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Scribbling in the Dark

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Taking Note: Thoughts on How To Record Observations

Scribbling in the Dark:
Thoughts on How and Why to Record Observations

How do you make an observation count? Observing, in some form or another, is the bottom line underscoring this pastime, and even the most gear-oriented among us eventually looks through the eyepiece to (at least) test the performance of the equipment. So we all observe and we all get something out of observing, whether it’s satisfaction with the quality and performance of the equipment, spiritual and intellectual enrichment as we contemplate the universe, or (usually) both at once. But how do you measure that experience? Of course, if you are content simply to contemplate the universe in a purely (if technologically aided) aesthetic way, this question is moot. You take its measure simply by making the observation. And I know some people who see it just this way, for whom records and lists and such are too much like work, chores that take the fun out of a hobby. A completely legitimate point of view, but from what I’ve seen of amateur astronomers so far, not one that represents the opinion of the majority. Most of us want some sort of track record, some form of accounting, if only to be able to one day look back and see how far we’ve come.

The simple answer is of course to record your observations. The seeming simplicity of this answer conceals any number of possible methods for doing so. Let’s take a look at just a few of them, the ones I have experimented with since returning to astronomy (leaving aside software packages designed for the purpose - these would require reviews of their own to cover them properly.)

How Hard Does It Need To Be?

Not hard at all, of course. In its simplest form, a record of astronomical observations is nothing more than a form of accounting, and this accounting can be as minimal as checkmarks on a list. The list could be the object index of a book, a list downloaded and printed from a website, or one you’ve cobbled together for yourself from any of a number of different resources. Find it, check it, and maybe add a date – for many amateur astronomers this is all that is needed. If this works for you it’s the right way to count your observations, and let no one tell you otherwise.

Glorified Lists

The use of a computer spreadsheet application allows you to record a bit more information without spending the day after an all-nighter fighting off sleep while you type up notes. Such a record can be as simple as three columns: object identity, time, and date. You can expand on this idea and use however many columns you wish in order to record whatever additional information seems relevant to you. The co-ordinates of objects, constellations in which they are found, evaluation of the seeing conditions and transparency (highly recommended), your location, or anything else that can be recorded in a few words or numbers will work within this format. The information can be recorded out in the field in a notebook, and then be entered into the spreadsheet on your computer when you get home. You could also fill in the object identification column ahead of time, print out as much of the spreadsheet as you need for the night, and use this for your field notes, updating the permanent record when you are finished. The spreadsheet can, of course, grow indefinitely as you learn of new objects to observe, and then successfully observe them and update your records. Of course, you could just haul a laptop out into the night with you, and do the data entry on the spot. Just make sure you don’t sacrifice your dark adaptation (or anyone else's) to the light from the screen!

Log Functions

For some of us, though, it takes more than checklists and spreadsheets. The experience of locating and observing lunar domes, a nebulous cloud of star birth in progress, or an unimaginably remote galaxy inspires a need to do something. It's as if the enormity of what we witness requires a response, or some form of interaction. Astrophotography offers one approach to dealing with this need to interact, but if you don't have the funds for imaging gear and still want to take away something tangible from the experience, notes and sketches in an observing log can provide an enjoyable outlet. In fact, no few of us prefer this route to that offered by imaging and image processing.

As was the case with the use of spread sheets, an observing log can be as simple or complicated as you care to make it. At its simplest, a log is a notebook in which you jot comments and descriptions; a simple spiral notebook would do nicely. If you want to do something more, buy a notebook that includes blank pages or parts of pages that allow for sketching. The company Rite in the Rain (http://www.riteintherain.com/) produces nice notebooks and journals that will stand up well to dew. If you are really looking for a formal approach, one designed exclusively for astronomical observations, consider one of the log sheet templates readily available on the internet. One of our Cloudy Nights sketchers, Jeremy Perez, has made his well thought out versions of observing log pages available on his website:


While these happen to be the ones I use, and can recommend based on personal experience, this is but one of many approaches; a few others can be found by perusing this thread on the Cloudy Nights forum.


You can also, of course, devise your own to fit whatever unique observing style you have developed. Either way, you print these sheets up only as you need them, a very economical approach.

