Astrophotography Equipment For Beginners (Essentials Only)
Updated: Mar 22, 2020
I have a lot of hobbies and astrophotography is perhaps the most difficult one. However, the reward of getting that one perfect shot of a nebula you have been trying to capture for weeks is worth every second of effort you poured into it. The feeling of accomplishment and awe that accompanies astrophotography is so addicting and I can guarantee, it will get you hooked.
After initially getting my first telescope which was a Celestron Astromaster 130EQ, it wasn’t long before I started wanting to capture what I was seeing through the telescope. Given the scope and mount I was using, this was mainly limited to the moon. I was able to capture some of the larger planets such as Saturn and Jupiter, however, with a larger telescope and a very shaky mount such as what I was trying to work with, deep space astrophotography was near impossible.
Being a beginner in this field of photography can be extremely daunting. After learning and becoming more experienced with astrophotography I went back and watched some “beginner,” videos and found they are extremely overwhelming and full of unnecessary information. It was quite off putting actually. One very solid video which I found and really recommend you watch is by someone on YouTube named AstroBackyard and you can check out his video HERE. He is super passionate about astrophotography and definitely has some great content you can learn from!
What Equipment Do I Need?
So what do you need to take astrophotography photos? In short you need these four items:
Camera With Full Manual Control (DSLR)
Lens Or Telescope
Good Quality Tracking Mount
That is it. That is all you need to get started. There are a million other gadgets which this person recommends and this “essential,” equipment that person recommends. That can all come later though because it isn’t required!
Starting off with the camera lets discuss why you can’t use your iPhone or a simple compact, point and shoot camera. Astrophotography requires the manipulation of a lot of camera settings such as your aperture, ISO, shutter speed etc. Point and shoot cameras often may not support these adjustments or may not provide a good enough standard to use.
So what DSLR should you get? There are an endless amount of options and perhaps soon I will write a more in-depth article regarding this topic but for the moment I have listed three options. Please bear in mind, however, you can pick these up second hand and if you are new to the world of photography and DSLR's I strongly recommend you purchase an entry-level camera such as the T7i mentioned below! Also, a quick side note is that you can purchase cameras specifically designed for astrophotography which I will be covering in another article soon. The downside to these specially designed cameras, however, is that you cannot use them for everyday use, and I want you to get the most out of your camera. For that reason I am recommending the following DSLR's.
Canon EOS Rebel T7i Body (Affordable, simple to use and learn on, very versatile with how many lenses you can use on it)
Canon 200D/Rebel SL2 (Another affordable, simple and easy to use camera which I strongly recommend)
Canon Rebel T6 is the cheapest camera on this list and while it uses a smaller crop sensor (not ideal for astrophotography), it really packs a punch when you look at its other features and its price tag!
Mid Range Camera:
Canon 60D (Interestingly enough there was once a canon 60DA which was specifically made by canon for astrophotography! The canon 60D is a fantastic choice and while a bit more expensive is definitely worth going for if you can afford it Below is a shot of the Andromeda Galaxy which was taken on a canon 60Da).
So you have your camera body but that actually cannot take photos. You need a lens or telescope to fit the camera body to. Your DSLR may have come a kit lens. It is no secret they are starter lenses however, in saying that, they can initially be used. There is no harm in trying them out! You will still get results, admittedly not great ones, however, you can see whether “hmmmm I like this,” or “hmmm this isn’t for me!”
Below is a photo I took a while back on a cheap DSLR and kit lens with a very bad tripod. After taking that shot I knew it was a hobby I wanted to invest in.
So let's say you don’t have a kit lens or a telescope. What should you buy? Personally, unless you are absolutely sure you don’t want to take regular photos with your new camera I recommend you invest into a solid camera lens to begin with.
This provides the dual benefit of being able to take astrophotography and regular photography. But what lens should you get?
