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Results Using a $200 DSLR for Astrophotography

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In a recent video, I shared my results using a $200 DSLR for astrophotography. In a hobby known for being very expensive, I think it is very interesting that such results can be obtained using an old, inexpensive camera.

In this post, I’ll prove to you that incredible astrophotography results are possible with an old, used, entry-level DSLR camera. And no, it doesn’t need to be modified to achieve impressive results. (I’ve got plenty of unmodified DSLR astrophotos to prove it).

You can pick up a used Canon EOS Rebel T3i (600D) DSLR for under $200 on eBay, and it will likely include a kit lens (18-55) with it. This will, of course, be a stock model of the camera, but you can modify it by removing the internal IR cut filter (more on this a little later).

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

I’ve been using a Canon EOS Rebel T3i for astrophotography since 2016.

This particular camera helped me capture stunning images of the night sky for the past 4 years, whether it was through a telescope, or with a camera lens attached.

Since picking up the 600D in 2016, I’ve used some powerful cameras for astrophotography (including a monochrome CCD), but I still find uses for this old DSLR today.

In 2020, the T3i is still one of the most popular DSLRs being used for astrophotography in the amateur community. Not bad for a camera that launched in 2011.

I was surprised to see how many members of the AstroBackyard Facebook Page are still using the Canon 600D for astrophotography. It validates my personal success with this camera and its relevance in 2020.

Results Using a $200 DSLR for Astrophotography


 

The photo shared at the end of the video (see below) is certainly not an APOD worthy image. But, to newcomers to the challenging hobby, this image is a real eye-opener to what’s possible using beginner-level gear. 

The entire astrophotography rig used for the photo is relatively affordable and portable when compared to a traditional deep-sky imaging rig. The star tracker is the key to long exposure imaging of deep-sky objects in the night sky, and the one used in the video (Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer) is currently listed at $399 USD on Amazon.

Nebula in Orion

Deep-sky objects in Orion. Canon EOS Rebel T3i and Rokinon 135mm F/2 lens (67 x 60-seconds).

The Canon 600D can certainly hold it’s own when attached to a high-quality imaging refractor riding on a robust equatorial tracking mount (Here are my results using it with a 132mm Triplet APO). But the imaging session shared in my video was much more modest. 

Here is a complete breakdown of the entire imaging rig used for my image of the Horsehead Nebula and Orion Nebula in the constellation Orion:

astrophotography equipment

What Makes this Camera Special

The 600D is still an excellent DSLR for astrophotography. Although it lacks important features like cooling and precision gain control (found in modern dedicated astronomy cameras), it excels in the category of versatility.

You can use it in countless imaging configurations from wide-angle nightscapes to deep-sky astrophotography through a telescope. You are free to explore and capture the night sky with only a tripod and lens, if desired. 

In my experience, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i, in particular, sits in the “sweet spot” between functionality and value. I expect the cameras that surround the 600D in the Rebel line-up (such as the T4i etc.) to offer a similar experience, but I can’t share any personal experience using them.

As you can see from the list below, I am no stranger to Canon DSLR cameras and lenses.Canon camera collectionMy Canon Cameras:

  • Canon EOS Rebel XSi (modified)
  • Canon EOS Rebel T3i (modified)
  • Canon EOS 60Da
  • Canon EOS 7D
  • Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  • Canon EOS 5D
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • Canon EOS 6D Mark II

The Canon EOS Rebel T3i may seem like an odd choice for astrophotography in 2020. After all, there are many newer, more capable DSLR (and mirrorless) cameras available now.

For example, Canon’s latest Rebel series DSLR (Canon EOS Rebel T7i) has an improved 24.2 MP sensor with advanced features like WiFi, an extended ISO range, and Live View AF – but will these traits take monumentally better astrophotos? 

The truth is, many of the added features found in modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras make only subtle differences in image quality when it comes to deep-sky astrophotography. Your daytime photos and videos may look a lot better, but we’re more interested in leaving the shutter open for 5-minutes at a time at night. 

Yes, dedicated astrophotography cameras like the Canon EOS Ra are a big leap forward, but the price tag reflects it. This is a different animal altogether because this camera body was designed with the unique and punishing routines of astrophotography in mind.

My point is, if you can make do without advanced features such as 30X live view and a touch screen LCD display screen, you may be quite surprised at what an old DSLR can do.  

In fact, even older Canon DSLRs are still useful choices for astrophotography, such as the Canon EOS XS or XSi. If you’re new to astrophotography, it’s worth looking on eBay or your local classifieds for one of these gems.

Astrophotography Examples Using the Canon EOS Rebel T3i

Here are some of my favorite astrophotography images I’ve captured over the years using my Canon EOS T3i.

California Nebula

The California Nebula. Canon EOS Rebel T3i and a 70mm refractor telescope.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way. Canon EOS Rebel T3i and Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens. 

Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum Galaxy. Canon EOS Rebel T3i and 102mm refractor telescope.

The Canon Rebel series DSLR cameras have reliable workhorses for many astronomy applications. For example, Marie Lott has captured many photos of asteroids using a Canon T3i for the Astronomical League’s Asteroid Program.

Fred Espenak (Mr. Eclipse) captured the entire Messier catalog using a modified Canon EOS Rebel T2i. Talk about the ultimate imaging challenge!

Many members of the AstroBackyard Facebook community use the Canon EOS Rebel T3i for astrophotography and had several images to share using this camera. Here is an excellent example of the T3i being used for deep-sky astrophotography by Luke Arens.

stock Canon DSLR

The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae in Orion using a stock Canon 600D (Luke Arens).

Useful Features for Astrophotography

An articulating LCD screen is now quite common in DSLR and mirrorless cameras, which is fantastic news for amateur astrophotographers. If you’ve ever shot long-exposure deep-sky astrophotography with a camera that did not include this design feature, you’ll understand why it is so convenient. 