Whether you use a template created by others, draw up your own, or just scribble in a spiral notebook, there are some standard bits of information that should be included if the log is to be of the greatest possible use to you in the future. Some of this data might seem fairly obvious, but some of it might not occur to you at the start: the object observed, the equipment used to observe it (telescope, eyepieces, filters, etc.), the time and date, weather, seeing conditions, transparency (Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude or NELM), darkness (if you use a Sky Quality Meter), and the location from which the observation was made. Be consistent in recording this information because it will help you evaluate your observing methods later on. By this I mean you will not need to rely on memory alone to remember whether the OIII filter helped or hindered the view of a specific planetary nebula, or whether or not a NELM of 4 is good enough to give you a decent view of a faint galaxy.

After the standardized information should be a description of what you saw, with perhaps a note on how you located the object. This description can be a few words or an essay, whatever it takes to support your memory of the experience. How do you know enough is enough? Read the notes back to yourself later and see how clearly they bring back to your memory what it was you saw. Not quite what you were hoping for? Then it is likely you need to be more explicit in your note taking. If you are not accustomed to putting your thoughts on paper you will find that there is a learning curve involved, but then, so it is with any aspect of amateur astronomy. This is not a thing to worry about, nor should you be disappointed when you look back at older entries and find they don’t measure up to your current efforts. What this tells you is that you’ve learned something in the doing. Those old notes show you where you have been, in more ways than one, and you can always re-observe an object and re-describe it in light of your greater experience. Never go back, months or years later, and try to touch up old log entries. Let them be what they are. It’s all part of the learning experience.

You can, however, take those field notes and work them up into a sort of narrative, using them as raw material for something like an observer’s diary. This is best done, of course, within a few days of making the observations. When I write such entries in my permanent log (on my computer) I do so as if they were letters to a fellow amateur astronomer, including in them not only the information from the log sheets but my impressions and recollections of the night. I find that such an effort makes the memories of that night under the stars as permanent as they can be; somehow, writing about it reinforces those memories. In any case, I enjoy doing it, much the same way that other people like to capture an image on a CCD chip; this is part of the hobby for me. Should you adopt such a practice? Only if you enjoy writing for its own sake. The point of mentioning any of this is not to tell you what to do, but to make you think of possible ways to work with and reinforce the memories you are building while at the eyepiece.

The Sharp End of the Pencil Points Downward

You will immediately note that available log sheet templates generally leave room for sketching the object you observe. Unless you are working on one of the Astronomical League’s observing club lists you are not, of course, obliged to try your hand at drawing what you see. But before you dismiss this activity out of hand, consider this: no one but you need ever see that sketch, so there is no reason to be self-conscious about it. Your sketch can be purely utilitarian, a schematic that helps you learn general shapes and proportions, determine the positions of stars in the field of view, or record the locations of moons around a planet. It can be a rough idea of how much of the disc of Venus or Mercury you saw illuminated, or what portion of a lunar crater was filled with dark shadows. Lacking the skill necessary to produce a beautiful rendering of the object is no excuse not to give yourself the visual cues a rough sketch can provide. It serves as an enormously useful memory aid. If you persist, you will even find that you get better at it with practice and that by trying to spot details to place in the sketch you end up seeing more in the first place. That alone is worth waving a pencil around in the dark, even if the end result is a bit crude. If all those tiny stars in a cluster like M11 look like a nightmare to spot in, mark in the brightest and shade in the area occupied by the fainter members. When you look at the sketch months or years later you will see the shading, but remember the extent and number of those tiny points of light. If you want to render the graininess an almost-but-not-quite resolved globular cluster shows, make a hazy ball and speckle it with the pencil point. Whether or not you get the speckles in the right place is less important than remembering how the cluster glittered with stars just on the edge of sight. Don’t make yourself nuts trying to get things just so (this is supposed to be fun, after all), but do give yourself a chance to make use of sketching as a learning and observing tool.

If sketching as an end unto itself actually catches your fancy, but sharpening a pencil defines the limit of your current skill, visit the Sketching forum here on Cloudy Nights:


There you will find advice, support, and tutorials prepared by experienced sketchers of celestial objects.

Writing in the Dark

Whether you jot down notes or draw pictures, you will need to see what you are doing without reducing (or eliminating) your level of dark adaptation. Red light is the key. Having a suitable red light where you’ll need it most is the challenge.

