Reprocessed a few times with DeepSkyStacker. Tweaking the final result is a real PITA, but when you figure out how to do it right, the results are much better:
I dunno if my experience is relevant, but I held out for as long as I could before I got a tracking mount. You can do good stuff with short exposures if you go through the proper motions of dark and flat frames, and stacking a lot. Dark skies/astro filters probably make the most difference beyond that. I do all my aligning and stacking by hand in Gimp (I'm not sure any of the good free astro stack/align software is available for Macs, but anyhow that's what I'm used to now). Having said that, a tracking mount can push things further than anything.
You can extract a certain degree of quality from non-tracked stacking, but there is a limit. With short exposures, you have a very low signal strength. While you can improve SNR with stacking, you can't improve the actual image signal strength beyond a certain point, so you can never get the nice fine detail that a long exposure gets you. I've spent about two months now trying...and the shot above is about as good as I think I'll be able to do without tracking (or exceptionally dark skies, which are really rare and hard to find.)
I have done a fair amount of manual stacking in Photoshop, and the results can be quite good. Stacking software, especially the more complicated versions like DSS, Nebulosity, etc. are much more capable, but they have a high learning curve, and often their toolsets are difficult to use. I have avoided DSS up till now, but I just spent the bulk of the day working on the shot above, and I think I finally have it figured out. It's a bit noisy (it got much too cold last night, and I packed it in before I took dark frames and bias frames), but that can easily be delt with.
Exposure times of tens of seconds up to minutes can be transformative.
Indeed! I can't wait to get my hands on the Celestron EdgeHD 11" CGEM DX. I had my eyes on a 5D III for my next photography, but I think I'm going to move the telescope to the top of my list. I am curious to see how the 7D II turns out, and for astrophotography, no DSLR will really do what I want, so I'm planning on getting a monochrome CCD with the biggest pixels I can find (probably around 9µm to 9.5µm, or perhaps 5µm with the option to 2x2 bin) an dual-stage peltier cooling (which gets you up to around 77% Q.E.) I'll then be able to filter Ha, Hb, Luma, R, G, B, and any other bands independently, and blend them in post for very high detailed, full-color wide band images.
It's -33C here tonight.... I'm not terribly worried about peltier cooling
I have an 8" Celestron with a tracking mount.... I have tried the 60D on it, but there is WAY to much noise... My friend's 5D2 work's much better, but it is an hour's drive away and that rules it out most of the time...
If you have a tracking mount, you should be able to do worlds better than I can with the 60D. You could expose for minutes, which would create a very strong signal. You could then stack, and median averaging or something like Kappa-Sigma clipping in DSS would clean up the noise right away. I think your selling your 60D a bit short. My shots are about as good as I can do with a 7D right now because I lack a tracking mount...if I had one, I guarantee you I'd be making MUCH better shots.
There is no question that a FF sensor would do better, but the problem with the 7D (or any Canon 18mp APS-C body) with non-tracked shots is the fact that they have pitifully low signal and crappy read noise. If you can make the signal strength 100 - 1000 times more powerful, then even Canon's 18mp APS-C bodies will do very well (I've seen a lot of exceptional astrophotography from the lowly rebel series when they are used on tracking mounts.) You should give your 60D another try, and do something like 30x10 minute exposures (five full hours of tracked exposure)...I would bet the results would blow anything I've posted here WAY out of the water.
I have been thinking of getting one of these.... http://focusscientific.com/osCommerce/catalog/product_info.php/cPath/94_47/products_id/649
For a first astrophotography camera, I suspect I'll get the Celestron Nightscape CCD. I've seen some truly amazing images made from it, and it isn't too terribly pricey (around $1500 most of the time.)
The cameras I really want in the long run, though, are these beauties:QHY11 FF Monochrome
Full frame, 11mp, huge 9µm pixels, monochrome, FWC ~= 6D or 5D III (around 60ke-) with Kodak CCD, read noise ~13e-.QHY23 Monochrome
APS-C, 9mp, small 3.69µm pixels, supports 2x2 and 4x4 binning (7.38µm and 14.76µm effective pixel sizes), highest Q.E. on the market for an astro CCD @ 77% (visible green, 60% Ha & 70% Violet/Ultraviolet), FWC ~= 7D/60D/Canon 18mp APS-C (around 20ke-) with Sony CCD, read noise ~5e-.
I figure I would want both, depending on the thing I am imaging and how finely I want to delineate detail. Probably years away from getting either...the FF one is $4000, and the cropped one is $3000.
I am sure the Celestron Nightscape will do in the interim. The one thing that seems strange to me is the readout rate of most CCD astro cameras. The often list the readout rate at Xmegapixels per second, and usually that X is significantly lower than the total megapixels on the sensor. So, for an 11mp sensor with a 1mp/s readout rate, it would take a full 11 seconds to read out the whole sensor. For the 9mp sensor, it would take over 7 seconds to read out the whole sensor. I suspect that has to do with maintaining low read noise...but it was still surprising.