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Milky Way

DSLR Photography Tips: Shooting the Milky Way on a Tripod

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It’s time for another Photoshop tutorial, along with some night sky DSLR photography tips.  This time, the subject is our glorious Milky Way galaxy.  There is nothing more humbling than spending a night under the band of stars seen from within our barred spiral galaxy.

The true beauty of our universe is displayed in the arching collection of stars known as the Milky Way.

In the image processing video below, I’ll show you how to use Adobe Camera Raw to get the most out of your DSLR image. I’ll also cover some online photography schools available for those who wish to learn more.

DSLR photography tips

The Milky Way from Cherry Springs State Park (2014)

Milky Way Photography with a DSLR

I’ve recently put together a resource for anyone interested in photography the Milky Way with their DSLR this Spring.  This includes everything from the best times to set up – to the recommended camera settings.  The Milky Way photography page found under Tutorials includes more information than on this post.

Night photography has become quite popular among all types of photographers, thanks to some inspiring photos of the milky way taken over the past few years.  Now, there are some incredible online photography courses dedicated to creating nightscapes. More on this below.

How to Photograph the Milky Way with a DSLR

Milky Way Processing in Photoshop

The photo above shows the difference a few simple edits in Adobe Camera Raw can make to your astrophotography image.  Click the link above for the full tutorial, or watch the video below.

No Star Tracker Needed

Photographing the Milky Way without a star tracker is an attractive idea to beginner astrophotography enthusiasts. Due to the limited equipment needed, it is often one of the first types of astrophotography attempted.

Modern DSLR Camera’s are well suited for Milky Way photography. For the best results, you can’t beat a location well away from city light pollution.

DSLR astrophotography

The Milky Way as seen from Cherry Springs State Park

The image above was captured using a Canon EOS 7D and an 18-200mm Zoom Lens.

Long exposure Milky Way photography is not this camera’s specialty. The Canon 7D (Mark 1) is an excellent camera for nature/bird photography, but the amount of noise present at ISO 3200 and above leave much to be desired.

If you are new to photography, and in the market for a DSLR camera, a Canon EOS Rebel T6i would be a better choice. The Canon 7D has been replaced with the 7D Mark II, an excellent camera but an expensive choice for a beginner.

The example photo used in the tutorial was taken under the dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park. This is home to the Cherry Springs Star Party, which I will be attending this year!

Cherry Springs Star Party

Setting up my astrophotography gear at Cherry Springs in 2014

 

With some simple preparation and a bit of luck (weather wise), an incredible photo of the Milky Way is possible using a basic DSLR on a tripod.  This type of photography uses a stationary tripod, with no star tracking or autoguiding is needed.

An astrophoto of the Milky Way reveals our galaxy as a bright swath of light and color across the sky.  For all of the images of the Milky Way in this post, ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 were used.  This can create a lot of noise, which is why stacking exposures in Photoshop can help.

 
DSLR photography - The Milky Way

Looking towards Cygnus in the Milky Way

The brighter nebulae and star clusters near the core will stand out. The colorful red emission nebulas in Sagittarius are the easiest to identify, with M8 being the most noticeable. The Summer Triangle is also located in this region of the Milky Way, featuring bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

Collecting a series of exposures is encouraged, as this will lead to a finished product with a much-improved signal to noise ratio.

Limited exposures of 30 seconds on a tripod are all you need to produce an image like the one below.

30 Second Exposure of the Milky Way

6 exposures of 30-seconds each were used for this photo

By utilizing the powerful features of Adobe Camera Raw, you can make “game-changing” adjustments such as the all important – perfect white balance.

Photographing the Milky Way using a Star Tracker

Using a small star tracker camera mount such as the iOptron SkyTracker Pro will allow you to capture long exposures without star trailing. With the right lens and ISO setting, exposures of 1-2 minutes can reveal an impressive amount of detail in the Milky Way.
 
The following image was captured using a Canon EOS Rebel T3i with a wide-angle Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens attached. Each image exposure was 2-minutes in length at ISO 1600. The data was stacked together for a grand total of 3 hours of total integrated exposure time.
 