There are two main types of lenses. Zoom and prime lenses. A prime lens remains at a fixed focal length (cannot be zoomed). A zoom lens can change its focal length. Now before we continue a very quick and simple lesson on a few camera terms as well as the characteristics of lenses.
Fixed focal length, cannot be zoomed, great for star/milky way photography and capturing nebula along with some background. Great starting point, requires less intensive and accurate tracking since you are not so zoomed in and can produce fantastic shots. They are also the most inexpensive option. Click HERE for a quick google images search of “50mm astrophotography.”
Can be zoomed in or out to change the focal length but requires more accurate tracking and a steadier mount. A little more challenging for a beginner however, gives you room to grow and once you develop your skills you can take some stunning deep-sky photos of more specific objects such as close-ups of nebula's. We will be wanting to keep a low F-Stop number at large zooms which comes with a bigger price tag. Click HERE for a quick google search of "300mm astrophotography"
F - Stop Number:
F stop number (F/#) is the ratio of the focal length of the lens versus the diameter of the pupil of the lens. Therefore, a low F/# number of 1.8 which is typically what a prime lens can achieve means that it has a wide aperture (the lens is wide open). A low F/# number will allow a lot of light in and therefore, more detail.
Beware though an F/# a number as low as 1.8 can often produce blur around the edges because light rays around the edges may not be parallel to each other producing a blurry result. Put simply, with a really low F/# number while you get more light and detail, you sacrifice sharpness. Therefore I find an F/# number of 2.8 to 4 works perfectly.
Put simply it increases/decreases brightness. An ISO of 100 will be much darker than an ISO of 3200. Doing deep space photography it makes sense that we want a brighter image but the way to achieve this is through a low F/# number and long exposure time. Noise is inherent in the sensor of a camera and increasing the ISO amplifies the signal, therefore consequently, with a higher ISO setting, there is more grain present. Therefore you want to minimise the ISO levels you use. If you cannot get long exposure times you may need a higher ISO of 3200. It is preferable to keep it under 1600.
Is a measure of how long the camera shutter is open for. A normal photo may have an exposure time of 1/60th. You press the button and 1/60th of a second later you hear the click. If we set the exposure time to 30 seconds, you press the button, the shutter opens and starts capturing what it's seeing and then 30 seconds later the shutter closes (you hear the click), the image processes and it has absorbed so much more light and data, showing many faint details you almost certainly won’t be able to see with your eyes! Therefore ideally we want long exposure times however, too long can be a bad thing.
If there is a lot of pollution it will show up in long exposure times. If you are not using a high quality tracking mount you will get star trails (movement in the image due to earths rotation). If the object is really bright such as the moon it'll be completely overexposed with a long exposure and look awful (it is bright already therefore we don't need more light than necessary!). Long exposure shots require no movement otherwise it destroys your image. Therefore you must be protected from the wind, vibrations and you require a good mount which we will discuss shortly.
The distance between where all light rays inside a lens converge and where the image sensor is. The basics to understand here is that a small focal length eg. 35mm will have a very wide field of view which is not zoomed in much. A very large focal length eg. 1000mm will have a very narrow field of view and will be very zoomed in. To begin with astrophotography we will be wanting to use focal lengths anywhere from 35mm - 250mm as the required tracking and accuracy will not be as great as something with a larger focal length meaning it will be very forgiving!
Based on that, depending on whether you want to do what was mentioned in the prime lens section or the zoom lens section you are going to want to go purchase one of those lens types. Typically zoom lenses have a zoom range of 24 - 300mm. Pay particularly close attention however, as the cheaper end of zoom lenses cannot produce F/# as low as 4.0 when they are zoomed in which is not ideal. Take a look at the title of this zoom lens for instance:
Canon EF 75-300mm F4.0 - 5.6
This means at 75mm you can get F/4 but at 300mm you can only get F/5.6! A much better alternative but a little more pricey would be the canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM which can maintain the F/4 ratio. Keep in mind even if a low end lens can maintain a F/4 ratio or lower it doesn't necessarily mean it will provide a sharp image. You may end up increasing the F/# number anyways! Personally I believe if you're just getting started it may be worth trying out a prime lens such as a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 which is 12% of the price of the zoom lens! It is a sharp lens which you will be able to take some great photos with. Here are some prime lenses I recommend you look into but remember, make sure they are compatible with your camera and if so make sure you have the correct adaptor to attach them.
