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Astrophotography

Astrophotography | 14 Must-Know Starting Tips

|Telescopes|4 Comments

If you’re getting started in astrophotography, I am here to save you some time and frustration by learning from the mistakes of myself and others.

Whether you’re looking into a full-blown deep-sky camera and telescope setup, or just getting started with a DSLR and tripod, I think this article will come in handy.

The following advice and tips were compiled by myself and the hundreds of responses I received when I asked the AstroBackyard community: “What’s the most important piece of advice you’d like to give to beginners?”

So get ready, because the advice I have may surprise you.

1) Astrophotography is more than deep-sky imaging

You need to choose an area of interest. I know you want to do it all. Planets, meteor shower time-lapses, galaxies, nightscapes, but you should narrow down your interests to focus on the equipment and techniques that are most important for your goals. 

To me, astrophotography usually means deep-sky images of galaxies and nebulae. To others, it’s a nightscape of the winter constellations rising above a snow-covered mountain.

Astrophotography is a close-up of the surface of Mars, a wide-angle photo of the Milky Way, and everything in between. This is why it is difficult to provide broad astrophotography tips that cover all aspects of the hobby. 

Types of astrophotography

You need to decide which area of the hobby interests you most because the necessary equipment varies wildly depending on the one you choose. I generally stick to tracked, long-exposure images through a telescope, but for others, it’s a wide-angle lens and a hike through the mountains.

A pet peeve of mine is when people generalize “astrophotography” into one aspect, and make ‘rules’ that confuse beginners. Taking a photo of the moon with your phone through a manual Dobsonian telescope is still astrophotography, just in its simplest form. 

So pick an area of interest early on and don’t try to do it all. For me, that’s deep-sky imaging through a telescope in the backyard because it’s the most practical way for me to enjoy the hobby. For you, a lighter travel-friendly system may make more sense. 

astrophotography equipment

2) Become obsessed with your progress

If you’re like me, all it takes to stay motivated is to make progress toward your goal. It’s a simple concept, but it’s difficult to sustain at times. They can be very small steps, but always forward, not back.

The reason I say this is that you need to appreciate your own personal progress (not someone else’s) to stay excited about astrophotography. The game of astrophotography is best enjoyed on the court, not the sidelines. Only you will truly know the meaning and pride behind each photo.

Orion Nebula comparison

My progress on the Orion Nebula from 2010 to 2021

Will the average Joe see your image and say “that’s unbelievable”? Lots will, but others may say “I’ve seen better”, or “you could have just found a better picture online”. The difference is, this image was captured by you, the person who didn’t even know how to use a telescope just a few months ago.

You spent the time perfecting your craft to capture and share an image of an object you chose. You watched the image get better and better over time as you patiently gathered light on it.

Comparing your latest version of a deep-sky target with your previous attempt is a real eye-opener, and you should be very proud of the progress you’ve made. Astrophotography is not for the dabblers. It takes grit to get to the finish line.

3) If it were easy, everyone would do it

Astrophotography, in all aspects, is hard. Expect to fail several times and to get frustrated and discouraged. This is not a hobby you walk into and get immediate results. If that’s the game you’re playing, you will need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

Celebrate any amount of progress, because it truly is an amazing feat. You balanced your rig, you focused your camera. Maybe you set everything up and didn’t get a single picture but you will next time because you learned a pivotal step of the process through the experience that you now know forever.

Setting up my telescope on a cold winter night.

The steep learning curve of astrophotography is the barrier to entry, and why I respect anyone that has chosen to take the challenge on. We are a different breed, and that’s why what we do is extraordinary. At some point, you may even run into people that claim your images are fake, but I believe it is because they just don’t understand the process. 

4) Take online advice with a grain of salt

There are some amazing resources out there to learn astrophotography on your own. YouTube, Facebook Groups, Reddit, and Forums. The problem is, there is a lot of conflicting advice, and the people that like to hang out there can be a little opinionated.

My wife Ashley recently got started in astrophotography, and I cringe at the idea of her posting a question in a forum about her Sky-Watcher mount and someone saying “you got the belt mod done right? You re-greased the worm gear? Don’t even bother using it before you do that or your guiding will be terrible. Throw out all of your subs that aren’t 0.3 arc seconds per pixel or less.”

That’s the kind of information that scares people away from our hobby for good. The scary part is, many people read the hive-mind expert advice, and start telling others about it as if it were true. I’ve even read outrageous stories about me written by a stranger. The internet can be a strange place. 

So like I said, take everything with a grain of salt and understand that the advice or opinions there aren’t always true. Instead, reach out to an individual astrophotographer who’s around your skill level (or better yet, just ahead of you) and kick ideas off of them.

Unlike the faceless keyboard warriors, they do not have the incentive of manufacturing drama for attention or boast about their extensive knowledge. There’s a good chance you will make some lifetime friends through these authentic connections, too. 

If you can’t find a mentor yet, try replicating the exact process you have watched on YouTube. Look at the results they are achieving, so you have a realistic expectation of what you could potentially accomplish.

5) Your mount is really important, get a good one

Beginners like to focus on the camera and telescope used for an astrophoto they see shared online. “What telescope did you use” is the most common question I get when newcomers see my photos on Twitter and Instagram.

The telescope is essential, yes, but it’s the equatorial tracking mount that makes it all possible. Whether it’s a star tracker or a full-blown goto system, you can make your life easier by choosing one that’s been proven to be reliable.

William Optics FLT 132

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

The basics like polar alignment and balance may seem obvious, but I still see beginners getting this wrong early on and blaming their equipment. Take the time to understand how your tracking mount works and its limitations. 

This will be your platform for almost every type of astrophotography you do. Once you are comfortable with consistently setting it up properly and polar aligning it, you are free to experiment with new camera settings, filters, and techniques.

Aim for a motorized equatorial mount (not an alt-az), that has a listed maximum payload capacity that is well over the weight of your imaging gear. If that’s only 11 pounds, no problem, there are still plenty of configuration possibilities on there. 

compact telescope

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi Mount

I really like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi, the EQ6-R Pro, and most recently, the super portable ZWO AM5. Look at what others are using, and the imaging system they have riding on top. If they consistently pump out great images with it, that’s a pretty good sign.

6) Don’t start with a long focal length telescope!

A long focal length (anything over 1000mm) means a higher native magnification. So, when you attach a camera, this is the field of view you will get.

If you are used to a camera lens, 300mm is considered a long telephoto lens, but in the telescope world, this is taken to the extreme. A popular telescope package choice for astrophotographers starting out is a Celestron CGEM II 800 at over 2000mm.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great telescope package, but I believe it will make that first tracked, long-exposure image of a nebula or galaxy harder to achieve. 

Celestron telescope

A high-magnification SCT is less forgiving than a wide-field refractor. 

But high magnification is good, right? We want to see and photograph small galaxies and the planets right up close, don’t we? Well, we do, but the learning curve goes way up when you are pointing at a tiny area of the sky.

It makes alignment, finding objects, and accurate tracking more difficult simply because it literarily magnifies any tiny error you’ve made along the way. Instead, start wide, to give yourself a break.

A compact refractor in the 400mm range is ideal, it will make everything easier. No matter which camera you use, you should now be able to find and focus on the brightest stars, and begin your first tracked, long exposure image.

The William Optics RedCat 51 is a solid choice for beginners and shoots at a beginner-friendly focal length of 250mm. This telescope is also compact and lightweight enough to be used with a star tracker mount. 

William Optics RedCat 51

The William Optics RedCat 51. 250mm at F/4.9.

Once you have mastered the process with your wide-field setup, increasing focal length is a lot more approachable.

7) Get ready for image processing

If you are already a daytime photographer and know your way around Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, great. But even then, you will have to make a massive shift in the way you edit photos.

The process of creating an astro-image is more than just creative edits to enhance color and clarity. It’s image stacking, it’s hours of integration, calibration frames, and learning the art of pre-processing.

Curves Photoshop

Performing a curve stretch in Adobe Photoshop

I know that a lot of beginners have very little experience with image editing going in, and it’s going to require a lot of time and energy to get up to speed. Just like the image acquisition portion, this experience will be a lot more enjoyable with realistic expectations.

I personally love the image processing side of things, and I think eventually beginners will too. There is something about spending a few hours really digging into your data and bringing it out the hidden beauty that is both satisfying and rewarding.

There are many great tutorials here on YouTube, no matter which software you are using. I’ve created a beginner-friendly Image Processing Guide that aims to help you save a lot of time and frustration.

Just remember that you will need to make a choice in terms of the software you use, and stick with it. I recommend starting with Adobe Photoshop, and gradually applying a few techniques from PixInsight over time. That’s what I did.

8) Weather is cruel, and you will obsess over it

I check 3-4 weather apps multiple times per day. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and it is not healthy.

Clear Outside, the Clear Sky Chart, Astrospheric: they’re all pretty good. But unless you live in the desert, and/or shoot remotely, you are going to experience lots of cloudy nights. They often are timed out exactly when a new piece of gear arrives, or when you are particularly excited to start or continue a new project.

It is probably the most devastatingly helpless part of astrophotography, and it will hurt. Even worse, is when a clear night is coming up, and you have ‘real life’ plans you can’t get out of. Work nights, birthday parties, sporting events, etc. These will all be clear nights.

Out of all the abuse we take as an astrophotographer, I think the weather is probably the worst. However, it gets a little easier to stomach when you commit to astrophotography as a lifelong journey.

So you missed Orion this winter, he will be back next year, I can promise you that. And you’ll be ready.

Stars in Orion

9) It’s expensive – there is no way around it

Photography in general is expensive but astrophotography takes it one step further. Telescopes can be expensive, even if you have a budget in mind, you will go over it. And over, and over again.

As a full-time astrophotographer, it’s a little easier to justify expenses now. But when I started, I purchased my telescope mount on the old credit card and said “If I don’t get this to work, I’m out almost a grand.” It’s a nice incentive to get it to work.

Now, I don’t want to scare you away if your budget is limited, and you want to get in the game. Used gear, smaller setups, older cameras – you can do so much with this type of equipment. And I bet it will be a lot more rewarding than someone who buys their way to the top.

If you’re looking for a number, I am going to say that it will be tough to build a deep-sky astrophotography rig for under $2000. And this will be a smaller-scale system for wide-field targets. But, if you are thrifty and hungry, I bet you could get in for even less.

nebula photography

Astrophotography with a camera lens and star tracker

10) Social media sharing joys and letdowns…

Now, I don’t know what your plans are for your images when they are done, but chances are you want someone to see them. You can print them out to hang on your wall, you can post them on your website, or you can share them on social media and watch the likes come rolling in, right? Well, sometimes.

The social media landscape has changed over the last few years and astrophotographers are using “feed the algorithm’ tactics to get more eyeballs on their work. This is all cool with me, but just remember that hitting an arbitrary number of likes on your image has nothing to do with how good it is. Yeah, it feels good when others appreciate your work, but if that’s what you need to enjoy the hobby, it’s not going to work.

Follow astrophotographers that have a particular style you enjoy for inspiration, and don’t get too hung up on likes and views. It sounds obvious, but it can really get in your head, and it’s not why you got started.

I have recently gotten into printing large, high-resolution astrophotos to display in my home, and eventually offer for sale. The process has been refreshingly different than how I dress up an image to share on a phone screen.

11) Get out there and shoot

I can’t believe I have to say this one, but Alan Dyer is right – spend less time watching YouTube videos (wait a minute), and just get outside and practice.

Don’t try to over-prepare yourself with too much information, and try to nail your first attempt – it just won’t happen. When you’re out there in the moment, you’d be surprised at how different things become and what sticks and what doesn’t.

civil twilight

If your expectations are set to just have a night of experimentation and learning, you will enjoy every minute of it. This is exactly the way I got hooked on astrophotography, through trial and error and having fun experimenting with camera settings in my backyard.

