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How to become a better observer

Beginner Observing
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#1 CarolinaBanker

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Posted 26 February 2021 - 11:36 PM

I’m wondering how does one become a better observer? What helped you along the way? I already have a general sense of the seasonal sky (in terms of constellations), I observe most clear nights and I have read Turn Left at Orion. 


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#2 KBHornblower

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Posted 26 February 2021 - 11:52 PM

I’m wondering how does one become a better observer? What helped you along the way? I already have a general sense of the seasonal sky (in terms of constellations), I observe most clear nights and I have read Turn Left at Orion. 

The same way an aspiring musician gets to Carnegie Hall.  Practice, practice, practice.  Repetitions are your friend, and you have a good book to help you.


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#3 Gary Riley

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Posted 26 February 2021 - 11:57 PM

Practice, practice, practice! Seriously, the more you can get out and observe, the better you will become at it. It truly is an art. Don’t get in a hurry to try and see a hundred objects in one night. Take your time and carefully study the object you have in the eyepiece. Use adverted vision too. This can help you see fainter detail. Try different magnifications to see if you are able to see more detail or not. And with certain type of nebulae, try using filters, such as a UHC or OIII filter that can help bring out certain features better. And above all, have fun!
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#4 Alrakis

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 12:58 AM

Try this

 

https://www.handprin...O/bineye1.html 

 

Chris 



#5 CarolinaBanker

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 12:59 AM

Try this

https://www.handprin...O/bineye1.html

Chris


Unfortunately I get a 404 error when I try to click through.

#6 Scoper47

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 12:59 AM

So right Gary,  I have been honing these observing skills since I started DSO observing in the 1980's. The more I observe the more detail I see in dso's. and the fainter the dso's I can see.    In addition to trying different magnifications and filters, dark clear skies really help if you have access to them. 

And don't listen to the naysayers who tell you that you can't see this or that with the scope you use.


Edited by Scoper47, 27 February 2021 - 01:03 AM.

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#7 TOMDEY

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 01:25 AM

I'm always thumping on this annoying but most-neglected contributor to improved observing >>> eye health and maintenance.

 

>protect your eyes from environmental damage

    - safety glasses when at risk of injury

    - glasses with UV-protective coatings

    - darkest sunglasses when out in bright sunlight

>good diet, exercise, weight-control

>regular (annual) complete/professional eye exams

>current, good high-end corrective eyewear (glasses or contacts)

>cataracts --- seriously consider getting them addressed

>severe astigmatism, myopia or hyperopia --- seriously consider Lasik or PRK

>severe occlusions --- seriously consider vitrectomy

>retinal issues --- follow doctor's consul

 

The eyes have it. They are our most important and most neglected sensory organs. We just assume they will work fine forever... until we notice they don't. And with nearly all of us, we let the natural geriatric degradation (which kicks in with a vengeance around age 35) to just coast downhill, without professional monitoring, until it becomes severe. Most astronomers will gladly pay hundreds or more for a single eyepiece... yet balk at a $50 copay for a good eye exam.    Tom

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Edited by TOMDEY, 27 February 2021 - 01:31 AM.

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#8 Alrakis

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 02:33 AM

https://www.handprin...RO/bineye1.html

 

Try this

 

And yes, get those eyes examined! 

 

Chris 



#9 Alrakis

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 02:34 AM

Also, on the question of our eyes, I wonder what effect looks at monitors (TVs, computers, cell phones) has on our vision for astronomy. 

 

Chris 



#10 juggle5

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 04:04 AM

Agree with Gary not to hurry; take time to study your targets.  I recommend sketching as a great way to do this.

 

I've also found that the AL observing programs have also been helpful. They give lots of targets to practice, and some programs help direct you towards different things to look for.  For example, when looking at an open cluster, is it concentrated? Do the stars have a range of magnitudes? How many stars are there?


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#11 sg6

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 04:17 AM

I have absolutely no idea.

Can you observe "better" ? Well I suppose that better quality equipment is likely the first option. Not "bigger" but "better".

 

Knowledge is maybe in there - Do you KNOW what you are looking at, what it is, how it came about, what its end will be?

 

Betelguese is a possible example: People know it is a big red star, most would follow a Red Giant Star, and that is the end for the vast majority.

 

How has it become a Red Giant, what did it start as, why is it a red giant now, what will happen to it and what will it become.

 

However is that "observing" ?

