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Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

Building a Deep Sky Astrophotography Kit

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

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

building a deep-sky astrophotography kit

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the Pieces Together

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

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

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

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

portable astrophotography kit

 

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

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

The original Star Adventurer star tracker requires that you manually locate deep-sky objects in the night sky before capturing them. When starting out with a system like this, I recommend sticking to the brightest nebulae and galaxies for a positive experience. Finding dim, small objects becomes trickier when you have to manually locate the object first. 

If you are looking for a “GoTo” solution that will find and track objects (as well as autoguide in both RA and DEC), the newer Star Adventurer GTi is a better option. In late 2021, I put together a helpful post about building a “budget” deep-sky astrophotography kit for under $2000 (USD). If that is the budget you are sticking to, that post is worth a look. 

Other Accessories to Consider:

  • Sturdy Tripod to Mount the Star Tracker
  • Small Guide Scope for Autoguiding
  • Guide Camera for Autoguiding
  • ZWO ASIAIR for Camera Control and Automation

Below, is a recent picture (2022) of a highly portable deep-sky astrophotography setup on a star tracker (Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi) that includes everything from the guide scope to the wifi camera controller (ZWO ASIAIR Plus).

compact telescope

My current highly portable, compact, deep-sky astrophotography rig (2022) 

For more details about the RedCat 51 telescope, check out my William Optics RedCat 51 post. If you are having trouble finding a RedCat 51 in stock, the Radian 61 Triplet APO and William Optics Zenithstar 61II (shown below) are both excellent options. Keep in mind that you may need to purchase a dedicated field flattener (William Optics Flat61A) for a completely flat field of view on your camera sensor. 

small refractor telescope

Here is a photo that was taken using a nearly identical setup to the one listed above under the dark skies of the Black Forest Star Party in 2019. The camera used was a Canon EOS 60Da (which is more sensitive to the h-alpha wavelength), and an Optolong UV/IR cut filter to prevent star bloat.

Andromeda Galaxy amateur photo

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

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

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

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

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

The Orion Nebula

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

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

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

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

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

Using a Refractor Telescope with a DSLR Camera

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

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

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

The Pleiades Star Cluster

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

For example, the Radian 61 Triplet Astrograph has a focal length of 275mm. At this magnification, an entry-level DSLR camera at prime focus can capture large nebulae such as the Soul Nebula, the California Nebula, and the Rosette Nebula. A DSLR camera can be easily attached to the telescope using the included camera adapter. 

Here is a look at the camera directly attached to the telescope using a t-ring adapter. For this camera (Canon EOS Ra), I also had to use a Canon EF-EOS-R converter for the correct spacing and connection. 

optical tube assembly

Radian 61 APO with a Canon EOS Ra attached.

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

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

The Radian 61 Triplet APO is the perfect example of a compact, beginner-friendly refractor telescope, and I am not just saying that because I helped design it! This telescope excels at wide-field nebulae regions, particularly when matched with a modified camera and multi-bandpass narrowband filter. 

The image of the California Nebula below was created using a Radian Triad Ultra filter and a Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera. The internal filter slot, integrated reducer, and standard camera spacing make connecting your DSLR or mirrorless camera to this telescope a breeze.

California Nebula

The California Nebula captured with an astro-modified DSLR (mirrorless) and the Radian 61.

Choosing a Telescope

I experienced a spike in my deep-sky astrophotography progress after purchasing my first “triplet” apochromatic refractor. A lightweight and compact APO is arguably the best possible choice for a beginner. The doublet and triplet lens designs of these telescopes often use high-end optics to provide the best possible color correction with little to no chromatic aberration.

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

My first refractor telescope was an Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet APO. Riding along on a Celestron CG-5 mount, this telescope was responsible for some of my greatest early achievements in astrophotography. This telescope is nearly identical to the Orion ED80T Carbon Fiber APO, an extremely popular refractor telescope in the amateur-astrophotographer market.  

Orion ED80-T

Orion ED80T Barbon Fiber Triplet APO.

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

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

deep sky imaging rig

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

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

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

William Optics ZenithStar 61II Doublet

Diameter: 61mm
Focal Length: 360mm
Focal Ratio: f/5.9
Weight: 3.2 lbs
Glass: FPL-53
Field Flattener/Reducer: William Optics FLAT61A

portable telescope for astrophotography

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

At F/5.9, the 3.2-pound Z61 does an admirable job of collecting light from your deep-sky target.  You can expect to gather some impressive exposures in the 1-2 minute range on the brighter deep-sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy like the image below.