I have found that a lot of the ‘experts’ in the astrophotography Facebook groups and forums take very few (if any) actual photos.

You can have all the answers but until you are executing what you’ve learned, you really haven’t even started.

12) Dark skies make a big difference

If you’ve only ever shot from a light-polluted city, you may be surprised at just how much of a difference dark skies make. It’s not just that the quality and detail of your images will be better, but the entire process seems to become easier and more enjoyable.

You are no longer fighting against the light dome of a washed-out sky, and you can actually focus on collecting quality data (and as much of it as possible).

Milky Way under Bortle 2 skies at the Cherry Springs Star Party

You can see more stars and even deep-sky objects in the sky. The images you capture there will be easier to process, and you will need less overall integration time to create an amazing image.

Any chance you get to set up your camera and telescope under dark skies, take it!

I like to go on an astro-adventure on new moon weekends. I look for Airbnb’s in dark sky locations using a light pollution map, and book a last-minute trip once I am certain it will be clear.

Make those dark-sky trips count, and go after the fainter targets while you’re there.

light pollution map

Use a light pollution map to decide where your next dark-sky astrophotography trip will take place. lightpollutionmap.info

13) Don’t be afraid of the dark…

This one sounds like a joke, but it’s seriously something to consider if you’re new to the hobby.

If you aren’t used to spending a night outside alone in the dark (most of us aren’t, right?), it can be a little freaky out there. Seriously, if you’ve set up at the dark-sky spot away from home and it’s truly dark (which is exactly what you want), you will hear every stick break, every rustle in the bushes, and question why every car that drives by is out so late.

You need to be in the right mindset to stick it out, or you’ll completely freak out and pack up. A word to the wise here, a small stereo playing some classic rock can really help ease the tension. That’s my routine, anyway. And if I’m at home, my pal Rudy helps keep me company. 

14) Join your local astronomy club

I know, I know, you’re a lone wolf who likes to figure things out on your own. You’re resourceful and you can learn anything online. That’s me too, I hear you.

But you will save a year’s worth of struggle by hanging around the astrophotographers at your local astronomy club. Trust me, there will be a die-hard pack of them in the club.

I’m talking in-person hangouts with a group of people that geek out just as hard about space as you do. One-on-one advice based on the gear you currently own, from people that have been there.

This is precisely how I managed to escape the complete the incredible, rare accomplishment of taking my first tracked, guided long exposure image through a telescope.

Sometimes you need a responsive guide or mentor to help you through the key steps, and this is something that I, through the screen on YouTube or this website, cannot do for you.

Example photos Radian 75

Final Thoughts

Astrophotography is a hobby you can enjoy for a lifetime. Don’t rush the early stages because you are impatient for a result. Some of my favorite memories involving this hobby are from the summer I got started, and the early victories I achieved.

Photographing the night sky in any form is a challenge, and it’s something most people will never get to experience. Enjoy the process – the crushing lows, the short-lived highs, the pictures that leave you speechless, and the ones that make you want to sell your ‘scope.

It’s the journey to the image that makes it fun. Life is too short to spend on the sidelines, watching and critiquing others. Get out there. Capture. Create. Inspire. This is where the true joy of astrophotography lies, trust me.  

astrophotographers

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Photograph the Total Lunar Eclipse

|Tutorials|7 Comments

Are you hoping to capture a photo of the upcoming total lunar eclipse on November 8th? If so, you are not alone. Amateur photographers and astrophotography enthusiasts around the world will do their best to take pictures of the upcoming lunar eclipse using a wide variety of camera equipment.

A total eclipse of the moon is a truly breathtaking astronomical event that anyone can appreciate. The best part about it is that you do not need expensive astrophotography equipment or special filters to take a great picture of the total lunar eclipse. It’s all about using the best settings on the camera you are using (even if it’s a phone).

I recommend practicing your moon photography skills before the night of the upcoming lunar eclipse, so you don’t waste precious time fiddling with camera settings during the celestial event. With that out of the way, let’s get to the key information you need to take a great picture of the total lunar eclipse. 

camera settings for a lunar eclipse

Fast Tips:

  • Practice your camera settings on the moon before the night of the lunar eclipse 
  • If you are using a smartphone through a telescope, use a smartphone adapter to hold it in place
  • Use your cameras manual or ‘pro’ mode for full control over settings like ISO, Aperture, and Exposure
  • Capturing the moon during totality is often easier to accomplish due to less extreme lighting variations
  • Use a tracking equatorial mount when shooting at high magnification (star trackers work great)

How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse

Over the years, I have photographed a number of total lunar eclipses using a variety of cameras – from my smartphone to a dedicated astronomy camera. The key to a great image isn’t the specific camera you use, it’s all about magnification and the correct settings

Without enough ‘reach’, the moon will appear small and lack the details you are hoping for. I recommend capturing the lunar eclipse with at least 300mm of focal length or more, which means an astronomical telescope or telephoto camera lens is best.

Then, it’s all about choosing the best camera settings to capture such a challenging subject in terms of light conditions. The moon will change in brightness as it goes through the different stages of the eclipse, and you must adjust your camera settings accordingly. 

What about those of you that don’t own a telescope or a long lens? The good news is you can still capture a great nightscape-style shot at a wider field of view. However, these types of photos look best if the moon is closer to the horizon while eclipsed. 

lunar eclipse photography

A total lunar eclipse captured in the early morning hours using a DSLR and standard kit lens. 

Wide-angle nightscape images that include a large portion of the night sky including an eclipsed moon can be done using a DSLR and tripod. For a 30-second exposure, a tracking mount is not necessary. At a focal length of 18mm or wider, star trailing will begin to show after about 20-25 seconds, so just keep that in mind. 

To capture the stars and constellations in the night sky, an ISO of 800 or above is recommended. However, this exposure will likely record the eclipsed moon as a featureless ball of light.

To properly capture both the starry sky and a detailed moon, you will need to capture exposures of varying lengths and blend them together into a composite image. This is because the moon is much brighter (even while eclipsed) than the surrounding starry sky.

A composite image can be made by masking the area of your night sky exposure and blending in a shorter exposure of the moon with surface details. This technique will take some time and experience to master, but the results can be amazing.

When and Where is the Lunar Eclipse Happening?

For a celestial event like this, a little planning goes a long way. You’ll definitely want to know exactly when the lunar eclipse is taking place, and where it will be in the sky from your location. 

For example, you may have to travel to a location with a low western horizon for a total lunar eclipse occurring in the morning if your backyard is full of tall trees.

Lunar eclipses are visible from different parts of the world at different times. There are many times when a lunar eclipse is taking place on the other side of the earth that you are unable to observe.

Here are some helpful resources to help you plan for the lunar eclipse:

lunar eclipse photography methods

Upcoming Lunar Eclipses (NASA)

Date Eclipse Type Visible From
November 8, 2022 Total Asia, Australia, Pacific, Americas,
May 5, 2023 Penumbral Africa, Asia, Australia
October 28, 2023 Partial Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia
March 25, 2024 Penumbral Americas
September 18, 2024 Partial Americas, Europe, Africa
March 14, 2025 Total Pacific, Americas, Europe, Africa
September 7, 2025 Total Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia

The 7 Stages of a Total Lunar Eclipse

There are 7 stages of a total lunar eclipse, and many amateur photographers like to capture the event in each stage. This can later be made into a composite photo showing the transition of the moon as Earth’s shadow covers it. A time-lapse video is another excellent way to capture each stage of the eclipse.

The maximum eclipse stage is when most photographers want a great shot. This is when the moon turns “blood” red and the surrounding night sky becomes much darker from our point of view on Earth. It is an unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to witness this moment.

Stages of the total lunar eclipse:

  1. Penumbral Eclipse begins
  2. Partial Eclipse begins
  3. Full Eclipse begins
  4. Maximum Eclipse
  5. Full Eclipse ends
  6. Partial Eclipse ends
  7. Penumbral Eclipse ends

An interesting thing happens when the moon is completely eclipsed by the shadow of Earth. Not only does the moon turn to an eerie reddish hue, but the stars and constellations surrounding the moon begin to appear as they would on a moonless night. Capturing a scene like this requires careful planning and execution.

Ways to Photograph the Total Lunar Eclipse

Here are 6 different ways to photograph the lunar eclipse, depending on the equipment you own:

  • Point-and-shoot digital camera through a telescope eyepiece (eyepiece projection)
  • Smartphone camera through a telescope eyepiece 
  • DSLR camera and wide-angle lens on a stationary tripod
  • DSLR camera and telephoto lens on a tracking mount
  • DSLR camera attached to a telescope (prime focus) on a tracking mount
  • Dedicated astronomy camera attached to the telescope and tracking mount

    total lunar eclispes

    A photo of the “Super Blood Moon” eclipse I captured from my backyard in 2015

Examples and Best Practices

There are many ways to photograph the total lunar eclipse, but for the best results, I recommend using a DSLR camera and a small refractor telescope on a tracking mount. 

This will allow you to get an up-close shot of the moon in each of its phases in detail. Some of the most incredible images of the lunar eclipse I have ever seen were captured this way. 

If you do not own a telescope, you can use your longest focal length camera lens to pull the moon in close. For the photo of a nearly total lunar eclipse below, I used a Canon EF 400mm F/5.6 telephoto lens. 

lunar eclipse

The 2021 Partial Lunar Eclipse on November 19, 2021. DSLR and 400mm lens. 

An equatorial tracking mount, such as a star tracker is the best way to take a clear photo of the moon during an eclipse when using high-magnification optics. This essentially freezes the moon in place for an extended period of time.

When you have compensated for the rotation of the earth, your subject is no longer moving, and you have many more options to choose from in terms of camera settings. Now, you can dial back ISO settings and f-stop if necessary and let a longer exposure time collect the light. 

This makes everything easier because the Moon will stay ‘still’ in the image frame while you adjust your camera settings based on the current stage of the eclipse. During the first stage of the eclipse, the moon will be very bright, whereas, during totality, it will be much dimmer. 

Below, you will see the camera and telescope I used to take a crisp photo of the total lunar eclipse that occurred in September 2015. This telescope has a focal length of nearly 500mm, which was enough to reveal some amazing details on the lunar surface.

Basic astrophotography setup

Moon photography

The camera and telescope used to capture a total lunar eclipse. Canon EOS 70D and Explore Scientific ED80. 

Using a DSLR and Telescope

A DSLR camera (or mirrorless camera) and telescope can provide an up-close view of the eclipsed moon in detail. The prime focus method of astrophotography is best, as the camera sensor’s focal plane is aligned with the telescope. You can directly attach a DSLR camera using a T-Ring adapter (see below) to utilize the telescope’s native focal length.

The prime focus method requires that the telescope tracks the apparent rotation of the night sky to avoid any movement in your shots. To learn more about the process and equipment involved in deep-sky astrophotography, have a look at a typical DSLR and telescope setup.

t-ring adapter

A DSLR camera and T-Ring Adapter attached to a telescope

If your goal is to capture an up-close view of the moon during the eclipse, there are many benefits to this technique. A small refractor telescope will have an adequate amount of focal length (magnification), offer precision focus, and have a stable base to attach to an equatorial telescope mount. 

With the camera connected to the telescope, experiment with different exposures and ISO settings in manual mode, using live-view to make sure you have not under/overexposed the image.

The shortest exposures will only be useful during the partial stages of the lunar eclipse, as the lunar eclipse is beginning and ending. This is a challenging phase of the event to capture in a single shot, as the shadows and highlights of the image are from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Remote shutter release cable

A remote shutter release cable will help to avoid camera shake in your image. 

When the moon enters totality, you will need to bump up your ISO, and/or your exposure length to reveal the disk of the moon as it becomes dimmer. Use a timer or external shutter release cable to avoid camera shake if possible.

Ideally, you’ll keep the ISO as low as possible for the least amount of noise. With an accurately polar-aligned tracking mount, exposures of 2-5 seconds will work great.