Deep-sky imaging involves the camera body to be positioned in plenty of upward orientations that have the back of the camera pointed at the ground. With a flip-out screen, you’re able to perform key actions such as 10X live-view focus and framing your target without breaking your neck. 

This was the biggest shift in user experience when upgrading from my XSi to the EOS Rebel T3i.

You’ll also be able to find extremely affordable accessories on Amazon to improve your astrophotography experience with this camera. I recommend looking into a simple remote shutter release cable, and an AC adapter unit to power the camera without batteries. 

As for the aging 18 MP sensor in the T3i, I think you’ll find the 5184×3456 pixel resolution to be more than adequate for your final application for the image. I tend to scale my images down for online sharing (along with a heavy crop in many cases) but have also made large 18″ x 20″ prints for my home office.

Remote shutter release cable

A stock version of the Canon EOS Rebel T3i is capable of capturing beautiful photos of the night sky, including many deep-sky nebulae and galaxies. A stock camera really excels at broadband RGB imaging of galaxies like Andromeda or the Triangulum. 

Certain nebulae targets are worth a shot (such as the Eagle Nebula), but if this is your primary interest, a modification is recommended.

Which Camera Lens to Use?

DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras are the smart choice if you plan on using camera lenses at varying focal lengths for astrophotography (in my opinion). Dedicated astronomy cameras can be used for this purpose too, but they lack a user interface and require external computer control.

The Canon EOS Rebel T3i includes the EF-S lens mount, which means you have access to Canon’s full line-up of impressive EF and EF-S lenses. It’s a crop sensor (APS-C) DSLR, so remember to include that 1.6X crop factor when planning projects with specific focal lengths.

For capturing wide-field targets or multiple deep-sky objects at once, the Rokinon 135mm F/2 is an excellent choice. The crop sensor of the T3i naturally creates a closer frame around large targets like IC 1396 and the North America Nebula.

North America Nebula at 135mm

The North Ameria Nebula. Canon EOS Rebel T3i and Rokinon 135mm F/2 Lens.

For Milky Way photography, the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 is a great match. Some may find 18mm (a standard kit lens focal length) to be a little too close for a shot of the Milky Way using a crop-sensor camera. However, 14mm widens the image up substantially. 

I’ve used many of Canon’s EF and EF-S lenses with the EOS Rebel T3i as well, including the Canon EF 300mm F/4L and 400mm F/5.6.

Light Pollution Filters

Because I do the majority of my astrophotography in the backyard at home, light pollution filters have become a big part of my image acquisition process. DSLRs like the Canon EOS Rebel T3i are great because there are plenty of filters available that will clip inside of the camera body.

clip-in astrophotography filter for DSLR cameras

That means that you can easily use them with a telescope or a camera lens depending on your project. Some of my favorite broad-spectrum, clip-in light pollution filters for the 600D include:

  • SkyTech CLS-CCD
  • Astronomik CLS-CDD (for modified cameras)
  • Optolong L-Pro (for stock and modified cameras)
  • IDAS LPS D2 (for modified cameras)

You can, of course, use 48mm round mounted filters with the T3i and your telescope as well, but you’ll need to thread those to your field flattener or adapter in front of the camera.

The Optolong L-eNhance is an exceptionally useful dual bandpass filter for light-polluted skies when used with a color camera. This filter isolates the important bandpasses in the h-alpha and O III wavelengths where precious details of many nebulae lie. 

You can use the Canon T3i for narrowband imaging in the h-alpha wavelength as well. Although many will argue that narrowband imaging with a color DSLR camera is a “waste of time”, I found it to be a practical way to add impactful details to my color images. 

Ha filter for Canon

The Astronomik 12nm DSLR Ha filter is a great choice for those looking to capture narrowband images of hydrogen-rich nebula using their DSLR.

Modifying your DSLR for Astrophotography

Unless you’re new to the blog (welcome), you’ve likely heard me talk about the process of modifying your DSLR camera for astrophotography many times. It involves removing the stock internal IR cut filter that sits over the sensor, and either replacing it with an astrophotography-friendly version or leaving it off altogether. 

The modification allows the red hues emitted by emission nebula in the bandpass of 656nm (h-alpha) to be collected by the sensor. It’s an important upgrade to consider if you’re serious about imaging deep-sky nebulae targets in the night sky. 

Modified DSLR camera

I “modified” my previous Canon Rebel DSLR for astrophotography (450D).

I performed this astrophotography modification myself on my old Canon ESO Rebel XSi (450D), and it wasn’t even that hard (as long as you take your time and follow the instructions). Seriously, if I can do it, you can do it. I followed the detailed instructions presented by Gary Honis on his website.

For the 600D, I opted to purchase a pre-modified version of the camera from a company called Astro Mod Canada. The modification is referred to as the “full spectrum mod” or the “naked sensor mod”. For the camera to record images properly with this mod, you must use a UV/IR cut filter when imaging, which is often included in many of the light pollution filters I use.

The Bottom Line

Who This Camera is For:

  • Interested in deep-sky astrophotography of galaxies and nebulae through a telescope
  • Interested in wide-angle Milky Way photography
  • Interested in wide-field astrophotography with a camera lens
  • Interested in travel astrophotography on a portable star tracker

Who This Camera is NOT For:

  • Interested in long exposure narrowband imaging
  • Interested in high-magnification imaging through an SCT
  • Those that image in extremely hot locations (A cooled camera is recommended)

If you’re on a tight budget and looking for your first DSLR for astrophotography, keep your eyes peeled for a great deal on a Canon EOS Rebel T3i or similar DSLR body. 

This was the road I personally took towards imaging the night sky, and I continue to enjoy the simplicity and fun of DSLR astrophotography to this day.

In the future, a mirrorless camera such as the Canon EOS R (or Ra) will likely be my next choice. 

Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula. Canon EOS Rebel T3i and a 132mm refractor telescope.

