As a beginner in astrophotography, there’s so much to consider. What mount do you need? What’s a good telescope? What kind of telescope? And so on. If you want to begin taking long, guided sub-exposures of the universe and it’s dwellings like galaxies, nebulae and supernova remnants, then you’re going to need some gear. I’m going to share with you my beginner astrophotography equipment suggestions.
Unfortunately with so much out there, it can be daunting to know where to start. So in this article I’m going to piece together the equipment I recommend (as well as some cheaper alternatives) to get you on your way to make some beautiful deep sky astrophotography.
The Guide System
Before we get into this, I just want to let you know that this is my opinion from using this equipment myself. It’s by no means an exhaustive list or the “right” list. It’s just what I recommend myself. Also I’ll go into reasons as to why I think these items are ideal as beginner astrophotography equipment.
So, let’s get into it and we’re going to start at the most important part – the mount.
Ask anyone in the hobby and they’ll tell you that the mount is the most important part of the astrophotography rig. So with something so important, it’s imperative to get right.
With the mount, we have altitude-azimuth mounts and equatorial mounts. I recommend using equatorial mounts. You can adjust AltAz mounts with a wedge to follow the sky, but getting an equatorial mount is the more recommended option.
We use equatorial mounts as they arc and follow the night sky’s apparent curvature. This way it prevents the target from rotating in the frame – that’s not good for long exposures. So an EQ mount freezes that rotation in the frame, and we can take extremely long images.
My recommendation is the Skywatcher HEQ5 Pro German Equatorial Mount.
The HEQ5 is a heavyweight contender within the beginner market, and even up to more experienced users. It has a very good reputation for accuracy, versatility, weight capacity and reliability. It can carry 11kg (24lbs) for astrophotography without taking the counter-weights into consideration.
The Synta handset controller has plenty of targets available, the Messier catalogue as well as the NGC and IC catalogues. The HEQ5 also has an illuminated polar scope for your polar alignment.
I’ve seen this mount carry cameras and lenses, 714mm long refractors and up to 8” RASAs.
Some direct comparison mounts in this price and capacity ranges are the Celestron Advanced VX and the iOptron CEM 25p. Almost directly comparable, though the iOptron CEM25p is a Chinese Equatorial Mount that has a centre bearing design and can carry a slightly heavier load.
Another alternative is the Orion Sirius. It’s a bit more expensive than all three mounts mentioned above, but can carry a slightly heavier load. It can support 14kg (30lbs).
If the HEQ5 Pro is out of budget then I can also recommend the Skywatcher EQ5. It has a slightly lesser weight capacity but it supports auto-guiding and will do you well for a widefield imaging set up. For a beginner in astrophotography – where wide and small scopes are recommended – then the EQ5 is a very good candidate.
When you’re photographing space, we need something to look through. Lots of people use telescopes or camera lenses. I mainly use a telescope, and my telescope is a Skywatcher Evostar Pro 80ED.
I choose this telescope to recommend to you as, even though it’s expensive, it has an extremely versatile focal length of 600mm. It can happily be reduced down to 480mm with a standard 0.8x reducer/flattener (more on that later). It is good for larger galaxies, mid sized nebula and some larger sized nebula as well. If you want a better idea of why I love this scope, you can see my Evostar 80ED Review.
With a forgiving focal length that helps with any guidance errors, good aperture and speed, nice build quality and an FPL-53 glass element (some of the best glass amateurs look for), the Skywatcher Evostar 80ED is a great telescope to begin with.
If you’re not too keen on the refractor design you can always get, say, a 150mm imaging Newtonian in the form of the Skywatcher Explorer 150 f5 Newtonian. Be aware that Newtonians come with their own challenges in the form of collimation, as well as their bulk makes them a touch more unwieldy. But with better aperture, faster optics and the ability to show finer details – at a cheaper cost. It’s definitely something to consider when assembling your beginner astrophotography equipment.