To record the lunar eclipse with a DSLR camera, no filters are necessary. A stock DSLR camera is best as the additional wavelengths available with a modified camera are unused in moon photography.

total lunar eclipse photo

Canon EOS 7D, Explore Scientific ED80 Refractor, Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Tracking Mount.

Without a tracking equatorial mount like the Sky-Watcher HEQ5, a 2.5-second exposure like the one above is impossible. Even 1-second of movement at this focal length will record a blurry image if the telescope or lens is not moving at the same speed as the moon.

The benefit of shooting a long exposure during the maximum eclipse (totality) is that you also record the starry sky behind the moon. To do this in a single exposure on a normal full moon is not possible as the dynamic range is too wide.

A dedicated one-shot-color astronomy camera is more than capable of taking a brilliant photo of the eclipse as well. The computer software used to control these devices (such as FireCapture) have the camera controls needed to properly expose the moon through each stage of the eclipse. 

For projects like this, I personally enjoy the freedom and simplicity of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Camera settings such as ISO, exposure, and white balance can easily be changed on-the-fly as the eclipse is taking place.

To capture the entire event, many people like to create a lunar eclipse sequence showing each stage of the eclipse. To accomplish this you will need to make the necessary adjustments to your camera settings through each stage.

When the eclipse is over, you can make a lunar eclipse sequence image that shows the progression of the event as it unfolded. Here is a great YouTube tutorial for creating a lunar eclipse sequence

lunar eclipse sequence

A lunar eclipse sequence. Rod Pommier, Portland, OR (2014). Celestron Compustar C14.

Without A Tracking Mount

Since the moon is very bright, it is possible to take a fast exposure (1/500″ or faster) of the moon without tracking. You will still want to use an optical instrument such as a telescope or long lens, and without tracking, it will be tricky. 

Even at 10X magnification, the moon will slowly move across the eyepiece as you look at it through the telescope. This a subtle reminder that the earth is always spinning, and why astrophotography is so challenging overall. 

Thankfully, unlike dim deep-sky objects like nebulae and galaxies in the night sky, solar system subjects like the moon are incredibly bright. You can take an ultra-fast exposure of the moon through a telescope that is still sharp, without tracking. 

Many visual observers enjoy the affordability and performance of a Dobsonian Telescope like the one shown below. They are a fantastic choice for anyone interested in astronomy, and why I consider them to be the best telescope for beginners

Apertura AD8 Dobsonian Telescope

 

It is possible to produce a comparable close-up image using a digital camera or smartphone through the eyepiece of a non-tracking telescope such as a Dobsonian, using the eyepiece projection method. For the best results, use a smartphone adapter that allows you to secure your phone to the telescope.

Photographing a Lunar Eclipse with Your Phone

This type of astrophotography is often referred to as the eyepiece projection method. To do this, you’ll simply position your digital camera or smartphone into the eyepiece of the telescope. This method usually requires a fair amount of trial and error, but you may be quite surprised with your results.

An eyepiece smartphone adapter may help to steady your shot of the lunar eclipse. Although you’ll have much less control over exposure and record less detail, this technique can be used with a non-tracking telescope as a traditional Dobsonian telescope like the one pictured above, or a smaller tabletop model. 

The moon is one of the few subjects that are relatively easy to photograph with a non-tracking mount compared to deep-sky astrophotography. However, the transition phases of the eclipse can be difficult due to the changing lighting conditions and exposure levels.

I recommend capturing the lunar eclipse during its maximum phase if you’re using this method. You likely won’t be able to capture a well-exposed image using the camera’s auto-exposure mode. Experiment with your camera’s manual settings that allow for variations in shutter speed. 

I have had great results using the Celestron NexYZ smartphone adapter when photographing the moon. This model features a 3-axis design that allows me to line up the camera on my bulky Samsung S21 Ultra phone with the eyepiece. It clamps onto the eyepiece itself and is much more secure than models I have used in the past. 

 

smartphone adapter

Use a smartphone adapter to line up your camera lens and secure your phone. 

Camera Settings

Once you have secured your phone in the adapter, and the camera lens is lined up with the eyepiece, you can start experimenting with settings. To fully control the exposure, it is best to use manual mode (often called ‘pro’ mode) rather than the standard auto setting. 

Chances are, when you are pointing at the moon with your smartphone and telescope, it will appear very bright, and your camera will have trouble finding the correct exposure to show the lunar surface details. To fix this, adjust the basic camera settings like exposure length, ISO, and f-stop to properly expose the bright moon through the eyepiece. 

A shorter exposure time 1/500′ and a moderate ISO setting of 400 is a good place to start (see below). If the moon looks too bright or too dim using these settings, make small adjustments to the exposure time until it is well exposed to reveal the moon’s surface. 

Use manual focus mode to ensure that the moon is in critical focus, rather than relying on the autofocus capabilities of your phone camera. This can be tricky to get right, but keeping the camera steady via the smartphone adapter will make this a lot easier.

how to photograph the lunar eclipse with your phone

Capturing the lunar eclipse using the ‘pro’ mode on my smartphone. 

Using a Telephoto Camera Lens

If you don’t own a telescope, a telephoto camera lens with at least 300mm of focal length will work well. At longer focal lengths like the ones necessary for a close-up of the moon, you must use fast exposure to capture a sharp photo of the moon. This is because the Earth is spinning, so you’re essentially trying to photograph a moving target. 

The image below was captured using a Canon EOS 70D and a Canon EF 400mm F/5.6 Lens. 

partial eclipse phase

The final stages of the partial eclipse phase can be challenging to photograph because there is a bright highlight on a small portion of the moon. This makes it nearly impossible to capture an image with enough dynamic range to properly expose the darkest and lightest areas of the image. 

For the photo above, the camera settings included an ISO setting of 6400 and a shutter speed of 1/8. To display the dim shadows and bright highlights of the moon in a single photo, you may need to take exposure of varying lengths and blend them together into an HDR composite. 

This is a very common practice in moon photography and can create very dynamic-looking images of the moon with a lot of depth. 

As mentioned earlier, a tracking telescope or camera mount such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro (pictured below) is recommended. An equatorial mount that is polar aligned with the rotational axis of the Earth will allow you to take longer exposures, and get more creative with your camera settings.

Owners of astronomical telescopes for astrophotography usually own an equatorial telescope mount, and this is an ideal configuration for moon photography. This allows the user to enter any celestial object into the hand controller, and the mount will automatically slew to that object once it has been properly star-aligned.

An iOptron SkyGuider Pro camera mount with a DSLR and 300mm Lens attached

The key to capturing details of the moon’s surface in your lunar eclipse photo is reach and exposure. By this, I mean that you need enough magnification to show the detailed craters of the moon’s surface, and a fast enough shutter speed to not blow out any of the highlights in your image. 

To do this, a precise exposure length must be used. One that preserves the data in your image while also bringing enough of the shadowed areas forward is ideal. For my photos, I found an ISO of 200 and an exposure of 1/200 to work quite well. This was enough to showcase a starry sky behind the eclipsed moon.

I use Adobe Photoshop to process all of my astrophotography images, including photos of the moon and our solar system. Adobe Camera Raw is a fantastic way to edit your images of the lunar eclipse because it gives you complete control over the highlights and color balance of your image. 

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Camera Raw offers powerful tools to edit your photos of the Total Lunar Eclipse

Capturing a Lunar Eclipse Without a Telescope 

If you are simply using a point-and-shoot camera or a DSLR and lens on a stationary tripod, you can still take an amazing photo of the lunar eclipse. This is often a great way to capture the landscape and mood of the moment. The photo below was captured back in October 2014 using a Canon EOS 7D and an 18-200mm lens on a tripod.

This is a wide-angle shot captured at 18mm, while the inset image was captured at the lens’s maximum focal length of 200mm. A zoom lens is handy for photographing the moon at varying magnifications. 

Total Lunar Eclipse - Moon Photography

When capturing the lunar eclipse without a telescope, you’ll want as much manual control over the camera settings as possible. “Auto” mode, flash, and autofocus won’t work on a photo of the total lunar eclipse. Adjusting individual parameters such as exposure length and ISO is essential to properly expose the moon. 

Practice taking shots at night beforehand, so that you are ready when the eclipse happens. Ideally, find a location that includes some interesting foreground and background details to capture a dramatic scene on the night of the event. In the case of the lunar eclipse shown above, it took place in the early morning hours as the moon was setting. 

What is Happening During a Lunar Eclipse?

Do you understand why a lunar eclipse happens? There are two types of lunar eclipses: partial and total. As you know, the Earth orbits the sun, and the moon orbits the Earth. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth is sitting directly between the sun and the moon.

There are 3 primary types of lunar eclipses, a Penumbral lunar eclipse, a Partial lunar eclipse, and a Total lunar eclipse. 

Although the moon is covered in Earth’s shadow, some sunlight still reaches the moon. When the moon enters the central umbra shadow of the Earth, it turns red and dim. This distinctive “blood” color is due to the fact that the sunlight is passing through Earth’s atmosphere to light up the disk of the moon. 

What is a lunar eclipse?

A diagram of what happens during a total lunar eclipse – NASA

Unlike a solar eclipse, observing a total lunar eclipse is completely safe to do with the naked eye. This natural phenomenon can be enjoyed without the aid of any optical instruments, although binoculars can really help to get an up-close view of the action.

 

camera settings for lunar eclipse

Camera settings used for my lunar eclipse photo

This article was originally posted in January 2019, and updated on November 4th, 2022. 

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William Optics RedCat 71 First Look

|Telescopes|11 Comments

Late last month, William sent me a William Optics RedCat 71 for review purposes. I will continue to share my results using this apochromatic refractor telescope, and will likely purchase it after the testing period if I have the option.

At the time of writing, I do not know when the RedCat 71 will be available for purchase. I would imagine there will be limited stock available before the end of the year, but that is pure speculation. 

I know that there are a few RedCat 71 units being tested in other parts of the world right now as well. The Cat 71 was designed to be an ultra-flat, well-corrected imaging APO for modern DSLR/mirrorless, and dedicated astronomy cameras. 

redcat 71 telescope

In this post, I’ll provide you with an overview of the telescope’s specs, as well as provide a few sample images taken with it. Since testing the telescope from my light-polluted backyard, I have been able to take the Cat 71 on one dark sky trip, and the results were incredible. 

It looks like the William Optics website lists a retail price of $1698.00 USD at the time of writing. For what you’re getting (premium optics will all necessary accessories to mount and focus the scope), I think this is a competitive price. 

William Optics RedCat 71

In the following video, I test the new William Optics RedCat 71 under light-polluted skies in the backyard to photograph the Flying Bat Nebula. This may give you a better idea of what my complete deep-sky setup looks like, including the backspacing of the camera, and how I run the system using the ASAIR Plus. 

When I first made a video about the William Optics RedCat 51 nearly three years ago, my YouTube audience was very skeptical about the scope. The RedCat 51 was designed to be a hybrid between an apochromatic refractor telescope and a telephoto lens, and many believed it was a little too “niche” to be a success.

The helical focuser design in a compact (lens-like) package made the first-generation RedCat feel closer to a camera lens than any other telescope I had ever used. William presented the telescope as a dual-purpose instrument that could also be used for wildlife photography, thanks to the practical focuser design and small size.

It was lightweight enough to use on a portable star tracker, and this was one of the reasons I believe the RedCat 51 was so successful. Several small apochromatic refractor telescopes have since followed suit (including the Radian 61 APO). 

The original William Optics RedCat 51.

The focal length and f-ratio (250mm at F/4.9) of the RedCat 51 were comparable to many of the telephoto lenses astrophotographers were previously accustomed to. 

The RedCat 51 (and all of its variations and upgrades) was an extremely popular and well-received optical instrument in the amateur astrophotography community. In a small way, I believe the RedCat 51 was responsible for the current ultra wide-field deep-sky trend.

