Deep Sky Astrophotography Equipment
A basic deep sky astrophotography equipment setup typically includes a German equatorial mount, telescope, camera, autoguiding system, and all necessary accessories required to run the camera throughout the night.
For accurate tracking of the night sky for photography, an equatorial mount is essential. This is often the first step beginners take when building their first deep sky astrophotography rig, and an important one.
Choosing a telescope well-suited for astrophotography using either a DSLR or CCD camera is next, and there are many different types and models to choose from. For the best results early on, I recommend an Apochromatic refractor telescope, as they are compact, lightweight and capable of superb deep sky images.
Below, you’ll find everything I use to produce deep sky astrophotography images from my backyard in Ontario, Canada.
The primary imaging telescope I use is an Explore Scientific ED102 CF refractor. It is capable of capturing detailed portraits of many galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and more. Choosing the right telescope to suit your needs is important, but the mount is much more critical.
To photograph deep-sky objects in the night sky, several long exposure images must be captured to reveal the faint light emitted by the object. This means that the telescope mount must compensate for the rotation of the Earth to precisely track your imaging target.
The “GEM” (German equatorial mount) I currently use for astrophotography is a Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro SynScan. This particular model is considered at the entry-level, and a great example of a good balance between reliability and affordability.
Here is a list of my ever evolving astrophotography equipment.
My current deep-sky astrophotography setup:
- Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro SynScan Mount
- Explore Scientific ED102 CF Telescope
- Altair Lightwave 0.8X Flattener/Reducer
- Altair Starwave 50mm Guide Scope
- Altair GPCAM2 AR0130 Mono Guide Camera
- Canon Rebel T3i (Modified)
- Altair Hypercam 183C*
- DewBuster Dew Heater Controller
- Kendrik Dew Heater Straps
- Astronomik 12nm Clip-In Ha Filter
- IDAS LPS EOS Clip-In Filter
- Astronomik 12nm Ha, OIII, SII filters
* On loan from Ontario Telescope and Accessories.
Latest equipment upgrades
I am constantly looking to upgrade my deep-sky imaging setup as my budget allows for it. With my recent partnership with Ontario Telescope and Accessories, I have the amazing opportunity to test and review many new astrophotography products.
In March 2017, I started using a one shot color CMOS camera. The ZWO ASI071MC-Cool opened my eyes to a new level of deep-sky imaging. Amateur astronomers are often faced with the tough decision of switching from a DSLR to a dedicated astronomy camera, myself included.
In February of 2017, I reviewed a new autoguiding camera and guide scope. The Altair GPCAM2 AR0130 Mono Guide camera and Altair Starwave 50mm Guide Scope provide a reliable autoguiding solution for my setup when used with PHD2 guiding.
Autoguiding establishes a connection between the PHD2 guiding software on your computer and the telescope mount via an ST4 cable. The software can then “talk” to the mount and make slight adjustments to your tracking based on the movement of the “guide star”. Autoguiding is essential for taking exposures of 2 minutes or longer on a typical GEM.
Below is a photo of the ZWO ASI071 One Shot Color CCD Camera. Example images using this camera include my take on Markarian’s Chain in early 2017.
This cooled astrophotography camera has opened my eyes to the world of cooled CMOS sensor imaging, and the low-noise images possible. Expect a lot of information about this venture in the future, as I dive head first into a new level of deep-sky imaging.
Types of astrophotography
The term astrophotography encompasses many types of photography styles and techniques. For beginners, a DSLR camera and a tripod are all you need to start taking pictures of the moon and stars above. Modern cameras and kit lenses (The ones that come with entry-level DSLRs) are well equipped to capture the Moon, Auroras, the Milky way and much more.
Landscape Astrophotography is a beautiful form of photography and can be done with nothing more than a camera and tripod. Below is a photo of the early summer Milky Way and the Planet Mars.
This photo is a stack of several 30 seconds exposures. Learn more about manual stacking in Photoshop.
If you’re ready for deep-sky (Nebulas and galaxies) – a quality equatorial mount is the first step.