The Milky Way
 
Related:
 

Online Photography Schools

The overwhelming popularity of night photography has led to the availability of many online courses on the subject.  These photography schools offer instructional material on everything from starry nightscapes to light painting techniques.

online photography school

Nightscapes: Landscape Astrophotography by Ian Norman

Skillshare Online Course: Landscape Astrophotography by Ian Norman

Everything I have learned about photography up to this point has been self-taught. However, the idea of completing a structured online course is an appealing option in the future.

The training programs usually list the required skill level before enrolling, although most courses cater to all levels.  No matter what stage of this hobby you are at, building a portfolio of images and learning new skills is always a good idea.

Canadian Astrophotography School (CAPS)

There are some new courses available on astrophotography, that deal with some of the image processing techniques used by the pros.  Canadian Astrophotography School features industry legends such as Ron Brecher as instructors.

Astro Photography School

Canadian Astrophotography School – Instructor Ron Brecher

These instructional courses focus on everything from astrophotography basics to advanced processing in PixInsight. I hope to attend CAPS in the near future.  You can visit CAPS on Facebook page for more information.

I hope that you find these DSLR photography tips useful when planning a Milky Way shot. If you’re looking for some more in-depth lessons on nightscapes and Milky Way photography, I’ve given you some of the options available to you.

Personally, I plan on developing my skills further both in terms of the acquisition process and image processing.

To stay up to date with my latest astrophotography tips and tutorials, please follow AstroBackyard on Facebook.

Related Posts:

Astrophotography Cameras

Astrophotography Resources – Recommended Software

Resources:

Online Photography Course: Star Trails and Night Photography

How to Capture the Milky Way Using your DSLR (Video)

How to Photograph the Milky Way using a DSLR camera – WikiHow

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Finding Darker Skies

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Astrophotography in late August and early Septemeber feature ideal conditions for spending a full night photographing the stars. The nights are longer, the temperature is warm, yet cool at night, and the breathtaking Milky Way core continues to stretch upwards into the night, as nightfall sets in.

Right now, some of the first stars to “pop” after the sun has receded behind the Earth are Vega, Altair, Deneb, and Arcturus. Even more noticeably present are the intense glowing “wanderers” known as Mars and Saturn in our Solar System.

As the end of summer approaches, so does our nightly showing of the Milky Way core across the night sky.

 

Camping under the stars

Camping under the stars

On Friday, September 2nd I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favorite places on Earth – The CCCA Observatory. This is a dark sky area reserved for members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Niagara Centre)  From here, the Milky Way dominates the night sky. Bright nebulae like the Swan Nebula, Lagoon Nebula and galaxies like Andromeda can clearly be seen naked-eye.

In Southern Ontario, views like this are unheard of.  Places like this give you a preview into what it must have been like to gaze up into the night, in a time before light pollution destroyed our visual connection to the Universe. (Can you tell I am a little bitter?)

 

Deep-sky objects in the Milky Way core continue to receive my full attention at the moment, as experience has taught me that these precious jewels only reveal themselves for a short period of time.

This mindset was responsible for my deep-sky object of choice on Friday night.  With over 2 hours of photons already soaked into this summer-long project, I opted to finalize this image over photographing a new target.  When the conditions are as perfect as they were on Friday, this decision is not made easily! 9 out of 10 times I will decide on the latter.


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Latest Photo: The Eagle Nebula

DSLR Astrophotography - Eagle Nebula

My reliable equipment and proven methods for a successful night of imaging were evident in the prompt and ultra-smooth execution leading up to my first 5-minute exposure of Messier 16.  Balance, polar alignment, calibration and focus were extremely accurate – what could be better? I am reminded of the countless nightmare astrophotography sessions of the past where I had to learn this hobby the hard way and waste a perfect night under the stars. Not tonight.

Photo Details:

Dates Photographed: June 8, June 29, June 30, Sept 2, 2016
Total Integrated Exposure Time: 5 Hours, 59 Minutes (100 Frames) ISO 1600

Video: Camping Under the Stars

The temperature plummeted to 12 degrees by 1:00am, well below the forecasted low of 16.  The drastic temperature drop from 25 degrees during setup created a staggering amount of moisture on my electronics.  Seeing your beloved camera and telescope dripping in water does not get easier to accept over time.  It is an unnerving yet common experience for astrophotographers.

The first few frames I captured of the Eagle Nebula looked fantastic. The focus and framing of the 300-second exposures were exceptional. I continued to collect light on M16 well into the night until my frames began to brighten slightly due to low atmospheric conditions as the object began to set in the west.