Related Posts:

 

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Using A Canon 300mm Lens for Astrophotography

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If you watched my video about Comet 46P Wirtanen, you may have noticed that my imaging gear included a Canon EF 300mm F/4L USM Lens. This may have seemed a little odd to those that are used to seeing me use a telescope for astrophotography, but a camera lens like this can be a great way to capture deep sky images.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me why they should invest in a new telescope when they already own a high-quality telephoto camera lens with a comparable focal length. After all, a prime lens like the Canon EF 300mm F/4L isn’t cheap, and its got some seriously impressive optics.

So, if you’ve already got a lens like this in your kit, you should definitely try using it for astrophotography before investing in a new telescope.

Canon 300mm F/4L Lens for Astrophotography

Make no mistake, a telescope designed for deep sky astrophotography has many advantages in terms of deep sky astrophotography. Specialized features such as a robust dual speed focuser, light baffles, and the ability to easily accommodate astronomy cameras and autoguiding systems to name a few.

But if you’ve been into photography for a while, there’s a good chance you’ll already own some camera lenses that are perfect for astrophotography. The secret is, to leverage the tracking abilities of an equatorial mount that allows you to capture long exposure images of the night sky without star trailing.

In this post, I’ll show you how I managed to capture an impressive portrait of the Orion Nebula using a 300mm camera lens from my backyard in the city. I’ll discuss the filter I recommend, the camera settings I use, and the share the process of capturing long exposure images on a tracking mount.

Canon 300mm Prime Lens

My Canon EF 300mm F/4L USM Lens

Canon 300mm F/4L (Non IS)

The camera lens I am using is a first generation Canon EF 300mm F/4L (Non-IS). This is an old L-series lens from Canon that does not include Image Stabilization, but does include the ring type USM autofocus motor. Features like IS and autofocus won’t work for astrophotography, so older prime (non-zoom) lenses like this are a great value in the used market.

It’s quite useful to have prime lenses at different focal lengths in your astrophotography kit. You’ll be able to capture a wide variety of targets from large open star clusters to emission and reflection nebulae like Orion. (See my review of the Rokinon 135mm F/2 for even wider deep sky images).

Video: Deep Sky Astrophotography with a 300mm Camera Lens

I purchased my 300mm F/4L used, and drove a fair distance to meet the seller. The lens was originally intended for bird photography, which I still enjoy today with a 1.4 extender attached for more reach. The native focal length of 300mm and widest aperture are a better configuration for astrophotography purposes. 

The 1.4 x Canon teleconverter introduces chromatic aberration, and I lose a full stop of light (F/5.6).  This is not usually an issue in my daytime photography images, but it’s out of the question when photographing stars.

Using the Canon 300mm F/4L lens on a crop-sensor DSLR (APS-C) camera like my Rebel T3i will effectively create a narrower field of view than a full-frame camera does. This creates an equivalent focal length of 480mm with the crop factor applied (1.6X), which is important to consider when framing up an astrophotography target.

Using a simple FOV (field of view) calculator, you can get a preview of the expected image scale of your target. As you can see, the Canon 300mm F/4L and Canon EOS 600D combo frame the Orion Nebula and Running Man nicely.

camera lens FOV

The Field of View using a 300mm Camera Lens and APS-C Sensor DSLR

Most of the astrophotography telescopes I recommend for beginners hover around the 400mm to 700mm focal length mark, so this camera lens is quite comparable. Also, the Canon EF 300mm F/4L Non IS contains two UD (Ultra low dispersion) lens elements similar to the construction of an apochromatic refractor.

The rather fast optics of this lens (F/4) is advantageous for night photography, as its widest aperture will allow plenty of signal (light) to be collected in each shot. For comparison, my Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO has an F-Ratio of F/5.5.

When it comes to acquiring astrophotography data for a healthy signal to noise ratio, a camera lens with a fast aperture is recommended. This is why camera lenses like the Rokinon F/2.8 and Canon F/1.8 are excellent choices for astrophotography.

Focusing the lens

Finding a precise focus using a camera lens is much more difficult than it is with a telescope. Rather than using a smooth dual-speed micro focuser, you have the challenging task of using the rather sensitive focusing ring on the lens (in manual mode of course).

It’s best to point the camera towards a bright object (not a star) to find the initial focus. The Moon, or a distant streetlight will do. Once you have it dialed in using the lenses widest aperture (F/4), you can then aim the lens at a bright star in the night sky using your cameras highest ISO setting. 

From here, it’s a matter of trial and error until you find the sweet spot. Once you’ve found it, be very careful not to bump it out of focus when slewing to your target. You can always fine tune the focusing ring on your deep sky target using short test exposures after.

The Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T3i 

This Rebel T3i (600D) camera has been “modified” for astrophotography, which isn’t nearly as complicated or technical as it sounds. I’ve basically removed an internal filter that blocks certain wavelengths of light from being recorded on the sensor (I didn’t modify this 600D myself, it was done by a professional).

The stock internal IR cut filter found in DSLR cameras like the Canon Rebel T3i creates “normal” looking daytime images, but can hold your astro images back. If you own a DSLR camera that you want to use for astrophotography, look into getting it modded. I waited almost 4 years before making this upgrade, and it significantly improved my astrophotography images.

This modification will better showcase the rich areas of hydrogen gas in the Orion Nebula. For certain deep sky targets (such as the California Nebula) a full-spectrum modified DSLR is essential for a respectable image.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i DSLR

My Full Spectrum Modified Canon EOS Rebel T3i 

The Orion Nebula isn’t one of them! A stock DSLR camera can capture exquisite images of this reflection/emission nebula with beginner-level equipment.

To photograph Messier 42, I’ll shoot a series of 1.5-minute exposures at ISO 400. The images will collect a healthy amount of signal (or light) on this nebula and the surrounding area. With the temperature hovering around zero on the night of acquisition, I benefited from a cool camera sensor that didn’t produce nearly as much noise as I experience in the summer.

Covering the sensor is an Optolong L-Pro filter. This broad spectrum filter is an excellent choice if you are looking to produce natural looking astrophotography images in the city. Light pollution is a big problem for many amateur astrophotographers, and filters like the L-Pro can make your life easier.