You can later expand your astrophotography equipment to include hardware that can help you capture beautiful deep-sky photos. Some of those items include a telescope, an autoguiding system, dew heaters, and filters. Start slow, and acquire the gear you need as you learn.
This video should help you understand the basic equipment needed for imaging deep-sky objects in the night sky.
Video: Astrophotography Equipment for Deep-sky Imaging
Deep-sky imaging with a DSLR camera
My astrophotography equipment has expanded over the years, in an attempt to improve the quality of my images.
As my focus is currently deep-sky DSLR astrophotography, my equipment and reviews are geared towards items that aim to achieve success by this method. An alternative set of equipment and camera may be a better option for other types of astrophotography including planetary or lunar imaging.
I have made the descriptions of each item as clearly as possible, with a review of how well the equipment performs in a real-life imaging situation.
The image above was taken with a stock Canon Rebel DSLR camera through a small telescope. Deep-sky means photographing nebulas, galaxies and star clusters at close range, usually with a telescope.
Astrophotography can change your life by providing you with a creative outlet like you have never experienced before. There are endless options when it comes to astrophotography equipment that can produce high-quality images.
Some hobbyists get carried away with the “gear” aspect of the hobby, and I can see why. There have never been so many options available to track and photograph the stars above. It is important to research the astrophotography equipment you are looking to purchase before you buy it. AstroBin is a great place to browse what others are using.
Complete deep-sky astrophotography setup
Deep-sky astrophotography requires some specific equipment to get the job done. The hardware and accessories will vary widely, but there are a few common traits of nearly every astrophotography equipment rig:
- German Equatorial Mount
- Primary Imaging Telescope
- Primary Imaging Camera
- Autoguiding Telescope
- Autoguiding Camera
- Field Laptop
- Power Supply
This does not include the adapters, cables, software, and many other items required to run these components. I’ll cover those items below.
Connecting Your Camera to a Telescope
A camera adapter will connect the telescope to the front of your DSLR as if it were a large camera lens.
A T-ring and T-adapter will allow the camera sensor to point through the focuser tube of the telescope. The T-ring locks on to the front of the DSLR like a camera lens, while the adapter screws into the t-ring and is inserted into the draw tube. Make sure to purchase the T-ring that is compatible with your brand of camera.
This is one of the first steps you will need to take if you want to take deep-sky images through your telescope. Later on, you may want to replace the prime focus adapter with a field flattener/reducer for an improved overall image. The field flattener you choose will depend on the specifications of your telescope.
Primary Imaging Telescope
1. Explore Scientific ED102 CF Apochromatic Refractor
I upgraded from the ED80 Refractor to the ED102 CF in June 2016. This telescope has all of the features of the ED80 Triplet Apo from Explore Scientific, with a larger aperture and constructed with Carbon Fiber.
The increased focal length (714mm) allows me to get a deeper view of deep-sky objects and produce images of nebulae and galaxies in higher resolution than I could with the 80mm.
The light weight of this telescope makes it excellent an excellent choice for astrophotography. You can add an autoguiding scope, guide camera, and DSLR camera to the payload, and still maintain a relatively light weight – in my case, requiring only a single counterweight.
I currently use a 2″ 0.8X William Optics filed-flattener/reducer when imaging through this telescope. This provides a large 2″ opening to the sensor of my Canon T3i sensor. It corrects the field of view so that my images contain sharp stars right to the edge of the frame. This lens also reduces the f-ratio and focal length of the telescope by 0.8X. Light is collected faster, and I am able to capture a larger area of the night sky.
(714mm @ F/7 becomes 571mm @ F/5.6)
This flattener/reducer includes a set screw to rotate the camera 360 degrees, and screws directly into the T-Ring attached to your astrophotography DSLR. This model has been discontinued, but there are some great alternatives available for a refractor telescope in the F/6 – F/7 range:
Recommended Field Flattener for the Explore Scientific 102mm Refactor: Altair Lightwave 50mm Guide Scope
2″ Dielectric Diagonal
The ED102 CF came supplied with a 2″ dielectric diagonal for visual use. I use this to attach various eyepieces during my star alignment process.
