Starting out as an astrophotographer must feel exciting; you’re just about to embark on an endless adventure laden with treasures of the sky, but where should you begin? There are several schools of thought when it comes to ‘where’ you should begin your journey gear-wise, and what’s puzzling about it is that there are no rights and wrongs.
However, a completely inexperienced beginner is lucky – the starting setup is always a budget one and you won’t need a small fortune to get on your feet. Let’s start at the very beginning.
Astrophotography Equipment – 5 Things You Need
When it comes to astrophotography, many people think that the key components are the telescope and the camera. This is true, but there are other vital parts of any astronomy setup – none more so than the telescope mount you use, and the lens you attach to your camera.
Most photographers ‘convert’ into astrophotographers once they realize that their DSLR cameras can actually take quality images of the sky. As a matter of fact, you may even take up the lens of your camera and mount it to your telescope later on to save some cash.
Now, there are numerous types of photography cameras of which only a handful are suitable for astrophotography. Smartphone cameras are out of the question, Polaroid cameras are virtually useless in this case, and you won’t be able to get the most out of your sky photos taken with a medium-format camera. That being said, your best option is to go with a DSLR cam.
As a beginner, you will be completely fine with the stock lens that your camera originally comes supplied with. However, your thirst for more detail will expand and urge you to upgrade sooner or later.
Choosing a lens is, believe it or not, often harder than choosing a full camera outfit. Basically, you’ll want to be a bit pickier with this because different brands offer different kinds of technologies and features; Canon, for example, offers Image Stabilization tech, which is perfect for astrophotography; on another hand, Tamron’s Vibration Compensation or Sony’s Optical Steady Shot is more suited for shooting photos of wildlife or people.
Lenses come outfitted with different focal lengths, apertures, and mounts, but since you are going to switch over to a telescope at one point, you don’t need to research these aspects so thoroughly if you don’t have time or will to do so.
In short, the FL of a lens affects its ability to converge (or diverge) in contact with light; the aperture is basically your ‘scope’, and the lens mount builds a link between the camera’s frame and the lens.
The ‘meat and bones’ of astrophotography is the telescope. Since this particular type of gear often costs thousands of dollars, beginners usually tend to save up for months and often spend twice as much time deciding which model to start with.
To gain a better perspective about what you’re diving into, let’s start by explaining the two major telescope types, their advantages, and their disadvantages. This way, you can get the best astrophotography telescope for your needs.
A ‘refractor’ is the original telescope design meant to gather and then focus the absorbed light. They’re smaller and cheaper than ‘reflectors’, which are basically synonymous with ‘professional’ telescopes.
- Rugged construction; after initially aligning them refractors are almost ‘impervious’ to all manners of misalignment in comparison to reflectors
- Simple maintenance due to glass surface within the tube being atmospherically sealed
- Superior long-term durability; refractors are highly resistant to climate and temperature changes
- Every refractor telescope is followed by a phenomenon referred to as ‘chromatic aberration’; this means that you’ll always see a full spectrum of colors around objects you are looking at
- UV light can’t pass through a lens of a refractor telescope
- The quality of image gradually decreases as you delve deeper into Deep Sky
The main difference between reflectors and refractors is that the former utilizes a mirror rather than a standard lens. This completely eliminates chromatic aberration, which results in clearer images with more detail to them.
- Obviously, the ‘loss’ of chromatic aberration is the biggest advantage reflectors have over refractors.
- No loss of image quality regardless of distance
- UV light easily passes through, providing a more authentic observational experience
- Optics easily misalign
- Reflectors are typically more expensive than refractors
- Harder to maintain and clean by the long run
When it comes to telescopes for astrophotography of deep sky objects, personally I think that an apochromatic refractor is the best option for beginners. They’re a little more expensive than your average reflector, but they have the ability to completely get rid of any chromatic aberration, which can completely destroy the photos that you take.
For deep sky astrophotography, they’re probably the best option if you’re going to use a DSLR. You can usually pick one up for $1000, which is pretty reasonable considering their capabilities.
4. Telescope Mount
A mount is just as important as the telescope; it affects how stable the telescope is and how easily it is to use it in general. Telescope mounts should not be confused with ‘camera’ mounts; with this out of the way, there are two main types of telescope mounts – the Altazimuth and Equatorial mounts.
The Altazimuth design is not best-suited for use in astrophotography, although it’s great for casual observation of celestial objects; the scope can simultaneously move in altitude, as well as in azimuth, allowing you to seamlessly navigate the skies.
Every equatorial mount is outfitted with a special mechanism that compensates the earth’s rotation with one axis being parallel to the axis of the Earth’s rotation. The Equatorial mount is better for astrophotography in the sense that it offers more stability, consistency, and reliability.
5. Computer software – image processing
Observing the night sky and celestial objects is the fun part; the tricky part is processing your images with your computer (or laptop). You’ll have a variety of programs at your disposal, including a myriad of smartphone applications and PC-based software.
Browse through online stores and marketplaces to see what different programs have to offer; we suggest starting out with DeepSkyStacker, Cartes Du Ciel or Stellarium.
Simply put, the more gear you have, the more gear you’ll want to upgrade your setup. That’s why starting out as an astrophotographer is so magical – you’ll get to marvel at the little things and find comfort and joy with the simplest discoveries.
As you go, you’ll expand your setup with dozens of lenses, better mounts, and a PC full of programs, but in a nutshell, all you need is a camera, a decent lens, a telescope, and a stable equatorial mount. Everything else is pretty much luxury, but if you ever wish to go pro, sticking to the basics won’t help much.