What you need to get started
What do you really need to get started? A camera and a tripod. I first became interested in astrophotgraphy after pointing my slightly above average point-and-shoot camera at the sky and setting the timer. If you already have a DSLR and some lenses, you might just be looking for a tracking mount for your camera for a few hundred dollars.
The Long Version
So here’s the loooong post, but it should contain a lot of useful information if you’re looking for a bare-bones setup. This assumes you’ve skipped past the top paragraph and are looking to go beyond wide-field camera lens and tripod photography. Click the link below for another post on what you can do to take images tonight (weather permitting)!
Dive into Astrophography Tonight!
Back when I first started this, a good setup cost an amateur at least $20,000. Recently DSLR’s have become more popular and usable for astrophotography as chip noise has reduced. This even drove down the price of CCD cameras significantly and created a whole new market of astro-specific CMOS imaging cameras. Guiding software and ASCOM driver development have given some of the lower end mounts the guiding capabilities previously only found in mounts costing more than $10,000. While the morality of the OTA price decline is debatable, the result is not. Big name manufacturers have shipped out their production to China. Now these Chinese manufacturers have started selling to customers through some of the larger telescope dealers, causing OTA prices to go down even from state-side manufacturers. So let’s take a look at what I have, some alternatives, and their cost. I’ll go through the entire list so you know what to expect.
- Mount & Tripod
- Optical Tube Assembly – Including rings & Dovetail
- Guide Scope
- Guide Camera
- Main imaging camera
- USB Cables/Extensions
- 2 PCs (only one is necessary)
- Click here for the software I use
A German Equatorial mount is essential for astrophotography. There’s no way around that. Some people use wedges and fork mounts, but I would stay away from that unless you already have it. All the free software out there to help you capture great images is designed to be used with G-EQ mounts. This is the most important decision for your beginning imaging rig, but you don’t have to mortgage the house.
My mount decision was made for me, and is what enabled me to get back in the door. I ventured down to the basement to look for my old LXD75 mount when I decided I wanted to try this hobby again. I really thought I had thrown it out because of the flood that destroyed my OTA. Turns out it was in a bin that I hadn’t opened in probably six years! From there I went to start planning my setup. I wouldn’t recommend this mount to a beginner – again – unless you already have it. The mount is pretty archaic and has a lot of error. The tolerances weren’t exactly tight with this one and several hours of work was required to clamp things down. Here are some better examples to get started on the cheap.
- Meade LXD-75 – not recommended ($400 used)
- Explore Scientific makes a clone of this called the Exos 2 GT for $479. I’m not able to find much info on this, but it looks identical, so I’m sure it would suffer some of the same issues. I’m sure one could get it to work OK with a lighter duty setup around 15lbs, but I still wouldn’t recommend it for the beginner.
- Explore Scientific Exos 2 PMC8 – not recommended – Yet ($899)
- I’m intrigued by this mount because it is belt driven, wireless, now ASCOM compatible and under $1000.
- I’m a bit confused because most reports say it does not come with a handset, while others say there is. This is not important to me, as I only use a PC to control the scope after the date and time are set, but it is worth noting.
- This is also an LXD75 clone, but with better motors and a belt drive system. I saw a review and it’s very quiet. Gathering the little information out there, the bearings, worm wheels, etc, sound like those from what would be a hyper-tuned LXD75.
- I don’t recommend this mount yet because there isn’t much information on it. I believe it has just recently become ASCOM compatible. Prior to that, people shied away despite the technology and price. I could see this type of system taking over as a standard in the next few years.
- I’m excited to see if this takes off, because the potential is already there to operate this mount without any cables to the PC.
- Skywatcher HEQ-5/Orion Sirius ($700-$900 used)
- Heavy-duty construction with a 44lb maximum load.
- Accurate and reliable
- Try to find the Orion model used in the US. Orion pretty much takes Chinese manufactured equipment and up-charges 20%-30% more than other companies selling the same thing. That up-charge doesn’t reflect as much on the used market.
- Celestron Advance VX ($900 new)
- Essentially an updated version of CG5 mount.