 

My best guess would be: Better quality of equipment and knowledge. Maybe lol.gif



#12 Allan Wade

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 05:06 AM

The obvious one, which has been mentioned several times already, is practice. All observers have had objects they couldn’t see to begin with, but later were able to observe. That just comes from building experience and knowledge. I once spent 3 years trying to see one target before succeeding, and I would have never done that without the knowledge gained from all the failures.

 

The best way to see more in any object is to sketch it. When I do sketches, I would spend at least an hour and sometimes many hours on the object. I don’t know anyone, myself included who would spend an hour or three looking at just one object. I’ve long moved onto the next target by then. If you don’t want to sketch, write detailed notes. They can take some time to do with several back and forth looks through the eyepiece and I always keep seeing more doing that.

 

Go to star parties. While I rarely see much challenging observing at star parties, the experience gained from observing with others and a huge range of different equipment will improve your observing.

 

Personally I’m a much better observer for spending my time under dark skies with larger scopes. The number of challenging objects to observe goes up exponentially. I’ve never had the inclination to do threshold observing in my small refractors, but that’s some of the observing I enjoy most with my larger scopes. Observing at the limit of what you’re capable of with your scope is the way forward to find a new limit. I don’t advocate getting a bigger scope, but I definitely suggest getting to darker skies will improve your skill.


Edited by Allan Wade, 27 February 2021 - 05:06 AM.

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#13 Tony Flanders

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 06:21 AM

I’m wondering how does one become a better observer? What helped you along the way? I already have a general sense of the seasonal sky (in terms of constellations), I observe most clear nights and I have read Turn Left at Orion. 

That's a very good question. First, I would distinguish between things like knowing the sky and star-hopping skill on the one hand versus observing skill on the other hand. They're both useful, but they do different jobs. You can be a great star-hopper and a poor observer, and you can know nothing about the naked-eye sky, find all your targets with Go To, and be a great observer. Or both or -- most often -- neither, of course.

 

I spend a great deal of time honing my observing skills. The first thing is to actually note what you see -- either in the form of sketches or in words, or both. How big is it? What is its shape? How is it oriented? Is it regular or irregular? Are some parts brighter than others? Does it have distinguishing features? What makes it different from other objects of the same class? If it's a star cluster, how many stars can I see? Are they of uniform brightness, or are some much brighter than others?

 

Then, the day after, I compare my notes against what other people have seen in the same object. There are lots of online observing notes -- my own Urban/Suburban Messier Guide being one example that's useful to many beginners. For experts, Steve Gottlieb's notes in the NGC and IC catalogs are a gold standard.

 

And then there are printed notes and sketches. Turn Left at Orion is excellent in that regard. Reading the book in your armchair can be useful, but it's at its best when you're actually using it out in the field. How do the sketches in that book compare with what you're seeing? Do they show stuff that you missed? Now that you know it's there, can you see it if you go back and look a second time?

Photos are also extremely useful, especially for the fine art of training yourself to see details that are just barely visible without seeing things that are in fact not there at all. The history of astronomy is littered with false observations by people who were trying just a bit too hard, Percival Lowell's Martian canals being perhaps the most famous and important example. Comparing your observations against photos is one excellent way to distinguish what's real from what's illusory.


Edited by Tony Flanders, 27 February 2021 - 06:22 AM.

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#14 bthrel

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 06:45 AM

Great site/Blog Tony, bookmarked it and will use it as I work through the Messier list this year... Had to chuckle at your "the point-and-hope method' already using it and didn't know the official name smile.gif

 

Brian


Edited by bthrel, 27 February 2021 - 06:46 AM.


#15 TOMDEY

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 09:31 AM

Also, on the question of our eyes, I wonder what effect looks at monitors (TVs, computers, cell phones) has on our vision for astronomy. 