This is the first image I took with the Zenithstar 61 and it was a memorable experience. 

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy. William Optics Z61 and Canon EOS Rebel T3i. 

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

William Optics RedCat 71

  • Focal Length: 350mm
  • Focal Ratio: F/4.9
  • Objective Size: 71mm
  • Glass Type: FPL-53
  • Weight: 6.2 lbs
  • Focuser: Locking Helical
  • Field Flattener/Reducer: Not Needed

If you are looking for a similar experience as the RedCat 51, with a little more aperture, consider the equally impressive William Optics RedCat 71. This is a 4-element astrograph refractor with some added reach to capture a wide variety of deep-sky objects in the night sky. 

I think you will find the 350mm focal length to be a practical choice for all types of deep-sky projects, including the largest galaxies in the night sky. Below, is an example of this telescope ready for a night of action mounted to a Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro. I have included links to each piee of this system for your convenience. 

astrophotography telescope

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

The RedCat 71 is behind some of my favorite astro-image ever taken, and it regularly comes with me on dark sky adventures. Below, you’ll see a recent photo of the Iris Nebula I captured using a one-shot-color dedicated astronomy camera and the William Optics RedCat 71. 

Iris Nebula

The Iris Nebula. William Optics RedCat 71 and ZWO ASI2400MC Pro. 

Orion ED80T Triplet Apo

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

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

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

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

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO

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

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

Sky-Watcher Esprit 100

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

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

For example, have a look at the following image of the Tadpoles Nebula using the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 and the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro monochrome astronomy camera:

Tadpoles Nebula

The Tadpoles Nebula. Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 and ZWO ASI2600MM Pro.

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

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

Why Not Use a Camera Lens?

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

Orion Nebula 300mm Lens

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

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

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

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

camera lenses for astrophotography

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

Recommended Astrophotography Mounts

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

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

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

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

Mount Specs:

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

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

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

The Milky Way

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

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

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is another star tracker in this category, and it is equally as useful and enjoyable to use. Since receiving a Star Adventurer Pro Pack in the fall of 2019, I have actually found myself reaching for it first when the situation calls for it. Realistically, you can’t go wrong with either of these camera mounts, they are both exceptionally easy to use and reliable.

Sky-Watcher HEQ5

The Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro is an entry-level equatorial telescope mount. This “EQ-5” series equatorial mount has been around for many years and has proven itself to be an excellent choice for deep-sky astrophotographers around the world.

Compared to a simple star tracker, this is a serious deep-sky imaging investment that is more than capable of meeting the high demands of years of outdoor use. The Sky-Watcher HEQ5 will perform best when used with an apochromatic refractor with an autoguiding combo.

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

  • Maximum Payload Capacity: 30 lbs
  • Telescope Connection: V-Style
  • Power Requirement: 12-Volt DC
  • Built-in Polar Scope: Yes
  • Autoguider Port: Yes

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

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

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

Zenithstar 73

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

Like the Orion Sky-Watcher HEQ5, this telescope mount can be controlled via your computer to locate and lock on to your target. I use the autoguider port with my ZWO ASI290mm Mini guide camera to take long exposure images of up to 10-minutes with sharp, pinpoint stars.

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

  • Payload Capacity: 45 lbs
    Power Requirement: 12-Volt, 4-Amp
  • Telescope Connection: Dual (V-Style and Losmandy)
  • Drive Type: Belt
  • PEC: Yes
  • Built-in Polar Scope: Yes
  • Autoguider Port: Yes

intermediate level astrophotography kit

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

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

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

Filters for Astrophotography

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

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

clip-in astrophotography filter for DSLR cameras

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

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

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

For more information about the filters I use for deep-sky astrophotography from the city, be sure to visit the astrophotography filters section of this website.

Stock vs. a “Modified” Camera

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

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

The Canon EOS Ra (2019).

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

Dedicated Astronomy Cameras

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

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

astrophotography camera

Some of the most popular choices in the color camera category (that I have had the pleasure of testing) are the QHY 268C and the ZWO ASI294MC Pro. There are several choices to consider when investing in your first astrophotography camera, but I would like to suggest choosing one that is in use by a large group of people.

