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Building a Deep Sky Astrophotography Kit

astrophotography equipment list
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I am often asked for my opinion on the best route to take when it comes to building a deep-sky astrophotography kit for the first time. A popular option for many night sky enthusiasts is to start with a DSLR camera and telescope, and I can understand why. Building an astrophotography setup that revolves around a user-friendly, entry-level DSLR can reap some impressive results.

Modern-day hobbyist/beginner digital SLR cameras such as the Canon EOS Rebel T7i or Nikon D3400 provide the least-steep learning curve when it comes to deep-sky imaging in a very technical and sometimes overwhelming hobby. Even if you decide to upgrade to a dedicated astronomy camera or CCD later, you’ll never regret purchasing a DSLR as they have heaps of potential for all kinds of photography.

building a deep-sky astrophotography kit

Like many of you, I started getting into astrophotography by taking long-exposure images of the night sky using my DSLR camera and lens on a simple tripod.  This evolved into capturing multiple hour-long images of deep-sky objects such as the Orion Nebula through a refractor telescope. A camera and (the right) small telescope is capable of capturing some incredible deep-sky objects in our night sky.

It didn’t all come together in one day or even one year. If your fascination with astrophotography is as relentless as mine, deep-sky imaging will be a part of your life forever. I would advise that you map out a clear vision of your personal goals, and patiently work towards it. To me, the most rewarding part of this hobby has been the steady progress I’ve made along the way.

With that out of the way, here is some honest advice from someone who is in it for the long haul. Before we get into it, have a look at the following video where I share an affordable, yet capable setup for deep sky astrophotography with a DSLR camera. 

If you are unclear about what the process of capturing deep-sky astrophotography images with a DSLR camera and telescope involves, have a look at the following video:

Related Video: Astrophotography Cameras: What’s The Best Choice in 2020?

Putting the Pieces Together

In this post, I’ll give you my advice on how to best build yourself a deep-sky astrophotography kit that rewards you with the images you crave. This beginner-level kit will not only produce amazing images of galaxies and nebulae, but deliver a rate of success, and offer a rewarding experience.

This is your chance to learn from my years of mistakes and jump straight into equipment that works. There are plenty of opinions on the best way to go about this, and I’d like to state the fact that I can advise you on what has worked for me.

Early on, it can be confusing to research exactly what you’ll need to successfully photograph a deep-sky object. My goal in this post is to make things as clear as possible and offer a number of different configurations to get you started. The tools you choose are interchangeable with these setups, but I hope that you find it helpful to see an example combination.

Below is an example of an extremely portable and proficient equipment setup that I have used personally to capture deep-sky targets such as the Andromeda Galaxy. It includes a portable star tracker that lets you capture long exposure images of the night sky without star-trails. 

portable astrophotography kit

 

  1. William Optics SpaceCat 51 (or NightCat)
  2. Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mount
  3. Canon EOS Rebel T7i DSLR Camera

The setup pictured above will need a few extras, including a tripod to mount the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. The telescope mentioned is a very compact, lightweight apochromatic refractor. I believe that a refractor telescope is the best choice for portable deep-sky astrophotography on a tracking mount like this.

For more details about the SpaceCat 51 telescope, check out my William Optics RedCat 51 post. The SpaceCat is essentially the same telescope, with a few upgrades. Here is a photo taken using a nearly identical setup to the one listed above under the dark skies of the Black Forest Star Party in 2019.

The camera used was a Canon EOS 60Da (which is more sensitive to the h-alpha wavelength), and an Optolong UV/IR cut filter to prevent star bloat.

Andromeda Galaxy amateur photo

Modifying your DSLR camera for astrophotography can help capture the red hues of certain deep-sky objects, but it is not crucial early on. If you plan on shooting your images in the city, you’ll want to take a good look at the many light-pollution filters available to amateur astrophotographers these days. 

A telephoto camera lens is another option to consider, such as the Rokinon 135mm F/2. I have found this lens to be particularly sharp and to produce impressive wide-field astrophotography images. 

Each setup will require different adapters and mounting hardware, so talk to your favorite telescope dealer and ask them what you’ll need in that regard. 

Mounting hardware and extension tubes are some more examples of the specifics you’ll need to confirm before you can get everything up and running. Remember, these are the key components only. Every setup will have its own set of necessary accessories to get to the finish line.

Here is another example of the type of image you could capture using this setup. The following photo was captured using a Canon EOS 60Da camera attached to a William Optics RedCat 51, riding on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (Pro Pack) mount. 

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula captured using a DSLR and compact refractor on the Star Adventurer Pro.

As you can see, you don’t need to have a large aperture refractor telescope or dedicated astronomy camera to take great deep-sky astrophotography images. Not only are portable travel rigs like this quick and easy to set up, but they are capable of producing amazing results. 

The astrophotography setup used for the photo above is small enough to travel with on an airplane in your carry-on bag. As a matter of fact, I brought a similar-sized setup with me to Costa Rica in 2019 to photograph the Carina Nebula!

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

A highly portable travel astrophotography kit for deep-sky imaging on the go. 

