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Take an Astrophotography Picture of Saturn

Updated on April 9, 2015

Saturn Near Opposition in 2012

Photo compiled by author on May 20th, 2012 about a month after the 2012 opposition.  Notice the storm regions in the center of the lower hemisphere of Saturn.
Photo compiled by author on May 20th, 2012 about a month after the 2012 opposition. Notice the storm regions in the center of the lower hemisphere of Saturn.

Saturn Opposition 2015

Saturn’s closest pass in 2015 occurs on May 22nd, 2015. Saturn is a magnificent object to behold in your telescope’s eyepiece. First time viewers are always 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 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.

Saturn Three Months After 2008 Opposition

Photo compiled by author on April 22nd, 2008 - about 3 months after opposition.  Notice the shadow cast by Saturn on the rings.  This shadow is hidden by Saturn during opposition.
Photo compiled by author on April 22nd, 2008 - about 3 months after opposition. Notice the shadow cast by Saturn on the rings. This shadow is hidden by Saturn during opposition.

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 smart phone 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 the same direction), another bright white star. Then, look East (staying on the ecliptic - the line that planets and the Moon follows) and look for a bright, yellowish object which is Saturn. If you find a reddish star, Antares, in Scorpius - you went too far. Spica and Antares are both a little south of the ecliptic. Saturn is a little above a line between these two stars and is closer to Antares. Saturn is in the constellation of Libra.

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).

2008, One Month Later - Rings are Closing Up

This picture was compiled on May 8th of 2008.  If you compare it to the April 22nd 2008 picture, you can tell the rings are closing up or becoming thinner to our vantage point.
This picture was compiled on May 8th of 2008. If you compare it to the April 22nd 2008 picture, you can tell the rings are closing up or becoming thinner to our vantage point.

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 image 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 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).

Five More Months Later - Rings Are Closed

This photo was compiled shortly after Saturn was visible again after swinging around the Sun (November 18th, 2008).  In comparison to the previous picture, notice how thin the rings became in just  7 months.  Colors are off due to it being low in sky
This photo was compiled shortly after Saturn was visible again after swinging around the Sun (November 18th, 2008). In comparison to the previous picture, notice how thin the rings became in just 7 months. Colors are off due to it being low in sky

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 quckly. 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!

This was taken on a night near opposition when Titan was close to Saturn.  You can see that it is a little tiny ball with color.  I left Saturn in the picture to show how much brighter it is than Titan.
This was taken on a night near opposition when Titan was close to Saturn. You can see that it is a little tiny ball with color. I left Saturn in the picture to show how much brighter it is than Titan.

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 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!

Saturn and Some of Its Moons

I overlayed the moons onto a shot of Saturn I compiled the same evening.  So there you have it!
I overlayed the moons onto a shot of Saturn I compiled the same evening. So there you have it!

Items You Might Need

Telrad Finder Sight
Telrad Finder Sight

A Telrad is sweet. It helps you find bright objects like planets and bright stars very easily. Then you can go right to the eyepiece without using the clumsy finderscope.

 
Celestron CPC 1100 StarBright XLT GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain 2800mm Telescope with Tripod and Tube
Celestron CPC 1100 StarBright XLT GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain 2800mm Telescope with Tripod and Tube

This is the scope I used for these photos. It sets up quickly and you can even control it with a laptop. It's also great for viewing objects too.

 
Baader Planetarium RGB Filter Set 1 1/4" with UV/IR Cut L-Filter (Optically Polished)
Baader Planetarium RGB Filter Set 1 1/4" with UV/IR Cut L-Filter (Optically Polished)

Baader makes great products. My first real filter set was Baader and most of my pictures were taken with them. They also are great for visual viewing to bring out details.

 

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    • profile image

      Gary 2 years ago

      Thank you for the information. 1st sentence in 1st paragraph might need a 2nd look.

    • alphajuno profile image
      Author

      alphajuno 2 years ago from League City, TX

      You're welcome Gary. Thanks for noticing the date mismatch , it is this year.

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