Discovery Astrophotography with ZWO ASTRO

Astrophotographer’s Story: Chad Leader

Hello Chad, thanks for accepting our interview invitation. Congratulations on winning the ASIWEEK competition in week ##48/2023!

Q1: At first, congratulation that your nice image won #ASIWEEK. This is actually your second interview with us, can you introduce yourself to new readers? 

Hello, my name is Chad Leader. I live in the Washington, DC area. I’m 46 years old and enjoy astronomy, music, nature and traveling. I’ve been doing astrophotography for a little over four years now.

From Joshua Tree National Park; horizon skyglow courtesy of Palm Springs/Los Angeles

Q2: What changes and surprises do you think astrophotography has brought you over these years?

I’m amazed at how much astro technology has changed since I began the hobby in 2019. There are so many gadgets that make astrophotography more accessible and efficient – for example the ASIAIR. There are also numerous software tools that streamline processing data, including new AI tools that simplify workflow and produce excellent results. It’s a great time to be an astrophotographer.

M45 with the Askar 80PHQ and ZWO ASI 2600MC Pro from Bortle 3 skies (star spikes created with custom aperture mask)

Q3: Can you tell us about the winning photo

IC1848 (The Soul Nebula) is a popular emission nebula located in Cassiopeia. I recently purchased an Askar 80PHQ quadruplet astrograph. Paired with an ASI2600MM Pro APS-C camera, this target fits perfectly into the FOV. For this image, I set up my imaging train without a reducer. This produces the best, flattest field at f/7.5 (600mm focal length). I captured SHO narrowband data using 3.5nm filters over several nights totaling 15.5 hours of integration. To better enhance the details and get sharper stars, I drizzled the data to double the image resolution. Overall, I’m really impressed with the telescope/camera combination. The data was very clean and easy to process.

IC 1848: The Soul Nebula; Askar 80PHQ/ASI 2600MM Pro; 15.5 hours integration

Q4: What gear do you use? Any pictures of them?

I have three telescopes that I use: an Askar 80PHQ, an iOptron RC8, and a Celestron Edge HD 8. My mounts are a ZWO AM5 and a Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro. I use ZWO’s ASI 2600MM Pro, ASI 2600 MC Pro, and ASI 294MM Pro. Everything is operated by an ASIAIR Plus/Pro.

Celestron Edge HD8, Askar 80PHQ, and iOptron RC8; ZWO AM5 and EQ6-R Pro mounts

Q5: When did you start using the monochrome camera? Did it give you any different experience compared to the color cameras you were familiar with before?

Switching to mono was the best decision I’ve made as an astrophotographer! Especially living in a heavily light-polluted area, mono imaging has made things much easier. In addition to being able to image in true SHO, I’ve found that mono cameras are better for broadband (LRGB) targets from heavy light pollution. Not only are they more efficient at sensing photons, it’s also easier to remove gradients from separate data sets. Obviously, nothing beats a dark sky. But if you are limited in your access to dark sites (as I am), using a mono camera can help produce nice broadband images from light-polluted back yards.

M51 and M106 from Bortle 7 skies with the ASI 2600MM Pro and iOptron RC8

M20 from Bortle 7 skies with the ZWO ASI 2600MM Pro and iOptron RC8

The Wizard Nebula with a Celestron Edge HD8 and ZWO ASI 294MM Pro from Bortle 8/9 skies, SHO palette

Q6: How long is the cycle time for one of your photos to be completed? Which part of the process do you find the most challenging?

It really depends on the target and telescope I’m using. For example, if I’m imaging a medium-bright target in SHO at f/7, I’ll usually aim for 4+ hours on each data set. If the OIII signal is weak, I’ll double it for that filter. For broadband, it’s highly dependent on the target, sky quality, and how deep I want to go. For example, M42 is very bright. From a dark sky, I can get a really good image with about an hour of integration.

The most challenging part of data acquisition is getting ROUND stars across the FOV. Achieving that involves a lot of equipment being fine tuned and working properly: collimation, reducer back-spacing, guiding (including seeing conditions), PA, mount balance, etc. While it’s challenging, it’s also very satisfying when your image comes out with an excellent field of stars.

Q7: Which is your favorite astronomical target that you have photographed so far?

My favorite object and image is a close up of the Heart Nebula region (IC 1805 and Melotte 15). This region includes some incredible structures, and SHO colors really provide excellent contrast.

IC1805 with the Celestron Edge HD 8 and a ZWO ASI 294MM Pro

Q8: Is there any memorable story you can share with us from your astrophotography days?

About two years ago, I was imaging in a remote part of Joshua Tree National Park. As my sequence ran, I fell asleep in my chair. I was woken  by the sound of something walking through the brush. I shined my light into the area of the sound, and saw two red eyes glaring back at me. I didn’t stick around to find out what it was – but likely a coyote. Be careful out there in the field, folks!

A quick 10-second exposure from Joshua Tree National Park, CA, USA

Q9: How do you balance your time between hobby, work and family?

It is tough to find balance for a time-intensive hobby like astrophotography. I have a 4-year old son, so he is my priority. Thankfully, he goes to bed before the stars come out! But, I do try to include him in the hobby. He helps me set up my telescopes, and sometimes will watch me edit an image. He often tries to draw my images as well.

Something I’ve been doing to make my astrophotography more efficient is leaving my set up outside under a telescope cover. This allows me to simply uncover it and get right to imaging on clear nights. All of the automation of the ASIAIR Plus really helps as well. It’s nice to be able to set a “Plan” sequence and let it run all night while sleeping.

Q10: Besides astrophotography, are you actively involved in other astronomy-related activities?

I recently completed a Master of Science degree in Space Studies with an Astronomy concentration. My thesis was about utilizing coded music to countermeasure psychological challenges during long-duration spaceflight (for example, a mission to Mars).

Besides that, I enjoy reading up on astrophysics and cosmology. I’m also hoping to get more involved with star parties and outreach at my local astronomy club (NOVAC).

Meissa (double star) with an iOptron RC8 and ZWO ASI 2600MM Pro; notice the double star spike

Q11: What do you consider to be your highlight moment in astrophotography?

It’s hard to say, but my best moments are when I’m under the stars at a dark site. There’s something very therapeutic about it. I have also had some very cool moments where my photography was featured: short-listed for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, photos published in several magazines, an APOD, winning Astrobin’s IOTD, and (of course) winning ZWO’s image of the week!

The Rosette Nebula with a Celestron Edge HD 8 and ZWO ASI 294MM Pro (Astrobin IOTD 1/25/2022)

Q12: Do you have plans to try other categories of astrophotography? For instance, planetary photography.

I very recently bought an entry-level DSLR to attempt some Milky Way photography. But, my heart is really in deep space photography. The fusion of art, science, and technology make this a perfect hobby for me.

My website: https://www.ancientphotonsastro.com/

My YouTube channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRfaXNno0Dsg03hy-6byPZQ

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