- Not top of the line, but does the job and is very compatible. If you’re well short of the 30lb weight limit and are well aligned, 10 minute exposures with little loss are well within range.
- You will lose a few frames each session due to error correction, but it’s nothing to get to bent out of shape about. It’s not enough to make or break your image.
- iOptron CEM-25P ($900 new)
- Very lightweight, but maintains a 27lb load maximum.
- I don’t have any experience with iOptron, but those who have them, love them and swear by them. When my old mount dies, I will probably go with this mount.
These are three good starter mounts, one bad one and another with a lot of potential. The next step up of each version adds accuracy and weight capacity, but also at least doubles the price, with the exception of the Celestron C-GEM. The base C-GEM can be had for around $1100, but you’re really only adding weight capacity. You’ll be able to image most observable objects with one of these mounts. Imaging in a polluted sky won’t let you pull much more than 3-5 minutes per exposure, so unless you live in a dark location be careful you don’t spend more money than you need to. An example of this in action is my visit to a dark site. My exposures at home are washed out at five minutes even with a CLS filter due to the amount of light pollution. At the dark site, anything beyond 5 minutes gave me football stars, but the dark sky would have let me do ten minute exposures. I’m home 99.9% of the time, so I’m still ok with my LXD75 maxed out. If I move out somewhere dark, I might get the itch, but I’m just fine for now. When we get into the software discussion, you’ll see how these lower priced mounts can perform just fine.
You really have three primary choices for optical tubes when starting out.
- Newtonian Reflector
- These are relatively inexpensive and widely manufactured with many options.
- When tuned properly, they can produce stunning images.
- The biggest crack on Newtonians is the collimation. Newtonians are not maintenance free. You’ll most likely need to adjust at least the primary every time out. It’s required to at least be checked every time. If you get a decent laser collimator, this isn’t too difficult. I can collimate my 6 inch reflector in less than 2 minutes.
- Not All Newtonians can be used for imaging. Some don’t have enough inward travel on the focuser to image at prime focus. If you’re shopping online, the description or specs should say if it is capable of imaging, or what is needed to make it capable.
- If you want really good stars edge to edge, you’ll need a coma corrector matching the f ratio of your scope.
- APO Refractor
- Maintenance free design doesn’t need constant adjusting.
- Price goes up sharply. These are what most advanced images are taken with. Really great APOs start at around $3000, but there are some decent scopes to be had for around $1000.
- The Schmidt Cassegrain design has a long focal length and should only be used if you plan on starting with planetary imaging. These are also great for small galaxies, but the small field of view and long focal length usually cause more frustration than success for the beginner due to the magnification of tracking errors.
Money was definitely an object in my hunt, and the primary factor in my decision. A few hours of research turned into a few weeks, but I learned a lot, and I changed my mind a lot. I went with a 6″(150mm) F/5 Newtonian Reflector, but it was a lengthy process to get there!
- My first target was the Celestron 6” SCT. My brain immediately processed that a higher f/ratio=higher magnification=better images. That’s great for planets, or really tiny distant galaxies, but not for the DSO work I wanted to accomplish. If you really want an SCT or any other long focal length OTA, be prepared to put more money into the mount. Tracking the sky at F10 or higher is not nearly as forgiving as wide-field tracking.
- Next up was the refractor group. I knew they were expensive, but I saw I could get an 80mm ED for around $400. Only Apochromatic will do in this style, so the choices in the price range were extremely limited… to one… with mixed reviews. Everybody is crazy on APOs, and they do put out incredible images, but they will cost you. Achromats look attractive, but they really aren’t for imaging. You’ll be left with bloated and haloed blue stars on a curved field. You can get some half way decent images from an Achromat, and there are even some semi-APO filters out there, but I think if you buy an achromat, in six months you’ll be wanting the APO.