If neither the 80ED or the 150p-DS fit your budget then you can always go smaller and wider. For a refractor telescope I’m going to suggest to you the Skywatcher Evostar Pro 72ED, and a Skywatcher Explorer 130p-DS.
The 72ED is 420mm focal length, so even wider and more forgiving and will be amazing for large nebula such as The Rosette Nebula or Heart Nebula, or the Andromeda Galaxy. Reduce it by 0.8x and now you’re getting super wide, especially with a DSLR sensor.
It’s a similar story with the 130p-DS Newtonian. It’s wider then the 150 by 100mm, and can be reduced 0.9x with a matching coma corrector. But they’re cheaper.
Note: I’m recommending Skywatcher a lot. I’m not sponsored or compensated by them to recommend their equipment. I just believe strongly in their brand and they make some very good equipment for beginners at a very acceptable pricetag.
For cameras and beginners in Deep Sky Astrophotography, it’s all about one type: DSLR.
A DSLR Camera is familiar, it’s straight forwards to use, it’s more basic than a dedicated camera and most importantly they’re cheap (all things considered). Also, you don’t need software to run them. For a portable set up, a DSLR is the simplest way to take your photos.
Within the astrophotography community, the most represented brand of DSLR is Canon. Most of the accessories are geared towards Canon APS-C bodies (like the two I’m about to talk about). Even most telescopes cover an APS-C sized image circle. Full frame DSLRs are supported, but not as much.
Sony and Nikon are also supported, but in terms of accessories such as clip-in filters and modification services, they’re not as prolific as Canon.
I recommend the Canon 600D – also known as the Rebel T3i. This is, as mentioned, a crop sensor camera (with a crop factor of 1.6x). It has a flip out screen, so if you’re not using software you can easily see the frame no matter where the camera is pointing. A nice field of view and a relatively agreeable sensor. I’ve used a 600D for a few images now and I even captured Hydrogen Alpha data using a modified Canon 600D (more on modification in a moment).
The best place would be to find a 600D on eBay. Though I offer modified 600D cameras for sale myself.
The Canon 450D is the next popular camera used for DSLR Astrophotography. It doesn’t have a flip out screen and nor does it have as good a sensor. But it’s about half the price on the second hand market than the 600D.
Again, check eBay for 450D cameras. I also offer these as a supply and modified service.
Real quick sidebar: the Astro Mod for DSLR cameras involves removing the infrared filters off the sensor. This is to allow the camera to soak up more Hydrogen Alpha wavelengths – which lay just outside the cut-off zone of the stock filter.
Be aware that removing the filter will void warranty, and also it means that you’ll need a separate IR/UV cut filter in the imaging train. This isn’t so bad as most light pollution filters include this cutting. Modifying will leave a more red tint over your images, but you’ll see a difference in your Emission Nebula for sure.
In order to take long exposures for our deep sky astrophotography, it’s important to use guidance on the cheaper mounts such as the ones recommended above. Guiding, essentially, uses a different camera and telescope to monitor the movement of the stars, and then tells the mount (via software) what adjustments to make in order to keep that star exactly where it should be.
A small compact guide scope is used. Commonly these are 50mm guide scopes with a focal length of about 200mm. A small dedicated guide camera is also then used to take the photos and to issue the commands to the mount. These use software so you’ll need a laptop hooked up.
Some people use what’re known as ‘Finder-Guiders’. These are small 50mm guide scopes that fit in the finder shoe bracket, and then have the guide camera attached to them. The fact they’re smaller usually makes them cheaper.
First Light Optics offer this in their Astro Essentials range. This is a 9×50 Right Angled Finder Guider that will be suitable for guiding. In order to attach this to the guide camera, you’ll also need this C-Type Adaptor. You may also need another adaptor to reach the correct back focus, but you’ll have to check that with FLO.
At the time of writing,there is a ZWO bundle that has the ZWO version of the 130 mono camera, the Skywatcher 9×50 finder guider as well as the adaptor.
