I use an old Canon Rebel Xsi DSLR – This camera has been discontinued and replaced with several newer models including the t2i and Canon t3i DSLR bodies – but even those models are getting quite old! I desperately want to upgrade to a newer DSLR body for astrophotography soon. The reasonable price and amazing astrophotography capabilities of the Canon T3i (600D) have that digital camera at the top of my list. Until then, my trusty 450D (modified for astrophotography) will have to suffice! I’ll give you my recommendations for a beginner DSLR camera for astrophotography below.
Summer Deep-Sky Targets
The moon’s glaring presence has subsided, and it is now time to gather more RGB light frames on my coveted summer deep-sky milky way objects. This is now my 5th summer as an astrophotographer, and I waste no time choosing my target for the night. The messier objects located near the core of the milky way have again captured my attention, with the Lagoon Nebula taking priority over all else. The best deep-sky objects of summer lie within the region of the Milky Way Core. Many of them are bright, and colorful such as the Lagoon Nebula, Eagle Nebula and the Swan Nebula. These object are so bright, it is possible to photograph them from light polluted areas such as your backyard (if you live in the city like me!) The main aspect to consider is having a clear window of sky to the South, as most of the summer Milky Way targets travel Southeast to Southwest throughout the night.
An incredible post by Dylan O’Donnell inspired me to take another shot at Messier 8 (The Lagoon Nebula) with my new telescope. In his photo, I especially love the framing of the object to include the Cat’s Paw Nebula, as well as the vivid colors and sharpness of the image. Visit his website for more: www.deography.com. This object does not rise very high from my latitude, nor does it offer many opportunities to photograph it. The time for photographing the Lagoon Nebula is now!
The Lagoon Nebula
The photo above of the Lagoon nebula was imaged over several nights last week. I set up my gear on June 30th, July 2nd and July 3rd over the Canada-Day long weekend in my backyard. This colorful nebula does not rise very high in the sky from my latitude in Southern Ontario. In fact, it just barely cleared my backyard fence! I consider myself very lucky to be able to photograph such a glorious night-sky treasure from home. You can view the specific photography details for my final image on my Flickr profile. I also managed to squeeze in some more imaging time on the Eagle Nebula, as well as the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula over the weekend, as you will see further down the post.
For Beginners / Newbies
You can view the equipment I use to take images like the ones on this website here, or watch this video as I take you through my complete setup for astrophotography. If you already own a DSLR and telescope, and have started taking your own astrophotos – you may benefit from my astrophotography tutorials about image processing. If you are completely new to long-exposure night photography, you can learn how to get started taking pictures of stars and night sky sky here.
Hot Summer Nights
On a recent attempt to gather some H-alpha data on the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula, I discovered the limits of my DSLR when imaging in the hot summer heat. On this particular night in Mid-June, the temperature remained over 30° well after midnight. This was just too hot for my Canon 7D to capture any useful data on my deep-sky target. (I use a different DSLR for my H-Alpha captures, as my Canon Rebel Xsi has the LP filter fitted to it at all times) The hot hazy skies, combined with a dangerously hot sensor produced a red, noisy mess of an image. A an exposure of 30 seconds to a minute may be fine in this heat, but I was shooting 7 minute subs at ISO 1600 to pick up faint nebulosity through a narrowband 12nm Ha filter. Lesson learned!
I have since returned to the Elephant’s trunk nebula in the constellation Cepheus, and let me tell you – it is faint! Photographing IC 1396 from a light-polluted backyard in the city has proved to be quite the challenge. I was able to capture about 2 hours of exposure on this nebula last week, which is not enough to produce a pleasing image. By stretching the data far enough (using curves in Adobe Photoshop) to show the rim of the nebula, the background stars become blown out and noisy. It takes many hours worth of imaging to produce a decent portrait of this DSO. Here is my early result with limited exposure time:
Best Beginner DSLR for Astrophotography
I have stood behind the Canon brand of DSLR’s from the beginning. Based on the advice I read in the Backyard Astronomers Guide back in 2010, I chose to start my photography adventure using Canon digital cameras. At the time, they were the clear choice for astrophotographers, offering the only DSLR built for astrophotograpy (They later released the 60Da) Nikon has come a along way since then in the way of astrophotography, but my heart still belongs to Canon!
Canon EOS T3i
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For several reasons, this is the DSLR i always recommend to beginners. First of all, it is the successor to the Canon Xsi which I use now, and can provide actual results (my photo gallery) of the astrophotography performance of this camera. Second, it is a great value. You will find used models of this camera body at online retailers (such as Henry’s in Canada) for a fraction of the price of a new CCD Astronomy Camera. You can no longer purchase this camera new, so if you can’t find a used body at camera retailers, you will have to search online forums such as Canada Wide Astronomy Buy and Sell, or Astromart. This camera can also quite easily be modified for astrophotography by yourself or a professional. The features of the camera itself are quite standard of all models these days, but this DSLR is capable of taking astonishing deep-sky and landscape astrophotography images.
The Canon T4i and T5i are also excellent choices but are a little more expensive. The Canon T5i can be purchased in a kit including an 18-55mm lens for under $1,000. A great value!
There are many different types of astrophotography cameras available, other than Digital SLR’s. Dedicated thermal-cooled CCD cameras are much better at producing deep-sky images with less noise, but are much more expensive and less user-friendly. Webcam’s can produce stunning images of Solar System planets and the moon, and can be inexpensive and easier to use. However, I prefer to use a DSLR because that is what I feel comfortable with. Until I feel that my Canon Rebel is holding me back from producing better images, I will continue to educate myself with better ways to utilize this camera for astrophotography.
Light Pollution Map
I often speak of the light pollution from my backyard in the city. I love to get away from home to image under dark skies at my astronomy club’s observatory (RASC Niagara Center) – but I rarely have time to drive 40 minutes with all of my equipment to this special place. To maximize my time under the stars, it makes more sense for me to get as much astrophotography in at home, in the backyard. (Hence the name of this website) The light pollution produced by the city I live in is quite heavy, especially in certain areas. My house is in the worst of it, being located in the central area of town. I found this helpful Light Pollution Map that shows just how bad it really is:
The Bortle Scale
Do you see that? I am in a Red Zone! I would estimate that my location is either a class 6 or a 7 on the Bortle Scale, although I have not yet taken an accurate light pollution measurement. The Bortle Scale states that a class 6 zone (NELM 5.1-5.5) will have your surroundings easily visible, and that the Milky Way is visible only at the Zenith. These characteristics are true of my backyard, and is referred to as a bright suburban sky. Perhaps my sky is bordering on a class 5, because on a clear night I can faintly make out the Milky Way in the Southeast direction. How much light pollution is in your backyard? You can use this nifty interactive map to find out:
To view all of my best image shot using a Canon Rebel Xsi, check out my photo gallery. I wish you all the best in your future astrophotography endeavors, clear skies.