Using a Refractor Telescope with a DSLR Camera

If you already own and enjoy a DSLR or mirrorless camera for daytime photography, chances are you’d like to use it for deep-sky imaging as well. The following principles apply to those shooting with an APS-C sized sensor like the ones found in a Canon Rebel series camera. A full-frame camera sensor will shoot even wider but may expose issues near the edges of your image frame.

Once you learn how to focus your camera through a telescope, a refractor is capable of sharp images with a flat field. Compared to a telephoto camera lens, an apochromatic refractor designed for astrophotography will be easier to focus and mount to your star tracker or equatorial telescope mount.

William Optics RedCat 51

My personal taste in deep-sky imaging leans heavily towards wide-field targets like The Pleiades, Andromeda Galaxy, and the North America Nebula. For this reason, I tend to recommend a telescope with a wide field of view (usually no more than 700mm). This can make aspects such as autoguiding accuracy and focus, as small movements are less critical at this magnification.

The Pleiades Star Cluster

The Pleiades Star Cluster in Taurus using a compact refractor telescope and a DSLR camera.

For example, the Meade 70mm Quadruplet Astrograph has a focal length of 360mm. At this magnification, an entry-level DSLR camera at prime focus can capture large nebulae such as the Soul Nebula, the California Nebula, and the Rosette Nebula. A DSLR camera can be attached to the Meade APO using the threaded focus tube and the Meade 48mm-42mm adapter.

Here is a look at the t-ring and adapter attached to the body of my DSLR camera before threading on to the telescope. 

how to attach camera to telescope

Many refractor telescopes will have a dedicated field flattener/reducer and adapter to properly expose the image sensor of your camera. A field-flattener evens out the field of view, while a reducer (such as 0.8X) will reduce the focal length and f-ratio of your telescope by that value.

A standard T-Ring adapter screws into the camera body like a camera lens, and can then be fastened to the telescope (prime focus astrophotography). In this configuration, the native focal length of the telescope provides the field of view you can expect to achieve with your camera. 

Related Post: How to attach your DSLR camera to a telescope

Meade 70mm APO refractor

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Meade 70mm Astrograph in the backyard. I managed to collect a number of impressive images with this telescope and my modified Canon DSLR camera. 

For emission nebula targets glowing with hydrogen gas, I found the SkyTech CLS-CCD filter (or Astronomik CLS-CCD) to be a great fit. The image below was captured using a modified 600D, Meade 70mm quadruplet APO, and a CLS-CCD filter.

California Nebula

The California Nebula captured with a modified DSLR and the Meade 70mm astrograph.

Choosing a Telescope

I experienced a spike in my deep-sky astrophotography progress after purchasing my first “triplet” apochromatic refractor. A lightweight and compact APO is arguably the best possible choice for a beginner. The doublet and triplet lens designs of these telescopes often use high-end optics such as FPL-53 glass to provide the best possible color correction without a hint of chromatic aberration.

Refractors are lightweight, portable, and do not require an equatorial mount with a hefty payload capacity to operate. In comparison, a Newtonian reflector will offer much more aperture at a lower price, but will also be much more demanding in terms of maintenance and operation.

My first refractor telescope was an Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet APO. Riding along on a Celestron CG-5 mount, this telescope was responsible for some of my greatest early achievements in astrophotography. 

explore scientific ed80

This was my primary imaging telescope from 2011-2016. In May of 2016, I finally had enough money to upgrade to the larger ED 102 (carbon fiber).

Entry-level equatorial telescope mounts such as the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 can effortlessly carry the telescope and all of the photography extras in this range. You cannot beat the portability and ease of use of this design.

Here is a look at my first “successful” imaging rig.  This little 80mm refractor captured many iconic targets from the Eagle Nebula to the North America Nebula. As you can see, the imaging equipment (including the autoguiding combo) is small and lightweight. This allows for better tracking and puts less stress on the mount.

deep sky imaging rig

My first successful deep-sky imaging rig. Sky-Watcher HEQ5, Explore Scientific ED80 telescope.

When keeping the overall weight of your gear to a minimum, a small imaging refractor is the best option. Avoiding a heavy payload is crucial when it comes to deep-sky astrophotography. As a rule of thumb, you should keep the weight of your astrophotography gear to about half of the payload rating of your mount.

Here are some excellent choices to consider when choosing an imaging refractor.

William Optics Zenithstar 61

Diameter: 61mm
Focal Length: 360mm
Focal Ratio: f/5.9
Weight: 3.2 lbs
Glass: FPL-53
Field Flattener/Reducer: William Optics FLAT61

William Optics Z61

This little apochromatic doublet is one of the smallest telescopes I have ever used for astrophotography (only the RedCat is smaller!), and that’s great news if you own a small tracking mount. The William Optics Z61 weighs just over 3 lbs and is not a problem for portable equatorial mounts such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.

At F/5.9, the Z61 does an admirable job of collecting light from your deep-sky target.  You can expect to gather some impressive exposures in the 1-2 minute range on the brighter deep-sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy.

