Photo contributed by Jim Lemons / The Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula are located within the Orion constellation.

Jim Lemons, 65, has always been up for a challenge. Armed with a career in nuclear engineering and a love for the outdoors, he has worked on space shuttles, volunteered as a scuba diver at the Tennessee Aquarium, gone on RV trips with his wife across the continent and paddled on multi-day camping trips on the Green and Colorado rivers in Utah.

Now, he can add amateur astronomy photographer to his list of accomplishments.

Like many others, Lemons found the stillness of the pandemic a perfect time to try a new hobby. Lemons had always had an interest in astronomy, but he hadn't had time to pursue it until COVID hit.

Around Christmastime last year, his son-in-law mentioned a friend in Pensacola trying to sell off a collection of astronomy equipment that he could no longer use.

"I thought, 'Well, here's my opportunity to get what I need,' which turned out to be pretty naive," Lemons says.

From his son-in-law's friend, Lemons bought an 11-inch Celestron telescope. And not long after, "I realized I'd bit off a little bit more than I could chew," he says.

After doing online research, Lemons realized he had inadvertently bought a telescope that was not for novices.

"When a person's starting out, you really want a wide-angle, low magnification telescope that's easy to focus and image these large objects," says Lemons. "And I'd gone out and bought the worst possible telescope for a beginner to buy."

Due to its high magnification capabilities, his Celestron was better suited for viewing planets, which were closer than the deep-space objects Lemons was interested in — like the gas and matter expelled from exploding stars, known as supernova remnants, and galaxies.

He quickly learned that the Celestron alone wouldn't do. In addition to the telescope, he'd need a proper camera, special equipment to help him focus on deep-space objects, plus a camera mount to help take quality, long-exposure shots.

"I thought you'd take a picture as you would with a camera and you might need to take a long exposure because it's a faint object, but you'd take one and be done. That turned out to not be the case," says Lemons.

Photo Gallery

'Holy crap, it works!': How a Soddy-Daisy man learned to photograph the heavens

In order to take quality pictures of celestial objects, the photographer has to take many pictures — sometimes 200-300 — over the course of anywhere from four to six hours. Then, those photos must be processed using special software — in Lemons' case, AstroPixel — to clean up the photos and ultimately, create a composite image by digitally stacking the pictures on top of each other.

The first time he got out there with all of his equipment, Lemons tried to photograph the Orion Nebula, one of the brightest of its kind in the Milky Way, south of Orion's belt. But it didn't quite go according to plan. His pictures were missing depth and had a lot of unwanted brightness in them.

"It was terrible," he says. "It was pretty depressing."

Over time, though, the more he practiced at his home in Soddy-Daisy, capturing targets several times a week and learning about astrophotography, the better he got at it.

He'll never forget the first time he got a good image of the Orion Nebula and remembers saying, "Holy crap, it works!"

Now, his favorite objects to photograph are still nebulae, which can appear as colorful clouds of dust and gas, often the result of new stars beginning to form or old stars dying. He says he particularly enjoys the side-by-side Christmas Tree cluster and Cone Nebula, comprising a cluster of young stars shaped like a Christmas tree close to the nebula.

When he's shooting, he averages around two hours for observation of his targets. He sets up his telescope just before dark, makes sure it is polar aligned so that the telescope knows where it's pointing, initiates the camera and begins taking pictures, controlling most of the process from his tablet.

"I just like doing activities and adventures outside, and astronomy gives me another excuse to be outside under the beautiful nighttime starry skies," he says.


More Info

For those interested in astronomy but unable or unwilling to pay for equipment, the Jones Observatory at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga might be able to help. Located at 10 Tuxedo Ave., the Jones Observatory is free to the public and offers breathtaking views of Saturn, Mars and other planetary and solar bodies through its telescope, along with a program that lets people visit their planetarium and enjoy a presentation about astronomy. While the Jones Observatory does not do much with astrophotography, the Barnard Astronomical Society of Chattanooga does and might be a resource for those interested in getting started with the topic. For more information on the Jones Observatory, reach out to Jack Pitkin at 423-425-4518 or via email at Please note that due to COVID, the observatory is currently only open to small groups and UTC-affiliated individuals. For more information about the Barnard Astronomical Society, visit


Stargazing Makes a Comeback

Last year on Christmas Day, NASA launched its James Webb telescope, replacing the Hubble, which had first debuted more than 30 years prior. The new telescope is more powerful and can see further into space, and those capabilities are perhaps helping pique interest in astronomy and astrophotography, says Bill Floyd, flight director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Challenger Center, which teaches students STEM subjects through hands-on, often space-related programs.

Chattanooga hobbyist astronomer Mark Whittle has also noticed an increased interest in astrophotography, particularly during the pandemic. Every major astronomy equipment distributor, Whittle says — including his favorite, Astronomics — was sending out notices to customers that they were selling out of stock.

"During the pandemic, so many people were buying telescopes, they were sold out for months," he says.

Whittle says that while he helped a few families trying to find telescopes during the pandemic, he thinks the popularity may wane.

"It seems like it became a popular hobby for those stuck at home, but I don't think it will continue as I think expectations exceeded reality," he says.

Whittle warns that those who may want to take up astronomy as a hobby but are expecting to see the same things they see in astrophotographs, might be disappointed.

"Other than a few bright objects, seeing details require patience and more than a casual glance through a telescope's eyepiece. It can be a disappointing experience if you are expecting to see the same detail as a photograph."

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Jim Lemons with his telescope at his home in Soddy-Daisy.

How much does an astrophotography setup cost? Here's a look at what Jim Lemons spent to get started.

> (Used) 11-inch Celestron cassegrain telescope, a type of reflecting telescope that uses a primary concave and secondary convex mirror in its design: $1,700

> (On sale) Primary camera, used for photographing celestial objects; specialized equipment may be needed to enhance its performance: $1,800

> HyperStar focal reducer, reduces focal length and increases lens speed, which can help reduce exposure time: $1,300

> Auto focuser, helps to get a cleaner image: $200

> Mount, stabilizes the telescope: $1,700

> Guide scope and secondary camera, improves tracking accuracy: $350

> AstroPixel, software used for creating crisp, composite images of astronomical targets after photos are transferred to a computer: $225

> Dew heater, reduces the effects of dew on equipment: $200

> Filters, improve detail and enhance contrast of objects pictured: $900

> Parts to convert scope, alters the field of view of the telescope: $1,500