“The Milky Way is probably my favorite thing to look at in the night sky just because how vast and spectacular it looks. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever felt is really awe-inspiring looking at. The first time I saw it, I got tears in my eyes.”
- Connor Matherne, LSU graduate student in the Department of Geology and Geophysics
Connor Matherne is an accomplished astrophotographer! His work has been featured by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the websites AstroBin and Amateur Astrophotography. His images were also published in The Astrophotographer’s Guidebook: A Complete Guide to the Best Astrophotography Targets of the Year. Connor is a graduate student in the Department of Geology & Geophysics as well as an undergraduate alum of the department.
Check out the Milky Way for yourself! Connor provides some insight about the Milky Way season: Throughout the year, things rise and set at different times in terms of constellations throughout the sky. In the spring and summer, as well as a little bit into the fall, the Milky Way starts to show up above the horizon. As the months progress, it will show up earlier in the night. In April and May it will be visible for almost the whole night.
Explore beyond our world with Connor’s beautiful images and learn about his experience as an astrophotographer!
LSU College of Science: How did you get involved in astrophotography?
Connor: I got involved with astrophotography after finding an image on Reddit that I thought was absolutely stunning before realizing that it was taken by an amateur. That quickly inspired me to dust off a telescope my brother got as a Christmas present more than 10 years beforehand. I pointed the scope at the very first bright thing I found in the sky and it happened to land right on Jupiter. I immediately started yelling for my roommates to come outside and look while we tried to take pictures with our cellphone to the eyepiece. From that moment of seeing the awful grainy white dot on my phone, I knew I wanted to try and improve.
LSU College of Science: What are the differences between astrophotography and regular photography?
Connor: Quite a few things! The major difference is the exposure time and the amount of images. A lot of my images could reach up 20 hours of exposure by combining over 100 ten minute exposures. We also do not have to worry about things like framing that normal photographers have to worry about since we are all shooting the same exact objects.
LSU College of Science: Do you have a favorite story about a photographing session that you could share? Have you had any hurdles or hiccups?
Connor: One of my favorite moments was witnessing a bolide (a very large meteor that exploded in the atmosphere). It was so bright that I could read a sign around 300 yards away that I didn’t even know was there. It turned the pitch black environment into daytime for a split second. The hiccups and hurdles are endless though. When I first began, there were many nights I would walk in at 6 AM without a single image to show for after sitting outside all night long trying to work out an endless amount of things that were going wrong.
LSU College of Science: Do you have a favorite image?
Connor: This is my favorite widefield image. It was taken from Colorado one night during Department of Geology & Geophysics Field Camp. Some friends and I decided to take the night off from working and we hopped in a car and drove about an hour away to some very dark skies to get a view I, and hopefully they too, will never forget.
LSU College of Science: How do you choose your shooting location and how long does the imaging take?
Connor: All my locations are predefined from gathering over the years by looking at light pollution maps and visiting myself. What I’m shooting will determine which site I go to because different parts of the sky will have different levels of light pollution.
For example, if I go an hour north of Baton Rouge and I want to shoot something in the south, that won’t work because Baton Rouge is to the south. The Milky Way is generally visible in the south, so in order to shoot the Milky Way, I go to the west of Baton Rouge. That way, the only thing south is Morgan City and that’s not really an impact. The huge amount of light pollution from Baton Rouge will now be to the east.
The length of time depends on the targets that I’m shooting. If I’m shooting widefield images, I generally don’t put as much time into them just because they require less time. The Milky Way is so bright. How bright or how dim an object is determines how much time I put into an image. Milky Way images are really easy and are done in 15 minutes. Small little nebulas require a lot more integration time.
LSU College of Science: How often do you image in Baton Rouge?
Connor: For deep space photography, I do not travel to a site anymore since I switched to remotely using the observatory in New Mexico about two years ago. When I did astrophotography here, it was about once per week. As far as remote imaging, I do that every clear night because it’s so easy.
I try do planetary photography about once per month depending on what planets are up. It’s been sparse lately because there haven’t been good planets up and the weather has been awful, but now we’re starting to see Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.
LSU College of Science: What can we see from Baton Rouge?
Connor: There are actually a lot of things that you can see from Baton Rouge! The Baton Rouge Astronomical Society has monthly meetings at Perkins Rowe. We set up telescopes and people can look through them. A lot of people question what you can see since you’re standing in a mall. You can easily see the Moon and planets because they aren’t affected by light pollution. You can even see bright nebulas like Orion and star clusters. It’s really nice that we can go to a high traffic location in Baton Rouge and have targets that can blow us away.