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

Recommended Cameras

If you would like to learn about the different types of astrophotography cameras available, and what I recommend for a beginner, please have a look at the following post: Astrophotography Cameras: The Best Choice for a Beginner.

astrophotography cameras

I think to think of the main types of cameras for astrophotography in three categories. Each one specializes in a certain area, although nearly all types of astrophotography can be done by all three.

  1. DSLR/Mirrorless: Best with Lenses, Star Trackers, Nightscapes, Milky Way Photography
  2. Dedicated Astronomy Camera: Best with Telescopes, EQ mounts, Deep-Sky Imaging, Narrowband Imaging
  3. Planetary Cameras: Best with Large Telescopes, Planets, and Solar System Photography

As this article focuses on deep-sky astrophotography, I have not recommended any planetary photography cameras. However, in my brief experiences photographing planets, I enjoy the ZWO ASI290MM Mini as it has a highly-sensitive monochrome CMOS sensor with a high frame rate. 

Canon EOS Rebel T7i

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

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

Canon EOS Rebel T7

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

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

ZWO ASI533MC Pro

The ZWO ASI533MC Pro is a one-shot-color dedicated astronomy camera with a 1″ square (11.1mm x 11.1mm) sensor and 3008 x 3008-pixel resolution. Dedicated astronomy cameras like the ASI533MC Pro have a built-in thermoelectric cooler that requires a 12V power source to run. This allows the camera sensor to reach as low as -35 Celsius below the ambient temperature. 

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

ZWO ASI533MC Pro

 

The ASI533MC Pro must be controlled by using software on your PC such as Astro Photography Tool. Here, you’ll be able to choose a Gain setting, exposure length, and much more. If you are accustomed to using automating your imaging sessions with a DSLR (BackyardEOS), this process will feel quite familiar and comfortable to you. The ZWO ASIAIR also works very well. 

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

NGC 7822

NGC 7822. ZWO ASI533MC Pro and Sky-Watcher Esprit 100.

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro

I began using the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro in early 2021 and immediately fell in love with the incredibly high-resolution images (26 MP) I was capturing in monochrome. I find that I get the most use out of this camera when creating narrowband images in Ha, OIII, and SII.

This camera has a large APS-C-sized sensor, which is much larger than most beginner-level astronomy cameras like the ASI533MC Pro.

Order the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro

One of my first projects with the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro was the Seagull Nebula in Canis Major. I created the images by capturing several hours’ worth of exposure time using 3nm narrowband filters (Chroma). The resulting image is one of the best astrophotos I have ever taken.

I have since decided to use this camera in my permanent backyard observatory, as it is the most versatile and practical astrophotography camera I own. To use a monochrome CMOS camera like this effectively, you must invest in a filter wheel to easily swap between color and narrowband filters based on the project. 

Seagull Nebula SHO

The Seagull Nebula (Hubble Palette). ZWO ASI2600MM Pro and Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO.

Autoguiding

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

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

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

Guide Scope for autoguiding

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

telescopes for astrophotography

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

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

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

Helpful Resources:

deep-sky astrophotography

This article was originally in December 2019 and updated on April 26, 2022.

 

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Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi

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The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi is a highly portable star tracker that was designed for astrophotography. It allows you to take long-exposure images of space by tracking the apparent movement of the night sky.

Unlike the original Star Adventurer, the GTi model also has the ability to find deep-sky objects in the night sky using the SynScan GoTo system.

Sky-Watcher sent me a production copy of their brand new Star Adventurer GTi to test out, and I’ve been waiting for this version of their iconic star tracker for a long time.

compact telescope

 

The Star Adventurer GTi can handle a compact telescope complete with autoguiding.

Before the Star Adventurer GTi was released, the only comparable “GoTo grab and go” mount from Sky-Watcher was the AZ-GTi. However, this was an altitude-azimuth mount designed for visual use, not astrophotography. The Star Adventurer GTi combines the best of the AZ Gti and the Star Adventurer 2i into one mount. 

In this article, I’ll cover what’s included with the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi package, and share my early astrophotography using the star tracker in my backyard. As I continue to test the Star Adventurer over the coming months, I will add new information and images to this post. 

Setup Pictured Above:

Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi
Tripod: Radian Carbon Fiber Quick Release Tripod
Controller: ZWO ASIAIR Plus
Camera: ZWO ASI2400MC Pro
Filter: Radian Triad Ultra (Quad Band)
Telescope: Radian 61 Triplet APO

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi

The one major missing feature to the original Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer star tracker was GoTo functionality. “GoTo” simply means that you can pick an object in the night sky, and the mount will point to it for you. 