Stacked frames in Deep Sky Stacker

My stacked image in Deep Sky Stacker – Before Processing

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula

Although it didn’t make it into the video, I did shoot over 2 hours on another deep-sky object after the Eagle Nebula.  I decided to take full advantage of the pristine dark skies by shooting a subject of great difficulty from the city.  The Elephant Trunk Nebula has eluded me for years despite my keen interest in this concentration of interstellar gas.

My attempts from the backyard this year have been less than promising, with far too little exposure time to produce a fair documentation of IC 1396.

IC 1396 - Elephant's Trunk Nebula

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula – Captured on September 2nd

Photo Details:

Date Photographed: Sept 2, 2016
Total Integrated Exposure Time: 2 Hours, 15 Minutes (27 Frames) ISO 1600

In September 2018, I revisited the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in a new video and post. This time, I used the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED APO and a cooled CMOS camera to capture this target. The duo-narrowband filter I used helped isolate the nebula from my city sky.

After soaking some serious dark-sky time on the Elephant’s Trunk, I diligently placed the cap on my telescope objective and began taking a set of dark frames.  By this point, the Milky Way had traveled to the other end of the sky, with the summer deep-sky favorites now long-gone.

I took some time to enjoy some familiar constellations rise from behind the Earth.  Orion made its ominous debut over my campsite, so I took full advantage of the photo opportunity.

In the early morning hours of September 3rd, the constellations provided a haunting warning of the cold Canadian Winter ahead.

 

Winter Constelltions including Orion

Orion the hunter dominates the early morning sky

 

After snapping a few exposures, it was off to bed to conclude my night of camping under the stars.  It was a lot of fun putting the video together, and it made the entire trip that much more memorable.  Aside from providing value to those learning about Astrophotography, the videos on my YouTube Channel serve as a timeline for my journey.  One that is that I am happy to share.

This website is constantly receiving revisions and updates, to improve its functionality and the way it delivers useful information.  Please excuse any hiccups as we grow!  I have recently added plenty of useful information to the resources page, to make sure that fans of this website are aware of the tools I use to capture and process my astrophotography images.  You may have also noticed that the photo gallery section has also evolved over time.  Lastly, to those of you who have been so kind to subscribe to AstroBackyard in their e-mail, I promise the first edition of this newsletter will be worth the wait!

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HaRGB Astrophotography

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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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Astrophotography Telescope Buying Guide – Under $2000

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Astrophotography Telescope Buying Guide

Note: This post was created back in July 2015, I have since purchased a new astrophotography telescope, the Explore Scientific ED102 (The number 1 telescope on this list)!

So you’re in the market for an astrophotography telescope, are you? There have never been so many affordable options for the amateur astrophotographer on a tight budget. I am often asked which telescope I use, and which one I would recommend for beginners. The quick answer is a high-quality, doublet or triplet refractor.  

Larger models can be very expensive (and heavy!) due to the high-quality ED glass used. I think you will be quite surprised at the performance of a small 65-80mm refractor such as the Explore Scientific ED80 I currently use for astrophotography. To view the types of wide-field images I have taken using this small telescope, please visit my photo gallery.

An astrophotography telescope buying guide? I thought you were an amateur? Yes, it’s true, but I decided that since I was doing all this intense research into which telescope I will be buying next, I would share it for others in my position to help streamline your search.

I have researched refractors made by Orion, Meade, Sky-Watcher, Tele Vue, Takahashi, Vixen, Astro-Tech, Explore Scientific, Stellarvue and William Optics. Please remember that this is my personal list, and I am by no means an expert! I tried to keep a high standard when browsing for telescopes.

All of the telescopes on this list are apochromatic refractors. I hope this top 10 list is useful for anyone looking to buy a refractor telescope for imaging under $2000 US. 

Keep in mind that with my limited budget, I am interested in getting the best balance of aperture, performance, and quality I can afford. A high-end instrument like the 76mm Takahashi might be the number one choice on your list, but it doesn’t make sense for my situation. So without further adieu, here is MY top 10 list of refractors for astrophotography:

10. Tele Vue TV76

Astrophotography Telescope - Tele Vue TV76 Doublet Refractor

Thanks to Marc Fitkin, there is an extremely useful and insightful review of this telescope on his blog. He notes the ability to use this scope as a prime lens for daytime photography as well as astrophotography. Tele Vue telescopes have a reputation for being top-quality instruments that will last a lifetime.