This filter clips-into the camera body, and fits neatly underneath the camera lens. Being able to use this filter with either a camera lens or telescope attached is a real bonus. I have also used this filter underneath the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens for some wide angle shots of the night sky from home. 

The Camera Mount: iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro is the perfect solution for those looking to get started in astrophotography with a DSLR camera and lens. It’s a highly portable, non-nonsense astrophotography mount that allows you to start tracking the movement of the night sky for long exposure imaging.

With the counterweight attached, it can handle heavier lenses like this 300mm F/4L, and even a small telescope like the William Optics Z61.

For this mount to be effective, it must be accurately polar aligned. In the northern hemisphere, we have the advantage of being able to use the north star, Polaris, to help us align with the polar axis of the Earth.

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro Camera Mount

To start tracking, its a simple as turning the SkyGuider on, with the mode set to 1X sidereal rate. After that, the camera mount slowly matches the apparent rotation of the night sky, and my long exposure images record pin-point stars without trailing.

The SkyGuider pro includes an illuminated reticle that you can use as a guide to align the mount. This make it really easy to get your alignment just right – which is critically important for astrophotography. Polar alignment and balance will make the biggest impact on your images.

The farther off you are in either area (balance and polar alignment), the shorter your exposure times will need to be. With a sound polar alignment and a careful balance, unguided exposures of 3 minutes or more are no problem on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro mount.

Locating Objects with the SkyGuider Pro

To locate and frame a deep sky target using this mount, it must be done manually (no GoTo functionality). For bright targets like the Orion Nebula, this is extremely easy, as I can line up the target using the viewfinder on my DSLR camera. For faint targets, or when using a narrowband filter, you may need to take a number of test exposures to get it framed just right.

I personally have the SGP mounted to a lightweight carbon fiber tripod. This is a highly portable configuration, but it’s likely a little too flimsy for folks that want a rock-solid platform. Consider using a more robust aluminium tripod with this mount.

The Target: Orion Nebula

The bright moon certainly isn’t helping me capture the faint dusty details surrounding Orion. Luckily, M42 is such a bright deep sky object that it can be enjoyed in less than perfect conditions. I’ve photographed this target so many times, and it never gets old.

It’s a spectacular target to test new equipment on, because you are bound to get a rather impressive image no matter which approach you take. The light pollution filter used (Optolong L-Pro) did a great job of reducing the unwanted artificial light present in my backyard, allowing the natural star colors to shine through.

To create my final image, I’ve stacked the individual exposures together using a free software called DeepSkyStackerThe resulting was then brought into into Adobe Photoshop for further processing. If you want to learn how I process my astrophotography images, have a look at some of the image processing tutorials I’ve shared in the past.

Orion Nebula 300mm Camera Lens

The Orion Nebula captured using a Canon EF 300mm F/4L Lens (Click for larger version)

Image Details

  • ISO Setting: 400
  • Exposure Length: 90-seconds
  • Number of Exposures: 117
  • Total Overall Exposure: 2 Hours, 49 Minutes
  • Support Files: 15 Darks, 15 Flats, 15 Bias
  • Image Processing: DeepSyStacker, Adobe Photoshop

The Bottom Line

As you can see in my image above, the stars are sharp and free of chromatic aberration (color fringing). This is a testament to the high quality optics of the 300mm F/4L lens, and an important factor to consider when choosing a camera lens for astrophotography.

Capturing sharp, accurately colored stars is the ultimate challenge for optical equipment, and the Canon EF 300mm F/4L passes with flying colors. The field is also extremely flat, another trait of only the best camera lenses. 

A prime telephoto camera lens like the Canon EF 300mm F/4L is a great way to capture deep sky astrophotography images, as long as you’ve got a way to track the night sky for each shot. The wide field of view is very forgiving, meaning autoguiding isn’t necessary for a successful long exposure image.

Whether you’re using a camera lens, telescope, or a pair of binoculars. I hope you’re able to get out and appreciate the impossibly beautiful history of our universe that shines above our heads this season.

Until next time, clear skies.

Helpful Resources:

Astrophotography Cameras – What’s the Best Choice for Beginners?

Examples using a Canon EF 300mm F/L Non IS for astro imaging (Cloudy Nights)

How to Make a Bahtinov Mask for Your Camera Lens (Deep Sky Watch)

 

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The Best Lens for Astrophotography (That You Probably Already Own)

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In my opinion, the best astrophotography lens is one that can capture a variety of images of the night sky in a reliable and consistent way. Not all camera lenses are created equal, and imaging a night sky full of pinpoint stars has a way of bringing out the worst (or best) of your lenses capabilities.

In the following post, I’ll share my experiences using 2 astonishingly affordable camera lenses for astrophotography. I shoot with both full-frame and APS-C sized sensor Canon DSLR’s, so the lenses are both made by Canon. The Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 STM, and the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 wide-angle lens.

It’s not possible for me to recommend a single “best lens for astrophotography”, as that title will vary depending on who you ask. Consider this post to offer some real-world advice from someone who’s pointed several cameras and lenses towards the night sky over the past 8 years.

The Best Lens for Astrophotography (You May Already Own)

camera lens for astrophotography

The Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 Camera Lens and DSLR on a Tracking Mount

The truth is, when I look at similar reviews for astrophotography lenses, they tend to focus solely on Milky Way photography, and nightscapes. Unlike most reviewers, my long history in deep-sky astrophotography using a DSLR through a telescope has given me a unique perspective on this subject.

On a recent astrophotography session in the backyard, I discovered how enjoyable it can be to squeeze in a brief mid-week session using my camera lens in place of the telescope.

For this imaging run, I used the refreshingly simple and affordable Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 lens. The lens was attached to my Canon Rebel T3i DSLR, which rode atop an iOptron SkyTracker camera mount.

(Those of you that have been following my blog for some time know how much I love my DSLR astrophotography.)