Now, I know not everyone feels this feature is essential, but “how do you find objects in space?” was the most common question I got from beginners using the original Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer

To find and photograph a deep-sky nebula or galaxy in the night sky, you first had to manually find it yourself. This was a major roadblock for newbies that were still learning the sky, and/or didn’t have the resources to come up with a solution to the problem on their own.

With the Star Adventurer GTi, you simply tell the mount what you want to see, and it points right to it. The best part is, you can do all of this on your mobile phone or tablet connected to the mount via WiFi. 

Big Upgrades

The SynScan GoTo system (the same one in Sky-Watchers larger mounts) is the big upgrade for the GTi, but this next-gen star tracker improves on almost all other aspects of its predecessor as well.

You can now autoguide in both RA and DEC, control the brightness of the built-in illuminated reticle, and fine-tune your polar alignment with a studier, more substantial EQ wedge.

In fact, the Star Adventurer solves nearly every issue I had with the previous model, yet manages to retain its small form factor and portability. I believe the GTi will be one of the best-selling astronomy products of all time. 

specifications

Above, I have labeled the key components of the Star Adventurer GTi. The design and function of the mount is very similar to a larger GoTo equatorial telescope mount but in a travel-friendly package. 

The EQ mount head weighs just 5.7 lbs, which is lightweight and small enough to fit into your camera bag on carry-on luggage. To keep things compact, a collapsable carbon fiber tripod is recommended (this is one I use).  

Update: April 20, 2022

I have now run the Star Adventurer GTi with the ZWO ASIAIR Plus, complete with a dedicated astronomy camera, guide camera, and autoguiding. Controlling the GTi mount through the ASIAIR interface (plate solving, object centering, etc.) was absolutely fantastic, and the autoguiding performance was impressive (Total RMS Error hovered between 1.0-2.0″).

To connect the mount to the ASIAIR for mount control (and autoguiding) you need this cable. You may find a similar option available online through one of the many astrophotography equipment vendors, but this is the exact one I use. 

where to buy

  • GoTo SynScan System (hand controller or mobile app)
  • Robust EQ Wedge and Base
  • Larger Counterweight and Bar
  • Autoguiding in RA and DEC
  • Built-In Illuminated Reticle (dimmable)
  • High Latitude Counterweight Position

If you already own the original Star Adventurer Pro Pack (or the newer 2i edition), you may be less interested in the GTi as you already have a reliable astrophotography platform. For those of you in this position, I would ask yourself whether adding a motorized DEC axis (with autoguiding potential) and a robust GoTo system is worth the upgrade. 

The fact that the EQ wedge base is now integrated with the mount head (unlike the original Star Adventurer) means that this star tracker is mount stable more than ever. The more robust counterweight shaft and 5-lb counterweight increase stability even further. 

Specifications

  • Computerized: Yes
  • Counterweight Weight: 5 lbs
  • Drive Type: Worm Gear
  • Head Design: Hybrid
  • Autoguiding: Yes, ST-4 Port
  • Instrument Capacity: 11 lb
  • Latitude Range: 0 to 70 Degrees
  • Mount Head Weight: 5.7 lb
  • Power Supply: DC 12v or 8x AA
  • Telescope Connection: Vixen Style
  • Tracking Accuracy: 0.35″ in RA / 0.44″ in Dec
  • Tracking Rates: Sidereal / Lunar / Solar
  • Tripod Attachment: 3/8″
  • Warranty: 2 years

The Star Tracker Effect

If you’ve been taking long-exposure images of the night sky on a stationary tripod, chances are you will reach a point where tracking is your logical next step. You can do some amazing things without a star tracker, but entering the star tracker world allows you to start shooting dim objects deeper, and longer.

Without tracking, your exposure times are limited by the apparent rotation of the night sky (the stars will begin to trail). Unless you are creating a star trail photo, this is an undesirable effect that only gets worse as you increase your focal length. 

A star tracker removes this barrier by matching the precise speed and rotation of the earth to essentially “freeze” deep-sky objects in place. The standard tracking rate for this motion is known as the sidereal rate (the rate of movement of the stars across the sky as the Earth spins), which is the default tracking speed of all equatorial telescope mounts. 

how to use a star tracker

Star trackers come in many shapes and sizes, but are generally considered to be a portable version of a much larger equatorial telescope mount. They are well-suited for Milky Way photography using a camera and lens, but can also carry compact refractor telescopes in the 50-60mm diameter range. Personally, I enjoy taking on all sorts of astrophotography projects with my star trackers from wide-angle nightscapes to deep-sky nebula photography.