 

Chris 

Hi, Chris! I worked at the U or Rochester (NY) Boynton Center for Physiological Optics (as a precocious teen Igor Intern) back in the early/mid 1960s. One of my assignments was running experiments where we shined bright truck headlamps in subjects faces and then they frenetically searched/counted dim little random circles, triangles and squares on a display screen. The most interesting determination of that study was that the Night Vision Impairment lasted --- for many weeks before drifting back to their personal pre-exposure baseline. Other studies preceded and followed. It is now very clear that exposure to bright lights impairs Scotopic Night Vision ... for at least weeks or months. Think of your eyes as you do your ears. Persistent exposure to Noise leads to irreversible tinnitus --- which impairment people deny until it becomes severe. Protect your eyes before it's too late. Just shunning bright light exposure is actually easy to accomplish. The worst cumulative damage comes from habitually driving "into the sun". If your commute does that to you... consider adjusting your schedule to earlier/later.    Tom

 

[The Psychology Department paid me $1.75/hour for my Igor work. I got to hang out with the faculty and grad candidates in the lounge and learned a Lot about how Science is done, and to sit in on classes and lectures at no cost. They treated me as an equal, which pleased and astonished me. I'm forever grateful for that opportunity. The rest is history!]

 

PS: I keep my monitors' brightness at min most of the time.


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#16 Sketcher

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 12:14 PM

Using small aperture, low quality optics work on seeing all that you can by getting out and observing as much as is practical for you.  Take your time and sketch what you see -- not the 'big easy stuff' but the faintest details you can make out in DSOs, the dimmest stars you can make out, the finest solar, lunar, and planetary details you can make out.  In time, you'll end up seeing more with the same equipment.  You'll become a better observer.

 

I've lost count (not really, I never actually began making a count); but I've often seen sketches made by observers using telescopes of several times the apertures necessary to see all that their sketches have shown.  I mean seriously, if you're going to sketch using a telescope that's capable of showing finer details, then show those finer details.  Otherwise you might just as well stick with that 50mm Galileoscope (or an even smaller scope) and forget about pretending to make serious use of that 8-incher.

 

It's easier to train and hone your observing skills by using inferior equipment.  I've heard old, experienced "experts" dismiss observing details in the Venusian atmosphere with their humongous light buckets ("nothing to see on Venus except the phase") with their expensive, custom-made optics while far poorer observers using far less capable equipment end up seeing more, despite the glow of out-of-focus colors around the planet.  Better equipment has nothing at all to do with being a better observer.

 

Buying the best equipment isn't the solution.  Yes, in the short run you'll see more; but that's not the same thing as being a better observer.  A better observer, using the same equipment, would be able to see even more.  But if you start out with the best and the biggest you'll be less motivated to develop your observing skills -- because you'll be able to see enough to be content -- without having to become a better observer.

 

But don't take my word for it.  After all, I'm just some anonymous forum member (who's likely to drop out of the forum on any day).  From The Amateur Astronomer's Handbook by James Muirden (1974, 1968) page 24:

 

It's a frequent and natural wish of the beginner to lay his hands on as large a telescope as possible, in the belief that he will see more; but this is a grave mistake.  All the greatest observers started out with modest equipment, and it was in the process of overcoming its drawbacks that they trained themselves to excel in the art of observation.  This is a vital point . . .

 

Do you want to become a better observer or do you just want to see stuff while putting forth minimal effort?  There's a big difference between these two options.

 

So yes, practice is very important; but some forms of practice are better and of greater benefit than others.

 

Use second-rate equipment.  Use smaller apertures.  Pay the greatest attention to the most barely visible of details.  Sketch what you see.  (Yes, it's possible to sketch using words; and that's certainly better than not "sketching" at all; but actual drawings combined with written notes is even better.)

 

As with equipment, darker skies doesn't correlate to being a better observer.  Observing sites with better seeing doesn't correlate with being a better observer.

 

Becoming a better observer means the development of one's personal skills in observation, an increased ability to make out details that lie in the direct line of sight of any observer; but details that only the more skilled observer will end up actually "seeing" when using the same telescope, the same eyepiece, under the same sky conditions, while observing (in the case of the more skilled observer) or when looking (in the case of the less skilled looker.

 

It will take some serious dedication and work to develop the necessary skills.  It will involve going to places (figuratively) that most of us CloudyNights people avoid.like a pandemic.  Most prefer to see more by purchasing better equipment; but the better observer wins no matter what equipment they chose to use.


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#17 alphatripleplus

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 01:14 PM

True that practice is important, but good eyesight should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, although we can devote more time to practice, we are stuck with whatever eyesight we have.


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#18 Marvin Jenkins

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 01:43 PM

A very interesting thread and very emotive question, as it means different things to different observers. Rarely am I in agreement with all of the above but this time I am and not only that, I recognise myself in some of the shortcomings outlined in the responses.

 

I find myself saying “yeh, I only use a six inch newt, so I am clearly trying much harder than those with a wad of cash to make a large aperture purchase”. On the other hand I have my average newt on a Goto EQ mount so cheat finding the target.