Andromeda Galaxy

Keep in mind that the Flat61 field flattener will be required to produce images with sharp stars to the edge of the frame, especially when using a full-frame DSLR. To add an autoguiding scope, you’ll need to purchase some additional accessories including tube rings and a dovetail plate.

William Optics Zenithstar 73

  • Focal Length: 430mm
  • Focal Ratio: F/5.9
  • Objective Size: 73mm
  • Glass Type: FPL-53
  • Weight: 5.5 lbs
  • Focuser: Dual Speed Rack and Pinion
  • Field Flattener/Reducer: William Optics FLAT73

If you are looking for a similar experience with a little more aperture, consider the equally impressive William Optics Zenithstar 73 APO. This is a quality doublet refractor with some added reach to capture a wide variety of deep-sky objects in the night sky. 

One of the best example images I have captured using the Z73 is the Andromeda Galaxy using my Canon DSLR. This image was the subject of an image processing tutorial in Photoshop, where you can download the raw data and process it yourself (it’s also a great way to review the data collected using the Z73). 

In 2 short years with this telescope, I have racked up over a dozen incredible images including this portrait of the Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia. 

Heart Nebula with a DSLR

Meade 70mm Quadruplet Astrograph

Diameter: 70mm
Focal Length: 350mm
Focal Ratio: f/5
Glass: FPL-53
Field Flattener/Reducer: Not Required

telescope mount

The stocky Meade 70mm Astrograph is compact and solid.  Modest equatorial mounts with humble payload capacity ratings such as the Orion Sirius EQ-G or Celestron Advanced VX will have no problem with a telescope of this size.

With a focal length of 350mm, the “mighty” Meade APO specializes in wide-field imaging of larger deep sky objects such as the North America Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy and the California Nebula as seen below.  When you’re shooting this wide, guiding accuracy is much more forgiving.  This is one of many reasons I recommend a small apo refractor to astrophotography beginners.

Added benefits of this telescope are the lack of field flattener needed, padded carry-case, and a built-in bracket for a finder or guide scope. You pay a little extra upfront, but this telescope was ready to go out of the box. Below is an image of the Soul Nebula captured using the Meade 70mm astrograph and a modified DSLR camera.

Soul Nebula

The Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia.

Orion ED80T Triplet Apo

Diameter: 80mm
Focal Length: 480mm
Focal Ratio: f/6
Weight: 5.5 lbs
Glass: FPL-53
Recommended Field Flattener/Reducer: Orion FF for short refractors

The Orion ED80T CF shares the same focal length, size, and weight of the Explore Scientific ED80, yet uses the highly regarded FPL-53 glass in the objective lens.  This telescope is a popular choice for those looking to invest in premium optics in a small package.

This lightweight carbon fiber refractor is highly portable and can capture crisp, wide-field views of some of the larger targets such as the images Heart Nebula by Chuck Ayoub.

What am I using now? I personally enjoy my Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO very much. This telescope is compact and portable, yet offers a little more focal length and aperture than the telescopes mentioned above.

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO

  • Optical Design: Apochromatic Refractor
  • Glass Type: FPL-53
  • Diameter: 100mm
  • Focal Length: 550mm
  • F/Ratio: f/5.5
  • Tube Weight: 13 lbs

Recommended Field Flattener/Reducer: Sky-Watcher Focal Corrector (Included with telescope)

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100

Since the Esprit 100 arrived in late 2018, I have used this telescope extensively in the backyard. Some of my best astrophotography images to date were captured using this compact apo refractor. 

It may be compact, but the Esprit 100 is very heavy considering its size (nearly 14 pounds to be exact). The 550mm focal length of this refractor has proven to be a useful magnification for many of the astrophotography cameras I use. 

For example, have a look at the following image of the Cave Nebula using the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 and the ZWO ASI294MC Pro one-shot-color camera.

Cave Nebula

The Cave Nebula. Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 and a dedicated astronomy camera. 

This telescope is more expensive than the others mentioned in this post. In my experience, the triplet apochromatic lens construction of the Esprit line of refractors produce flat, well-corrected images. The focuser on this refractor includes an upper linear rail that adds a level of stability when focusing your camera. 

An added bonus of this telescope (which surely adds to the price), is that it includes a number of useful accessories. The Esprit 100 package includes a padded hard carry-case, a dedicated focal corrector (flattener), a finder scope, and an adapter to attach your DSLR camera. 

Why Not Use a Camera Lens?

If you already own a quality telephoto lens in the 200-400mm range, by all means, give that a try first. There are many camera lenses suitable for deep-sky astrophotography, and often offer faster f-ratios than a telescope would. I have personally had success using a Canon EF 300mm F/4L lens for astrophotography. Here is a photo I took of the Orion Nebula with a rather short overall integration time from a Bortle Scale Class 8 backyard.

Orion Nebula 300mm Lens

The only problem with using a telephoto camera lens in place of a telescope is that they are usually more expensive, and can be difficult to focus (especially using a fast aperture setting).

Modern telephoto lenses come with features such as image stabilization and advanced autofocus systems. You are paying for these impressive features, but they do not apply to long-exposure astrophotography.

However, you may already own some lenses for your camera that you use for regular daytime photography, and they can be enjoyed for astro-imaging as well. I have built up quite the collection of Canon lenses over the years, and I enjoy using them when the situation calls for it. 

