Buying Your First Astrophotography Setup? Start Here… kind of

I often wonder if anybody in astronomy forums has had to struggle to figure out how to pay kids’ school fees and the mortgage in the same month, or forgo that pizza order to put gas in the car.

Can you hear that drumbeat? Do you hear it? Mountmountmountmount, mountmountmountmount, mountmountmountmount, mountmountmountmount. Go to any astronomy forum and ask what you should buy for a setup. You’ll hear an endless refrain of one suggestion… Spend as much as you can on a mount, and build from there. OK, so then what? What is as much as you can spend on a mount if you don’t know what you might want or need for the other components? Forums are full of good information. They’re also full of differing opinions, and childish bickering with a general lack of social grace. Most of of us are space geeks. Social interaction is not our strong suit. In our current sound-byte culture, a complex question rarely receives the complex answer it deserves – even less-so in an Internet forum setting. I’d often like to take Occam’s razor and shove it up…

So you took some forum-based advice. Now your pictures have a narrow field of view and look blown out because you had to sacrifice on the scope and camera. But the tracking was perfect. Good thing you bought that “future-proof mount” for pictures that look like they were taken with a cell phone. Is spending $500-$1000 more on a mount and sacrificing that out of the camera or the scope going to give you the best experience that will keep you interested? Probably not. If you’re on a budget, pouring everything into the mount might be the perfect route to get your gear on the used market via frustration.

A lot of people who are advanced in this hobby and dole out opinions for what you need don’t consider your situation, only their own. I often wonder if anybody in astronomy forums has had to struggle to figure out how to pay kids’ school fees and the mortgage in the same month, or forgo that pizza order to put gas in the car. Yes, this hobby does take money and can be exorbitantly expensive, but you don’t have to start that way. What might be cheap or inexpensive to one person still living in their mom’s basement might break the bank for another with a mortgage, kids and responsibilities.

I’m pretty hard on the forums, but it’s for good reason. It’s not an astrophotography thing, it’s a interweb forum thing. Cycling is my other hobby, and it’s all the same. Over in cycling forums people will argue over the length of socks. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. In the astronomy forums, people will argue adamantly against a piece of equipment they’ve never seen or touched because it doesn’t fit in their plan. This is no way to welcome beginners. The hobby is hard enough without an ego-driven basement dweller telling everyone how brilliant they are. Let’s remember something here – 99.9% of us are doing this for the art. This isn’t scientific research, it’s pretty pictures. All that matters is what looks good to you, and what you’re proud of. I recommend a beginner maybe lurk around forums, but not join. There are some very helpful people who try really hard to push through the BS, but even they get overrun.

So who am I to give my opinion on what you should buy? Really, nobody. I’m not an authority on equipment, or an expert in imaging. However, I have just lived through two years of trying to support an expensive hobby on a cobblers budget, while also upgrading my complete system. Despite the fact that I’m upgrading just about everything right now, I never would have kept with the hobby had I “put everything into the mount”.

All I had to start with was an old mount and tripod that had been sitting in a plastic bin for 12+ years. I had computers and cables, so I needed a scope and camera, and I only wanted to spend $500. If I started over I might choose differently on the scope, but I don’t regret what I picked. It allowed me to learn and appreciate the craft.

The images below are a record of progress starting from September of 2017 through November of 2018. This is with a Meade LXD75 mount, 150mm F/5 GSO Newtonian Reflector, Used Canon 500D/t1i and an Optolong CLS filter. Total cost, had I bought the mount used, under $900. I already had the cabling, but still would be under $1000.

Nobody will ever tell you to buy a cheap F/4 or F/5 reflector for your first imaging scope. But if that’s what’s in your budget and you want to take pictures, that’s what you get. I spent $150 on a 150mm F/5 Newtonian reflector. Did it stay collimated? No. Did it lose focus during temperature swings? Yes. Did I learn invaluable information about mirror optics and angles that will carry over throughout my progression in this hobby? You bet I did. Do I still use it today? Absolutely. What I’m getting at is that you don’t absolutely have to get a small refractor to start with. Yes, it’ll be less trouble and require less adjustment, but it will also cost 2x-3x more than a reflector. It comes down to what you’re willing to trade off.