I’ve seen some incredible images captured with it from around the world. I personally enjoyed photographing large deep-sky objects with the original RedCat, and it is still one of my favorite astrophotography telescopes of all time. 

Differences Between RedCat 51 and the Cat 71

The new, larger RedCat 71 has a 71mm diameter objective, and a focal length of 350mm at F/4.9. This is enough to pull smaller nebulae in for a closer look, and medium-to-large targets are captured in detail. 

I am sure a lot of RedCat 51 owners would agree that there are times that 250mm seems just a little too wide, and a little extra aperture would be nice.

The William Optics RedCat 71 is the same ultra-flat, color corrected Petzval APO you love, with more power. Just like the 51mm version, the Cat 71 includes the handy built-in diffraction spikes focus mask in the lens cap.

For those shooting with DSLR and mirrorless cameras, this is an essential tool as focusing on the fly can be tricky without and long-exposure loop of images. 

At just over 8-pounds (with the mounting rings, and dovetail), the Cat 71 is definitely not suitable for a portable star tracker and will require an equatorial telescope mount designed for deep-sky astrophotography. 

RedCat 51 vs. RedCat 71

You’ll notice that the 71mm version continues with the helical focuser design, but this time around the lens moves internally, independent of the outer dew shield. This wasn’t an issue for me on the 51, but I think some folks will appreciate this.

Another nice little tweak is the separate gear ring for an autofocuser. A company called ‘DeepSkyDad made a custom electronic focuser for the original Redcat, and I am sure there is something already in the works for this one.

I never sprung for an autofocuser with the original RedCat 51, but I know that this option is a big deal for others.

William mentioned that the Strehl ratio is 0.95+, and I imagine the Strehl report will be included when these start shipping. Attention to detail is the name of the game when it comes to William’s scopes, right down to the custom padded bag.

I expect many Cat owners will choose to grow their feline family.

William Optics RedCat 71

Specifications

  • Objective diameter: 71mm
  • Optics: Petzval APO
  • Focal Length: 350mm
  • F-Ratio: f/4.9
  • Focuser: Helical
  • Image Circle: 45mm
  • Weight: 6.5 lbs (OTA only)
  • Included Accessories: Mounting rings, V-style dovetail, Cat saddle.

The Set-Up

When the Cat 71 arrived, I mounted it to the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro and attached a ZWO ASI2400MC Pro one-shot-color camera. This telescope has a large image circle (45mm)  and is just begging you to put a big sensor on it.

I used a Starizona filter drawer between the camera and scope along with an Optolong L-eXtreme filter. When using the Cat 71 for the first time, it was almost a full moon, so I focused on collecting h-alpha data from the backyard.

astrophotography telescope

  1. ZWO ASI2400MC Pro
  2. Optolong L-eXtreme Filter
  3. ZWO ASIAIR Plus
  4. ZWO ASI120MM Mini
  5. William Optics Uniguide 50
  6. William Optics RedCat 71
  7. Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

I mounted a small guide scope on top of the Cat 71 using the included “cat’ saddle” mounting bar. I’ve run every imaging session with the Cat 71 using the ASIAIR Plus from my phone.

Believe it or not, this is one of the cleanest deep-sky astrophotography rigs I’ve ever put together. I suppose removing the laptop and all of the cables streaming into it had a lot to do with that.

I’m usually hesitant to commit to a particular deep-sky configuration for an extended period of time, but I have a feeling this setup will get a lot of use this winter.

ZWO ASIAIR Plus

Astrophotography Results

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, my first selection should come as no surprise to you. The constellation Cepheus is in a great position right now (October) to collect some serious exposure time. 

All of the beautiful nebulae in Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Auriga are in prime position for imaging in the fall season. I chose the Flying Bat nebula because it has a strong hydrogen signal (which is great on a moonlit night) and I’ve never shot it before.

The Blue Squid Nebula, inside the Flying Bat Nebula, is incredibly faint and I have a feeling it might be too faint to capture from my Bortle class 7 backyard even on a moonless night. I’ll have to attempt photographing this nebula again using a dedicated 3nm OIII filter for several hours to find out. 

Here’s a look at a quick process on the Flying Bat Nebula from my backyard. The large formation of the hydrogen nebula (the flying bat) is prominent, but sadly, only the slightest hint of the Squid Nebula is present.   the flying bat nebula

The Flying Bat Nebula.

For my next target, I traveled to a Bortle Scale Class 3 location, during the new moon phase. My wife and I spent 3 clear nights at this location, and I photographed two deep-sky objects through the William Optics RedCat 71 while we were there.

The first object is quite small, but it is surrounded by a lot of interesting areas of dark dust. The Iris Nebula has always been one of my personal favorites, and I am thrilled to have finally captured it in such detail.

Iris Nebula

The Iris Nebula in Cepheus. 

The next target I photographed is the stunning Pleiades star cluster. This image includes 4.5 hours of total exposure time using the ASI2400MC Pro and RedCat 71.

A dark sky is essential to reveal the faint clouds of dust that surround the seven sisters. For a better understanding of the way I process my astrophotos, please consider my premium astrophotography image processing guide

Redcat 71 example image

The Pleiades Star Cluster in Taurus.

Final Thoughts

The William Optics RedCat 71 is the real deal. It’s an ‘if you can only bring one telescope with you, bring this one’ kind of ‘scope.

The optics are sharp, flat, and I did not see a hint of chromatic aberration in my photos (including shooting unfiltered in broadband RGB). A full-frame one-shot-color camera is the great test of a refractor’s optics, and the Cat 71 passed with flying colors. 

The image circle is large enough to accommodate a full-frame camera sensor and I did not experience any vignetting when capturing images with the ZWO ASI2400MC Pro. 

I did experience some very minor camera sensor tilt issues, but I believe they could be easily corrected with further testing and some adjustments. When the Cat 71 is officially out of the bag (I couldn’t resist) I doubt users will find very much to complain about. 

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How To Photograph the Planet Jupiter

|Planets|2 Comments

I’ll get straight to the point. I’m going to walk you through how I took a detailed picture of the planet Jupiter through my telescope.

Compared to photographing deep-sky objects, like galaxies and nebulae like I normally do, photographing planets is a breath of fresh air.

I am not a planetary imaging expert by any means, but I will share the simple steps I used to get results like the one below. The process involves recording short videos of the planet through my telescope and extracting the best image frames from the video for stacking. 

On August 19, Jupiter was at opposition. This means that Jupiter was opposite the Sun (with Earth sitting between both objects). The gas giant was at its brightest and closest to Earth for the year, and I was lucky enough to have a clear sky that night. 

Jupiter astrophotography

The Planet Jupiter through my telescope.

While I am happy with my latest photo, I am itching to give it another shot. I’ll attempt to photograph Jupiter again soon, under more favorable weather conditions, to see if I can capture a clearer view of the planet’s surface.

High magnification planetary astrophotography can be heavily influenced by atmospheric conditions and elevation. This can make or break your image, and unfortunately, it’s completely out of your control. 

However, unlike deep-sky astrophotography, light pollution and the current moon phase do not negatively affect the experience in any way. Taking amazing images of the planet Jupiter is possible from just about anywhere in the world. 

Video

In the video below, you’ll see the camera and telescope I used to photograph Jupiter, along with real-time video footage of the planet through my telescope. I cover the astrophotography equipment used, and some simple tips for photographing Jupiter up-close. 

It was a memorable night in the backyard, and seeing Jupiter in real-time on the night of opposition was a real treat. You may notice how poor the ‘seeing’ is during my imaging session. This is a common occurrence when photographing planets, but there are some clever ways to overcome this scenario in post-processing.

Planetary Astrophotography

The term astrophotography encompasses a broad spectrum of night sky photography. You can think of Milky Way nightscapes as the ‘ultra-wide’ end of the spectrum, and planetary imaging as the ‘extreme close-up’ end on the other side.

It’s a common misconception that the magnification or ‘zoom’ is the be-all-end-all measure of a telescope, which is 99% false. But when it comes to taking pictures of planets up-close, it certainly comes in handy.

The Early Days

My first interest in astrophotography, like many people, was to photograph the brightest objects in the sky that I could see with my naked eye. I knew where and how to find the moon and the planets, and I wanted to see and photograph them up close.

One of the first things I did when I got my new telescope was to look at Jupiter and it was life-changing; the cloud bands, the great red spot, the Galilean moons orbiting the planet. There it was, in real-time!

But after I observed the gas giant through my telescope and both eyepieces, I needed more detail. This new interest turned into a (healthy?) obsession causing me to go deeper, both literally and figuratively.

Entering Deep Space

I started learning more about space, reading astrophotography forums, and joining my local astronomy club. It was during this time that I ended up taking a slightly different path.

I figured that if I could photograph a planet so easily with my point-and-shoot camera and Dobsonian telescope, then why not a galaxy? Before I knew it, deep-sky astrophotography became my primary focus.

Photographing galaxies and nebulae became an obsession, and photographing solar system objects fell way down my priority list.

Back to My Roots

The recent opposition of Jupiter has rekindled my early passion for planetary imaging. Amateur astrophotographers are now taking such incredible images of planets, you almost wouldn’t believe they were captured from Earth.

I’ve been practicing my planetary imaging techniques over the last year, and it was finally time to take my best photo of Jupiter yet.

Photographing Jupiter 

To photograph Jupiter, I used a Celestron Edge HD11 SCT. This is the biggest telescope I own with a focal length of nearly 3000mm, bringing Jupiter up front and center in the eyepiece.

A Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope is a popular type of telescope for planetary imaging in the astrophotography community. The large aperture and sharp optics allow you to really dial in the details of distant solar system objects. 

Celestron Telescope

Celestron EdgeHD 11 Scmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Instead of a visual eyepiece at the base of the telescope, I attached a ZWO ASI462MC planetary camera. This is a highly sensitive camera that is capable of collecting full-color images of the planet at a high frame rate.

I should be using a UV/IR cut filter with this camera to sharpen the image up. Unfortunately, I do not own a 1.25″ UV/IR cut filter that I can thread onto the barrel of the camera nosepiece. 

Normally, I use a monochrome CMOS camera to capture the planets (such as Saturn and Mars). However, because Jupiter rotates so quickly, I feared I would not collect enough exposures through each RGB filter before the planet had turned significantly.

planetary camera

ZWO ASI462MC Planetary Imaging Camera.

I know that there are Jupiter de-rotation tools (such as WinJupos) to correct this issue, but I have not personally used this software before. I opted to collect an image in full color in a shorter period of time. 

Helpful Resource: WinJupos Jupiter De-Rotation Tutorial (Dylan O’Donnel)

My computerized GoTo equatorial telescope mount (Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro) tracks the planet Jupiter so that it remains still during each image exposure. 

I took short video clips of Jupiter through the telescope and hope that I can collect a healthy amount of good frames.

To run the camera and take these short video clips, I use a software called FireCapture which also has some really great tools for framing, focusing, and recording the planet.

The goal was to capture a video of about 60-seconds when the air is still, with as little turbulence as possible.

best planetary imaging software

I use FireCapture planetary imaging software.

My Step-by-Step Process

Although I have been exploring astrophotography for over a decade, the majority of this time was spent in the deep-sky imaging realm. Photographing planets at high magnification is still new to me, and I still have a lot to learn.

However, it may be helpful for you to see the exact process I used to capture and process my latest image of Jupiter. The camera and telescope I use are well-suited for planetary imaging.

Equipment

Many amateur astrophotographers will use a 2X Barlow lens in front of the camera to increase the magnification of the planet. This will indeed make the planet much larger in your image, but will also intensify any atmospheric disturbance. 

I plan to invest in a quality Barlow lens in the near future for planetary imaging. The Tele Vue Optics PowerMate 2x is a popular option to consider.

tele-vue powermate barlow

Telescope Alignment and Focus

I use a Celestron 22mm visual eyepiece to align the telescope mount and center the planet in the telescope. This is also a great chance to actually observe the planet Jupiter and its moons visually in all its glory.