A word of advice though, wide-angle lenses are much more suitable when photographing the night sky from a dark-sky location. 

camera lenses for astrophotography

Here is a list of the camera lenses I have used for astrophotography, whether it was shooting a deep-sky object, or a wide-angle view of the Milky Way. 

Recommended Astrophotography Mounts

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro is a portable EQ mount that offers a reliable solution for astrophotography on the go. The SkyGuider Pro makes shooting long exposure starscapes without star-trailing possible (see my video about star trackers). 

This portable camera mount can be used on a photography tripod and is less obtrusive than a traditional, large equatorial mount. In a sea of competing portable sky tracker mounts, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro stands out as the front-runner in this category.

It is a practical choice if you plan on mounting your camera lenses as well. In the video below, I use the SkyGuider with a 300mm camera lens to capture the Orion Nebula from my backyard.

Mount Specs:

Payload: 11 lbs
Mount Weight: 3.2 lbs
Power Requirement: Internal Rechargeable Battery
Built-in Polar Scope: Yes
Autoguider Port: Yes

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro is easy to operate, and I was able to get up and running my first night out. The SGP is a great option if you like to shoot wide-angle nightscapes using a DSLR camera and lens. A portable option like this is great for traveling to a dark sky site.

The image below shows the view of the Milky Way from Cherry Springs State Park during an annual star party. A Canon Rebel T3i with a Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens was mounted to the SkyGuider Pro for this stacked shot.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way using a DSLR and wide-angle lens on the SkyGuider Pro.

The SkyGuider can also be used with a small telescope such as the William Optics Zenithstar 61 pictured below. For this, you’ll attach the included counterweight to the mount to balance the load. With a payload capacity of 11 lbs, this mount had no trouble at all carrying the lightweight Z61 telescope with the camera attached.

small telescope mount

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is another star tracker in this category, and it is equally as useful and enjoyable to use. Since receiving a Star Adventurer Pro Pack in the fall of 2019, I have actually found myself reaching for it first when the situation calls for it. 

Realistically, you can’t go wrong with either of these camera mounts, they are both exceptionally easy to use and reliable.

Orion Sirius EQ-G

The Orion Sirius EQ-G is a twin to my Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro equatorial mount.  This “EQ-5” series GEM has been around for years and has proven itself to be an excellent choice for deep sky astrophotography.

This is a serious deep-sky imaging investment that is more than capable of meeting the high demands of years of outdoor use. The Orion Sirius EQ-G will perform best when used with an apochromatic refractor with an autoguiding combo.

Orion Sirius EQ-G

Among the many benefits of this mount are the ASCOM compatibility (Control via PC), built-in polar axis scope and GoTo hand controller with over 42K objects in the database.  This is equatorial mount is a popular choice for beginners to astrophotography, and for good reason.

For examples of the amazing deep-sky imaging potential of the Orion Sirius EQ-G, have a look at the amazing images by Andrew Klinger on Flickr.

Payload: 30 lbs
Power Requirement: 12-Volt DC
Built-in Polar Scope: Yes
Autoguider Port: Yes

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro has been a pleasure to use since day. I enjoy the SynScan system and hand controller of this mount and have found the EQ6-R to be incredibly reliable in all weather conditions. 

I have covered this mount extensively in my in-depth review discussing all features. At the end of the day, this equatorial telescope mount is the perfect balance between portability and function. Despite having larger telescope mounts at my disposal, the EQ6-R gets the most use thanks to its straightforward controls, modest size, and consistent performance.

Zenithstar 73

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro with a Zenithstar 73 telescope attached. 

Like the Orion Sirius EQ-G, this telescope mount can be controlled via your computer to locate and lock-on to your target. I use the autoguider port with my ZWO ASI290mm Mini guide camera to take long exposure images of up to 10-minutes with sharp, pinpoint stars.

I recommend adding the QHY PoleMaster electronic polar scope to make polar aligning the mount even easier. Polar aligning this mount manually is not a big deal, but the PoleMaster will save you some time on your knees looking through the polar scope. 

Payload Capacity: 45 lbs
Power Requirement: 12-Volt, 4-Amp
Built-in Polar Scope: Yes
Autoguider Port: Yes

intermediate level astrophotography kit

  1. Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 Super APO
  2. Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Mount
  3. ZWO ASI533MC Pro

I have chosen the items in this kit because they fit the profile of an intermediate-level deep-sky astrophotography rig and the fact that I have used and enjoyed these items personally. 

I tested the ZWO ASI533MC Pro color camera for the first time in November 2019, and it has proven to be a solid replacement for the ZWO ASI294MC Pro (which is no longer available at the time of writing). 

Filters for Astrophotography

If you’re looking to invest in a DSLR or mirrorless camera for astrophotography, you’ll need to consider the adapters and/or flattener/reducers that will sit between the camera body and the telescope. You’ll also need to think about filters that you plan to use, whether it’s a broadband light pollution filter, or narrowband.

