Take this as a few words of advice from someone who has been through all of this. It’s not gospel, but it’s a method and attitude that works for me in getting what I need.
Where to Get Infomation
Beware of the various message board sites. There is a lot of good information on message boards, but as a beginner to a hobby, the information is overwhelming and more often than not, contradictory. Well intentioned hobbyists at times have difficulty accepting that the way they approached things and the equipment they use is not the only way, and what works for them probably won’t work for everyone. Arguments ensue on message boards about facts that shouldn’t be debatable and threads go off on tangents completely unrelated to the original poster’s question. My advice, if you chose not to take any of mine in, is to find a primary source of information from someone who will present differing advice, or alternative ways of doing things without argument. Real knowledge comes from humility and the ability to accept being wrong or just knowing that there are a million ways to shoot the sky. Your main source really depends on what you plan on imaging, so I’m not recommending any sites here.
Even after you find your great source, seek out different information. Think of it as wanting to surpass your teacher. There is so much to learn in this hobby, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to one, or two, or three sources of information. After you have a good base down, go ahead and hit those message boards. When you know what you’re looking for, and know enough to pull only useful information, the boards are an incredible time-saving wealth of knowledge.
Do You Really Need to Spend so Much?
Don’t outspend your knowledge level. Regardless of the equipment you start with or the amount of money you spend, this hobby is hard. A lot of people drop out of the hobby, having spent a lot of money and never seeing a return because they thought it would be easy. If you have tens-of-thousands of dollars you’re willing to lose on equipment, that’s great. Most people don’t start at that level, and I’m of the opinion that starting with lower to mid-range equipment will give you a better understanding of how everything works anway. From that lower level starting point you can go onto fancier and more precise equipment one piece at a time. Just like everyone else, I do look at the expensive equipment and dream that it would be perfect. Then I look at images taken with that equipment and realize that images from my sub-$1000 setup are plenty good enough for now and stop looking. Instead of spending a fortune, I look at what I can do to my existing setup to make it more precise. All that money isn’t necessary. Yes, it’ll make the end-state easier, but you’re probably a long way from that, and there’s no use in throwing all your money at something you don’t even know if you’ll be doing in 10 years. Learn to use what you have effectively. Like I said earlier, it’ll only make the jump to more advanced equipment more productive, and more rewarding.
Get Ready to Screw Up!
Make lots of mistakes. This will not click right away unless you’re the luckiest person on the planet. If you’re sitting there right now thinking that this hobby can’t be that hard, you’re going to make more mistakes than you need to, and they’ll be really annoying. If you’re willing to learn, and willing to accept the fact that you’re going to waste a lot of time before everything is right, and “easy”, you’re probably ready for this hobby. The feeling you get from that first blurry image of M42 is worth every second spent wondering what you did right and wrong to get to that point. If you’ve gotten that far, you’re ahead of the curve, and by now you’re most likely hooked.
No Turning Back
Then you have that moment, and everyone who has gotten far in this hobby knows this moment. You plop down your mount facing north and get Polaris in the right place in the polar scope. You open PHD and start your drift alignment. With a couple of tiny turns, you have flat lines. You pick your target, but you’re a bit off. You skipped the three-star alignment because Astrotortilla solves and slews, putting your target smack in the middle of your preview image. Back to PHD, you start guiding and your RA and DEC lines barely move off the center line. You shoot a test exposure at 180 seconds and your stars are perfect circles. The first time you get there is a memorable moment, because only you know how difficult it was just to get to that point. You’ll still have nights where you lose guide stars or you can’t lock in a target, but they will be fewer and farther in-between after everything just works. Now your frustrations can center around cloudy nights instead of wondering what won’t work.
Check out the site and through the blogs to see if there is anything that might help you out, and check back often. I try to post a couple times each week as time permits.