To align the telescope mount and center the target, I use the Sky-Watcher SynScan hand controller (this seems to make people angry).

  • Polar align the telescope mount (QHY PoleMaster)
  • Sky-Watcher 2-Star Alignment Routine
  • Slew to planet Jupiter (it’s either in-view or very close)
  • Center planet in the eyepiece and focus
  • Replace the telescope eyepiece with a dedicated astronomy camera (ZWO ASI462MC)
  • Open FireCapture software, connect the camera
  • In FireCapture, set capture area to widest field of view
  • Locate Jupiter (out of focus)
  • Zoom-in to 125% 
  • Center and focus the planet as best as possible

The Capture Process

  • Set camera gamma to 50%, gain to 60-70%
  • Adjust exposure time based on the histogram (1-2 milliseconds)
  • Set the capture mode to ‘Jupiter’ and ‘.SER’ file type
  • Place Jupiter in the top left-hand side of the preview window
  • Use the ‘ROI’ (region of interest) mode to crop the image to (352 x 400 pixels)
  • Use the ‘Center Object’ tool
  • Run capture by pressing the play button
  • Capture video file of 10,000-15,000 frames

FireCapture planetary software

FireCapture planetary astrophotography software.

As you are collecting videos of the planet, pay attention to focus and changes in seeing and transparency. You may want to pause your session to re-focus the camera at some point, but be careful not to lose the planet’s position during this process. 

Even when capturing a small field of view, the file sizes of the video can really add up (several GB’s each). Make sure you have plenty of extra hard disk space on your computer!

Image Processing

To process my image of Jupiter, I used two different applications; AutoStakkert, and Registax 6. I use AutoStakkert to turn the .SER video file into individual image frames and stack the best ones into a single file.

Because Jupiter rotates so quickly (about 1 minute), I limited my videos to about 60-seconds in total. Other planets, such as Mars and Saturn, do not rotate so quickly and longer video files can be recorded without issue. 

AutoStackkert

  1. Open the video file (.SER)
  2. Analyze the file
  3. Place AP Grid (48 alignment points) 
  4. Choose frame percentage to stack (30%)
  5. Make sure “RGB Align” is checked
  6. Check RGB Align and Drizzle 1.5X
  7. Choose .TIF file type for output
  8. Stack

Registax tutorial

Placing the alignment points on my Jupiter image in AutoStakkert!

There are many settings to play with at this stage but I have found success by stacking the best 30% of frames from a 15,000-frame video file. My video files were usually between 8 – 15k frames in size. 

The image of Jupiter will look quite soft after the stacking process has been completed and this is completely normal. If you would like to learn more about using AutoStakkert! for planetary image stacking, I highly suggest watching this tutorial on YouTube. 

Registax 

Registax has a number of neat tools to get the most out of your planetary images. During this stage, I do my best to recover the surface details of the planet without making the image too noisy. 

Registax

Processing Jupiter using Registax 6.

The wavelet processing tool in Registax 6 is where you finally get to reveal some serious surface details of the planet. I have found that adjusting the first slider to about 80% to right has the biggest impact on the image. 

Feel free to experiment with the wavelet processing sliders to taste, and try to avoid creating an overly ‘crunchy’, noisy image. If your surface detail restoration and sharpening in Registax were too aggressive, you can always make noise reduction adjustments in Adobe Photoshop later on.

Registax before and after

Before and after using the wavelet processing tool in Registax 6.

Helpful Resource: Processing planetary images with Registax

Adobe Photoshop

The final image processing steps are done in Adobe Photoshop. This is where I make some subtle tweaks to the image including boosting the saturation, and some additional noise reduction.

I have found the Adobe Camera Raw Filter to be an effective way to make slight improvements to the image with live feedback. I particularly enjoy the Dehaze and Noise Reduction sliders at this stage.

Camera Raw Filter

Adobe Camera Raw Filter.

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to achieve a successful image of Jupiter using a similar workflow to the one I have shared. Chances are you will develop your own subtle variations to the steps outlined above, and get an even better image of Jupiter than I have.

Once you have experienced the start to finish process of capturing a planet firsthand, you will begin to strategize little ways to improve your final image. For example, I believe that I will be able to produce a much stronger image by using a 2X Barlow lens and a proper UV/IR cut filter in the future.

Set your expectations low for your first night out and make small improvements to your capture and processing routines over time. Like everything in this incredible hobby, great results don’t happen overnight. 

Jupiter astrophotography

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How I Photographed a Nebula with a $200 Camera Lens

|Camera|3 Comments

Taking impressive deep-sky astrophotography images is not reserved for those using an astronomical telescope. A budget camera lens can be used to take images of some of the best deep-sky objects in the night sky.

A telephoto zoom lens can provide enough magnification to pull distant objects in space in for a closer look, but you’ll need to find the lens’ “sweet spot” for a clean shot. In this article, I’ll share exactly how I photographed a colorful nebula region in space using a budget camera lens and a DSLR camera.

In my latest video on YouTube, I photographed a nebula in the night sky using a $200 camera lens. The photo turned out really well, and I think it’s an eye-opener to anyone that thinks a telescope is needed for a task like this.

Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon and Trifid Nebula region photographed with a $200 Lens.

Although I do most of my astrophotography in the city, it should come as no surprise that I usually get much better pictures from a dark sky location (it really depends on the project). Light pollution washes out the night sky and can make it more difficult to locate and photograph your target. 

For the photo shown above, I traveled to a dark sky park located about 45-minutes from home. The location is special to me, as it was where I took my first image of the Lagoon Nebula through a telescope in 2013.

Nebula Photography with a $200 Camera Lens

In the video, you’ll see me set up my camera and lens to photograph the bright Lagoon Nebula that lies toward the center of the Milky Way core. 

The Lagoon Nebula is a stunning emission nebula in the constellation Sagittarius. The Lagoon Nebula is big (90 × 40 arcmins), bright (apparent magnitude +6.0), and it sits right next door to the beautiful Trifid Nebula.

If you’re new to astrophotography, you may want to stick to the brighter nebulae targets until you really get your system ironed out. Brighter nebulae like this make focusing, framing, and even image processing easier.

You can use an astronomy app on your smartphone to filter out the brightest objects available in the night sky. The dimmer and smaller the object, the tougher the entire process becomes.

astrophotography camera lens

Using a Telescope vs. Camera Lens 

My first deep-sky photo of the Lagoon Nebula was taken using a DSLR camera and a thousand-dollar astronomical telescope (Explore Scientific ED80). The telescope delivered crisp, well color-corrected images of my subject at a focal length of 480mm.

Telescopes, such as the apochromatic refractor, are designed to focus pinpoints of light (stars) without color fringing (chromatic aberration). They often use much longer focal lengths than a camera lens (higher magnification) and include robust focusers that allow you to fine-tune your focus position. 

Explore Scientific ED80

The Explore Scientific ED80 Apochromatic Refractor.

When it comes to deep-sky imaging, an astrophotography telescope will usually beat a camera lens every time, both in terms of the imaging experience and the results. 

After all, telescopes are designed to observe and photograph deep-sky objects at high magnification, camera lenses are not. 

Camera lenses excel at wide-angle shots such as Milky Way photography and nightscapes, but when long focal lengths are needed, you can’t beat an astronomical telescope.

However, the average person doesn’t own a telescope, but they may already have a DSLR camera and zoom lens at their disposal. At a focal length of 150mm and above, the larger deep-sky objects begin to reveal themselves in a long exposure image.

To prove that amazing deep-sky photos are within the grasp of an ordinary camera and lens combo, I chose to use one of the most entry-level kits I could get my hands on.

A Beginner DSLR Camera and Lens Combo

A dedicated astronomy camera is built for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, but if you own a regular daytime camera, you can still take fantastic astrophotography images.

For this project, I used one of the most affordable DSLR cameras on the market, the Canon EOS Rebel T7. I purchased this camera and lens as a bundle from B&H Photo Video earlier this year.

DSLR camera

The Canon EOS Rebel T7 kit lens bundle.

The bundle included two lenses, the Canon EF-s 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 IS, and the Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6.

The Canon Rebel series of DSLR cameras are entry-level camera bodies, suitable for beginner to intermediate photographers looking for complete control over their shot. 

I’ve owned many Canon Rebel DSLR’s over the years, from the XSi (450D) to the T3i. I highly recommend these reliable cameras for beginners looking to take their astrophotography to the next level. 

The entire kit cost less than $600 (including the camera body and two lenses), but you can buy the Canon EF 75-300m F/4-5.6 lens on its own brand new for $200. 

The Lens

The Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6 III is a budget camera lens that allows you to shoot at focal lengths of anywhere between 75-300mm. 

I’ve covered the astrophotography performance of this lens before, and it continues to impress me. As expected, this lens performs much better at lower f-stops.

I wouldn’t recommend shooting wide-open at F/4 for astrophotography. I’ve found F/6.3 to be a great middle-ground between light-gathering power and star quality.

  • Lens Mount: Canon EF
  • Focal Length: 75mm-300mm
  • Type: Zoom Telephoto
  • Focus Method: Extending Front
  • Autofocus: Yes
  • Image Stabilization: No
  • Weight: 480 grams (1.06 lbs)
  • Elements: 13
  • Groups: 9
  • Filter Size: 58 mm
  • Lens Coating: Super Spectra Coating
  • Type: Zoom
  • Maximum Aperture: f/4-5.6
  • Specialty Type: Telephoto

If you watched the video I made earlier this year (kit lens challenge), you’ll know that this affordable camera lens exceeded my expectations by a long shot.

Canon EF 75-300mm lens

The Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6 lens used for my photo.

Shoot Longer with a Star Tracker

I don’t think the average person realizes that it’s possible to photograph nebulae in space that are thousands of light-years away with an ordinary camera and lens.

However, there is one key piece of astrophotography equipment that is critical for a truly amazing shot.

The key to capturing a great photo with a camera lens like this is the star tracker. The star tracker compensates for the rotation of the Earth, and a moving sky.

It’s essentially a smaller version of a motorized equatorial telescope mount, like the heavy-duty ones I use with my larger telescopes.

star tracker for camera lens

My camera and lens on a star tracker.

I highly recommend the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer to anyone looking to purchase their first portable star tracker for astrophotography. 

The star tracker allows you to take long-exposure images at long focal lengths (a maximum of 300mm with this lens) without star trailing. For the star tracker to work effectively, you must polar align the axis of the mount to the celestial pole. 

If you don’t have a star tracker, you can still take images of nebulae like this, but you will be limited to much shorter exposures because the stars will begin to trail after only a few seconds.

astrophotography

Aligning the polar axis of the star tracker with the North Celestial Pole.

When you compensate for the rotation of the Earth, all of a sudden exposure time isn’t a concern anymore.

You are free to experiment with less aggressive ISO settings, lower f-stops, and an exposure length that’s suitable for your tracker’s capabilities.

Star trackers, like the Star Adventurer, require you to manually locate and frame your subject and this can be difficult if your object is small and dim.

focusing the camera

Focusing the camera on a bright star using 10X Live-View.

If there aren’t any bright stars in the same field of view as your target, you may need to focus first and then pan over to your intended imaging location. This is quite common when getting set up. 

A red dot finder may help you align your camera lens with your subject, and a planetarium app such as Stellarium will help you “star-hop” your way to the general area. 

Expect to take several test exposures (15-30-seconds each) before you actually start taking your long-exposure images on your target. 

Camera Settings and Advice

At a focal length of 100-200mm, exposure lengths of about 2-3 minutes will provide enough data per shot to produce a great image. 

You’ll collect plenty of signal (light) in each shot, without having to crank the ISO up (which can increase noise) and you’re not asking too much out of your little star tracker.