The two main filter choices for DSLR and Mirrorless astrophotography shooters are the clip-in versions that are specific to your camera body, and 2″ round mounted versions that thread into the adapter or flattener of your telescope.

clip-in astrophotography filter for DSLR cameras

I prefer the 2″ (48mm) variety as they can also be used with a dedicated astronomy camera in the future. However, clip-on body-mounted filters have the advantage of being compatible with a camera lens attached.

Some of my favorite filters include the Optolong L-eNhance dual-bandpass filter, and the Astro Hutech IDAS NGS1 broadband light pollution filter. The astrophotography filter you choose will depend on your imaging conditions, and the types of objects you like to photograph.

I suggest reviewing images of objects you plan to shoot on Astrobin, and reviewing which filter was used to produce the result. 

Stock vs. a “Modified” Camera

You may want to purchase a camera that has been professionally modified for astrophotography (by removing/replacing the stock IR cut filter) or even investing in an astrophotography camera such as the Canon EOS Ra or the Nikon D810a.

If you are on a tight budget, I recommend having a look at the astronomy classifieds. You may be able to find an affordable used Canon Rebel DSLR or even a used Canon EOS 60Da.canon astrophotography camera

The Canon EOS Ra (2019).

As for dedicated astronomy cameras, they have really become a lot more affordable and available than they were during the early days of CCD astrophotography. A one-shot-color or monochrome CMOS dedicated astronomy camera makes a lot of sense for most amateurs.

Dedicated Astronomy Cameras

Unlike a traditional daytime DSLR or Mirrorless camera, dedicated astronomy cameras have the advantage of a cooled sensor, and are sensitive to the important 656nm wavelength if the visible spectrum.

They lack a display screen for immediate image review or an out-of-the-box way to attach a camera lens. You must use camera control software on your computer or a dedicated device (such as the ASIair) to run an imaging session.

ZWO ASI533MC Pro

Some of the most popular choices in this category are the ZWO ASI1600MM (mono) and the ZWO ASI294MC Pro. In late 2019, I tested a new color astronomy camera, the ZWO ASI533MC Pro (shown above). There are several choices to consider when investing in your first astrophotography camera, but I would like to suggest choosing one that is in use by a large group of people.

This way, you’ll ensure that the camera is well-suited by third-party camera control applications, and there will be plenty of information, troubleshooting tips, and reviews available online.

Recommended Cameras

Canon EOS Rebel T7i

It should come as no surprise that the first camera I recommend for deep-sky astrophotography is the latest Canon Rebel Series DLSR. There are many amazing examples of deep-sky imaging using a Nikon or Sony camera body, but I can only suggest what’s worked exceptionally well for me personally.

The Canon EOS Rebel T7i is the current version of the T3i I currently shoot with. These cameras can be modified for astrophotography by removing the stock IR cut filter to allow the red colors found in many deep-sky objects to reach the sensor. My camera was modified by Astro Mod Canada, but the process can also be done yourself if you are feeling brave.

The camera can be connected to a telescope by using a T-Ring Adapter. This is what’s known as “prime focus” astrophotography, and the telescope will be used as a camera lens at its fixed focal length. A field flattener/reducer may be recommended for your telescope, which will both create an even field in your images and/or reduces the focal ratio of your telescope.

The Canon EOS Rebel Series DSLR’s are considered “Crop-sensor” cameras, with a smaller sensor than a full-frame camera. If you do opt for a full-frame DSLR, I would recommend the Canon EOS 6D. Alan Dyer presented some interesting results when comparing the original 6D vs. the 6D Mark II model.

ZWO ASI533MC Pro

The ZWO ASI533MC Pro is a one-shot-color dedicated astronomy camera with a 1″ square (11.1mm x 11.1mm) sensor and 3008 x 3008-pixel resolution.

Dedicated astronomy cameras like the ASI533MC Pro have a built-in thermoelectric cooler that requires a 12V power source to run. This allows the camera sensor to reach as low as -35 Celsius below the ambient temperature. 

Compared to a DSLR or mirrorless camera, a cooled astronomy camera will record much less noise during a long exposure image. This results in a stronger signal-to-noise ratio, and usually, a better image overall once stacked. 

ASI533 Camera

 

The 183C must be controlled by using software on your PC such as Astro Photography Tool. Here, you’ll be able to choose a Gain setting, exposure length and much more. If you are accustomed to using automating your imaging sessions with a DSLR (BackyardEOS), this process will feel quite familiar and comfortable to you.

Here is a look at one of the images I managed to capture using the ASI533MC Pro with an Optolong L-eNhance filter from my backyard. I used a Starizona APEX 0.65 reducer to widen the field-of-view through my Esprit 100 with this camera attached. The final image includes 30 x 5-minutes at Unity Gain.

NGC 7822

NGC 7822 captured using the ZWO ASI533MC Pro color camera.

Autoguiding

Autoguiding is a necessary step if you want to expand your imaging capabilities. Having the option to shoot long exposures (3-minutes or more) is something that can have a major impact on your success. A small autoguiding combo will include a guide scope and a camera that doesn’t add too much extra weight to your overall payload.

