Getting started in astrophotography?

You want to get started in astrophotography - what telescope should you get? The answer is simple. Don't get a telescope!

For astrophotography the best beginner telescope is called a camera lens. Almost any DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera can take great astrophotographs of many kinds of targets. With the light weight of a camera, stable tripods and mounts are much lighter and less expensive.

Here's an example of an image made with a camera, tracking mount, tripod, and telephoto lens that cost about $600 (2nd hand).

You need to learn skills and techniques that you don't need for regular photography. The same skills are needed with a telescope, except they are much bigger, heavier, and harder to use. Mistakes while learning are more expensive with a telescope.

There are no good astrophoto "snapshots". Post processing tools are very important for astrophotographers. Any decent looking astrophoto that you see has had significant work done after the image was taken. You will need new software tools and skills with them. It is not unusual to spend 3 to 5 hours processing a typical image. Putting postprocssing aside, It is best to start with a camera you have. A camera, a tripod, and understanding the "rule of 500" to set your exposure time are all that you need to get started.

Below is an image of Orion taken with a point and shoot camera on a fixed tripod.

For images from a fixed tripod the Rule of 500 gives an approximate maximum exposure time before star trails are visible in your image. Divide 500 by the full frame equivalent focal length of your camera lens to get your maximum exposure time in seconds. For a crop sensor APS camera you must multiply the lens focal length by about 1.5 to get the full frame equivalent focal length. For a micro 4/3 sensor use 2 X, for a 1" sensor 2.7 X.

You will usually want to shoot with your aperture set wide open to shorten exposure time, although reducing it a stop or two may increase sharpness. Careful attention to focusing is important. Electronic focusing with aids like magnified image peaking is much easier and more accurate than using an optical SLR focuser. Focus scales on lenses may not be accurate, so check your focus.

Once you've taken your first images you will quickly find that some specific features and additional equipment will help a lot. In rough order of importance:

  • a camera with manual long exposure time settings - A timed, bulb, or at least a 30" exposure speed setting will get you started.
  • a remote release is best to avoid vibration - mechanical, IR, or wireless. Some cameras have a setting for shutter release delay of a few seconds which can substitute for a remote release.
  • a tripod - Start with any that you have, but getting a heavy duty one will be a necessity later.
  • removable camera lenses - If you get started with a point and shoot, you will want to move to a DSLR or mirrorless large sensor camera for better images. Prime lenses give much better quality star images than zooms and there are targets for everything from wide angle to long zoom lenses. Later, if you get a telescope, a camera with the lens removed is easier to mount on a telescope with an adapter.
  • a mirror lock up setting, if you have a DSLR - This prevents camera shake from the mirror slap.
  • electronic first curtain shutter - This feature when set will prevent blurring due to the shutter releasing at the start of an exposure.
  • a tilting camera rear screen with a magnified focus view - Even better, if it has focus peaking, will make it much easier to focus on the small camera view screen.
  • good low light performance - This is measured by things like good low noise and high ISO speed performance. ISO speeds from 400 to 6400 (on new low noise cameras) are typical for astrophotography.
  • a sturdy camera tripod - One suitable for a medium format camera (~20 lb. load) will keep the camera with a telephoto lens or a star tracking mount steady for long exposures.
  • a simple barn door tracker - Easy to make yourself, it will give you the ability to take longer exposures or use a telephoto lens.
  • a motorized tracker will bring dim objects in reach - Quality star trackers can run from $300 to $1000. They vary in size, weight capacity, alignment, and time lapse features.
  • additional head or adjustable wedge for polar alignment If you use a star tracking mount you will want to use a good ball head between the mount and the camera. You will also need a head for polar alignment between the tracking mount and the tripod. A pan and tilt head makes this much easier than a ball head. An adjustable astronomical wedge used here will make drift alignment much easier.
  • lenses for wider or close up images - Expensive features like image stabilization, auto exposure, and auto focusing are useless for astrophotography. You can use manual focus lenses with good glass for a tiny fraction of what new auto-everything lenses or a telescope will cost. Old manual focus DSLR lenses are easily adapted to modern mirrorless cameras, because of short flange to sensor distances.
  • an intervalometer to automate long sequences of exposures can be very helpful. Stand alone units that work with your camera's remote shutter release are inexpensive, but some cameras have this function built in. There are also apps for some cameras and smart phones that can do the job.

Many astrophotographers find that they never need a telescope for imaging. You will want a telescope to image certain types of targets: close up images of the planets or small far away galaxies. The kind of telescope will depend on what you want to image. Starting with a camera first, you will learn the skills needed for the next step and have a better idea of the telescope you need. Be prepared to spend at least 10 times more in time and expense when you do try astrophotography with a telescope.

An excellent resource with lots of tutorials for beginning astrophotographers is Lonely Speck. I've put together a couple of walk throughs of equipment kits I use for photography without a telescope: mirrorless camera with a star tracking drive and a coat pocket astrophotography kit.

Content created: 2016-05-18 and last modified: 2018-01-11




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