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Your skills as an observer will gradually improve with practice. No one plays the violin well the first time it's picked up. So it is with the eye-it can be trained to see more.

To that end, it helps to write down what you see. The process of writing it down will prompt you to look for more details, and you will be able to compare what you saw over time, and watch your improvement. Having a log also allows you to know whether or not to go back and look at the object again. A list of favorites might be quite large if the number of objects viewed is even larger.

Sketching is a wonderful thing to do, if you have any artistic skills. A visual impression of a deep-sky object is ALWAYS different than a photograph. Sketching the image will show what can be seen visually. Having multiple sketches will show how your eye has improved, or show how transparency has varied through time.

Here is a sample Observing Log Page template:

Object ID & name: ___ Type:
Constellation_________________ Location: RA__________ Dec____________
Date/Time:_______________________Best Eyepiece/Magnification__________________
SQM Mag:______________ NELM (est)________ Transparency____________

Magnitude (Total Integrated)_______________
Surface Brightness_______________

Apparent Sz (visual impression)___________________________________
Apparent Brightness(visual impression)_____________________________
Apparent Density________________________________Open Clusters/Globular Clusters
Richness (# of stars)______________________________________Open Clusters
Detachment in field____________________________________Open Clusters
Shape(visual impression)________________________________________
Range of Mags_________________________________Open Clusters
Features of note______________________________________
Comments on Field_________________________________________________________
Nature/shape of core____________________________Galaxies/Globular Clusters
Superimposed stars_____________________________Galaxies/Planetary nebulae
Edge definition_________________________________Galaxies/Nebulae
Brightness Gradient_____________________________Galaxies
Best filter______________________________________Nebulae
Central star vis__________________________________Planetary nebulae
Apparent brightness of members____________________Open Cluters/Globular Clusters
Core % of total__________________________________Galaxies/Globular Clusters
Resolution_____________________________________Globular Clusters/Open Clusters
Concentration__________________________________Globular Clusters
Ease of visibility________________________________

  1. Most of the information can be obtained from books or on-line.
  2. Best Eyepiece is whichever of your eyepieces provides the best view-useful if you return to it.
  3. SQM means Sky Quality Meter. This is for the person who has one.
  4. NELM means Naked Eye Limiting magnitude. If you can't estimate this, leave it blank
  5. Transparency can be estimated on many scales. Until you are familiar with those scales, use words such As Clear, Hazy, Some clouds, etc. Look up The Bortle Scale for more info.
  6. Answering the questions appropriate to a particular object will definitely give you a more complete observation than a quick glance. You'll be surprised how much detail you can actually see in most faint objects.


Major star parties, gatherings of hundreds of amateurs, occur all around the US (and world). You can find information about them in any one of several astronomy magazines. Whether at one of these, or just attending one of the local astronomy club's monthly get-togethers, several points of etiquette apply:

  1. Don't use a green laser pointer. These can spoil the photographs of people taking long exposures of faint objects.
  2. Don't use a white flashlight. Use only a red LED light or a regular flashlight with a red cover over the lens. Other astronomers probably won't appreciate having their night vision spoiled by your flashlight.
  3. If you must leave in the middle of the night, prepare for it by parking with your lights facing away from the viewing area. That way, when you leave, you won't disturb the other observers.
  4. Dispose of all trash properly. If there are no trash bins at the site, take all trash and garbage out with you and dispose of it at home.
  5. Don't look through other people's scopes without asking first. Most will want you to take a look, but you can never take that for granted.
  6. Do ask for help if you need it. Many people will willingly help out a fellow astronomer.
  7. Arrive before dark. For the same reason your lights can be a problem when leaving, they can be a problem when arriving. If you must arrive late, park as close to the exit as possible so as to disturb as few people as possible.
  8. Play your music quietly. Many observers value the silence of the night and take unkindly to any music played in their vicinity. You should probably ask those around you if a little low-volume music is OK before you turn it on.
  9. If you will use a laptop in imaging or controlling a computerized scope, follow the Laptop Golden Rules:


Lots of people use laptops in the field, now. The advent of computer programs to control the GoTo scopes, Lunar-Planetary Imagers, Deep-Sky Imagers, and other imaging programs have made their presence at star parties a common thing.

Unfortunately, to the visual-only observer, the very presence of the light from the laptop screens can be annoying and make it impossible to completely dark adapt.

As you wouldn't want someone to shine a bright white light in your eyes when you are observing, following a few simple "golden" rules will make you a welcome neighbor to any visual observer, and a welcome guest at any star party.

Here are the 5 "Laptop Golden Rules" to use at all times:

1. Place your laptop in a 5-sided box where the only side open allows only you to view the screen. This will keep dew off the keyboard, keep the laptop warmer (better battery life) and restrict the viewing angle so your neighbors will not be bothered.

2. Reduce the brightness of the screen to the minimum you can see comfortably. Remember, if someone can see the light on your face from 50' away, it is probably too bright. This will also save your battery and your night vision.

3. Use your laptop in "Night Mode". Most programs have an all-red night mode. Always use it.

4. Have the screen saver turn the screen off after 60 seconds of inactivity (this will save your battery) or hang a black cloth over the front of the box and cover the screen when you are not looking.

5. Use a screen brightness reducer like the "Sight Saver" or a piece of dark red Plexiglas so the image from your screen is as deep red as an LED flashlight.

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