The difference this time around is that I’m able to get up and running in about 10 minutes.  The lack of computer control and autoguiding saves a lot of time and effort – meaning I’m collecting data sooner.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at a recent shoot that took place on a less than perfect night.

A Budget Astrophotography Lens (Nifty Fifty)

The lens used in this video is often referred to as the “nifty fifty”. “Every photographer should own a 50mm f/1.8 lens as your first upgrade from the kit lens that came with your camera.”Improvephotography.com

In the video above, I set out to capture the Orion Constellation using a Lens in place of a telescope.  This is my “quick and dirty” imaging setup.

Using a Camera Lens instead of a Telescope

On nights when imaging time is limited, a great option is to set up a highly mobile setup that you can get up and running quickly. You do not need a telescope to enjoy astrophotography and capture many stunning deep sky objects in the night sky.

Related Post: 7 Astrophotography Tips and Camera Settings You Can Try Tonight.

Sure it would be great to capture light frames on a deep sky project using my primary imaging telescope, but that’s not always a practical choice in the middle of February. Setting up a DSLR camera and lens on a portable tracking mount is quick and painless – and I still get my astrophotography fix.

Setting up my camera mount

A small sky-tracker camera mount can be set up and polar aligned within minutes

The process of setting up my complete deep-sky telescope rig for a night of astrophotography takes time.

Even with a sound blueprint for setting up my non-permanent setup, the process can take upwards of an hour. This isn’t a problem on a warm Saturday in June, but a Monday night in February is an entirely different experience.

Another factor that went into consideration was the weather conditions for that particular night. The clear sky chart was less than ideal, with the transparency meter looking a little pale.

Rather than setting myself up for a potentially wasted night due to weather, I took a chance on some wide-field shots using my “spur of the moment” rig. If the clouds did end up rolling in, I could quickly pack everything back up into the garage in minutes.

A Lightweight, Portable Solution

wide-angle astrophotography setup

My Canon EOS Rebel T3i sitting atop the SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount

The iOptron SkyTracker Pro is a portable astrophotography mount that is perfect for taking wide-angle nightscape with a DSLR camera and lens. If you’re just getting into the hobby and interested in long exposure shots of the Milky Way – a star tracker mount like this what you want.

My target on this particular night was the Orion Constellation, including Barnard’s Loop. Using the Canon 50m lens with my T3i results in a focal length of 80mm (50mm x 1.6 crop factor), which happens to be a perfect fit when it comes to capturing the stars that make up Orion the hunter.

Canon astrophotography lens

The Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 Lens

What’s the Best Lens for Astrophotography on a budget?

You may remember my announcement on Facebook about investing in a new Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens. This “budget” category lens was purchased with the idea of wide-angle nightscapes in mind.

There are many great lenses for astrophotography available, but these are two that I personally own and enjoy. The models mentioned below are both prime lenses with a fixed focal length. Although they are both affordable choices for astrophotography, their uses will vary.

Jerry Lodriguss has put together a helpful list of both Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Rokinon Lenses for Astrophotography on his website.

best budget astrophotography lens

Left: Rokinon 14mm F/2.8  |   Right: Canon 50mm F/1.8

The lenses listed below are both built for a Canon DSLR body because that’s what I currently shoot with.  Nikon has comparable lenses (Nikkor) in this category, with similar models of the lenses mentioned below.

The Rokinon 14mm F/2.8

If you were to ask me for advice on “the best budget lens for astrophotography”, I’d lean toward the Rokinon 14mm Ultra Wide Lens if you plan on shooting wide-angle astro-landscapes.  Over the summer of 2018, I was able to capture some incredible images of the night sky with this lens.

Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens for Canon

The Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens attached to my Canon DSLR

At 14mm, the Rokinon is a much better choice than the Canon 50mm if you plan to capture large areas of the night sky, including the Milky Way. With a full frame camera, the ultra-wide 14mm FOV can be fully appreciated.

Pros:

  • Ultra Wide-Angle (Especially using a full-frame DSLR)
  • Affordable
  • Fast Optics (F/2.8)

Cons:

  • Manual aperture adjustment
  • The manual focus ring is slow
  • Big and bulky objective lens

As the season changes, I’ll spend much more time with this astrophotography lens.  I am curious to see how much sky I can collect in some stacked long exposures.

Update: Summer 2018

I used the SkyTracker Pro mount and the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens to photograph the Milky Way under the dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park in June 2018. This portable astrophotography setup is absolutely perfect for wide-angle shots of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way using the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Lens

If you’re want to go a step further and use a small telescope – I’ve had success using the beefier SkyGuider Pro. Wide-field nightscapes are a lot of fun – and can be just as rewarding as a deep sky image. The SkyTracker taps out after the weight of a DSLR camera and modest size lens.

The Canon EF 50mm F/1.8

This lens is about $150 brand new, is virtually weightless, and is useful focal length for wide field imaging on certain targets.  I purchased the Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 lens years ago, as it added a much need portrait lens to my DSLR kit at the time.

Canon EF 50mm F/1.8

With the aperture wide open at F/1.8, you can pull in a lot of light in a short period of time, but the stars are a little rough at the edges of the frame. If you stop down to F/2.8 or F/3.2 things improve dramatically.

Pros:

  • Extremely Affordable
  • Fast Optics (F/1.8)
  • Lightweight

Cons:

  • No Image Stabilization
  • Impractical Focal Length
  • Stars at F/1.8 aren’t great

examples using a 50mm lens

The images above were taken by Kurt Zeppetello and Victor Toth using the Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens on a tracking mount.

Camera Lens Focal Length Max Aperture Best F-Ratio to Use Best For Price
Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 14mm F/2.8 F/3.2 Wide Deep-Sky Check Amazon
Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 50mm F/1.8 F/3.2 The Milky Way Check Amazon

Using a Clip-in DSLR filter with a camera lens

To make life easier, I opted to use an h-alpha filter in the T3i to completely ignore the light pollution from home. The Astronomik 12nm Ha filter clips into my camera – and isolates the hydrogen gases found within the hunter.