I’m not saying that the mount isn’t a critical component in taking quality images. Without a decent mount, imaging is not possible. What I’m saying is that I see people steered toward busting their budget on one component rather than getting a setup that will allow them to learn, grow and enjoy making art from the sky. Astrophotography success and fulfillment is about learning and growing and everybody does it at their own pace. I wouldn’t have taken a single image I would consider successful if I had gone to the forums and saw that my mount wasn’t capable, or that a small $1000 refractor was the only way to get images, or that I couldn’t shoot from a location as light-polluted as mine unless I shot mono narrowband.

Enough about me. What should you get if you want to try a go at this? Well, ask yourself “what do you have?”, and “what is my budget”? If you’re based in photography and already have a DSLR and lenses, maybe a tracking mount is all you want or need to start with – no telescope or computer necessary. A good 100-300mm lens can capture some great things when tracking. Are you on a super-tight budget but you still want to take deep “close-up” pictures of objects in space and currently have nothing? Maybe a cheap reflector a used DSLR and a lower-end ASCOM compatible mount are it for you.

I’m assuming that if you’ve gotten this far, you know that you need these things:

  • A computerized/motorized equatorial mount
  • A telescope, preferably with a 2″ focuser
  • A camera and t-ring to connect it to the focuser
  • Kind-of-optional, a guide scope and camera
  • A computer and necessary cabling – for kind-of-optional guiding, image acquisition and processing
  • Filters to match your location. Unfortunately, if you live in a light polluted area, these aren’t optional.

There is no magic combination of equipment that works for everyone. All situations, goals and budgets are different. However, one thing will remain constant. Balance and common sense are key.

  • Does a $2000 mount and a $200 reflector make sense?
  • Or does a $700 mount and $1000 small refractor make more sense?

A $2000 mount is what you’d get if you listened to the drumbeat. The second bullet-point, or something similar, is what you’d get if you want a positive start in this hobby. Balance will matter when you’re starting fresh. Most relatively inexpensive GOTO Equatorial mounts can carry the 10-15lb payload of a small refractor, a DSLR and guide scope no problem.

As an example, a Meade 6000 80mm premium APO refractor on a Meade LX85 mount bundle ($1500) is capable of producing stunning images with an APS-C sized DSLR. So for about $1800, including a good used camera, you’ll have a setup that will grow with you for some time, instead of a mid-tier mount with nothing mounted to take pictures.

There are two things to stay away from if you’re just beginning deep sky imaging – heavy equipment and/or a scope with a long focal length! Light-weight apochromatic refractors with a short focal length are the most forgiving thing to start with if you can afford it. However, If you’re on a super tight budget, but willing to learn more about mirror alignment than you ever wanted to know, I wouldn’t count out an F/4 or F/5 reflector.

If you already have something like a long focal length Schmidt Cassegrain scope and you’re building around it, OK. You’ll have your work cut out for you and some frustrating evenings trying to guide and keep your stars round, but it’s what you have, and you use what you have. My best advice if you’re in this situation is to stay way under the weight limit for your mount (less than 1/2 the listed max) to ease the stress and help guiding. You’ll find yourself with a lot less hair very shortly if you’re maxing out a mount with a long focal length.

My best advice isn’t anything definitive. I’ll just say to get what you’ll use most and grow with. A light-weight setup will get outside and be used more often, so a big heavy mirror or lens might not be best off the bat. You’ll learn techniques to improve your images with your balanced setup for a lot longer without having the upgrade bug that you would with a mount-centric setup. With a mount-centric setup, you’ll be forever thinking about the weak-points and constantly looking for upgrades. A balanced, less-expensive but capable setup will let you focus on technique instead of one weak piece of equipment that you’ll obsess about replacing.

I’ll leave you with this:

This hobby is a lifelong journey where you say hello to old friends each year. It’s not a sprint to capture everything in the sky. Hone your skills with cheap stuff so you know what to do with the expensive stuff when it comes time to take that next plunge.

Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA

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