I recommend using “maxed-out” settings (high ISO, fastest aperture) for the framing and focusing process, and to take a lot of test exposures until you are happy with the framing and sharpness of the object.

camera settings

I chose to use a focal length of 200mm on this zoom lens. This allowed me to capture the Lagoon Nebula at higher magnification, yet still capture a wide field of view of the area.

I used a roll of electrical tape to secure the lens at the 200mm position. This is an important step to remember, as you could easily lose your original focal length position while focusing the camera lens. 

Focusing the camera lens on a deep-sky object can be challenging. In my case, I had to turn the LCD display up and switch to ISO 6400 for the brightest stars in the frame to stand out.

Related Post: How to Focus Your Camera for Astrophotography

Once I was satisfied with the centering of my object and the focus, I switched back to my imaging settings, which is a less aggressive ISO 1600 at F/6.3.

The stars looked a little too bloated for my liking at F/5, and bumping the aperture down even 2 stops can make a big difference in terms of overall image sharpness.

Lagoon Nebula with a camera lens

Camera Settings for my Photo

  • Mode: Manual
  • File Type: RAW
  • Exposure: 120-seconds
  • Number of Exposures: 45
  • ISO: 1600
  • F-Stop: F/6.3
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Focus: Manual
  • Focal Length: 200mm (TAPED)

Equipment Setup Breakdown

The star tracker must be mounted securely to a sturdy tripod to operate correctly. I use a carbon fiber tripod that is lightweight, sturdy, and ultra-portable. 

A remote shutter release cable is necessary if you want to tap into longer exposure times (beyond 30-seconds) on your DSLR camera and automate a sequence of long-exposure images to fire off on their own.

Because the star tracker is battery-powered, the entire setup from top to bottom is completely portable and does not require any additional power to operate. Bringing an extra set of batteries for the star tracker and the camera will help avoid cutting the imaging sessions short. 

A dew heater is recommended to avoid moisture on the camera lens, but this will require an additional power source to run (a portable USB charger device may be all you need). 

A small Bahtinov mask may make focusing easier, but it is not essential for a tight focus. Using the 10X live-view zoom on your DSLR camera will help you find critical focus on a bright star.

Here’s the complete setup I used to photograph the Lagoon Nebula with a camera lens.

portable deep-sky astrophotography setup

My portable deep-sky astrophotography setup.

My Results

The final picture includes 45 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600. The images were shot in RAW image format and stacked together using dark frames in DeepSkyStacker (DSS).

DSS is a free stacking software and a personal favorite of mine. Sequator is another excellent choice, and many people prefer the simplicity of this software over DSS. 

As you collect more exposure time overall, the signal-to-noise ratio is improved, and you are left with an image that can be processed effectively. 

The single image frames have a brown, washed-out appearance (see below), but this is easily corrected during the post-processing stages. 

sub exposures

My individual image exposures (sub-exposures) on the Lagoon Nebula.

The final image was carefully stretched (curves) in Adobe Photoshop to bring up the brightest areas of the nebula. The colors were carefully balanced (setting the black and white points), and a healthy amount of saturation boost was applied.

Other techniques used were star reduction, gradient removal, and selective color boosting. All of these topics have been covered in detail on this website over the years. 

To learn more about the image processing techniques I use, please see my premium astrophotography image processing guide

Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae by Trevor Jones.

If you are just getting started in astrophotography, I hope that this post has inspired you to take a second look at the camera equipment you may already own and start using it for the night sky.

For my latest astrophotography adventures, feel free to subscribe to AstroBackyard on YouTube and Instagram. Clear skies!

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My Best Image of the Andromeda Galaxy Yet

|Galaxies|7 Comments

My latest photo of the Andromeda Galaxy is my best effort yet. I have been taking deep-sky astrophotography images for over 10 years now, and this might be my favorite photo of space I’ve ever taken.

This detailed image was captured using a small refractor telescope, with a mirrorless camera attached. The image reveals the incredible, dusty spiral arms of Andromeda, in incredible detail. 

On October 17th, 2020, I rented a one-bedroom Airbnb to photograph the Andromeda Galaxy under dark skies. I spent the entire night outside collecting images of this galaxy with my camera and telescope. 

Andromeda Galaxy by Trevor Jones

The Andromeda Galaxy. Trevor Jones (Click to enlarge)

I’ll never take an image of Andromeda that can compete with NASA, but I can certainly continue to improve upon my previous efforts and capture the best shot I possibly can.

I believe that the planning that went into the shot, and my always-evolving image processing techniques are the reason this shot was so successful. If you have questions about how I captured and processed the image, please feel free to leave a comment. 

The Andromeda Galaxy

Messier 31 is classified as a spiral galaxy, but it looks elliptical because it is tilted at an angle from our vantage point on Earth.

The galaxy lies 2.5 million light-years away from us, and it is similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy. On a clear night under the right conditions, the Andromeda Galaxy can be seen with the naked eye.

Through a telescope or a pair of binoculars, the galaxy will appear as a noticeable “smudge”, which is the bright central core of Andromeda. Only through astrophotography, can we reveal the faint out spiral arms of the galaxy.

Although the sky was clear and beautiful the night this image was taken, stargazing was low on my priority list.

I had to make sure all of my astrophotography equipment was running properly to maximize the amount of exposure time collected on M31 in a single night. 

stargazing at night

Setting up my telescope at a dark sky location to photograph Andromeda.

About The Image

Over the past 10 years, I have photographed the Andromeda Galaxy many times, and I am proud to say that my images of M31 are improving each year. The key to this image was planning and the right approach. 

This time around, I traveled to a dark sky location to capture Andromeda in all its glory. The site was a Bortle Scale Class 4, which has much less light pollution than my backyard in the city (Bortle 7).

Many astrophotographers struggle with the negative effects of light pollution, and escaping to darker skies means packing up your gear and heading away from the city. 

light pollution map

The Bortle Scale Class 4 rural location where the photo was taken.

The dark, rural skies allowed me to capture longer exposures of my target, with better contrast. This reduced the amount of skyglow and unwanted artificial light collected in each long exposure photo I took.

To effectively photograph broadband (or broad spectrum) true-color objects in space, shooting from a dark sky site will provide the biggest advantage.

Narrowband filters can help you collect great data from the city, but galaxies and reflection nebulae do not benefit from this type of filtering. This is what makes photographing galaxies so challenging. 

In total, I collected 60 image exposures that were 180-seconds long each. 

sub-exposures

The individual 3-minute sub-exposures (light frames) of my image.

This sub-exposure length was selected to find a balance between dynamic range, noise, and tracking accuracy. The Canon EOS Ra camera used for this image handles noise at higher ISO’s exceptionally well. 

The “best” exposure length to use for deep-sky astrophotography will be debated for eternity, but the camera settings used for my Andromeda Galaxy photo may be a useful benchmark for you to use during your next astrophotography project.

Canon EOS Ra Camera

The camera used for my photo (Canon EOS Ra full-frame mirrorless camera).

Recommended Camera Settings

  • File Format: RAW
  • Mode: Bulb
  • Focus: Manual
  • Exposure: 3-minutes
  • ISO: 1600
  • White Balance: Daytime
  • Number of Exposures: 60

The settings above assume you are using an equatorial telescope mount or star tracker to match the apparent rotation of the night sky. These settings will vary widely depending on the aperture of your telescope/lens, your shooting conditions, and the camera used.

Use the histogram to help you determine an appropriate exposure length that does not clip the shadows or highlights of the data. Through image stacking, it is possible to integrate several hours’ worth of exposures into a single image with reduced noise, and plenty of signal (light). 

The Equipment Used

The deep-sky astrophotography equipment used for this photo was specifically selected for this project. The telescope (Radian 61 APO) shoots at an incredibly wide focal length of 250mm, at a focal ratio of F/4.5.

This refractor is capable of capturing stunning, flat-field images of deep-sky objects in space with impressive color correction. When using a full-frame camera like the Canon EOS Ra, the backspacing and tilt of the imaging sensor must be perfect for edge-to-edge performance.

astrophotography equipment

The equipment used for my latest photo of Andromeda.

I did not use a light pollution filter inside of the built-in filter vault, opting to deal with any unwanted skyglow during the image processing stage. Collecting 60 sub-exposures was enough to produce a clean image without any serious noise issues.

The camera and telescope accurately tracked the apparent rotation of the night on an equatorial telescope mount, the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro. A small guide scope and guide camera were used to provide better tracking (autoguiding) and utilize dithering.

My Deep-Sky Setup

astrophotography gear

Image Processing Tips

To process the image, I used many of the techniques I’ve described in detail in my premium image processing guide, as well as a few new tricks. The exposures were stacked in DeepSkyStacker using dark frames for calibration, which produced an intermediate file with a healthy signal-to-noise ratio.

For my tastes, I believe the key to a pleasing image of the Andromeda Galaxy is to reveal the gorgeous cool colors in the spiral arms of the galaxy, and really accentuate them. This creates a beautiful play of warm and cool colors that help to show the contrasting values of light from the galaxy core to the outer rim.

For many amateur astrophotographers, one of the more difficult challenges of photographing the Andromeda Galaxy is fitting the entire disc of the galaxy in a single image frame. For this reason, a wide field imaging refractor or a telephoto lens of no more than 400mm is ideal. 

Reducing star size, using layer masks to protect the bright core, and a saturation boost to taste were all applied several times over to create the final image. Several hours of processing (over many days) were involved in the creation of this image. I hope you enjoy it!

I regularly share my astrophotography adventures on YouTube. You can also see my latest images on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

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Why You Should Start with a Refractor Telescope

|Telescopes|28 Comments

If you’re getting started in deep-sky astrophotography, I believe that a compact apochromatic (APO) refractor telescope is the best possible choice.

A compact APO refractor is portable and lightweight, making it a smoother transition from the camera lenses you may be used to. In fact, in many ways, a high-quality apochromat is very much like a telephoto lens. 

If you’re interested in photographing nebulae and large galaxies in the night sky through a telescope, this article should shed some light on the decision-making process ahead of you. 

In 2020 I worked with Radian Telescopes to develop my own signature refractor telescope, the Radian 61 APO. This triplet apochromatic refractor has a wide focal length of 250mm, and an f-ratio of F/4.5.

Below, is an image of the Andromeda Galaxy I photographed with the Radian 61 apochromatic refractor in late 2020. You can view the planning and setup process for the shot here

Andromeda Galaxy by Trevor Jones

The Andromeda Galaxy. Radian 61 APO + Canon EOS Ra.

This is a lightweight telescope that can be used on a star tracker, yet is future-proofed for upgrades such as mounting an autoguiding system, or even an electronic focuser.

The attention to detail and “turnkey’ nature of this package (includes rings, dedicated corrector, dovetail) is the perfect choice for anyone transitioning from a camera lens to their first telescope. 

Radian 61 APO

Introduction

Throughout the past 8 years of deep-sky astrophotography, I’ve made lots of mistakes. In the beginning stages, I made critical errors in selecting and setting up equipment. 

From the beginning, my goal was to capture deep-sky images of nebulae and galaxies. This type of astrophotography requires the most advanced equipment and demands a careful setup routine. 

The type of telescope you choose early on can have a dramatic impact on the complexity of your deep-sky astrophotography setup. In my experience, a compact, wide-field refractor offers an improved user experience over the other telescope types during the acquisition stages of astrophotography.

For example, I began taking my first deep-space images with a reflector telescope. If I could go back and I do it all over again, I would have chosen a compact, wide-field refractor to start astrophotography with. 

setting up telescope

These days, I use a refractor telescope for 90% of my astrophotography. 

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with starting your astrophotography journey with a Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (SCT) or Newtonian Reflector, but I believe you will have some additional challenges to overcome early on. 

No matter what type of photography experience you have going in, deep-sky astrophotography through a telescope will have a number of challenges to overcome early on.