I don’t recommend using a thread filter that screws on to the objective of your camera lens. It’s best to use a clip filter that clicks into the body of the DSLR underneath the lens, like the one shown below.

The clip-in style filters allow you to attach any EF mount-style lenses to your Canon camera. I recommend double checking to see if your lens is compatible with a particular clip filter before purchasing.

Clip-in DSLR filter

The Astronomik 12nm Ha Clip-In Filter used for my Narrowband image of Orion

The Orion Constellation at 50mm (in narrowband ha)

The following image is of a large portion of the night sky including the stars and nebulae surrounding Orion. I use the hydrogen-alpha clip filter in my camera on nights when the Moon is out, or I simply want to capture some dramatic details in a particular nebula.

The resulting narrowband image is, of course, black and white – with the red channel isolated in photoshop for processing. For more details on processing images in ha from a DSLR, have a look at my narrowband Photoshop tutorial.

Barnard's Loop in Orion

Barnard’s Loop in Orion | 26 x 3-minutes @ ISO 800

Overall, I am quite pleased with the way this turned out. The total exposure time was short, and the sky conditions were lousy. The focal length of the Canon EF 50mm lens was spot on for a constellation of this size.

The shots were 3 minutes each, at ISO 800.  I stopped the aperture down to F/3.2 to sharpen things up, not to mention not blow out my 3-minute subs. As you can see, the stars are still rather sharp at the very edge of the field.

stars at the edge of field

A sound polar alignment on the little iOptron SkyTracker was all I needed for sharp, pinpoint stars for each 180-second sub.  Can your telescope mount go 3 minutes unguided with sharp stars?

To polar align, I simply refer to my Polar Finder phone app and make the necessary adjustments to the mount.

At this focal length, autoguiding is not necessary and the field of view is quite wide and forgiving. With that being said, I am so impressed with the smooth and accurate tracking on the SkyTracker. A camera mount like this opens up new opportunities for night photography when using a camera lens for astrophotography.

Camera Automation and Focus

I  automate my imaging sessions on the SkyTracker mount using a remote shutter release cable that connects directly to the DSLR. With this device, I can set everything from the number of exposures to the individual exposure length.

A typical astrophotography imaging session will include 30 images of 90-seconds or more, with a 5-second delay between shots. It’s often said that using a delay can help let your camera sensor cool down a bit between shots. This will help reduce noise.

remote shutter release cable

My Polaroid  Remote Shutter Release Cable

The cheap Polaroid version I bought on Amazon has been surprisingly reliable. Using the remote, I let the camera do it’s thing until it’s time to tear down and go to bed.

The photo below showcases the constellation Cygnus and the Milky Way using my Canon T3i DSLR with the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Ultra wide angle lens. It’s a stacked shot of 23 x 2-minute exposures.

The Summer Triangle

The Summer Triangle and the Milky Way (Rokinon 14mm F/2.8)

The Best Lens for Canon DSLR’s

I would like to recommend the Canon EF 50mm F/1.8 STM and the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 Ultra Wide Angle lenses for Canon cameras. These 2 lenses are tremendous choices for astrophotography because they are capable of letting in a lot of starlight in a single exposure.

The 50mm is a useful focal length for framing up a particular constellation like Orion, above. While the Rokinon 14mm lens is perfect for shooting the Milky Way. Both lenses can produce sharp results and impressive images when the correct settings and techniques are used.

The Canon EF 24-105mm F/4 lens has also been useful for certain projects. It’s a zoom lens, but the star quality is commendable at both 24mm and 105mm. When coupled with a crop-sensor DSLR, the full magnification of 105mm brings a new perspective to popular targets such as the Horsehead and Flame nebula in Orion.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount

Deep sky objects in Orion at 105mm (Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L lens)

For me – finding ways to sustain this hobby long term is important. This rather brief astrophotography session provided me with enough data to produce an impressive portrait of Barnard’s Loop, and the Orion constellation in hydrogen alpha.

The simplicity of mounting the camera on a small tracking mount and walking away really appeals to me.  On frigid February night, it’s a refreshing experience that doesn’t involve a lengthy star alignment routine or lugging 40 pounds of gear around.

Shooting deep sky through a telescope will always be my bread and butter, but shooting with a cheap astrophotography lens on a small star tracker sure is a lot of fun too.

Related Posts:

Astrophotography Cameras: The Best Choice for a Beginner

Light Pollution Filters for Astrophotography

Deep Sky Astrophotography with a 300mm Camera Lens

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HaRGB Astrophotography

|HaRGB|6 Comments

Right now is the absolute best time of the year for backyard astrophotography.  The days are warm and the nights are clear, summer star gazing is here!  The core of our Milky Way galaxy has returned to our night sky here in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it comes many celestial delights such as the colorful nebulae located in and around the constellation Sagittarius.  For me, Summer astrophotography means pointing my telescope right where the action is – in the core of the Milky Way, soaking in as much exposure time as possible.  These days do not last long!  We have but a brief window to capture glorious deep-sky objects such as the Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula, Swan Nebula, and Eagle Nebula.  All four of these glorious Messier Objects are worthy of several sleepless nights in the backyard.

Camping and Star Gazing

The warmer weather also means astronomy camping, to seek out darker skies and spend all night under the stars.  Spending time with family and friends around the campfire with my telescope collecting photons in the background is my idea of a good time!  My camping gear would not be complete without all of my astrophotography equipment coming along with me.  This includes everything from my tracking mount to my laptop!  I always book my camping trips on or around the new moon phase, and with a campsite that has a clear view to the South.  Luckily for me, there are many fantastic campgrounds located on the North shore of Lake Erie, which creates a vast dark area directly south of our location.  I recently spent a night at Selkirk Provincial Park for some astronomy camping on a warm, clear night in early June.