Adding a small guide scope and camera (of Off-Axis Guiding), also allows you to dither your images. This really helps to create an image with an improved signal to noise ratio once stacked. 

setting up telescope

I have used a number of guide scopes and guide cameras over the years. The most recent combo is a William Optics GuideStar 61 doublet, and a ZWO ASI290mm mini. The ASI290mm mini is small a monochrome CMOS camera that connects to PHD2 guiding easily and does an excellent job of autoguiding my imaging runs.

autoguide camera

The ZWO ASI290mm Mini Guide Camera.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to advise someone on which astrophotography equipment to buy. I understand that it is an expensive hobby and that it will take time to build a complete setup for deep-sky imaging.

There is plenty of great gear that I have not mentioned in this post. I have only scratched the surface of the potential setups you could put together for successful deep-sky imaging from home.

I hope that this post has given you a number of ideas, and a better idea of what the gear mentioned in this article is capable of. Recommending telescopes, cameras, and lenses for astrophotography seems to draw out a lot of opinions and criticism. In the end, you’ll have to make the final call on which gear is the best fit for your needs.

telescopes for astrophotography

If I could offer up one last piece of advice, it would be to avoid suggestions from those with a lot of technical information, but no actual photos using the gear. I believe astrophotography is about taking pictures!

Is there a particularly amazing piece of gear I should have mentioned in this post? Let me know in the comments.

No matter which setup you decide on, I hope that you keep your initial desire to capture the night sky burning brightly, each step of the way.

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This Post Has 34 Comments

  1. Sarmad says:

    Thanks for the post Trevor! I’ll be diving into Deep Sky Astro this year, and this post is exactly what I needed! Thanks!

    Cheers from Norway!

  2. Terry Powell says:

    This is an excellent article. Buy good equipment even if it’s used and learn to use it. This hobby is not cheap and takes time to really get good at it. So before buying the next great piece of software or hardware to improve your images, learn to use what you have and figure out why it’s not working. More than likely it’s the user, and boy does that sting the pride and the pocketbook.

    Good images take lots of work and time!!

  3. Thanks–very timely as I’m about to pull the trigger on a mount. One thing I’ve rarely seen addressed, though, is whether we should autoguide from the outset or start with shorter, unguided pix. That’s currently my plan, thinking I have plenty to learn already. Or am I just buying myself more frustration?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Frank. I’d say start shooting unguided short exposures first without autoguiding. Experience the capture process, and of course, stacking and processing your results. The good news is, when you are ready to start autoguiding, it’s really not a complex as it may seem.

  4. Jack says:

    Very nice…I’ve picked up a few more things for my ED102. Still need to work on getting good polar alignment before I spend the money for a better camera. I’m just going to mess with my unmodified Canon 450 to learn the ropes. I have to admit that the Altair has a very attractive price. So much to learn….

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Jack – The 450D is such a sleeper of an astro-camera. I still use mine for certain projects after all these years. And yes, the Altair GPCAM2 AR 130 is a brilliant camera for the money – highly recommended and well received in the astro community!

  5. Wouter says:

    I have exactly the same guide camera: an AR130 with an Orion 60 mm guide scope.

    I have not been able to set it up for SharpCap allignment, nor PhD since I can’t even get the brightest star to show up.

    I’ve tried every single setting: when focussed (by using the moon) even 5 second exposures show up tiny smudges.

    I’m kinda lost here 🙁

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Wouter – If you have confirmed that your focus is correct on the moon, I’d check the exposure length setting in SharpCap and increase it. The same goes for PHD – and adjust the slider between the exposure setting and the brain icon. The GPCAM2 is HIGHLY sensitive so you should certainly see stars even in a short exposure through the 60mm if your focus is correct. It doesn’t take much to be out of focus. A few mm can be the difference between sharp stars and seeing nothing at all.

    • Knobby says:

      Double check your focus, sounds like its just a bit off, try tiny adjustments til stars are pinpricks. Goodluck and don’t give up

  6. Mark says:

    Hi Trevor! Another great article. I’ve learned a lot from your tutorials and reviews this past year as I’ve gotten deeper into this. The past few nights have been so cold where I am that it has me wondering. Is there a cutoff for you to go out and shoot? I’ve looked at operating temps for the equipment I have so I know lately it’s been borderline as far as that goes. It’s just been so clear out there the last few nights…any thoughts?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Mark – great question. As far as the scope, mount, cameras are concerned – they’re pretty resilient, my limit is probably about -20C without the wind chill (And I’ve pushed that envelope this year!) – The problem is the cables and your computer. My laptop display starts to malfunction (faded screen, random line patterns) at about -15C or below. I wouldn’t recommend putting your electronics through this kind of abuse:( Maybe somewhere around -10C should be the cutoff point to be safe.

  7. Gustav says:

    Excellent Post, very informative! One question from someone who doesn’t like spending too much money, especially in the beginning. Would there be any chance of capturing decent newbie images using a regular dslr telephoto zoom i have available, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 ? Is it possible to mount it to any affordable tracking mount ? The lens + dslr weighs around 2.7 kg’s.