So the main three points have been covered: mount, optics, camera. From here, we have a few more accessories to consider. Ranging from Light Pollution Filters, Reducer/Flatteners & Coma Correctors, Camera Control and more.
Light Pollution Filters
The unfortunate reality of most backyard astrophotographers is that we shoot through light pollution. This ever encroaching threat means we need to use filters – or get away from the lights – to take long exposures that contain meaningful data. To that end, we use Light Pollution Suppression Filters.
The filter I began with was a Skytech CLS-CCD filter. I needed the -CCD variant as I have a modified camera (the CCD version has the IR/UV block as mentioned above). If your camera is unmodified, you can use the CLS filter.
These filters work fine and do the job, but are a little strong and leave a slight red tint to the image, but this can be edited out. These two filters are available as clip in filters as well, which (surprisingly) clip into the camera body.
The current filter I use is a 2” Skytech L-Pro Max. This works fine in my Bortle 6 sky and has a more correct colour tone to the image.
My recommendation: A Skytech or Astronomik CLS/CLS-CCD filter, clip in style.
Reducer/Flatteners and Coma Correctors
Refracting telescopes suffer distortion towards the edges of the image most of the time, and Newtonian reflectors suffer a similar phenomenon also. They’re caused by different effects though.
Refractors use a Field Flattener, which are often twinned with a reducing element in it to make your telescope’s focal length shorter. This in turns speeds your instrument up a bit which helps with collecting light.
I use, and recommend, an Altair Lightwave 0.8x Reducer/Flattener. This is suitable for telescopes that are F6 or longer. This makes the telescope an even shorter focal length, meaning shorter exposures which makes it even more suitable as beginner astrophotography equipment.
I don’t have a cheaper option that’s as versatile as the Altair to recommend. Though if your telescope is F/5.5 – F/6, then OVL have a 1x flattener available.
A coma corrector is the equivalent, but for Newtonian telescopes. I’ve never used one personally, so I can’t really recommend any. Though Baader do a Multi-Coated Coma Corrector which sounds good on paper and doesn’t change focal length.
One important part of astrophotography is the long exposures, as well as NOT touching the camera or equipment. To achieve that we use remote shutters or software to control the camera.
If you have a laptop in the field with you, then you can use software like Astrophotography Tool or BackyardEOS, as well as the USB cable to connect your camera to the computer in order to caputre images. These softwares allow you to set an imaging plan, set how long you want to take each photo for and many other features. They’re recommended to look at for sure.
If you’re not using a laptop or are using an even smaller and portable set up, then using a remote shutter/cable release/intervalometer for your camera is the way to go. These connect into the camera and allow you to program duration of imaging time, how many images to take and delays. Most manufacturers make remote shutters for their cameras. But you can find perfectly fine cheap no-brand versions on eBay for cheaper.
If you’re using a refractor type telescope then you’ll need to combat dew. Most people do this by using what’re known as Dew Heaters/Dew Bands. These wrap around the telescope’s glass and warms it up so the dew can’t settle.
You can pay a lot for dew control. But what I did was went to eBay and bought some camera lens heaters from China. They were a fraction of the price and whilst they draw a bit of power, they’re just cheaper and will get you going.
I bought the orange ones.
Though it goes without saying, getting some good memory cards (at least 16gb I’d say) is vital. So, get a couple of them.
Your DSLR battery will run out. Getting a battery grip and extra batteries can help and will (more often than not) get you through a night’s imaging. Though extra batteries won’t ever hurt, you can circumvent this entirely by buying an AC Adaptor for your camera.
If you have access to mains power then you can buy these (which are camera specific), plug the dummy camera battery into the camera, slot the other side into the mains and BOOM. No more power worries (unless you have a power cut. In which case, enjoy the night sky!).
Well that about covers it! It’s expensive, yes. But I have done what I can to show you the cheaper alternatives as well. You can always go to the second hand markets as well if you’re trying to keep costs down even more.
If you want to see the video, then here it is:
Until next time, clear skies. Keep looking up, and keep them cameras clicking.