- Then I got to the Newtonians. A Chinese company is making a line of astrophotography specific Newts and I thought that was perfect. Luckily, my obsessive reading helped me find out that visual use of these F/3.9 scopes was very difficult. It required a lot of extension to reach focus. I found the F/5 versions @ $200 to be a nice compromise, even though I lost the two-speed focuser. If you go this route, take a look at the secondary mirror size before purchasing. Sometimes the info is hard to find, but the bigger the better to capture your image from. There is a sweet spot, but I wouldn’t be concerned about manufacturers going over that. Those guidelines are more for home builders. Even scopes from the same manufacturer had different sized secondary mirrors, so it was worth checking ahead of time.
Other OTA Types
There are some other types of telescopes for imaging, such as the Celestron RASA (Rowe-Ackerman Schmidt Astrograph) or a Ritchey Chretien design, but in my opinion they don’t really fit in this discussion due to price and advanced use (that’s not to say I wouldn’t have fun with a RASA on a Paramount using an Atik 11000).
I just read back through this article. I haven’t used an eyepiece in a year, so take what I said below with a grain of salt.
Even if you don’t plan on doing visual, you will do visual. You’ll also end up using them for some calibration functions. I only have a 22mm Meade Super Plossl and 13mm and 9mm Televue Naglers. I do use them fairly often.
I am using the ZWO 60mm guide scope with helical focuser piggy-backed on the GSO Newt. It was $110, and worth it.
While I lost the OTA for the 10” SN in the flood, I did still have the Meade 8×50 finder scope. This is a pretty standard dime-a-dozen finder. In my search for a guide setup, I had found someone who had modified an old Meade 8×50 to become his guide scope. Given the $100+ cost of a new guide scope versus the $.89 PVC plumbing fixture, I went with the cheaper option. If you’re just starting out, you won’t have this option, so take a look at these guide scopes.
- Orion mini 50mm guide scope ($80)
- Great option that’s still pretty darn cheap.
- No focuser, but you can manually move and secure the camera in place
- Orion Deluxe Mini 50mm guide scope ($120)
- Above with the added focuser.
- Ebay special
- There are clones of the above mentioned guide scope on ebay for slightly less, but I can’t speak to their quality.
Your guide camera’s sole purpose is to find a star and to lock onto that star. The best camera for the job will be a moderately sized pixel (3-6 microns) monochrome camera if you’re using a DSLR for a main imaging camera. Monochrome or color isn’t the most important part, but the increased sensitivity of a monochrome sensor does help guiding keep hold on a star, especially in light polluted skies. I had originally planned on using my old Meade DSI, and it would have done a fine job, but it decided it wanted no more and died out on me as I was setting up. Take a look at these cameras for guiding.
- ZWO ASI034/QHY5R-II ($99)- discontinued
- These are the cheapest, lowest level cameras for the job… and they work. I use the ZWO. The biggest drawback is the limited field of view provided by the small chip to select a star. This gives me less than one degree of the sky, but I do have it well aligned with my OTA and generally have no issues finding a star to guide with.
- ZWO ASI120/QHY5L ($150)-best option
- These are pretty popular cameras for guiding, but the sensor is still tiny, keeping your field of view small. These cameras do excel at planetary imaging, so if that’s something you’re interested in, either of these may kill two birds with one stone for you.
- I have moved on to the ASI120 now and I do find a large advantage over the ASI034. My guide stars are generally more round and balanced. As a result, my guiding has improved dramatically.
- Orion Starshoot G3 ($299)
- This is a “tweener” camera. It’s a CCD sensor, kind of cooled, and it can pull duty as a guider, planetary imager and limited DSO imager. It’s limited in DSOs due to its small field of view.
- The pixel size is on the large end at 8.6×8.3. If your imaging camera has small pixels and your guide camera has large pixels, you run a higher risk of having elongated stars.
- There are a bunch of tutorials on using webcams for planetary imaging and a lot of questions about using them for guiding. The consensus is that the pixels are too small and the sensitivity is too low in these for guiding.
I recommend going new and cheap here rather than searching the used market for something like a DSI2. A lot of these older cameras have larger pixels that don’t match your imaging camera and lead to reduced guiding accuracy. These cameras are a bit on the fragile side, so you’ll want new and in box with some recourse if it stops working in a week.
