/processing them to gain clarity. Again, this makes a huge difference as compared to single shots. Saturn rotates quickly, like Jupiter, so if you are imaging specific features (like a storm), then you will have to limit your image acquisition runs to about 3 minutes. If you don’t care about that as much, then, by all means, take longer runs to get more images to stack. It’s sometimes hard to get enough blue channel shots with Saturn and you can’t clean them up very well if you have like 100 images and the atmosphere was jumpy (or Saturn was low in the sky).

Saturn Moon Titan – It’s Bigger Than Mercury!

How About the Moons?

You’ll need longer exposure times with Saturn’s moons. As mentioned before, you can see Titan’s color because it is such a large moon and it has an atmosphere. Titan would be the largest moon if you count its atmosphere (I was asked this trivia question at my son’s college’s Family Weekend but got it “wrong” because they didn’t include Titan’s atmosphere). Also, it’s larger than the planet Mercury. Around opposition, try to get a shot of Titan while it looks the biggest to us. The rest of the moons are smaller and dimmer than Titan. Sky and Telescope has a nice feature on their website which allows you to help identify the moons that you image. Watch out for Iapetus, it can wander pretty far from Saturn and isn’t in the same plane as Saturn’s rings. See how many moons you can capture! Mimas and Hyperion are challenges. Then overlay the moons on the nice image of Saturn you took. Enjoy!

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