Along with the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, the original Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer and 2i models are some of the best star trackers available on the market today. They are highly portable and capable star trackers, and I will continue to use mine for Milky Way photography, nightscapes, and more. But when it comes to mounting a longer focal length lens or telescope, the GTi has some nice upgrades that deep-sky imagers will appreciate.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi mount

Packages and Features

The Star Adventurer GTi is sold in two packages. One includes the tripod kit and mount head shown above, while the other is just the Star Adventurer GTi mount head on its own if you already own a photographic tripod with ⅜” central bolt and a flat base.

I expect most amateur astrophotographers to spring for the mount head only package, as you will likely already own a suitable, stable photographic tripod. I have tested my Radian Carbon Fiber tripod with the Star Adventurer GTi, and it is a perfect fit. This tripod is slightly lighter than the Sky-Watcher version, and allows me to raise the height of the mount head significantly. 

The GTi includes a V-style mounting saddle to mount your astrophotography telescope or favorite camera lens. This is the ‘smaller’ style saddle like the one on the HEQ and many other equatorial mounts.

You can see the short dovetail I’ve fastened my camera lens collar to here. A small mounting plate with a ¼” thread to fasten a camera body (like the one included with the original Star Adventurer and 2i) was not included in the production copy Sky-Watcher sent me, so just a heads up there.

Astrophotography

The SynScan GoTo system allows you to find any object in the night sky. 

The Star Adventurer GTi can support an imaging payload of up to 11 lbs (this includes the weight of the camera, lens or telescope, and all accessories). If you’re familiar with the original star Adventurer, it’s the same overall weight limit, and it’s really not a whole lot.

I expected this model to bump up the overall payload capacity, but I guess you could say this limit ‘forces’ you to keep things light and portable. This thing is definitely still a star tracker.

So, if you’re thinking of mounting a telescope with autoguiding, stick to something compact and portable like the Radian 61 or RedCat 51. This is the type of setup I’ll be using on the GTi this summer when Ashley and I take our camper on the road on our star party circuit.

Speaking of portability, the GTi is powered by (8) AA batteries. Even with brand new batteries, the power light on my copy of the GTI continues to flash (as if the batteries were getting low). I am told this is a firmware issue that will be sorted out before the official launch.

When using the mount at home, you can also power the mount using an external 12-volt power supply.

Star Adventurer GTi with telescope mounted

The Star Adventurer GTi with an astrophotography telescope mounted (Radian 61).

Astrophotography Tests and Results

To test the Star Adventurer GTi’s unguided tracking performance, I mounted a DSLR (or in this case mirrorless camera) to the GTi, with my Canon EF 300mm F/4 telephoto lens. I took several 60-exposures of the Eagle Nebula region during a rare 2-hour period of cloudless skies. 

I was able to take impressive 60-second unguided exposures at this focal length, and with a spot-on polar alignment, I am sure I could even longer. If I were to add a small autoguiding setup, I am confident 5-minute exposures are absolutely possible. 

Now I could have loaded this baby up with gear, but I intentionally decided to keep it simple for this “first look”, because I think many of you will be using the GTi with a setup like this (or maybe a smaller lens), especially if you’re new to the hobby.

But make no mistake, I’ll be using this rig completely decked out with a refractor telescope and autoguiding later on this year. This includes running a dedicated astronomy camera via the ASIAIR Plus and a small battery pack (maybe you can see it in person if we run into each other at a star party this summer).

unguided performance

A single unguided 60-exposure at 300mm using the Star Adventurer GTi. 

First Impressions

Balancing the load is critical on a star tracker, and it was dead easy to accomplish with a lightweight setup like this. The integrated wedge and tracking mount head feel very solid, much more so than the original Star Adventurer. 

The base of the mount and the connection to the tripod are solid and secure. I ran into a small issue with a stiff right Azimuth knob out of the box, but I took it all the way out, re-threaded it in straight and it’s working flawlessly now.

Loosening the RA and DEC clutches feels comfortable and secure as well, although it does feel a little odd using such a small thumbscrew to tighten the RA clutch. If you live at a lower altitude than I do here in Ontario, Canada, you have the ability to change the position of the counterweight shaft to the ‘lower latitude’ position for clearance. 