Because I will be using this scope for astrophotography exclusively, a model that excels in visual use has less of an impact on me. The reason this high-quality scope lands at 10 on my list is because it is at the extreme end of my budget, yet has an objective of only 76mm. Maybe one day I will be in a position to purchase premium-priced optics, but not yet.

Price: $2,000 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Ring Mount, 20mm Eyepiece, 2″ Diagonal, 1.25″ Adapter, Custom Soft Case

 

9. Sky-Watcher 80mm Esprit ED

Sky-Watcher 80mm Espirit

This is another model that comes with an aluminum case, diagonal, and a finder scope – a huge bonus for me. The heavy-duty Sky-Watcher exclusive “Helinear Track” focuser is a nice touch. This scope actually includes a thread-on field flattener and adaptor for Canon cameras! A major selling point for someone like me. 

I do, however, wonder how much of an upgrade this would be to my current ES ED80. The built-in dovetail is a turn-off for some, but I think it is a great feature. It is nice to see companies like Sky-Watcher catering to astrophotographers, a trend I am sure that will continue.

Update: I had the amazing opportunity to try out the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO in 2018

Price: $1,649 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Thread-on Field Flattener, 2.7″ to 2″ Adapter, 2″ to 1.25″ adapter, 2″ Diagonal, Canon Camera Adapter, Tube Rings with “V” Dovetail, Carry Case

8. Takahashi FC-76DC

Takahashi FC-76DC fluorite doublet

I can’t believe there is actually a Takahashi under $2000! Takahashi has a reputation for building a superior quality astrophotography telescope. This fluorite doublet is tied with the Tele Vue for smallest objective on this list. This instrument has the highest quality glass of all the telescopes on this list, and is very lightweight (4 lbs).

This telescope operates at a f/7.5 focal ratio, and includes a fixed dew shield. The downsides for someone in this budget are the small objective and 1.25″ focuser (though it can be adapted to 2″ with an additional accessory). The views through this “Tak” have been described as absolutely stunning.

Price: $1,949 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: None

7. Vixen ED103S Refractor

Vixen ED103S Apo Telescope

The official product description from Vixen states “ED103S lenses are almost free of chromatic aberration in all colors and are critically sharp edge to edge. The astro-photographer will be especially pleased with the high contrast images through this telescope.” 

The dual speed focuser, 4.1″ objective, and overall weight of just 8 lbs is what has me interested in this white beauty. Not to mention that it’s short tube length of 31.5″ makes it extra portable. A handy in-depth look at this instrument written by Pernel Johnson can be found here.

Price: $1,799 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Carry Handle

6. Meade 115mm ED APO

Meade 115ED Apo Triplet

Meade has catered to the next generation of imagers with this astrophotography telescope. The older version of this scope was almost identical to the Orion EON 115mm. The newer Series 6000 model uses an upgraded FK61 extra-low dispersion glass. Some notable features are the 3″ Crayford focuser, sliding dew shield, and overall build quality.

Update: In 2017, I had the opportunity to test the Meade 70mm Quadruplet APO

Price: $1,999 US (Ontario Telescope and Accessories)
Accessories Included: 3″ Diagonal, Cradle Rings, Mounting Dovetail, 8 x 50 Viewfinder, Hard Case

 

5. Stellarvue SV80ST

Stellarvue SV80ST-25FT

Forum users on astronomyforum.net reported that this Stellarvue Apo has an easy-to-use, well-built focuser. It allows the entire imaging train to screw together, giving you accuracy and stability when imaging. A flattener is a must-have to accompany this scope to eliminate coma, a trait many of these refractors have indeed. User reviews are very high for this precision instrument with the focuser being the biggest draw.

Price: $1,295 USD (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Hard Case

4. Astro-Tech AT106

Astro Tech AT106 Telescope

Sky and Telescope reviewed this scope back in 2009, saying: “the Astro-Tech AT106 provides all the benefits of a first-class 4-inch apo but without the premium price. I highly recommend it.” I have found a number of positive reviews about this modestly sized refractor. 