 

Camping and Star Gazing

The Big Dipper from our Campsite

 

Photography with the New APO

I am excited to announce that I am the proud new owner of an Explore Scientific ED102 CF astrophotography telescope.  This is a portable, light weight triplet apochromatic refractor – built for deep-sky imaging.  The increase in aperture is a welcome change from my now departed ED80 telescope I enjoyed for the past 5 years.  I have now had this refractor out a few times, and could not be more pleased with it.  I am thrilled with the fact that I can produce images with deeper, and more detailed results due to the increased size.  Going from 80mm to 102mm may not seem like a large increase, but when it comes to astrophotography, 22mm makes a BIG difference!

 

Explore Scientific ED102 CF

My new Explore Scientific ED102 CF Telescope

 

My first imaging session with the new Explore Scientific 102mm CF was on June 8th.  My deep-sky target of choice was the beautiful Eagle Nebula, an emission nebula in  the constellation Serpens.  I managed to capture just over 2 hours on this object from the backyard.  It was a weeknight, and I got about 2 hours of sleep before work the next morning.  WORTH IT!  I made a video about the dedication to this hobby, a small pep-talk if you will.  Despite the videos mixed reviews, I am still proud of this wacky, short little astrophotography video.

Speaking of YouTube, my channel has over 500 subscribers!  I cannot believe the response generated from my astrophotography videos.  It turns out that I am not the only one obsessed with photographing stars in the night sky.  If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do!  I can promise you many more useful astrophotography tutorials, vlogs, and equipment reviews in the future!

Astronomik 12nm Ha Filter

To add to the excitement, I have also added a new Astronomik 12nm Ha filter to my growing list of astrophotography equipment.  This is my first time diving into narrowband imaging, something I’ve been interested in for years.  This clip-in filter blocks out almost all wavelengths of light and only allows the light produced from emission nebulae and starlight to pass through.  What makes this feature so powerful t astrophotographers is the fact that it allows to image under heavy moonlight and light-pollution.  For a backyard astrophotographer such as myself, it is an absolute game-changer.  This means I can image twice as often, and produce more vivid and detailed deep-sky photos by adding Ha (Hydrogen Alpha) data to my existing RGB images.

 

 

Astronomik Ha Filter

Filter Purchased (For use with my Canon DSLR)
Clip-Filter (EOS) with ASTRONOMIK H-Alpha-CCD 12nm

Bought online from OPT Telescopes and shipped to Canada

 

HaRGB Astrophotography

Combining the RGB data with Ha for a stronger image

HaRGB Astrophotography

M16 – The Eagle Nebula in HaRGB

Anyways – about the Eagle Nebula.  I noticed the increased detail in M16 using the new telescope right away.  The super-sharp, high contrast images I have come to expect using a triplet apo were also evident right away.  I captured my RGB data of the Eagle Nebula on June 8th (About 2 hours), and returned to the subject on June 14th to photograph it using the Astronomik Ha Filter.  Because I use the filter ring adapter for my IDAS LPS filter on my Canon Xsi, the Astronomik 12nm Ha clip-in filter would not fit into the camera without the stock interior.  To make life easier – I captured the Ha data by clipping the Astronomik filter into my Canon 7D body.  This is the first time I have used the Canon 7D for deep-sky astrophotography.  I must say that I was impressed with the increased image resolution.  This makes me want to upgrade my aging 450D.  It never ends!  Here is my image of the Eagle Nebula combining the RGB data with the Ha:

 

Eagle Nebula in Ha + RGB

M16 – The Eagle Nebula in HaRGB

Photo Details

RGB:

Total Exposure: 2 Hours, 9 Minutes (43 frames) 
Exposure Length:  3 Minutes
ISO: 1600
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: Canon Rebel Xsi (modified)
Filter:  IDAS Lps 

 

Ha:

Total Exposure: 1 Hours, 40 Minutes (20 frames) 
Exposure Length:  5 Minutes
ISO: 1600
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Filter: Astronomik 12nm Ha

 

Using H-Alpha as a Luminance Channel

Creating a HaRGB image in Photoshop

I still have a lot to learn about processing HaRGB images using a DSLR.  However, my early results are very promising!  I really love the way the H-Alpha data brings out the nebulosity without bloating the surrounding stars.  The common processing method of combining the Hydrogen Alpha data is to add it to your existing RGB data as a luminosity layer in Adobe Photoshop.  This is the method I have chosen to use, although I am still learning how to best accomplish this task.  You can read a simple tutorial on the process from Starizona.com.

 

Ha luminance layer

The H-Alpha (Ha) Layer of my image

Dark Sky Camping Trip

Camping Trip with Telescope

Our campsite at Selkirk PP

I wanted to take advantage of the dark skies at Selkirk Provincial park by imaging the Swan nebula from my campsite.  I had everything all ready to go including a perfect polar alignment, and my autoguiding system with PHD running smoothly.  The only problem – MY BATTERY DIED!  I captured one amazing 5 minute frame on the Swan Nebula before my battery pack’s low-power alarm sounded off.  What a heart breaker.  Normally this battery is enough to power my astrophotography equipment all night long, but I didn’t charge it long enough before we left.  Lesson learned!

To make the most of a bad situation, I decided to turn my attention to some wide-filed landscape astrophotography using my Canon 70D and tripod.  The moon finally set, and the sky was incredibly dark after midnight.  The milky way could easily be seen with the naked eye as it stretched across the sky.  This is something everyone should witness at some point in there life.  There is something about it that makes me feel connected with our universe.

 

Camping Milky Way

The Milky Way from Selkirk Provincial Park

 

As always, thank you for your interest my website, and this incredible hobby.  I’ll do my best to answer your questions so we can continue our journey together.  Please follow my Facebook Page for the most up-to-date astrophotography information.  It’s a great way to connect with me and other backyard astrophotographers chasing the same feeling.

AstroBackyard is on Facebook

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Forgotten Light Frames

|Nebulae|0 Comments

While digging though some old folders on Adobe Bridge, I stumbled across some unprocessed, 300 second light frames of the Flaming Star Nebula from November 2013!  When you are desperate to get out and image a new target, this is like hitting gold.  