The tripod that comes with the GTi is much smaller and lighter than the one you would find on a full-blown equatorial mount. It’s not much to look at, but it actually feels surprisingly solid. There are some nice grippy, rubber feet on it.

For a mount head of this size, it feels very secure, and you can easily carry the entire setup around with everything attached. Even though the manual says not to do this. 

star tracker

Polar Alignment Process

The built-in polar scope makes polar alignment quick and easy. There is a built-in illuminated reticle this time around, which is great news for anyone who either didn’t use… or lost the external one that came on the original Star Adventurer.

To turn it on, you simply need to open up the SynScan app on your phone and adjust the slider to the brightness of your liking. There is a polar clock utility in the app, so there is no need to hop over to another tool for this process on your phone.

Manually adjusting the alt/az bolts on the mount to line up Polaris in the correct spot only takes a minute. This skill will come in handy the next time you set up in a new, dark sky location with minimal gear (trust me).

Polar Utility Clock

SynScan Pro Mobile App

If you already own a Sky-Watcher mount like the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro, you could connect your existing SynScan hand controller into the mount head and control it like your EQ6-R.

I prefer to use the Sky-Watcher SynScan Pro app on my phone to control the mount via WiFi. Here I can quickly perform tasks such as set my location, run a star alignment, and select and slew to my desired target.

SynScan Pro App

The Sky-Watcher SynScan Pro app connects to the mount via WiFi.

If you have connected your DSLR camera to the mount using the correct cable, you can even run a series of exposures through the Sky-Watcher app. I’m still just using a remote shutter release cable for now, but I’ll be browsing Amazon shortly to get the correct 2.5mm jack for the built-in snap port.

I really like the controls for moving the mount in RA and DEC. You can easily change the slew speed to your liking, and it’s smooth and responsive. Choosing a target (whether it’s for star alignment or to GoTo) from a long list of objects is a much better user experience than navigating through one object at a time on the hand controller screen. 

And, of course, for those of you that want full control of the mount and with plate solving and pulse guiding (ASCOM/EQMOD), you can connect the mount to your laptop using the USB Type B port. This thing seriously feels like a miniature EQ6-R Pro. It even kind of looks like one.

Final Thoughts

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi provides an excellent solution to the most notable missing feature of the previous version. Yet it manages to retain nearly the exact same amount of portability and form factor as its younger brother, which is what star trackers are all about.

I love that it’s battery-powered so that I can completely disconnect from the grid and take this astro rig anywhere I want. In my mind, this is the ultimate travel setup, and it truly feels like a more advanced equatorial telescope mount in a tiny package.

This is a GoTo equatorial mount that can fit in your carry-on bag. If you’re a travel nightscape photographer or aspiring deep-sky imager, you are going to freak out when you try this mount.

I can’t believe this is how far the hobby has come, and it’s not even fair that newcomers entering now have options like this. I’ll end this article with a recent photo I captured using this setup from the backyard during a 2-hour gap in cloud cover this month.

I hope this was useful to you, and until next time, clear skies.

Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula (and Swan Nebula nearby) using the Star Adventurer GTi and a 300mm lens. 

Photo Details:

  • Total Exposure Time: 70 x 60-seconds at ISO 800 (1 hour, 10 minutes)
  • Sky Conditions: High Clouds, Bortle 7
  • Camera: Canon EOS Ra
  • Filter: None
  • Telescope/Lens: Canon EF 300mm F/4L (at F/4)
  • Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi

Summary

Best Used For:

• Milky Way Photography
• Deep-Sky Astrophotography
• Nightscape Photography

What I Like:

• Overall Design and Function
• Robust wedge and Counterweight
• SynScan Pro Mobile App
• Built-in Illuminated Reticle

What I Don’t Like:

• Only 11-lb Payload Capacity
• Polar Scope Cover (pops off way too easy)
• Tiny Azimuth Adjustment Knobs

Star Adventurer GTi for astrophotography

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How I Captured the Boogieman Nebula

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In this article, I’ll describe how I photographed the Boogieman Nebula (LDN 1622) in the constellation Orion using my camera and telescope. This was the first time I had ever captured this deep-sky object before, and one of only a handful of dark nebulae I have ever photographed. 

LDN 1622 is a dark molecular cloud that is just shy of 10 light-years across in size. The Boogieman Nebula is surrounded by the intense hydrogen gas of Barnard’s Loop and close by to other fascinating deep-sky objects like Messier 78.