I still believe what I had written below, but I had outgrown the mid-range DSLR due to my polluted skies and the camera’s lack of dynamic range. I have moved on to the ZWO ASI071MC Pro. It’s a pricey option for a camera, but it is also light years beyond my old Canon. A mid-range DSLR is still a great option. I just had specific needs to meet and the ASI071 fit the bill.
This is it. This piece of equipment is the eyes of your whole setup. Without this, nothing else is possible. I waffled around a bit about getting a lower end CCD camera, but even those were out of my price range and had small sensors. I was trying to stay under $200 for this. Sound impossible? It’s not. DSLRs have dropped in price like anvils as new models are released and more competition hits the market with new features. This makes imaging accessible for people like me.
I’m not going to recommend different models by different manufacturers. I don’t have enough experience with DSLRs, and of the little experience I do have, it is all with Canon. I don’t dislike Nikon by any means, it was simply a matter of a model fitting my criteria at the right time for the right price. I bought a Canon T1i with kit lens, all standard accessories and some extras for $150 and it is more than capable of the job. The current Rebel model as of this writing is a T6i and comes in a $600 for the body only, but adds a flip-out LCD touch screen and 24.2 megapixels. Here’s a list of the criteria I set for buying a camera.
- DSRL, obviously. A point and shoot won’t do for this.
- 15 Megapixels or More
- 8 megapixels on the right sensor will give you a stunning image. 15 megapixels on the wrong sensor will give you crap. It’s not about hunting the highest number here, but 15 was a good balance and fit right into my cheap price range.
- Live view via USB
- So far this Winter in Chicago most clear nights have been 0 to -15F and I don’t want to be standing next to the camera. For Canon, the XSi and up all have this feature. For Nikon the 5000 and up all have it.
- Included lens
- I have three kids, a wife and two dogs. If I was buying a DSLR, it was going to be dual use (for now).
- Not Overused
- This is where I took a chance. I was initially only looking at offers that included an actuation count of about 30,000 or under. The listing for the camera I bought stated that it was barely used. The thought of not having any proof made me itchy, but I got lucky. It turned out that it only had a few more than 7000 shutter actuations when I got it. Other than it needing a thorough cleaning, I might as well have bought it in the box, off the shelf.
- Under $200
- I expected to be right up against $200, but I came in at $150
You can pay to remove the IR cut filter on your DSLR, or even follow a YouTube video created by the people you would sent it to and do it yourself. I have not done this, as my camera is truly dual use. Maybe when I scrounge up some money for a different land-based camera I’ll part ways with the filter, but I’m nowhere near that yet. As for what I’m missing by not modifying, I’m not at that point yet either. I have plenty of time to figure out what I’m doing before I get to that point. I’m currently reading some very long and very involved guides on image processing that point away from needing to modify a DSLR for acquiring Ha in images, so we’ll see how that goes.
Depending on what your mount comes with, you may need a serial to USB adapter as well as a USB cable for the DSLR and the Guide Camera. If you live in a cold area, make sure you get well insulated cables to last longer. I also bring all of my cables inside before wrapping them up because the insulation will get brittle in the bitter cold Winter.
You don’t need much when you’re starting out, but if you live in a place like me, you absolutely need a light pollution filter. Without it, my images wash out after about 45 seconds at ISO1600. I have an Optolong CLS light pollution filter. It’s about 1/3 the price of other manufacturers. I haven’t used the others, but I can tell you that I don’t have to process out much light pollution anymore. When I bring the levels in, I have a natural dark gray sky.
I’m in IT, so it’s PCs for me. I have a Mac, but given the software options available for PCs, I would go that direction anyway. I’m using a 4 year old i5 laptop with 8GB RAM and Windows 10 to control the mount and cameras and it’s more than capable. My remote and processing PC is an i7 with 16GB RAM to save some time. You don’t need anything overly powerful in either use. I’ve also used a tablet and even my phone to remotely control the PC connected to the mount and cameras with Teamviewer from miles away.