If you aren’t concerned with sketching a red light that can be used at the eyepiece is unnecessary, but you will need a light at your observing table. Many amateur astronomers wear a red LED light headband (there are several versions available) at their table and use it to light up charts, books, checklists or notebooks. Most of these lights are rather bright, and the light reflected from the white paper of a notebook or printed log sheet can degrade dark adaptation to varying degrees. One approach often recommended to reduce the intensity of the light is to replace a battery in a headband type light with a ‘shunt’ that reduces the power supply for the LEDs. Various methods are described; I used a bit of wooden dowel wrapped in foil and found it to be a fluky work-around. It did indeed reduce the intensity of the light, but did so to a degree that left the headband lamp too dim to be of any use. In the end I bought an eye patch and, when I wanted to scribble a note, used the unadulterated headband lamp while covering my dominant eye. That proved to be a much simpler (and far more reliable) solution. Those of you who are handier than me (most of you, more than likely) may find the ‘shunt’ trick works just fine. Either way, a red light on a headband beats holding a red flashlight between your teeth any night of the week.

Not long after I joined the local astronomy club, however, I was provided with a much better solution for red light at the observing table. One of my fellow club members came up with a way to convert an ordinary halogen desk lamp to red LED. He keeps the instructions on his website (scroll down to “ATM” and click on “Red LED Desk Lamp”):


The club holds workshops on the construction of these lamps from time to time, and so (with a great deal of help from the very patient fellow who maintains the website – Silicon Owl on the CN forum) I built one of these for myself. Such a lamp is adjustable, allowing you to dim the light as the night goes on and your eyes become steadily more adapted to the dark. If you have any skill with a soldering iron at all, I highly recommend giving this a try.

Working at the eyepiece, especially if you are sketching the object being observed, presents a different challenge. You will more than likely be holding a sketchbook, stack of log sheets, or pad of paper on a clipboard (and the use of a clipboard to support it all is a very good idea). So, here you are steadying the clipboard on your knee with one hand, holding the pencil with the other, and… Yes, where do you put the red light? The headband lamp presents itself as an obvious solution, and many use this approach to good effect, but I find that I can’t angle it down properly when I look away from the eyepiece to the clipboard. (I also have a tendency to whack it into the eyepiece from time to time, which is not highly recommended.) A light-weight LED flashlight held between the teeth will do the trick, if you can tolerate the way the light moves around the log sheet while you’re breathing. Unless you are quick on the draw, holding your breath won’t help.

The trick, then, is to attach the light to your notebook or (better) clipboard in some way. Jeremy Perez illustrates one way of doing so on his website:


One idea he describes there of using the bit of waxed paper to even out the light (eliminating the “bull’s-eye” pattern) is an especially good trick, since just about any red flashlight is likely to create this effect on a piece of paper. I put one of these together and used it for a while, and did very well with it. But being a bit of a klutz (especially at 2am) I managed to snag it on an observing chair, with predictable results. Rather than piece it back together, and to ‘celebrate’ reaching the half century mark a short time later, I indulged in the purchase of something with a lower profile and more robust construction: the Ultra Darklight (http://www.ultradarklight.com/index.html), designed to sit on a clipboard along with the log sheets. This product proved to be just what I needed, and I’ve been sketching by its smooth red glow ever since. As for the price of the thing, well, I have eyepieces in my case that cost more than twice as much. When you think of it in this context (and a dangerous context it is, when you come right to it) and consider how much use I get out of the light on my clipboard, it isn’t a bad investment. But there definitely are cheaper ways of solving this problem, of which that present by Jeremy Perez is only one.

A Special Consideration for the Wearers of Bifocals

I wear bifocals but, lacking any astigmatism, don’t need glasses when I observe. As a result, I’ve equipped myself with eyepieces without much regard for eye relief. Unfortunately, I do need the pesky things to read, write, and sketch. Wearing the glasses so I’d have the near-vision correction available was an awkward solution at times, so I visited my eye doctor and asked what it would cost to make up a pair of specs with just the lower half. He laughed and said, “About fifteen bucks,” and sent me down to a local drug store to buy a pair of cheap reading glasses, of the sort you wear down around the tip of your nose. I had to try on several to find the right correction, and needed a style with low-slung, narrow lenses (for eyepiece clearance), but soon had what I needed. A bit of cord to hang them around my neck when not in use completed this particular fix. Now I can peer into the eyepiece, then look straight down onto the clipboard (which is in focus) and work on a sketch without any hassle. If bifocals have caused you the problem I describe above, here’s your answer.

You Talkin’ To Me?