In this article, I’ll cover everything from the astrophotography equipment I used to capture the shot, to the image processing techniques I performed to create the final image you see below. My hope is that you can replicate some of my techniques to produce your own image of the Boogieman Nebula to enjoy.

the boogieman nebula

The Boogieman Nebula in Orion. 32 x 4-minutes (2 Hours 8 minutes total)

As most of you know, I take the majority of my deep-sky photos from my backyard at home, but during the new moon phase, I like to escape the city lights and head to a dark-sky site.

This winter has been terrible for astrophotography – night after night of cloudy skies. But in late February, my astronomy weather app (Astrospheric) indicated an upcoming clear patch of sky appearing within the cloud cover.

I crossed my fingers that this forecast would hold true, and booked a one-night stay in a cabin under Bortle 4 skies. Although it was snowing while I set up my telescope, the clouds parted as darkness fell and I was able to enjoy about 4 hours of clear-sky time in total. 

Related Article: The Best Astronomy and Stargazing Apps for your Smartphone

Video:

If you would like to follow along and see what the cabin I stayed in looked like, feel free to watch the video below. If you take your astrophotography images in the city like me, I highly recommend searching for dark-sky rentals on Airbnb during the new moon phase.

The Boogieman Nebula

The Boogieman Nebula is a beautiful dark nebula in Orion. Also known as Lynds Dark Nebula (LDN 1622), it is a dark molecular cloud that sits on top of a faint background of hydrogen.

The reflection nebula known as Messier 78 resides nearby, and you may want to consider including this nebula in your image if your field of view is wide enough. 

  • Cataloged: LDN 1622
  • Common Name: The Boogeyman Nebula
  • Constellation: Orion
  • Object Type: Dark Nebula
  • Distance: 500 light-years away

This rather dim object benefits from a dark sky. The Boogieman Nebula (and all dark nebulae) are likely too faint to successfully capture from my backyard in the city.

Nearby M78 is an attractive reflection nebula that glows brightly above Orion’s Belt. At a distance of about 1,500 light-years, this reflection nebula is lit by nearby hot, young stars. The cool blue look of this reflection nebula plays well off of the warmer red regions of hydrogen gas in terms of photographic composition. 

There is plenty of hydrogen gas nearby as well, this region lies next to the massive Barnard’s Loop, which shines in deep red and magenta when photographed with an astro-modified camera.

The main reason I had never photographed the Boogieman Nebula until now is that there are so many other gorgeous deep-sky objects in this region.

I had to restrain myself from capturing the Horsehead Nebula next door for the 12th time. In the image below, you’ll see that the Boogieman Nebula lives north of the bright star in Orion’s Belt known as Alnitak

Boogieman Location

The location of the Boogieman Nebula in Orion. 

From mid-northern latitudes, the best time of year to photograph the Boogieman Nebula is from November to February. From my latitude in Ontario, Canada, LDN 1622 rises to a maximum apparent altitude of about 45 degrees in the sky. 

Due to its proximity to the 3 bright stars in Orion’s Belt, the Boogieman Nebula and M78 are quite easy to find in binoculars or a telescope. Unlike Messier 78 at magnitude 9.5 (which can be seen in a small telescope), the Boogieman Nebula is much too dim to be seen visually through the eyepiece.

Orion constellation map

The location of the Boogieman Nebula and M78 in Orion. 

My Equipment 

I brought my Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro telescope mount on this trip. It’s not the most portable telescope mount in the world, but it allows me to mount a small to medium-sized refractor with autoguiding.

This equatorial telescope mount is capable of precise tracking, even using a telescope with a focal length of 1000mm+. The largest telescope I have mounted to the EQ6-R Pro was a William Optics FLT 132 (750mm). 

It can handle a much heavier load than my star tracker, which I also brought along to capture some wide-field images using my Rokinon 135mm F/2 lens. I have yet to take a look at this data and process the image!

astrophotography telescope

The William Optics RedCat 71 and ZWO ASI2400MC Pro. 

The EQ6-R Pro has proven itself to be reliable and work well in my cold Canadian winters, every time. In fact, the temperature dropped to -15 degrees Celsius throughout the night during this imaging session.

The telescope is a William Optics RedCat 71. This has become my go-to travel telescope, as it offers an excellent balance between focal length and portability. This telescope weighs about 7 lbs, making it a great option for those trying to travel light. 