  8. Rob Andrews says:

    Hello Trevor, Loved this article. Thanks. I enjoy photography and got some gorgeous shots of the Milky Way last year on a photo safari in Africa. The sky was unbelievable – worth the cost of the trip. I’m interested in getting a telescope and mount for more fun. However, I live in a city of 50,000 – not too far away from big city (1,000,000). The light pollution is bad. I cannot take a long exposure shot from my back yard into the sky. If that’s the case, would it be a waste of $$ and time for me to get the necessary gear to be able to shoot deep sky objects?

    Thanks

    • Jo says:

      Not at all, Rob!

      I am living in the middle of a White Zone, i.e. in the middle of Dallas, Texas. I would never have believed this myself, but you can take pretty stunning images of the universe even under the most adverse conditions. What helps tremendously is the ability to stack images, which helps subtracting out the background, and light pollution filters. Trevor is recommending some filters he found to work well for his location, I found the Celestron UHC/LPS filter ($79 at Amazon) to work great for my purposes.
      I can guarantee you, you will enjoy this! But start small, with a travel mount and shorter focal lengths, and gain the experience. You will know when the time has come to move up to the next level.

      Best of luck and lots of fun!

      Jo

  9. Jo says:

    Great review, Trevor!

    You got me going on this and because of your suggestions I do now use the ES102APO, which is a great telescope. I also use the Nikon D3300 for DSLR imaging and I want to echo the versatility of using a DSLR for other all day imaging purposes as well. That will ensure that you will never have wasted any money.

    I also got the SkyGuiderPro, following your review of it, and it is a great little travel mount. However, I would suggest only using it with a light-weight DSLR, like the D3300 and the kit lenses that come with it. Since it has no GoTo capability, you have to frame often blindly, so small focal length imaging is the preferred way to go or you spend a lot of time doing test images and reframing.

    Since the SkyGuiderPro does not come with a tripod, the total cost of it will be US$~500. For the same price one can get an iOptron SmartEQPro+, which comes with the tripod AND has GoTo capability. It has the same payload rating, but that mount can also be attached to an autoguider AND you can connect it through a handset to ASCOM compatible mount control software like Indi or APT. That makes this the perfect mount to learn all the necessary skills required before stepping up to a more expensive mount like you CEM60. Like the SkyGuiderPro, the SmartEQ can be battery operated, which is invaluable for a grab and go travel mount.

    Those are my 2 cents worth to the topic.

    I am looking forward to your new podcasts and YouTube videos every week.

    Clear Skies!

    Jo

  10. serge says:

    Hi Trevor – I have thoroughly enjoyed many of your presentations on astrophotography, you provide a wealth of information for a novice as myself!
    I do mainly nature photography, but am fascinated by the prospect of astrophotography. I took a few Milky Way shots using a Coolpix A (Dx format 18.5 F2.8) mirrorless on a mini tripod while in Hawaii several years ago – got hooked on the possibilities, then this week using started trying both the Coolpix A and my Nikon D750 (Fx) with 16-35 F4 on a tripod – experimenting with settings and capturing a few images of Orion’s belt and surrounding stars from my backyard in Ancaster ON this week. My question is whether the iOptron Skyguider Pro could handle the Meade Astrograph telescope you mention above, could it also handle with a Starwave guide scope. Would you recommend DSLR (Fx or Dx) or should I consider the Altair Hypercam? I am trying to stay as portable as possible and hope to visit local dark areas this spring/summer, so portability is key for me.
    Thanks in advance for you advice.

  11. Camille Shammas says:

    Thanks for this useful intro – I’ve been following on YouTube for a while and found your work inspirational.

    I’m coming to astrophotography from a wildlife photography background but as a parent of young children my time during daylight hours is going to be limited for the next decade! I have a Canon 6D (full frame), Canon 650D (APS-C) and some decent L lenses. I’ve taken some milky-way wide-angled shots but I’m wondering if I invest in a good astro equatorial mount which I can later add a telescope to, can I directly mount my 400mm f5.6 Canon L lens and take galaxy/nebula images? Is there some big difference between the Wildlife lenses and the refactor telescopes of similar focal length?

    I assume I would be looking at taking relatively short exposures with that set-up as I wouldn’t have the benefit of autoguiding…

    Thanks in advance for your advice.

  12. Great review Trevor, and thanks for all the informative videos.

    Do you think that an AVX mount will cause a lot of headaches for astrophotography? I see that you upgraded from a CG5, but didn’t go with an AVX or CGEM.

    Over the last year I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring the nights skys, primarily visually, but I’m now starting to get into astrophotography. I have an AVX and an EdgeHD 8 with a .7 reducer. + a ASIZWO120mm guide camera. I’ve spent a couple nights trying to get guiding working with PHD2. Last night I was finally able to guide but the quality of the guiding was not so great. I got star trails with 2 min exposures. I’m hoping that the AVX is not going to be limiting.

    I also have an AR127 achromatic, that I may use for imaging if the EdgeHD proves to be difficult.

    Jamie

  13. Wesley Pronovost says:

    Hey, Trevor, thanks for all the great advice! I’m just putting together an AP setup and I’ve managed to secure an Advanced VX for a great price! now I need an OTA so I’ve been searching all over…
    Do you think that a 6″ f/4 Newt Astrograph would be better or worse than the William Optics Z61 mentioned above?

