Getting Started in Deep-Sky Astrophotography

It’s that point of year when my inbox is stuffed with notices of gross sales at my favourite astro-vendors: “Act now while supplies last!” Yeah, stuff is tough to search out lately, but in addition probably the greatest gross sales strategies is the “principle of scarcity.” It places everybody in set off mode, with their bank cards prepared for something they’ll discover.

What a good time to get into astrophotography, proper? Right!?

What it’s a good time for, is a few getting-started recommendation, particularly if you’re in the temper to spend a pile of cash, with visions of galaxies and nebulae dancing in your head.

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The most necessary factor I can let you know is that astrophotography is a talent, similar to golf, bowling, skateboarding, and many others. You cannot merely purchase the costliest, top-shelf gear and get nice outcomes immediately. You’re going to must follow, and you’re going to must be affected person. Not simply with new, presumably difficult gear and software program, but in addition with the climate, alternatives, the boundaries of the place you might be situated, and presumably the atmosphere. Astrophotography builds character. Someone ought to put that on a T-shirt!

First Up: The Tripod

Camera on a tripod
A sturdy tripod is all it’s worthwhile to repurpose your current digital camera gear for astrophotography.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

Many individuals begin their passion of newbie astronomy by leaping proper into astrophotography as a result of they’re already into pictures. This is comprehensible, and if you happen to’re in this group, the most effective way to make the subsequent step over to astrophotography is to start out capturing nightscapes and wide-field stellar vistas.

You probably have already got a digital camera with guide controls, and interchangeable lenses. Your very subsequent buy must be a sturdy tripod. Spare no expense on this funding, as it will possibly final you a lifetime. You need one thing with a sturdy head that is straightforward to regulate whereas nonetheless being light-weight and simple to journey with. You can do nice work with a digital camera on a tripod, and you’ll study the fundamentals of low-light imaging at “infinity and beyond.” You’ll additionally study the evening sky alongside the way.

Milky Way over the Very Long Baseline Array in Texas
A quick, wide-angle lens on a tripod can seize gorgeous vistas of the Milky Way from dark-sky areas.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

A Step Up: “Fast” Lenses, Star Trackers & More

Next up, you might wish to make investments in some “quick” glass. Lenses with focal ratios of f/2.8 or faster can take stunning Milky Way images in just a few seconds.

Camera with a fast lens
A large angle quick lens resembling this f/1.4 Sigma are extra reasonably priced than ever and might do improbable work in only a few seconds on a tripod.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

The subsequent stage of mastery comes with an funding in a star-tracker platform with the intention to take even longer exposures with longer-focal-length lenses. Many deep-sky objects are surprisingly massive, and an 85-mm lens on a star tracker can seize superb wide-field photos of total constellations or sections of the Milky Way.

Intervalometer Image
Some star monitoring platforms embody the power to hook up with your digital camera and fireplace the shutter. If not, an intervalometer is a should have accent.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

You’ll want a shutter-release cable or an intervalometer to increase your digital camera’s publicity restrict previous 30 seconds, however some star trackers include a built-in set off mechanism, which can make a separate system pointless. Many individuals cease right here, and who is aware of, you might nicely be the subsequent nice The World at Night (TWAN) photographer!

If you want even more image scale for deep-sky work, you’re going to need a longer focal length, which means a telescope on a tracking mount designed for long-exposure astrophotography. Just like with a tripod, spare no expense on a high-quality telescope mount. The best optics, camera, or skills in the world will be for naught if you cannot track the sky accurately and smoothly.

Sky Tracker
A star monitoring platform will enormously lengthen a digital camera’s capabilities for lengthy exposures and might simply be taken nearly wherever.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

If you skipped the nightscape stage and are leaping proper into utilizing a telescope on a big monitoring mount, it is best if you happen to turn into accustomed to easy methods to use your telescope system and easy methods to navigate the evening sky. Polar alignment, celestial coordinates, and collimation aren’t trivial topics, so mastering these first will prevent quite a lot of complications later.

Image of the Andromeda Galaxy
A small 80mm refractor and a color camera can capture images like this from a dark location.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

Regardless of your experience, deep-sky astrophotography is easier when you start with a small telescope that has a short focal length of around 400 mm to 600 mm. Focal ratio is virtually meaningless for visual astronomy, but in deep-sky astro-imaging a focal ratio of f/7 is good to start off with, though f/5 or f/4 are even better. The reason here is that short focal lengths are very forgiving, and you can obtain good results on your favorite objects quickly with a fast focal ratio lens than with a slow one.

The best beginner telescope for astrophotography in my opinion is a short small refractor, with an aperture of 80 mm to 100 mm, and a focal length of 600mm or less. A small refractor is portable, forgiving, and can deliver very high-contrast images without a lot of fuss beyond obtaining a good focus.

Small scope system
A small refractor is the best system for a beginner wanting to do deep sky astrophotography. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but if you want a premium system, vendors are more than happy to oblige.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

Inch for inch, a very high quality refactor can’t be beat. However, without breaking the bank, a small Newtonian reflector is a great compromise. Far less expensive, a good Newtonian reflector will outperform a midrange refractor of the same size. You will, however, need to master optical collimation (to precisely align its mirrors) or your images will be of poor quality. A must-have accessory for any Newtonian owner is a good collimating tool.

What about a camera? Putting a DSLR or mirrorless camera on the focuser of a telescope is perhaps the easiest entry point. Your next growth step after that is a cooled camera, either monochrome with a filter wheel or a one-shot color camera, like the one you may already be used to using but more sensitive. I think processing black-and-white images is far easier and still quite beautiful on its own, but if you’re graduating from a DSLR/mirrorless camera, you already have the color workflow down.

Next month I’ll talk about telescopes with long focal lengths and gear that’s better suited for those who want to shoot the planets, the Moon, or even the Sun!


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