The color strikes us the most whenever we see an image of a galaxy or nebula. The pink patch of color in stars, vibrant red and green hues of nebulas, and a blue hint of cosmic dust are sure to leave us in awe!
However, observing any object with your telescope, you’ll be pretty disappointed. You’ll see the objects mostly in a black/white or dark greyish color, far from what you are accustomed to seeing on the internet or in magazines.
Why does this happen? We are going to learn exactly that in this article.
Telescope images seem black and white because at night, when there is low light; our eyes use rod cells to see objects. However, Rod cells can’t reveal a lot of color or details. That’s why it seems black and white when we see something with a telescope at night.
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A Bit Details
Human eyes have two types of cells for sensing colors: rod cells and cone cells. The cone cells help us to see brighter, colorful objects. They need thousands of photons to activate and can reveal many details.
On the other hand, rod cells are activated in low-light situations. So Rod cells can work in a low-light situation with very few photons. However, they can’t reveal many details and colors.
That’s why, when we try to observe anything with our telescope at night, our rod cells get activated because of the low light situation and present us with a dull black and white image.
So, How does the Internet Gets Colorful Images?
There are 2 reasons: long exposure shot and computer enhancement. When NASA takes pictures of celestial objects, it uses long exposure shots. Long exposure shots mean the camera took a lot of time to gather all the light from the celestial object. As a result, the images become more vibrant and colorful as the camera gathers more light in long exposure shots. Unfortunately, we don’t have that advantage with a telescope.
Also, most of these images are further enhanced by computers. Generally, the images are taken in grayscale mode and then colored depending on the level of the gray. In addition, some advanced computers use spectral analysis for further detailed enhancement of each of these photos.
The Internet, NASA, and other magazines have colorful images.
To see the basic difference, here are two images of the same nebula:
What Can We Do?
Since we don’t have any way to gather more light like a camera, there are 2 things we can do to improve the color: use a Barlow lens or a filter. Also, getting a larger telescope will help, but it is not economical or feasible for most beginners.
Using Barlow Lens
In simple words, a Barlow lens is a type of lens used to increase a telescope’s magnification power. It is a concave lens placed between the mirror or objective lens and the eyepiece in a telescope.
Barlow lens comes with many magnification settings, but the most common one is the 2x Barlow lens. The thing the Barlow lens does is it effectively increases the focal length of a telescope. Thus using one can improve the viewing quality of an object.
Using color filters is the cheapest, most effective, and recommended way to observe the night sky with a telescope. Color filters are a type of material that works as a gate for colors. The filter passes a specific range of colors while blocking the rest. By adding a color filter to our telescope, we can enhance the color we want to see and reject the unwanted ones. Thus it can offer us a more detailed view of the object we are trying to see.
How Can Color Filters Improve Image Quality?
The light we see from the objects through our telescope consists of various lights. These lights are generated from a range of wavelengths. Unfortunately, the different wavelengths can interfere, resulting in poor image quality.
What we can do is, enhance only those light wavelengths that we want to see and discard the rest. The way to do that is by using a color filter. When we use a color filter, it isolates only a small portion of the huge light spectrum and enhances that portion. As a result, we can see a more vibrant image with further details.
There are many types of color filters. The one you need to use depends on the object you try to observe.
Here are some of the most popular color filters:
This filter adds a yellowish hue to the image and cuts down the deep blue and violet portion of the spectrum. This filter is mainly used to observe the Moon. The filter can enhance the details of the mountains, craters, and the rilles of the Moon.
The light yellow filter is also used to observe some other planets, like Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. For example, it makes Mars easier to see and identify. Also, the cloud belt of Jupiter and Saturn gets easier to observe with this filter.
Even when observing comets, you can use this filter to see the dust tail.
This filter blocks the spectrum’s violet, blue and green color and adds an orange hue to the images. The orange filter is particularly useful for increasing the contrast of fine details of celestial objects, like the Moon. It also helps to observe the Mars-like previous filter.
With the orange filter, the blueish atmosphere of Jupiter’s atmosphere will get more prominent. You can also observe Mercury or Venus with this filter.
This filer adds a blue hue to the image by blocking the green and red portions. Craters on the Moon, specifically the Maria, can be observed further in detail with this filter. Also, this filter can observe the cloud belts, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, polar ice caps of Mars, and Venus’s shadings.
Which One Should You Get?
Instead of buying separate color filters, I’ll always urge you to get a kit of color filter lenses. These kits are available on Amazon at a very low price. Here you can check out my recommended color filter kit for telescopes on Amazon.
This kit includes 3 types of filters: CPL filters, Moon & Skyglow filters, and lastly, color filters with 5 different colors: yellow, orange, red, blue, and green. This is surely the most feasible color filter kit right now in the market.
There Is Another Solution
Although this is the most effective solution, it is not economically feasible for everybody. The solution is using a camera with your telescope to take long exposure shots. Of course, the camera must be of good quality, preferably a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.
Some people have got good results using a good quality smartphone camera too. But for this, you’ll need additional gadgets such as a cell phone adapter for the telescope, a motorized right ascension, and an app that can allow long exposure shots. But, again, this is unsuitable for beginners, and you must grasp your telescope well.
So this is why telescope images seem black and white to our eyes. If you are new to using a telescope, don’t let this demotivate you. Try out the solutions mentioned in the article, and you’ll start to get better quality images within no time!