There is a great in-depth look including sample astrophotos at the scope on Stargazerslounge.com. This astrophotography telescope uses high-quality Ohara glass, and comes with a dual speed 2.7″ Crayford focuser. At just under the $2000 range, (including an aluminum case) This telescope is definitely a top contender for my hard-earned cash.

Update: It appears as though this telescope is no longer available.

Price: ?
Accessories Included: Hard Case

3. Orion EON 115mm ED

Orion EON ED Triplet Apo

An astrophotography telescope from one of the oldest most trusted brands in the hobby. Time after time, Orion products deliver and continue to impress their reviewers. My first telescope was an Orion, so this brand holds a special place in my heart. This APO has been around for a LONG time. (I found a review from 2006!)

This quality instrument offers excellent color correction by way of the FK-61 extra-low dispersion (“ED”) optical glass in its air-spaced triplet objective lens. With a focal length of 805mm at F/7, this is a fast, medium wide-field scope. The extendable dew-shield and multiple knife-edge baffles protect your eyes from off-axis reflections and glare to ensure a view with excellent contrast. 

The extra aperture for the price is what puts this scope near the top of my list. The massive 3″, rotatable , dual-speed focuser is an attractive feature for astrophotographers.

Price: $1,499 USD (Orion Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Dovetail Bar, Foam-lined Carry Case, Starry Night Software

2. William Optics GT102

William Optics GT102

There are many fans of William Optics, and for good reason, they make quality instruments for a fair price. The focal ratio, 102mm diameter objective, and reputation of this scope make this one of my top choices for “next scope”. The optional DDG digital readout on the focuser is a neat feature, and would help me achieve accurate focus with my camera.

 I own the WO 72mm Megrez Doublet, and have had many great experiences with it for both astrophotography, and daytime nature photography.

Update: It appears as though the older version of this telescope is no longer available, and only the 20th anniversary edition is now for sale. Unfortunately, it now has a price tag that exceeds $2,000 USD! However, if you are looking for a more affordable option, have a look at the William Optics Z61

Price: $2, US (High Point Scientific)
Accessories Included: 2″ to 1.25″ Adapter, Mounting Rings, Dovetail

1. Explore Scientific CF 102mm

Astrophotography Telescope - Explore Scientific Carbon Fibre 102mm Apo Refractor

With over 4″ of aperture, and weighing just 7 lbs – Explore Scientific calls this the “perfect balance between portability and light gathering power”.

The HOYA ED glass is virtually free of chromatic aberration, and produces bright high-contrast images. The carbon fiber tube is highly temperature stable, eliminating the need for focus changes with temperature fluctuations. I am not going to lie, I am a little biased towards this telescope because of my unbelievably positive experience with the ED80.

Update: June 2016 – I bought this telescope!

I was contacted by Explore Scientific to upgrade my ED80 to the 102mm CF! Since then I have photographed many deep-sky objects including this version of the Lagoon Nebula:

M8 - The Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon Nebula

Price: $1,099 USD (High Point Scientific)
Accessories Included: 2″ Diagonal, Deluxe Case, Finder Scope Base, Vixen Dovetail

Well, there you have it, my top 10 list for anyone in the market for an astrophotography telescope. As you can see, I plan on sticking with Explore Scientific. At the end of the day, it comes down to value for me. If you have any hands-on experience with any of these telescopes and would like to comment, please do so below – I would love to hear them!

Astronomy Photo Gallery

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Black Forest Star Party

The unspoiled dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania are a real treat to stargazers who attend the Black Forest Star Party.  Now, this is what our night sky is supposed to look like! 

Whether you’re a visual observer or an amateur astrophotographer, it’s hard to find a place as special as Cherry Springs State Park

black forest star party

Black Forest Star Party

Although I have been to Cherry Springs State Park several times, I attended my first Black Forest Star Party (BFSP) in September 2019. The Black Forest Star Party has been running since 1999 at the Cherry Springs State Park and is hosted by the Central Pennsylvania Observers.

The following video takes you along for the ride as I travel from Ontario, Canada, to the Black Forest Star Party.

The skies at Cherry Springs State Park are absolutely incredible. The Milky Way stretches across the park from end to end without any intrusion from city lights.  They have a strict policy about white light, which really helps preserve your night vision throughout the night.

As I mentioned to a fellow amateur astronomer at the park, the Black Forest Star Party is like a “car show” for telescopes. People from all over the US and Canada bring their prized astronomy gear and show it off.