What about telescopes? To keep it simple I will only discuss one telescope, mainly because I recommend you try out a lens first, however, in saying that this is also a fantastic piece of equipment. For the cost of a decent quality zoom lens you can get a telescope called the RedCat 51. In short the Redcat has a focal length of 250mm meaning you can capture large portions of the night sky in a single shot! It uses a Petzval lense design which, put simply, means this telescope is capable of producing razor sharp images with a very flat image field. It is lightweight and therefore will suit smaller sized tracking mounts. It can be used with wildlife photography as well and in my opinion is very similar to a lens. If you want to take a look at it in more detail click HERE to head over to William Optics website (creators of the Redcat 51).
If you intend to get a telescope you will need to connect your camera to it. Each system is a little bit different however in general for telescopes it can be connected like this. The connector required is something called a T-ring and T-Adaptor and here is how it works:
Camera Body → Gets Attached To The T-Ring → Gets Attached To the T-Adaptor
Then that entire assembly can be placed into where you eyepieces go into a telescope! Beware however, when choosing your T ring from a telescope shop make sure it is compatible with your camera. If you're unsure whether it does give the shop a call if it's online or ask an employee if you are in the store and they will be able to help you out.
The RedCat already has a M48 thread on the end of the scope so all you need is the adaptor for your camera type. HERE is a link to William Optics who also supply adaptors for their telescopes.
The next piece of equipment required will be a tracking mount and tripod. Now first of all you are going to want a sturdy and heavy duty tripod. You can pick these up at a local tech store and they are usually inexpensive. What will be sitting on that tripod will be the tracking mount which is more pricey but is an absolute must have for deep space astrophotography. For beginners one of the most popular mounts is the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Pack. For its price this mount is very well built, includes a range of different speeds at which it can track at, can hold a payload of up to 5 kilograms and best of all it is super simplistic. Powered by batteries, you can take this scope out to your favourite location without the hassle of a power source and once polar aligned, this mount is as simple as it gets.
We use tracking mounts for astrophotography as due to the rotation of the earth. With a exposure time roughly exceeding 30 seconds, you can get star trails forming which will ruin your image. As we want to be using longer exposures, usually closer to 90 seconds, a tracking mount which will turn at the same rate as the apparent movement of stars will eliminate star trails. With a low cost mount like this you can expect a solid 90 second exposure to not have any star trails. Given the simplicity and affordability of the mount, it is one I certainly recommend you check out HERE:
The final piece of equipment required will be a computer. The reason we need a computer is for two pieces of software which I recommend and they are Deep Sky Stacker and Photoshop. Once you have taken all your photos you may have 30 photos each which were exposed for 90 seconds giving you a total exposure of 45 minutes. The only problem is they are all separate photos and that is where Deep Sky Stacker comes into play. Essentially you drop all your photos into the free software and it will go through and automatically stack them together to produce a final image. This final image will have an exposure time of 45 minutes since its all the images stacked together. It will still look a little dull however, and that is where Photoshop comes in. Photoshop is an extremely powerful tool and is relatively inexpensive for what it provides. Using Photoshop we can extract all the data our camera took and we can really make the image pop and bring out what is hiding!
That is it. That is all there is too it. There is no need in the early stages for a whole lot of complicated equipment. Everything that was discussed will provide you with the ability to take some incredible photos as well as learn and develop your skills at astrophotography. If you have any questions/feedback feel free to contact me via email and I will be happy to get back to you!