An alternative to scribbling notes in the dark is to use a small digital voice recorder of some sort. It’s a convenient way to describe the view for later transcription, and is versatile enough to allow spontaneous reactions and impression to be recorded on the spur of the moment. Some amateur astronomers swear by recorders and use them for all note-taking, while others use them to supplement notes taken by hand at their observing tables. For me, the recorder (when I borrowed one as an experiment) offered a way to describe the view without needing to leave the eyepiece, or to balance that clipboard on my knee. I found the spontaneity a recorder allows to be both the strength and the weakness of using such a device. During a long session, as your energy levels fall, words and phrases you utter while gazing through the eyepiece may seem to make perfect sense at the time, but be near gibberish the next day. Especially late at night it’s not a bad idea to play back the recording from time to time, just to double check that you are still making sense. I found that, when I indulged in an all-nighter, a hybrid approach was best. Under such circumstances I used both a recorder and a notebook to cast a wide enough net to catch my thoughts and ideas as my mental energy ran down. While at the eyepiece I used the recorder (unless I was sketching), and when I needed a break I sat down at the table and scribbled a summary of what had passed since the previous rest. In this, as in all matters astronomical of course, “your mileage may vary.”

It is important to follow through on recorded notes as soon as possible. If you were losing some clarity of thought and expression at the time, playing back the tape the next day will likely trigger enough of the memory to fill in the gaps. (This holds true for written notes as well.) Wait a week and you just might find yourself wondering what the lunatic babbling on the tape is going on about.

Of course, using a recorder at a club star party has the additional pit fall of having fellow amateur astronomers in range of your voice. You might find yourself recording conversations instead of notes, as your observing buddies answer comments they think you’ve directed their way. (This is why you won’t see me using one under such circumstances.) And of course, they will assume this. After all, why would you be sitting in the dark talking to yourself when your friends are right there?

For the Record

If you go to any trouble at all making notes and sketches you will certainly want to keep them safe for future reference and enjoyment. How you do so will depend on how you did the work in the first place. I store my log sheets in plastic sheet protectors, held together by an ordinary 3-ring binder. Preceding the log sheets for a given session is a printed copy of the write-up I’ve made from the field notes, giving me an illustrated account of the night. The simple pencil sketches I make on those log sheets seem to be well enough protected, so far showing no signs of smudging or fading. I know sketchers for whom the use of sheet protectors is not enough, due to the various media they employ. What works for a sketch done with a #2 pencil just won’t be adequate for work done in charcoal or pastel. Also, if you work with something other than loose log sheets that can be adapted to a binder, say a bound sketchbook or pad, a sprayed on fixative may be necessary to protect even your pencil sketches. I’ve seen hairspray used, and there are also products available in art supply stores for this very purpose.

If you don’t sketch what you observe, but stick to written notes, you can put them in any suitable binder. Or you can transcribe them into a word processor and dispense with paper and notebooks altogether for your permanent record (though you probably don’t want to be too quick to discard the field notes after doing so). Make backups of these files! And if you own a scanner, consider scanning those sketches and log sheets for storage in an electronic form. The technology to create such backups exists, and if you have access to it use it! A spilled cup of coffee or an unhappy dog could easily mean the painful loss of a lot of hard work, so why take chances?

I push the idea of copies and backups for a good reason, based on personal experience. I first became caught up in amateur astronomy as a serious pursuit as a teenager, and being of a studious nature very quickly began to keep records of my observations. By the time I graduated from high school I had a stack of notebooks full of notes and crude pictures. (There were also notebooks filled with more general observations of natural history.) The computer technology to easily duplicate and store such things did not exist for home use back then, and so I had only the originals, and these were unfortunately disposed of without my knowledge. What I wouldn’t give to have even part of that stack of notebooks back!
Make copies! Keep backups!

Paging the Past

If you start keeping an observing log or journal when you begin to observe, or shortly thereafter, and stay with it for a year or two, leafing back through those log sheets may well surprise you. Whatever you thought you were doing that first night, whatever your plans and objectives, it is very likely that a perusal of those records will show that you have developed in a somewhat different, or even wildly divergent, direction. Seeing the observer you have become in the context of the observer you used to be, or meant to be, can be the most useful and informative aspect of keeping such a log. In addition to helping you make more effective decisions regarding the time and money you spend as an amateur astronomer, it just might show you something of how you learn and grow over time in general. And how many life experiences leave you a clear record of such a thing? The journey of celestial discovery you record then becomes, in a modest way at least, one of self discover as well.


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