20″ Dobsonian telescopes were commonplace at the park, and there are often telescopes with 30″ of aperture or more.  Giant refractors, heavy-duty mounts, and expensive CCD cameras as far as the eye can see.

I am always very impressed by the behavior of all the guests. It’s a little strange to be outside with almost 500 people all night without any loud music or yelling. It’s just a big group of people who have traveled many miles for the same reason, dark skies!

Dobsonian telescopes

A look at some of the large Dobsonian telescopes on the observing field. 

Where is the Star Party Held?

The location of this annual stargazing event is Cherry Springs State Park, which is one of the darkest sites in the state of Pennsylvania. It has even been designated as a Dark Sky Park by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Cherry Springs State Park is an International Dark Sky Association (IDA) Park, and one of the best places in the eastern United States for stargazing. The park sits 700 m above sea level in the Susquehannock State Forest and offers largely unobstructed views of the night sky in a 360-degree field of view.

In the light pollution map below, you can clearly see why this location is so dark. The red and white areas are the brightest in terms of light pollution, and the blue areas are the darkest. Cherry Springs State Park is a Bortle Scale Class 2 site. 

light pollution map

The location of the Black Forest Star Party.

When is Black Forest Star Party?

The Black Forest Star Party is usually held in the early Fall at Cherry Springs State Park. To find out when the next BFSP will happen, you can visit the official website

There, you will also find directions to the park, as well as frequently asked questions and star party rules. Each year, this event hosts a number of interesting speakers. In September 2019, I was lucky enough to be one of them!

Astrophotography

The image of the Andromeda Galaxy below was captured under the pristine skies of this location. I set up my Canon EOS 60Da DSLR camera and William Optics RedCat 51 telescope on a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro tracking mount. The photo includes 100 x 2-minute images at ISO 3200. 

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy captured at the Black Forest Star Party, 2019. 

Here is a photo of the Triangulum Galaxy I captured at the Black Forest Star Party in 2019. Broadband galaxies are some of the most difficult targets to shoot effectively from home, which is why I tend to give them a lot of attention when I am at a dark sky preserve. 

Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum Galaxy captured at the Black Forest Star Party in 2019. 

Cherry Springs Star Party

Not to be confused with the Black Forest Star Party, the Cherry Springs Star Party takes place at the same location as the BFSP, but at a different time of year. This annual stargazing event happens when the core of the Milky Way is beginning to rise high overhead. 

Here is a photo I captured of the Milky Way from the Cherry Springs Star Party in 2018:

The Milky Way

The Milky Way from the Cherry Springs Star Party.

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How To Take Pictures of Stars & Night Sky

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If you are wondering how to take pictures of stars and the alluring wonders of the night sky, look no further. In this article, I’ll share an absolute, bare-bones approach for capturing a spectacular photograph of the stars above the one below. 

This includes covering which camera to use, the exact camera settings I recommend, and the right conditions for a successful photo. I’ll also cover some of the next steps to consider for night sky photography, including recommended light pollution filters, and an introduction to star trackers

how to take pictures of the night sky

Anyone with access to a DSLR camera and a tripod (or a steady surface) can take stunning photos of the night sky with all of its glorious stars. You will even start to see some Nebulae, Galaxies, Globular Clusters, the Milky Way, Meteorites, Auroras, and more.

If you own a point-and-shoot camera, or are just using your smartphone, you will need to tap into the manual settings that allow you to shoot long-exposure images.

Smartphones like the Google Pixel 4 (with astrophotography mode), and newer iPhone, Samsung, and Huawei models are getting better at low-light photography, but the small sensors will limit your success. You may be able to get some decent pictures of stars in the night sky with these devices, but for the best results, you need to get your hands on a DSLR or mirrorless camera. 

Canon EOS Ra

Canon’s mirrorless astrophotography camera, the Canon EOS Ra.

The good news is, you don’t need an astrophotography camera like the Canon EOS Ra to photograph the night sky successfully. Even an entry-level DSLR camera (such as the Canon EOS Rebel T7i) can produce spectacular results. 

Take Stunning Pictures of the Night Sky

Taking pictures of a starry sky (nightscape photography) is a wonderful experience that may help you learn some of the constellations as well. A camera sensor, like the one in your DSLR, is capable of recording much more light than our eyes can see. This is why we are able to enjoy much more detail in a photograph than with our naked eye alone.