I was originally looking for my raw files of the Pacman Nebula, which I feel is in desperate need a new process. (Those stars look pretty rough)  I found a folder labelled “Flaming Star – 5 Min Lights”.  I never processed this image!  The Flaming Star Nebula is a colorful collection of glowing gas and dust lit up by the bright star AE Aurigae. 

The tough part about this process will be the limited exposure time.  1 hour of data is really not ideal for a quality astrophotography image.  I find that out the hard way below:

IC 405 – The Flaming Star Nebula

IC 405 - Flaming Star Nebula

Photo Details

Photographed on: November 29, 2013

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Stock)
ISO: 1600
Exposure: 1 hour (12 x 300s)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 darks

Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

This image was acquired using Canon EOS Utilities, and not BackyardEOS as I use now.  This was photo was also shot before I modified my Canon 450D for astrophotography.

Now you might be thinking “how could you spend hours imaging a nebula and forget to process it?”  It’s simple – life is busy!  I likely had a busy week following the the imaging session, and began I new session before I even looked at the precious data collected on that cold November night.  I don’t see any dark frames to support the image.  

This may have been another reason I held off.  I bet that I wanted to take 5-minute darks of the same temperature before stacking, but never got around to it.  This could be a problem.

But first, let’s get this cleared up

This is budget Astrophotography.  Most of my gear was purchased used from online forums and astronomy classifieds.  The total value of the equipment used to photograph this nebula was purchased for under $3,000.  It’s not top-of-the line gear by any stretch of the imagination.  My astrophotography image processing skills were self-taught.  I am no scientist, that’s for sure. Just like you, I have a strong desire to capture beautiful images of the night sky.  I always appreciate constructive criticism, and enjoy helping others learn through my mistakes.

Stacking without Dark Frames?

First of all, I’ll have to use dark frames from a different night to stack with the Flaming Star light frames.  This means that it is very important to match the temperature of my light frames from that night of imaging.

I have done a poor job of creating a master dark library, so finding matching dark’s may be tough.  I usually try to record the temperature of my dark frames in the file folder, for this very situation.  There are external software applications available that can help create a dark frame library, such as Dark Library.  

I remember using this years ago, but their website appears to be down right now.  I will use the 5 minute dark frames from my Pacman Nebula image taken earlier that month, labelled 4 degrees.

Another option is to just stack the light frames without any dark’s.  I’ll try both and compare the two.

Here is the version stacked with no dark frames:

Deep Sky Stacker with No Darks

Here is the version using dark frames from a previous night:

Deep Sky Stacker with Darks

As you can see, stacking with the dark frames produced a better result.  Even though the temperature of dark frames did not match perfectly, the dark frames removed some of the dead pixels and noise from the image.  Notice the red streak of dead pixels on the “no-darks” version.  All of these imperfections would become intensified after processing!  

I performed a few basic edits to the examples above to have a better look at the differences. (Levels, Gradient Xterminator, and Curves)  Now that we have registered and stacked our 1 hour’s worth of data, let’s start stretching the data in Photoshop.

How to take proper Dark Frames for Deep Sky Stacker

The answer to this and more in the FAQ section

Processing the Image in Photoshop

If you have followed any of my astrophotography tutorials on my website, or video tutorials on YouTube, you already know the basics of my processing workflow.  This process has evolved over the years as I learn new tricks.  However, processing the Flaming Star Nebula was particularly tough because of the limited exposure time on the subject.  

Add in the fact that this nebula is quite faint, with many bright stars surrounding it, and you’ve got an astrophotography challenge for even the most experienced astrophotographer.

 

Quick Astrophotography Tip

Try to frame your deep-sky object in an interesting way.  Include nearby star clusters, nebulae or galaxies.  For inspiration, search for your target on APOD, and see how the professionals have framed the object.  This may spark your creativity to photograph an existing target in a different way.

HLVG – Green Noise Remover

The entire image had a noticeable green cast over it, perhaps because of the extreme amount of noise, or the miss-matched dark frames.  I ran Deep Sky Colors HLVG on medium, which helped a lot.  HLVG was created by Rogelio Bernal Andreo of RBA Premium Astrophotography. 

It is a chromatic noise reduction tool that attempts to remove green noise and the green casts this noise may cause in your astrophotography image.  It is based on PixInsight’s SCNR Average Neutral algorithm.  If you don’t already have this useful filter for Photoshop, I highly recommend it, it’s free!  You can download the plugin here:

Hasta La Vista, Green!

HLVG Filter for astrophotography

Results and Thoughts

I must admit, this post became a bit of a nightmare.  I began to document my processing steps one by one, taking screenshots of progress along the way.  I wanted to provide a detailed tutorial of how I turned this forgotten data into a masterpiece, despite having no associated dark frames, and only an hour’s worth of exposure time.  As I experimented using different methods of noise reduction, and various orders of operations, I became very discouraged with my final image results.  

I spent hours taking different roads with all of my trusted astrophotography tools at my disposal, and the results continued to be unimpressive.  By adjusting the curves enough to show any substantial detail on the nebula, I introduced a frightening amount of noise into the background space.  No amount of noise reduction could remove it, without turning the entire image into a blurry mess.

I just couldn’t bring myself to post a tutorial with the end result turning out like it did.  So I scrapped the idea, and settled for a forgettable image of the Flaming Star Nebula.  Surely this gorgeous nebula that spans 5 light years across deserves more than that.

Astrophotography Processing Tutorial

My unused processing tutorial screenshots

At the end of the day:

No amount of processing can make up for lack of exposure time!

I guess you could say I was doomed from the start.  I am not going to spend any more time on this image until I am able to capture at least another 2 hours of data on it.  I hope you can learn from my experiences in astrophotography, in both victories and failures.  But I guess that’s why you’re here 🙂  Please follow AstroBackyard on Facebook for the latest updates.

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