The 2″ opening allows me to use a large 22mm wide field eyepiece to locate an alignment star. Because
I do not use a finder scope, this forgiving field of view allows me to target my initial alignment star rather quickly.
I use a Celestron 2″ Ultima LX 22mm eyepiece for star alignment. This eyepiece is no longer in production, but here is a similar eyepiece.
The Best Beginner Astrophotography Telescope
If you are looking to purchase your first astrophotography telescope, I have put together a resource that may help you make your decision. I consider a small apochromatic refractor like the one listed below to be the best possible choice for beginners looking to get into astrophotography. The forgiving field of view, portability and reliability make an apo refractor an excellent choice.
2. Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet Apochromatic Refractor
I no longer own this telescope! I have since upgraded to the larger ED102 CF.
This 80mm Apochromatic Triplet Refractor was my primary instrument for astrophotography for 5 years. This is a high-quality wide-field instrument. It produces sharp, high-contrast images due to the air-spaced triplet optical design, and low dispersion ED glass that virtually eliminates chromatic aberration.
ES ED80 Specs:
Focal Length: 480mm
Focal Ratio: f/6
Perfect for astrophotography
There are several things I love about this telescope. Weighing in at 7.5 lbs, and including a high-quality aluminum padded case with a handle, this refractor is a breeze to transport. I also love the consistency of the images it produces.
I rarely use it visually, but the photos I take with it are always crisp and sharp with pin-point stars. With a focal length of 480mm, and Aperture of f/6, this telescope is perfect for wide-field astrophotography. The beefy 2 inch, dual-speed focuser makes imaging that much more accurate and stable.
Compact and convenient
The only downside would have to be this telescope’s small aperture. An 80mm telescope is not going to produce the stunning detail observed in a large reflector. Not having to collimate the scope before each use more than makes up for that!
Explore Scientific ED80 Example Photos
3. Orion 8″ f/4 Newtonian Astrograph Reflector
With an objective of 200mm and an aperture of f/4, this baby can collect a lot of light in short period of time. The 800mm focal length almost doubled the magnification (at prime-focus) of my 80mm refractor. This may be considered “lightweight” and “wide-field” to owners of much beefier telescopes, but for me – this is big bertha.
Fast optics means more light
I use my astrograph for smaller targets such as galaxies, that appear as tiny smudges in my ultra-wide-field refractor. My exposure times tend to linger around the 3-minute mark from the city to a maximum of 5 minutes from a dark-sky site.
This telescope requires a simple collimation check on a regular basis. Once you have learned how to properly align a Newtonian reflector, it’s a very simple process. When it’s dialed in, the results can be incredible. It’s capable of capturing much more detail than a small refractor such as the ED80.
Needed for astrophotography: Coma Corrector
You will need a coma corrector (I use the Baader MPCC Mark III) to use this telescope for astrophotography. Because this reflector is so fast (f/4) it suffers from severe vignetting at the edges of the frame. This integral piece of my astrophotography equipment is my primary visual observing telescope.
German Equatorial Mount
Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 Pro Synscan
This is a modestly priced GEM (German Equatorial Mount) that has a earned solid reputation among astrophotographers. This mount provides extremely high precision tracking, with a built-in autoguider port.
Dependable and Stable
The Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 is a great balance between stability and portability. It is lighter and smaller than the NEQ-6, but can still handle a 13.7 kg payload capacity. The go-to object database containing Messier, NGC and IC catalogs is a necessity for me.
With my heavy Orion Astrograph Reflector mounted to it, both of the included counterweights are needed. This is close to the maximum payload for this particular GEM. When shopping for an astrophotography mount, make sure you have accounted for the extra weight that your camera and autoguiding unit will add.
The Sky-Watcher NEQ6 is the next step up from the HEQ5. This equatorial mount shares all of the features of the EQ5 version, but with a heavier payload rating. HEQ5 vs. NEQ6 – Comparing astrophotography mounts.
The telescope mount is the single most important element of your astrophotography equipment.