This includes understanding how to polar align an equatorial mount, how to focus your camera on a faint deep-sky object, and how to attach your camera to the telescope. two out of the three challenges become more difficult if you’re not using a wide-field refractor to start.

The statement above is not theoretical, I personally experienced these frustrating moments in my backyard years ago. I should have started with a compact refractor telescope. 

deep-sky astrophotography

A recent photo of NGC 7822 captured using a color camera and a 100mm refractor.

I Should Have Started with a Refractor

I often see newcomers to deep-sky astrophotography starting with a telescope that will make an already challenging hobby even more difficult. I went through this experience personally, and this is what happened. 

My first astrophotography telescope was a Meade LXD55 6″ Schmidt-Newtonian. I purchased this reflector telescope from a local camera store second-hand, for a great price. 

At the time, I had very little knowledge of telescope types, optical designs, or astronomy in general. I took the advice of the salesman at the store, and he assured me that “this telescope can be used for astrophotography”.

comparing a reflector to a refractor

The telescope I started taking pictures of space with.

First off, he was right. It could certainly be used for astrophotography, and I even found astrophotography images online taken by others using this particular model.

The problem was, this type of telescope presented some pretty daunting challenges to overcome. My long-term love for astrophotography was at stake, as a poor experience could potentially sour me on this new adventure. 

Thankfully, I kept a positive mindset throughout the process despite having limited knowledge (and limited funds). 

This was my First Astrophotography Telescope

astrophotography telescope setup

My first telescope for Astrophotography was NOT a refractor, and it presented some challenges.

I mounted the Meade LXD55 SN6 to a Celestron CG-5 (Advanced Series GT) computerized telescope mount. The GoTo tracking mount was my biggest investment in the hobby early on, and looking back the mount was performed surprisingly well. 

A Schmidt-Newtonian is a promising instrument for astro-imagers. The corrector plate helps you collect images with less coma than a traditional reflector design.

Essentially it’s a catadioptric telescope that combines elements from both the Schmidt camera and the Newtonian reflector. A spherical primary mirror is combined with a Schmidt corrector plate to correct the image. 

It looks capable enough in the picture, so what’s wrong with starting your astrophotography adventure with a Newtonian Reflector, Schmidt-Cassegrain, or a Ritchey–Chrétien? 

Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with any of these choices, but here’s why it wasn’t a good fit for me:

It was Heavy and Difficult to Balance

It wasn’t a bad telescope, and I even managed to collect my first-ever deep-sky image with it. I really had no idea what I was doing at this point, and was absolutely thrilled to finally captured a tracked deep-sky object in the night sky. 

The problem with this old Meade telescope was that it was not a great type of telescope to start with. Looking back, a compact refractor telescope would have made my life a lot easier at the time. 

For starters, it was rather heavy and difficult to balance. It was at the maximum payload capacity of my equatorial mount (Celestron CG-5), and I even had to use some “custom” counterweights to achieve balance.

In the astrophotography world, you never want to have your telescope rig reach the weight limits of your telescope mount. This puts extra stress on the equatorial drive system and often results in poor tracking. 

first picture of Andromeda

My first picture of M31 (Andromeda) using the Meade reflector telescope (July 2011).

It Had Too Much Magnification

In my opinion, the telescope had a little too much focal length as well. Extra magnification can be great for pulling in small targets, but it’s also more demanding on aspects such as pointing accuracy, tracking, and focus. 

Prime-focus astrophotography involves attaching your camera directly to the focuser of the telescope, with no additional eyepieces or lenses between them. That means that the native focal length of the telescope decides the field-of-view (FOV) and scale of the objects you shoot. 

The SC6 had a focal length of approximately 762mm, which could be considered to be a “mid-range” focal length. For comparison, my William Optics Zenithstar 73 refractor has a focal length of 430mm. 

I really shouldn’t complain about the 762mm focal length (FL) of the 6″ Meade, some amateur astrophotographers start out with an 8″ SCT with a demanding 2000mm+ FL. (I think I would have given up!)

The Focuser was Loose and Difficult to Secure

As newcomers will tell you, achieving a tight focus on your deep-sky subject can be challenging early on (here are some tips).  It’s hard enough to find the optimal focus distance without worrying about the focuser “slipping” out of position on its own. 

Like a traditional Newtonian telescope, the focuser is placed near the front of the optical tube to collect light from the secondary mirror. This creates a challenging situation in terms of balance, especially when using a heavy, full-frame DSLR camera. 

The weight of my camera would put stress on the objective end of the optical tube. Despite using the locking screw, the DSLR would eventually fall downwards into the focuser as the night progressed. I constantly had to re-adjust focus after 4-5 images.

In general, I find reflector telescopes to be more challenging to focus than a refractor, and that was certainly the case with this F/5 Schmidt-Newt.

Start with a Compact, Wide-field Refractor

I’m not saying that a refractor telescope is the only way to go, but I think you’ll find that the astrophotography community generally agrees with me on this one. To be more specific, an apochromatic refractor is best. 

Refracting telescopes use lenses, not a mirror, to deliver crisp views through the eyepiece, and high contrast, well-corrected color images with your camera. 

In late 2011, early 2012, I invested in an Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet APO refractor. The reason I call this an “investment” is that, not only did this telescope reward me with my best images to date, but the quality glass holds their value quite well.

ED80

Below, is an old photo of my 80mm refractor telescope on a Celestron CG-5 equatorial telescope mount. The difference between the images I was collecting with the Schmidt-Newt and the APO refractor was night and day. 

The stars were small and well-corrected (all of the colors came to a focus at once), and I no longer dealt with coma, reflections, and dramatic vignetting. 

Explore Scientific ED80

My first refractor telescope was an Explore Scientific ED80. 

Another advantage this telescope had was the field of view. Being a beginner, I had my heart set on capturing some of the most iconic deep-sky objects like the Orion Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy, and the Pleiades star cluster. 

The focal length of this telescope (480mm) was a perfect fit for all of these targets. I didn’t need to worry about creating a mosaic to fit the entire object in the frame. Images like this were the reason I got into astrophotography in the first place.

Finding targets in the night sky became a lot easier thanks to the forgivingly wide field of view. Even if the pointing accuracy of my computerized equatorial telescope mount was off, I could usually find my intended deep-sky target within the field of view of my first slew.

best telescopes for astrophotography

See my list of recommended refractors for astrophotography.

The first summer (2012) with my Explore Scientific 80mm refractor telescope was an exciting one. I captured several amazing photos of deep-sky objects with my Canon EOS Rebel Xsi DSLR. 

The most exhilarating photo came in July of 2012 when I attempted to photograph the Andromeda Galaxy with my 80mm refractor and stock Canon DSLR. The image was a monumental improvement over my attempt the previous summer. I was especially thrilled at the clarity of the image and natural star colors recorded. 

astrobackyard first andromeda

My first successful image of the Andromeda Galaxy (July 2012). 

The Perfect Astrophotography Telescope

A high-quality doublet or triplet apochromatic refractor is capable of producing sharp, flat, well-corrected images. Almost all types of telescopes are capable of impressive astrophotography images, but some make you work a lot harder for it. 

For example, a Newtonian Reflector presents an advantageous light-gathering ability and an affordable price-per-aperture. However, Newtonians require regular collimation and adjustments to avoid coma and perform at their best.

An apochromatic refractor will perform much better in terms of photography than its less expensive achromat counterpart. 

The objective lens (consisting of 2 or more pieces of glass) of an apochromatic refractor is designed to focus light to the same point, and correct chromatic aberration. As you can see in the diagram below, an apochromatic objective focuses different wavelengths of light closer to the same point than an achromat does.

apochromatic vs achromatic

“The strict definition of apochromatism is having three wavelengths of light focusing to the same point.  This normally requires a third lens element in the objective.  The normal configuration is a positive, low-dispersion crown, combined with two high-dispersion flints, one negative and one positive.  The lenses can be cemented, air-spaced, or a combination thereof.” Starizona.

For a technical description of how a refractor telescope works, and the refractive index of certain mediums, check out this informative article

Pros and Cons of a Compact APO Refractor Telescope

There are some pros and cons to using a compact refractor telescope for astrophotography, and here they are:

Pros:

  • You can mount them to modest, entry-level equatorial mounts
  • Refractors are compact and lightweight compared to other telescope designs
  • The focusers are solid and easy to focus
  • They offer a similar experience to a high-end telephoto camera lens
  • The image quality potential for astrophotography is exceptional
  • Refractors do not require regular collimation or optical adjustments
  • They offer a forgiving, wide field-of-view

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

You can mount a small refractor on a portable tracking mount like the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer.

Minus:

  • They are the most expensive telescope type (price per aperture)
  • They are not well-suited for high-magnification planetary imaging
  • The apertures are often too small to observe faint deep sky objects
  • Galaxies and smaller DSO’s need 1000mm+ for an up-close view

My favorite astrophotos of all time were all taken using a refractor telescope. From my first experiences with the Explore Scientific ED80 to the massive Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 Super APO, refractors are my number one choice for astrophotography. 

The image below shows a William Optics Zenithstar 73 refractor mounted to a modest Sky-Watcher HEQ5 GoTo telescope mount. My DSLR camera is attached to the focuser of the telescope for deep-sky imaging at 430mm.

This entire ensemble can be lifted up and moved around the yard at a moment’s notice, so I usually keep the entire imaging system ready to go in the garage.

A setup like this is also refreshingly easy to travel with. It does not take up very much space in my vehicle and can be re-assembled quickly. 

telescope equipment

A portable deep-sky imaging setup with a 73mm refractor telescope. 

This versatile and reliable rig does not come at the expense of performance either. A small setup like this is capable of producing incredible astrophotography images using a DSLR/Mirrorless camera or a dedicated astronomy camera.

The photo below shows the image captured using the telescope setup pictured above in my video titled “Taking a Picture of the Andromeda Galaxy“.

This image includes 67 x 120-second exposures using a Canon EOS 60Da. 

Andromeda Galaxy

My latest version of the Andromeda Galaxy using a DSLR and a small refractor telescope. 

My Newtonian Reflector Collects Dust

In 2014, I decided to purchase an 8″ Newtonian Reflection, the Orion 8″ F/3.9 Astrograph Reflector. The idea was to add some light gathering power and a little more focal length at an affordable price. 

However, I had become used to the quick setup time of my 80mm refractor, and balancing the big optical tube on my Sky-Watcher HEQ5 mount was time-consuming.

Also, I had to regularly collimate the tube before each and every imaging session. Perhaps the telescope was perfectly collimated before I attached my camera, but I always had to make sure before spending a night collecting images. 

I did manage to capture some impressive images with this setup, but surprisingly, the added aperture did not add the extra “punch” to my images I was looking for. In the end, this telescope was a lot more effort, for very little (if any) benefit to my astrophotography.

reflector vs. refractor for astrophotography

I do not use my 8″ Newtonian Reflector very much these days.

What Size and Brand Should You Buy?

I’ve used refractor telescopes with an aperture of 51mm, all the way up to 150mm. Smaller, compact APO’s are much more practical and affordable, yet do not sacrifice as much performance as you may think.

For example, the image of the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula region of Sagittarius was captured with a miniature (51mm aperture) William Optics RedCat APO and a DSLR camera. This quadruplet refractor weighs just 3.2 pounds and can fit in your carry-on bag

wide field deep sky astrophotography

Nebulae in Sagittarius using a William Optics RedCat 51 APO. 

Nearly every telescope manufacturer builds refractor telescopes, and I’ve had the opportunity to try many of them. I’ve had wonderful experiences using apochromatic refractors from Explore Scientific, William Optics, Meade, and Sky-Watcher.

William Optics compact doublets are very popular and rather affordable considering the optics used in their designs. The Zenithstar 73 APO is one such example, and a telescope I have personally taken a lot of beautiful images with.