Whether you are just getting started with a new camera, or have just never attempted night photography before, the simple steps below should give you a strong foundation to put into action the next time you are under a clear night sky.

camera settings

Related Post: 7 Astrophotography tips to put into action, tonight

The process of collecting long exposure images at night is very different from regular daytime photography. Focusing the lens, keeping the camera steady, and choosing the right subject for your setup are critical steps of the process. 

The Basics: Camera Equipment

As I mentioned, there are plenty of suitable cameras for night sky photography, but some will give you more control (and better results) than others. For example, those of you that have access to a DSLR or mirrorless camera with detachable lenses have a huge advantage.

For this type of photography, remember to keep things lightweight and portable. For a great shot of the stars, you may find yourself traveling to a distant location.

Here is a promising, entry-level night sky photography setup:

Essential:

  • DSLR Camera (Or mirrorless body)
  • Wide-Angle Lens (24mm or wider is best)
  • Sturdy Tripod (Lightweight)
  • Red Headlamp (To see at night without ruining your “night vision”)
  • Memory Card (Easy to forget)
  • Spare Camera Battery (Especially in cold weather)

Extras:

  • Planetarium Smartphone App (to help you locate objects in the night sky)
  • Remote Shutter Release Cable (To avoid camera shake and set sequence)
  • Heated band and controller (To prevent moisture on the lens)
  • Light pollution filter (Depending on location)
  • Star Tracker (To take exposures longer than 30-seconds without star trailing)

Getting Started

Have you ever tried to take a picture of the moon at night? Chances are (if you are new to astrophotography), the results were less impressive than you had hoped. Well, taking a successful image of the stars in the night sky can be even trickier.

This is because night photography is unlike daytime photography, and creates many new challenges. Low light situations require a completely different approach to photography than you may be accustomed to. It is not possible to take pictures of stars using the “auto” mode on your DSLR camera, because it was not designed to record a nightscape image.

Instead, you’ll need to use a specific set of camera settings that allow you to capture long exposure images of the night sky and all of the wonderful treasures found within it. The cameras used for the images in this guide were all Canon EOS Rebel-series DSLR’s. 

Step 1: Camera Settings

Camera Settings for Astrophotography

The first thing you will need to understand is that in order to capture enough light for your camera’s sensor to pick up lots of stars in the photo, you need to take a long exposure photograph. This can range from 5-30+ seconds depending on your equipment and conditions. To do this, you will want to make sure your DSLR is in Manual Mode.

Manual mode gives you complete control over each internal camera setting, and it can be a bit daunting to shoot in this mode for the first time. Manual mode is indicated by an M on your camera’s dial (Canon or Nikon).

The camera settings available to customize in this mode include:

  • Aperture (F-Ratio) of the camera lens
  • ISO (Sensitivity to Light)
  • Exposure Length (How long the shutter stays open)
  • White Balance (Daylight, Auto etc.)night sky photography settings

These variable camera settings will change depending on the camera lens you are using. For example, if you are shooting with a lens that has a focal length of 18mm or lower, you shouldn’t see any star trails (due to the rotation of the earth) until you shoot an exposure of 20 seconds or longer.

Some photographers like to refer to the 500 Rule to determine the perfect exposure length for them to shoot using a particular camera and lens combination. 

Wide-angle lenses (such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8) have an extremely large field of view, which not only capture more of the sky in a single shot but are also more forgiving in terms of star trailing. A lens with a longer focal length (such as the Canon 50mm F/1.8) will capture a higher magnification image, but stars will begin to trail much sooner.

For the guide below, I used a Canon 18-200mm F3.5 lens, at the widest focal length of 18mm.

Exposure

The maximum exposure length you can shoot is generally limited to the focal length of your camera lens. Unless you are intentionally trying to capture a star trail image, this exposure will likely be under 30-seconds. If you want to shoot longer than that, a tracking camera mount is needed.

If your exposure time is limited to under 30-seconds on a stationary tripod, you’ll need to experiment with the other camera settings that affect the amount of light captured in a single shot. The focal ratio of your lens (eg. F/2.8) can make a big impact when it comes to collecting light in a short period of time.

This is called aperture, and it’s one of the most important camera settings to consider when taking pictures of stars.