Skywatcher HEQ-5 Pro Specs:
Mount Type: German Equatorial Mount
Counter Weight: 2 x 5.1Kgs
Motor Drive: 1.8 degree stepper motors
Hand Control: GoTo SynScan
Payload Capacity: 13.7 kg
Primary Imaging DSLR Camera
For a better understanding of the types of cameras used for astrophotography, visit the link below. I mainly focus on deep-sky astrophotography using a DSLR camera, but there are several options available, depending on what type of photography you are interested in.
Canon EOS Rebel T3i – Modified for Astrophotography
Full Spectrum Mod (Naked Sensor)
This camera was modified for astrophotography by removing the IR cut filter. This allows for more reds from emission nebulae and more to be collected by the camera sensor. The full spectrum method disables the camera’s autofocus functionality and negatively affects picture quality of the camera for daytime use. Since I use this DSLR exclusively for astrophotography, those issues do not impact me.
It is also wise to use a clip-in filter to protect the sensor of a full spectrum mod DSLR. I use an IDAS LPS filter when imaging RGB photos, and an Astronomik Ha filter when imaging H-Alpha. To learn more about modifying DSLR’s, visit Gary Honis’ website on the subject in detail.
I did not modify this camera myself as I did with my previous astrophotography camera, the Canon Xsi. This 600D was modified by a professional from a service called Astro Mod Canada.
Canon 450D (Rebel Xsi) modified
This is a popular, yet aging Camera model for DSLR Imagers. The live-view focus, inexpensive cost, and ability to mod quite easily make this a classic among astrophotographers. There is a fantastic video available from Gary Honis explaining in detail the steps needed to modify the Canon Xsi for Astrophotography.
I modified this camera for astrophotography.
It took longer that it should have, but I got the job done thanks to Gary’s thorough FREE video. I also use an aftermarket battery grip to double my battery power for an imaging night.
The photo above shows a clip from Gary Honis’ instructional DSLR astrophotography modification tutorial of the Canon T3i.
Powering the camera all night long
Your imaging sessions will involve running the DSLR in low temperatures, which causes the camera battery to lose it’s charge even faster. Even a brand new stock camera battery will not make it through an entire night.
There are two ways to go about powering the camera for a night of imaging. An AC adapter is best, as it will never run out of power. Alternatively, a Battery Grip can provide you with enough power to image over 8 hours, even in the extreme cold. I ordered the AC adapter seen below on Amazon. Polaroid AC Adapter for Canon T3i.
I control my DSLR with my laptop running an application known as Astro Photography Tool. Using this software I am able to set the number of exposures I would like to take, achieve accurate focus, frame my target, and much more. I can also review each frame as I take it, on a large laptop display rather than on the back of the camera.
I use an A-Male to Mini-B USB cable to connect the DSLR to the computer. A longer cord will give you more flexibility when it comes to organizing your setup with all of the cables. Velcro ties do a great job of securing and organizing your cables.
Hutech IDAS Light Pollution Suppression (LPS) Filter
The IDAS LPS filter allows astrophotographers in the city to image through heavy light pollution. Without the LPS (Light pollution suppression) filter attached to my Canon 450D, I would not even attempt to image in the city.
This is the clip-in version for Canon EOS DSLR Cameras.
This filter was designed to suppress the common emission lines generated by artificial lighting, yet allow the light from deep-sky-objects such as emission nebulae to pass through. Because of this, the contrast of my imaging targets is greatly increased. Hutech that explains the limitations of this filter and some common misconceptions on their website.
Make sure to order the proper clip-in adapter for your camera.
Astronomik 12nm Clip-In Ha Filter
By combining regular RGB data (A typical color image) with images using a Ha filter, you can capture extraordinary astrophotography images.
A clip-in filter for your camera such as the Astronomik H-Alpha 12nm CCD filter makes it easy to start gathering Hydrogen-Alpha images with your existing DSLR.
This is called a narrowband filter and lets the h-alpha light of emission nebulae pass through to the camera sensor while blocking almost all of the other light spectrum.