I can confess to bagging half of the Messier’s in one night without the knowledge needed to find them without the Goto! In that respect I realise I am rushing things and should spend a lot more time actually observing. For me personally, I found that Goto showed me where everything is up there, like a directional tutor as I have no one to observe with.

 

The above paragraph shows that many of us learn in many different ways. I have only been observing for three years, so my enthusiasm to see as much as possible has probably meant I have seen the most with the least amount of detail.

 

Only recently I managed to see the E star in The Great Orion Nebula for the first time. I took my time, worked through the cooling down stage instead of getting stuck in after one minute. It would seem patience is a virtue, who would thought it?

 

Marvin


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#19 VeraZwicky

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 04:25 PM

There's so many different ways to go with observation. It's fine to go broad in your interest but sometimes it's also smart to develop a niche as you develop, such as studying open clusters or nebulae. I'm a big believer in the mentorship system. Finding an expert who has mastered the direction you want to go in and patterning your approach on their behavior or better yet, learning directly from them, can be a fast track towards mastery. 


Edited by VeraZwicky, 27 February 2021 - 04:25 PM.

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#20 CarolinaBanker

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 05:58 PM

There's so many different ways to go with observation. It's fine to go broad in your interest but sometimes it's also smart to develop a niche as you develop, such as studying open clusters or nebulae. I'm a big believer in the mentorship system. Finding an expert who has mastered the direction you want to go in and patterning your approach on their behavior or better yet, learning directly from them, can be a fast track towards mastery. 

Given the amount of light pollution where I am located, open clusters make a great deal of sense. Intrinsically, they’re beautiful. I’m always stunned by the Pleiades, they look like diamonds arrayed on black velvet or against a midnight blue sea. Even the clusters that are smaller and less obvious are gems to be unlocked.


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#21 Dave Mitsky

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 06:10 PM

You may find some of the information on astronomy, amateur astronomy, and observing presented in my post (#22) at https://www.cloudyni...mers/?p=5184287 useful, Carolina.  There are sections on various books, observing guides, stellar atlases, planetarium programs, astronomy apps, observing tips, and object lists.  There's also a section on urban astronomy.


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#22 CarolinaBanker

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 06:20 PM

You may find some of the information on astronomy, amateur astronomy, and observing presented in my post (#22) at https://www.cloudyni...mers/?p=5184287 useful, Carolina.  There are sections on various books, observing guides, stellar atlases, planetarium programs, astronomy apps, observing tips, and object lists.  There's also a section on urban astronomy.

That is a great post, I actually bookmarked it even before I joined the forums. I bought and have used Touring the Universe Through Binoculars as well as Turn Left at Orion. I wanted to buy some of the others, but a lot were Willman-Bell titles and have become exceedingly dear.



#23 Jon Isaacs

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 06:23 PM

There's so many different ways to go with observation. It's fine to go broad in your interest but sometimes it's also smart to develop a niche as you develop, such as studying open clusters or nebulae. I'm a big believer in the mentorship system. Finding an expert who has mastered the direction you want to go in and patterning your approach on their behavior or better yet, learning directly from them, can be a fast track towards mastery. 

 

I think it's important to find your own path. In my mind, what distinguishes a beginning observer from a more advanced observer is that the more advanced observer has discovered what they enjoy and something about equipment they find satisfying..

 

It's not a job, it's recreation, if you're doing it right, it's fun, you're learning, growing. It's a lifelong journey.. if you want to be doing it 20 years from now, take it easy, enjoy the ride. 

 

Lots of good suggestions but find your own way.. 

 

Jon


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#24 Dave Mitsky

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 06:52 PM

That is a great post, I actually bookmarked it even before I joined the forums. I bought and have used Touring the Universe Through Binoculars as well as Turn Left at Orion. I wanted to buy some of the others, but a lot were Willman-Bell titles and have become exceedingly dear.

Thanks!

Yes, they certainly have, just like when Atlas of the Moon by Antonin Rükl went out of print.



#25 Dave Mitsky

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Posted 27 February 2021 - 07:03 PM

There are some used copies of Star-Hopping for Backyard Astronomers by Alan M. MacRobert available at reasonable prices at the moment.  This is quite a good book on star-hopping even though it's a bit short page-wise.

https://www.amazon.c...t/dp/0933346689


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