The Sky-Watcher Esprit line of refractors is a step up, with the Esprit 100 Super APO (Triplet) being my most used refractor of all time. These telescopes are expensive and quickly grow in price as aperture is added. 

sky-watcher telescope

Setting up the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 refractor telescope in the backyard. 

When choosing a refractor telescope for astrophotography, ensure that it is an apochromatic optical design, not an achromat. Also, ensure that the optical tube includes a robust, 10-1 speed focuser that can lock into position when needed. 

You’ll also need to confirm that the mounting hardware will allow you to mount the telescope to your equatorial mount, and add additional astrophotography accessories such as a guide scope and camera for autoguiding

Make sure you invest in the appropriate field flattener for your refractor, as this extra glass lens will help flatten the field of view to the very edges of your picture.

Final Thoughts

If your astrophotography interests lie in taking images of nebulae and large galaxies, an apochromatic refractor should be your number one choice for a telescope.

This category of deep-sky objects includes some of the most iconic wonders in space, and you could spend a lifetime capturing them.

Not only is an APO refractor a perfect fit in terms of focal length (native magnification), but the images with your DSLR/Mirrorless or dedicated astronomy camera will be extremely sharp and well-corrected.

If you’re looking to photograph the planets, a compact refractor is not for you. Smaller targets such as planets and many galaxies are not a good fit for a wide-field refractor.

But if you’re a fan of quick set-up time, consistent results, and wide-field nebulae like the ones below, you simply cannot beat an APO refractor.

soul nebula

The Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia using a William Optics Zenithstar 73 APO. 

Pleiades

The Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia using a William Optics RedCat 51 APO. 

Recommended Refractors for Astrophotography

The following list of apochromatic refractor telescopes have all produced exceptional results for me personally, so I feel comfortable recommending them. They are all compact, wide-field instruments capable of producing images like the ones shared in this post. 

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The Canon EOS Ra Announced

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On November 5, 2019, the Canon EOS Ra was announced and is now available for pre-order at various retailers including B&H. This is a 30.3 MP full-frame mirrorless camera designed specifically for astrophotography. 

The Canon EOS Ra shares nearly all aspects of the EOS R camera body, with 2 key differences for astrophotography. Increased sensitivity to the 656nm (h-alpha) emission line, and a 30X live view focus mode.

For a niche hobby like astrophotography, the Canon EOS Ra has sure attracted a lot of attention from the photography world. I pleaded my case to my contact at Canon for an early unit to review but was not successful in my efforts (and I’m not even bitter about it).

Update: Canon USA reached out to me in December asking if I would try out the Canon EOS Ra and let them know what I think of it. Here is a short video showing one of my first experiences with this camera and an RF-mount lens:

Thankfully, some new and exciting example images have already surfaced from those that were granted early access to this camera body, and from Canon themselves.

canon astrophotography camera

In this article, I’ve put together all of the information I can find about the EOS Ra, and included the limited number of example images shared thus far. To see the full slideshow of images shared by Canon with this camera, see this article by Todd Vorenkamp of B&H. 

The Canon EOS Ra

The CMOS sensor found inside of the Canon EOS Ra is 4x more sensitive to the hydrogen-alpha wavelength, which is extremely useful for astrophotography. As many of you know, some of the absolute best deep-sky nebula in the night emit a strong red signal in the 656 nm wavelength.

Historically, amateur astrophotographers that wanted to collect the powerful deep reds found in many emission nebulae with their generic DSLR cameras had to remove the stock internal IR cut filter. This is called modifying your camera for astrophotography and is offered professional from several vendors. 

Canon began offering “pre-modified” DSLR cameras from the factory for astrophotography use in 2005 with the revolutionary EOS 20Da. The Canon EOS 60Da followed in 2012, and now, the mirrorless EOS Ra in 2019. 

The first example photos I saw using the Canon EOS Ra were courtesy of fellow Canadian, Alan Dyer. He posted the following example images using the EOS Ra on Twitter late Tuesday night:

Canon EOS Ra astrophotography examples

Images shot using the Canon EOS Ra by Alan Dyer (Read his review here)

This camera is aimed at landscape astrophotography enthusiasts (such as wide-angle Milky Way photography), and deep-sky imagers using an equatorial telescope mount. The mirrorless design of the EOS Ra is a massive change from Canon’s last astrophotography camera. Not only is it a different style of camera mechanically, but it also accepts Canon RF Lenses

The 30.3 MP full-frame CMOS sensor found inside of the RA is beneficial for amateur astrophotographers that use wide-angle lenses. If you own Canon EF mount lenses as I do, you’ll need to buy the EF-mount adapter to attach your lens. 

I must admit, it will be hard to justify purchasing the “a” version of the Canon EOS R for many multi-discipline photographers that take photos in the daytime as well as night. This camera has some impressive specs for photography and videography including shooting 4K at 30p with Canon Log. 

I have always shot my videos with Canon DSLR cameras (most recently the Canon EOS 6D Mark II), and am a little confused as to how I would fully utilize the video features of the EOS Ra. As Canon has stated numerous times about their “a-series” cameras, they are not suitable for daytime photography. In my tests with the 60Da, the colors are slightly off and create unappealing daytime images without serious adjustments in post. 

Canon EOS Ra

Increased Sensitivity to Hydrogen-Alpha

If you are new to Canon’s astrophotography camera line-up, you may be wondering what the difference between the EOS R and Ra is. 

The reason this version of the camera has an “a” in the name is simply due to the specialized infrared-cutting filter that sits in front of the CMOS sensor. Canon lists that this change allows a transmission in the hydrogen-alpha (Hα) wavelength that is approximately 4 times greater than a regular Canon EOS R camera. 

The example images from Canon USA illustrate this capability on the North America Nebula. I found it very interesting to note that Canon’s engineers report an even greater sensitivity to Hα in the EOS Ra than previously achieved in the 20Da and 60Da camera bodies. 

EOS Ra vs. R

Essentially, the Canon EOS Ra is a modified version of the EOS R for amateur astrophotographers that want to collect more signal in the important Hα emission line. For the same reason I invested in the Canon 60Da, I like the idea of Canon handling the astro-modification and not voiding the warranty with a third-party service. 

The infrared-cutting filter (positioned immediately in front of the CMOS imaging sensor) is modified to permit approximately 4x as much transmission of hydrogen-alpha rays at the 656nm wavelength, vs. standard EOS R cameras. This modification allows much higher transmission of deep red infrared rays emitted by nebulae, without requiring any other specialized optics or accessories.

30X Live-View Magnification

If you’ve experienced what it is like to focus a camera at night, you’ll know how important the live-view zoom feature is. The best way to focus your camera lens or telescope with a DSLR or mirrorless camera attached is to zoom-in on a bright star and magnify it. Traditionally, this would be at a magnification of 10X, but Canon has upped the ante. 

The Ra features Canon’s first-ever 30x magnification, and it can be done on both the LCD screen and viewfinder. Because the EOS Ra is a mirrorless camera system, the electronic eye-level viewfinder is able to provide the magnification feature. As a DSLR shooter, this would feel very strange to me and I doubt it would be a useful as the much larger LCD screen.

Speaking of the LCD screen on the back of the camera, it’s a vari-angle design. This is extremely useful for astrophotographers, as we regularly point the camera in all sorts of awkward angles. 

ISO Performance

Any amateur astrophotographer with experience using DSLR cameras will tell you that the amount of noise in your image will increase as you bump up the ISO. This creates a challenging trade-off, as we often want to collect as much light in a single exposure as possible. 

However, modern cameras have got a lot better and keeping noise at bay using higher ISO settings, and the Canon EOS Ra is no exception. 

In this video from B&H, the host states:

“high ISO noise is extremely well-controlled, particularly at the high ISO’s that are common in astrophotography”

It’s impossible to tell exactly how well “controlled” the noise is from the example photo shared (below). The same vague statement was said about the Canon 60Da, and I found it to be true when shooting at an aggressive ISO 6400 on warm nights in the summer. 

sample photo

Sample image from Canon USA. Canon EF 400mm F/2.8L IS III USM Lens.

Canon EOS Ra Core Specifications

  • Format: Full-Frame
  • Sensor Type: CMOS
  • Sensor Size: 36 x 24mm
  • Pixel Size: 5.36 microns
  • Max. Resolution: 6720 x 4480
  • ISO Sensitivity: 100 – 40000
  • Lens Mount: Canon RF
  • Video Modes: 4K up to 30p, HD up to 60p
  • Memory Card: Single SD
  • Weight: 1.45 lbs.

The following video released by B&H and Canon USA covers many of the core specifications of the Ra, and what separates it from a regular mirrorless camera. I appreciate the improved battery performance of this camera over the previous models. Canon states that the battery will last for 7 hours of bulb exposure time, although I expect this to time to diminish on a cold night. 

Canon’s Astrophotography Timeline:

The EOS Ra is the third installment (not the 4th, as I have seen a non-existent “6Da” reported) in Canon’s line of dedicated cameras for astrophotography.

  • Canon EOS 20Da (2005)
  • Canon EOS 60Da (2012)
  • Canon EOS Ra (2019)

Let’s not forget Nikon’s contribution to the astrophotography community. The Nikon D810A is a fantastic DSLR for astrophotography and was the first full-frame camera body built specifically for night photography. I would not be surprised if Nikon (and Sony) release dedicated mirrorless camera bodies for astrophotography in the future.

Just like in the daytime photography world, the number of lenses you own in a particular brand is a big deciding factor when upgrading your camera body. 

Final Thoughts

The Canon EOS Ra is clearly a big step up from the last astrophotography camera released, the 60Da. More megapixels, bigger pixel size, better ISO performance, more sensitive to Hα, a better viewfinder, a mirrorless body – so what’s not to love? 

In my eyes, there are two reasons why an amateur astrophotographer will look elsewhere for their next camera. The first one is that there are many practical dedicated (CMOS) astronomy cameras available now, ones that offer cooling and sensitive monochrome sensors. 

The other is that modifying an older Canon DSLR is still a very practical way to collect impressive astrophotography images for a fraction of the price.

RF lens mount

The Ra accepts Canon RF lenses (full-frame mirrorless)

However, I think there are many people that enjoy the familiarity of a DSLR/mirrorless camera system. If you travel a lot for astrophotography, a mirrorless camera and lens are much more practical than a dedicated astronomy camera and software to run it. 

Another great point that has been brought to my attention about this camera is the file types created and their compatibility with stacking software.

The Canon mirrorless cameras create CR3 file format images, which are currently not supported in software such as DeepSkyStacker (at the time of writing). This might be a great reason to hold off on the EOS Ra until these applications catch up with the technology.

Another big change is the opportunity to use filters between the camera body and lens via the Canon Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter (EF-EOS R). Daytime photographers use this attractive feature for drop-in variable ND filters, but perhaps the astronomy companies will begin to manufacturer astrophotography filters for this configuration. 

I think this would big a much better option over the clip-in style filters currently offered for full-frame DSLR’s.

EOS R Ef mount adapter

The Canon EF-EOS R Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter.

The big question is, will I be ordering the Canon EOS Ra for astrophotography in the backyard? Probably.

At the time of writing, the price tag for the body only is $2,499 USD, and it will be released on December 19, 2019. I order my photographer gear on Amazon almost exclusively, and the package offered by Canon includes a battery charger, strap, and a few extras.

whats included

I am interested in testing the camera from both a hobbyist perspective and to provide useful information to amateur astrophotographers looking to purchase this camera. The interesting thing is, if I do purchase the Ra, it will be my first mirrorless camera.

As an ambassador of the hobby, I feel obligated to share my experiences with the latest official astrophotography camera from my favorite brand, and yes, you can go ahead and label me a Canon fanboy.

Here is an image I managed to capture in just 10 minutes using the EOS Ra and 85mm F/1.2 lens.

Canon 85mm F/1.2 astrophotography

The Heart and Soul Nebula in Cassiopeia using the Canon EOS Ra and 85mm F/1.2 Lens.

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