SkyTech CLS-CCD Filter
In late May 2017, I reviewed a new Canon Astrophotography Filter: The SkyTech CLS-CCD. This is an affordable option for modified DSLR camera owners, and it does a great job of boosting the contrast of your DSO while reducing city glow.
Astrophotography Autoguiding System
Autoguiding is required to take successful exposures on a tracking mount longer than 3 minutes. The CCD Camera (In this case, the Meade DSI Pro II) takes quick 1 second exposures through the 50mm mini-scope. I use a program called PHD2 guiding to communicate the star movement in the DSI, to my Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 mount. The software sends signals to the tracking mount, making small adjustments to allow you to track objects with extreme accuracy for long periods of time.
It sounds more complex than it is.
The miniature Orion 50mm guide scope does exactly what it was designed for, and it does it well. It is lightweight and easy to focus. It was very affordable and I would highly recommend it.
Sony VAIO VGN-NW150D
The laptop is a very important element of my astrophotography equipment. I use my old daily work computer, an old Sony Vaio machine from 2009. A laptop that is reliable is essential for a headache-free night of deep-sky imaging. The computer runs the autoguiding software and controls the camera via the BackyardEOS application.
I keep the laptop computer in a plastic tote container on its side. This is a popular method as it keeps the laptop protected from the elements, and shields any stray light produced by the computer from your precious dark skies. I cut small holes in the sides of the container to run my cables through, as well as put the lid back on while I am imaging.
This setup allows me to leave the camera running throughout the night. The computer is protected from dew and the cold when the lid is on the container.
Tip: Keep the battery pack for the laptop inside the container – it will keep the computer warm!
Portable Power / Battery Pack
Eliminator 1000A/700W Power Box
If you are traveling to a dark sky location such as a campsite or park, you will need to have a way to power your astrophotography equipment away from electrical outlets. You do not need to buy an expensive power box like this to power your telescope and laptop. A deep-cycle marine battery with a converter will also work just fine.
Personally, I enjoy the convenience of a power box as I use it to power an assortment of electronics while camping. This particular power supply has 3 AC outlets, 1 DC outlet, and a USB port. The digital display shows me how many watts any particular device is using. This single unit powers my laptop, telescope mount, Kendrick dew heater controller, and the dew heater straps.
Adapters and Cables
Shoestring GPUSB, Cables, Dew Heaters
I use the Shoestring astronomy GPUSB adapter to connect my laptop via USB to my telescope mount for autoguiding. It has worked very well for me and has never let me down. I have had to replace my RJ-12 cable before. If you are experiencing connection issues between your PHD guiding software and your mount, make sure to check to make sure that it is not a faulty cable! (This tip would have saved me a lot of headaches!) Over time, you will learn the quirks of each piece of your astrophotography equipment, and how to deal with issues as they come up.
Below, is the Shutter release timer remote control I use with my Canon T3i. This remote plugs into the DSLR, and opens the door to timed and long exposures from a safe distance. I purchased this on Amazon.
Photographing the night sky on a budget
My gear could be classified as “budget-astrophotography”, as I do not have the luxury of spending a fortune on this hobby. By no means do I own the best telescope for astrophotography, or a top-of-the-line camera. Much of my gear was purchased second-hand from websites such as Canada-Wide Astronomy Buy and Sell, and Astromart. I bought my beloved Explore Scientific ED80 used from Astromart, and my Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 used from Astro Buy-Sell.
Astrophotography forums are also a great place to meet buyers and sellers.
Recommended Astronomy Binoculars
If you are brand-new to astronomy – start with binoculars. They are an affordable way to take your observing to the next level. This pair is a favorite at my local astronomy club. I think every member owns a pair. They offer the “wow-factor” as far as views of star clusters, the moon, bright galaxies and nebula under dark skies. Before owning these, I had no idea how amazing a nice wide view of the milky way could look when you use both eyes.
The Celestron Skymaster Giant 15 x 70 Binoculars are available on Amazon.
If you don’t already own a good pair of binoculars for astronomy, I can highly recommend this powerful and capable pair offered from Celestron. I like to mount them to my tripod for an ultra steady view and get a comfortable seat in my zero-gravity chair below them.