LSU College of Science: You recently captured the total lunar eclipse that occurred on the night of January 31 from Baton Rouge. Could you tell us about that experience?
Connor: Daunting and a pain. Given that the lunar eclipse began barely above the horizon, I had to time my shot well. Luckily, I have a parking garage that is very high with a clear view down to the horizon in the west allowing me to get a decent view of the moon just before the eclipse began. As the moon gets lower on the horizon, the more atmospheric disturbances impact the image and blur it, this led to the image being very blurred.
LSU College of Science: Could you explain true color vs. false color? How do you ensure that your images are true color?
Connor: A majority of my images are true color, however, all of the images I take lie within the visible range.
My true color images are taken with a RGB filters and then combined to form a single color image. I can then color calibrate my images based on spiral galaxy references or star color (G2V mostly). I also reference the work of Roger Clark who has done extensive work on true colors of the night sky as well as the objects within it.
False color images are taken with special filters that block out all light except for a small portion of light that is emitted by a nebula. Since these are only small portions of the spectrum, rather than the whole thing, the colors become ‘false’. These filters are generally assigned colors the same way that Hubble does (Sulfur II – red, Hydrogen α – green, and Oxygen III – blue). This will generally result in a gold and cyan image, however a natural color image would be almost entirely red. The false color lets us see the interactions between the gases more distinctly.
LSU College of Science: How did you learn to process astronomy pictures? What advice would you have for someone that would like to pursue this hobby?
Connor: Lots and lots of reading on my own time, and lots and lots of trial and error. I have probably processed well over 500 astro-images by this point in my life, a lot of them weren’t even my own. When I didn’t have images of my own to practice with when I first began, I would find publicly available datasets online and practice with them. The main advice I would give someone looking to pursue this hobby would be do as much research as you can before you buy anything, and upgrade slowly. There is nothing worse than spending a few thousand dollars on equipment that you never want to go out with and use. Start small with a DSLR camera, and eventually move up to a telescope and a tracking mount.
LSU College of Science: What equipment do you use?
Connor: I am rather fortunate as I work with an observatory located in New Mexico that has given me a wide range of set ups totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. However back at home, I’ve used small refractors like the William Optics Star71 in conjunction with a Canon 6D and Orion Sirius EQ mount for deep space photography. For SLAP (Solar, Lunar, and Planetary) I use an 8” ACF scope from Meade. Lastly, for widefield images such as of the Milky Way, I currently use a Canon 7D mkII with a Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens.
For anyone looking to get into astrophotography, I would recommend they begin with widefield images. They are by far the cheapest and easiest to take. All they require is a normal DSLR camera, no fancy tripod, lenses, or filters. A great resource for beginners is https://www.lonelyspeck.com/ which offers great guides that are a “crash course” to widefield imaging.
LSU College of Science: Since the Earth is rotating while you are imaging, how do you continuously track the object in the sky?
Connor: A German equatorial mount. They’re very precise. The mount is the most expensive part of a setup. If you’re taking a 10-minute exposure, a slight movement will ruin your image. The way it works is that you align it with Polaris and then it just rotates with the sky. It moves at a constant rate all night.
An advanced technique I use is attaching a secondary camera and telescope to the first telescope. The secondary camera is hooked to the mount and looks at the same spot that I’m trying to image. I pick a starting location within the field of view and track that star with an x-y coordinate. If it drifts from the x-y coordinate, it corrects itself. It gives a more stable picture than using just a mount. The mount left unguided would eventually start to trail a certain way or have some small errors in the gears that could throw off your image. This technique ensures a more crisp picture.
LSU College of Science: How does astrophotography relate to your undergraduate and graduate degrees?
Connor: For my graduate degree, I research planetary science. Many of the techniques I use in my own imaging has been applied to satellites found orbiting Mars. This gives me a better idea as to how these images are captured, and what some of the best ways to manipulate the data captured would be.
LSU College of Science: What advice do you have for a student wishing to pursue a degree in geology or planetary science at LSU?
Connor: My main advice would be to do what interests you. Don’t just do something just because. Finding something you enjoy about geology or planetary science and focusing on it will lead to a much less stressful time when it comes to learning new things and you will find yourself more excited to learn these things, rather than dreading them.