Camera Settings for Night Sky Photography

Aperture

On my camera lens, that is a setting of F3.5. The lower the F-number, the more light the camera brings in.

ISO

The next setting you will want to adjust is ISO. This is the camera’s sensitivity to light, which is very important for our purposes! Generally, you will want to use the highest ISO your camera has, this may by 1600, or even 6400 or higher.

Increasing your ISO will introduce more noise to your photo, but the trade-off is more stars and more light-gathering ability. You may want to use a lower ISO if you are finding your photo to be too noisy. Modern photo-editing software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI do a great job of reducing noise in post-processing.

White Balance

For our purposes, Auto White Balance or Daylight White Balance works just fine. You also want to make sure that you are shooting your photos in RAW format. This gives you the opportunity to really bring out the images full potential in post-processing. You will need Adobe Photoshop to make these adjustments, so if you don’t have it, a .JPG photo will have to do!

Step 2: Setting up your camera on the tripod

Now that you have the proper settings for night-time photography, you are ready to point your DSLR to the heavens and capture more stars than you have ever seen with your naked eye alone!  Securely fasten your camera to your tripod via the removable mounting plate. Make sure that all of your adjustment knobs are tight before leaving your camera on the tripod.  DSLR’s can be heavy, and you will be angling the head straight-up in some cases.

Focus

To achieve a proper focus on the stars, do not use autofocus. Manually focus your lens to infinity, then focus back a hair. Take some test shots and try to get the stars to look as tight as possible. Another way to achieve focus is to use the live-view mode of your camera, and focus on something far away (like a street lamp). Zoom-in while in live-view to really get it right.

Star Trails

In a 30 second exposure, you will notice small star trails because of Earth’s rotation. (Yes, even in 30 seconds!) The star-trailing is subtle, and will not affect the overall look you are trying to achieve. If the stars are trailing too much for your liking, knock your exposure down to 20 seconds if you wish.

Step 3: Take the shot!

Drive Mode for Astrophotography

Activating the Shutter

Set your drive mode to a 2 or 10-second delay to avoid shaking the camera slightly when activating the shutter. You can find this option in the Even the slightest movement (like pressing the shutter button) can be enough to create a shaky shot! The drive mode option screen should look something like this:

Things to keep in mind

Make sure that your lens has not fogged up, or your shots will look blurry. A blow dryer will remove dew if necessary. Light pollution is your biggest enemy when it comes to astrophotography. Get as far away from city lights as possible for your star shots. If there is a city glow near you, point away from it. You may find that a shot in the city using a high ISO and long exposure produces a very bright, washed-out photo. If this is the case, bump your ISO down, and shoot a shorter exposure. eg. (ISO 800, 15 seconds)

Milky Way astrophotography image by Ashley Northcotte

Next Steps: Stacking Exposures in Photoshop

One of the most effective ways to produce an attractive image of the night sky is to take advantage of a technique known as image stacking. This involves placing multiple images on top of each other as layers in Adobe Photoshop. 

There are also a number of dedicated tools to accomplish this task including DeepSkyStacker, and Sequator. I recommend trying the manual method of image stacking first, to see the power of signal-to-noise ratio in action first-hand. 

To create the image below, I manually stacked 5 x 30-second exposures shot at ISO 3200 in Photoshop. The key is to step down the opacity of each layer gradually.

This picture was created by stacking 5 x 30-second exposures in Photoshop.

The next time you are out taking pictures of the night sky or the Milky Way, be sure to take a series of 30-second images rather than just one or two. Aim to capture about 10-20 pictures to realize the benefits of image stacking. 

Next Steps: Use a Star Tracker

A portable astrophotography setup like the one pictured below is capable of capturing incredible deep-sky objects in the night sky. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro is capable of tracking the night sky with a DSLR camera and a telephoto lens for long-exposure images.

budget astrophotography setup

A portable deep-sky astrophotography setup.

A star tracker opens up the door to more ambitious astrophotography projects such as faint,  deep-sky nebulae and galaxies. The setup shown above was featured in one of my videos where I photographed the Horsehead Nebula from my backyard. 

The same basic principles of long-exposure night sky photography apply to this configuration. The only difference is that the star tracker allows me to shoot exposures of up to 3-minutes in length without worrying about star trailing. To see of the best photos I’ve taken using a simple setup like this, see The Gear Behind my Best Astrophotography Images

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