    Love your motive when approaching Astrophotography and hope to achieve anything close to your photos someday(I’m only 14 though so give me some time ; ) )

  14. Jeff says:

    Hi I just grab a Celestron Regal 80mm scope. I wonder if it can be any use to see any star. The moon is fine, but is there filter to put in front that can open up possibility. Before going to a real telescope…?
    Thanks in advance

  15. Andrew Axford says:

    Hi Trevor, please may i ask for your specs of your laptop you use for your astrophotography, hdd size, ram, and processor. or the model number of your laptop, i currently have a dual boot macbook pro, but dont really want this outside with the risk of moisture, just want to get a seperate dedicated laptop for imaging, Many Thanks.

  16. David says:

    Hi!
    Im quite new to this hobby…

    My current equipment is a skywatcher evostar 72ed refractor mounted on a star adventurer, using a unmodified Canon DSLR camera…

    Im thinking of upgrading to a EQM-35 pro mount. Have you heard anything about that mount?

    I will also need a guide scope and a guide camera. What do you think is the best way to go, either a computer controlled guide camera or a stand alone guide camera?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi David. The Evostar 72ED is nice. A great astrophotography scope for your DSLR. I have heard of the EQM-35. At a 22 lb payload capacity – the only thing I would say is to have a clear vision for your future imaging setup. If you plan on using larger telescopes down the road then you may want to get something a little beefier like the HEQ5 or NEQ6. Sky-Watcher makes great mounts in my experience. As for the autoguiding – I use (and love) the Starfield 50mm guide scope package. It’s computer controlled but very simple and easy: https://www.ontariotelescope.com/product.asp?itemid=1487&Affid=2

  17. Claudia Stapel says:

    Hi Trevor, about one year ago I started with astrophotography and the milky way and startrails are developing quite well. Fortunatelly we have a dark sky reserve just 1,5 hours to drive so I can go spontaneously when sky is clear. Now I want to catch some nice pics even deeper and this led me into hours of spending time to search the Net for some good informations.
    Now I found your Site and it is getting bright and clearer 🙂
    Actually I use my Canon 60D and a Bresser traveling mount which not really works, so I will change to the Ioptron SGP and the William Zenithstar 61 you recommended. Well I guess when you once started, the wishlist is getting longer and more expensive, but the next thing will be the Canon R .
    Thanks for your work and the help it gave and I will be a constant follower from now on 🙂
    Hope my english is ok.
    Greetings from Berlin
    Claudia

    • Trevor says:

      Claudia, thank you so much for the kind words. I am very happy that you have entered the world of astrophotography and are continuing to make progress! The SkyGuider Pro and Zenithstar 61 combo is an excellent portable rig to get started in deep sky with. Clear skies!

  18. Andy says:

    Thanks for the great info you have on your site! I love your site! I am on a budget but really like to get into astrophotography. I am wondering why do you recommend a refactor vs a reflector? All I hear about that bigger apertures are better for deep sky photography. I have the nexstar 4se (100 mm), which gets decent pictures for say Orion Nebula. The mount however does not help in more than 30 seconds of exposure. I am thinking of moving to a new one but refactors seems like they dont provide the same bang for the big as reflectors. Please share your thoughts. From the little experience I have had, I feel a good mount is key to longer exposures which has been frustrating with the Nexstar 4SE. My guess is that smaller scopes would require a much more expensive mount due to longer exposure requirements. Please share your thoughts.

  19. Andy B says:

    Hey, I’m looking to get into astrophotography and am trying to decide on a mount. The ioptron sky guider looks very tempting, especially for someone like me who may end up buying a telephoto lens to use with it. But what i really want to do is deep sky photos. Would the Sky Guider be good for that (assuming i also get a very sturdy tripod) or would you recommend an equatorial mount? I’m assuming you could mount a dslr to an equatorial mount. Thanks 🙂

  20. Ryan says:

    Trevor,

    Great article. May I ask what FF you would recommend for the ES ED102? Trying to build my kit up.

  21. Ed says:

    Thank you for the great post Trevor! Do you think the Meade 70mm Astrograph can be mounted on the Sky Guider Pro or do you think it would be too heavy?

  22. Brandon says:

    Just received a Canon T7i and Rokinon 14mm wide angle for Christmas and did my first 20” exposure of the Orion Nebula from the backyard! Have you tried capturing lightning bolts with the Rokinon?

  23. Thanks Trevor, your tutorials are a needle in a haystack! and we are thrilled with every new one that comes out. 

    I just pulled the trigger on my first Astrophotography gear that includes the RedCat 51 and the ZWO 30mm scope+ASI1200MM camera.

    One piece of information I haven’t come across yet, so perhaps you could point me to a website tutorial, is how to best align the guide scope with the telescope.



    All the best, I hope you are having good weather in Canada and wishes of a Happy New Year with nothing but Clear Skies.

  24. Stefan says:

    Hi Trevor,

    What tripod are you using sky adventurer pro mount?

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