The camera attached to the Cat 71 is a full-frame one-shot-color model, the ZWO ASI2400MC Pro. This allows me to pull in an impressive amount of sky in a single shot at the telescope’s native focal length of 350mm.

I was very excited to test this camera when it first arrived, as I view it as the dedicated astronomy camera equivalent to my Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera. It offers a massive full-frame, back-illuminated color sensor with TEC (thermoelectric cooling).  

I have enjoyed using this camera on several projects over the past few months, including my best ever image of the Iris Nebula and the Pleiades. This 24-megapixel camera captures huge images with incredible detail when zooming in. 

ZWO ASI2400MC Pro

I use the ZWO ASIAIR Plus to run my imaging session. This device allows me to wireless run the imaging session, controlling everything from autoguiding to setting the sequencing plan. 

The ASIAIR Plus replaces my laptop computer, which means I have less to pack on my astrophotography excursions. I control everything from my smartphone and have precise control over things like the focus and framing of my target.

I did not use a light-pollution filter to capture this scene, hoping that the Bortle 4 skies would be enough to bless me with clean sub-exposures in broad-spectrum light. I keep an empty Starizona filter drawer in front of the camera to achieve the recommended back-focus for my camera. 

location of my telescope

Setting up my telescope on the property at the Airbnb.

The cabin I stayed in was very cozy and warm. I was able to set up and run my telescope outside using a long extension cord (through a window) to power the mount. 

Because I used the ASIAIR wifi controller to run my imaging session, I could monitor the sequence and make adjustments to the camera from inside of the cabin.

My Camera/Telescope Tilt Issues

I think I’ve identified a tilt issue on this system. Tilt just means that the image sensor of my camera isn’t perfectly flush with the image plane of the scope.

A big sensor like the one on the ZWO ASI2400 is very demanding in this regard. When using this combo, I noticed that the stars on one side of the image always start to elongate.

At this point, I am unsure whether the tilt issue is due to the optics of the telescope, or the camera sensor itself. I believe it is the optics, as I did not notice this issue when attaching the ASI2400MC Pro to another telescope (SW Esprit 150).

tilt issues in astrophotography

A diagram of tilt issues in an astrophotography optical train. ZWO ASI Article.

Unfortunately, these rare clear nights don’t allow much room for tweaking and testing, so I’ll have to live with it for now and avoid placing my target in the ‘danger zone’ side of the image.

The viewers of my YouTube channel have offered some helpful suggestions to help me correct the issue. I know that some people swear by the CCD Inspector to fine-tune their optics, but I have not used the tool myself. 

For now, I will continue to work on finding a solution so I can fully utilize the entire field of my telescope with a full-frame camera attached. 

Related Article: The Best Astrophotography Telescope for a Beginner

Image Processing

To create the intermediate file for processing, I stacked 32 x 4-minute exposures (with 20 dark frames) in DeepSkyStacker. This produced a calibrated master file with just over 2 hours of total exposure time. 

The image below represents the ‘before’ image (stacked), with very few image processing techniques applied. As you can see, the image is much duller and less dynamic than the final image I produced.

This should give you a better idea of what to expect ‘out of the camera’, whether you are using a DSLR/Mirrorless, or a dedicated astronomy camera.

the before image

My “before” image of the Boogieman Nebula and M78.

At this stage, all that has been applied to the image is a quick stretch to the linear file and some background extraction. You may notice the blue light on the right-hand side of the frame, which is a stacking artifact of a bright flare emitted by the star, Alnitak.

The Boogieman Nebula and M78 cover a wide area of sky (3 degrees +), and unless you are using a wide-field optical instrument (350mm or wider), you likely won’t capture both objects in the same field of view. Even using the full-frame ASI2400MC Pro and 350mm RedCat 71, the objects were closer to the edges of the frame than I was comfortable with. 

sensor view

When planning your next deep-astrophotography project, make sure to check and see what your field-of-view will look like using your specific camera and telescope combination. For this process, I use the “sensor view” tool in Stellarium to see if my intended target is a good fit for my system. 

During the final stages of setting up my imaging session, I had to precisely rotate the camera to match the framing shown above. The bright star, Alnitak, made this process much easier. Bright stars in the field give you a near-real-time reference point to aid in the framing process. 

image processing guide

Related: My Astrophotography Image Processing Guide

One of the key aspects to processing the Boogieman Nebula was to carefully preserve the natural, diverse mix of colors in the area. Barnard’s Loop is vibrant red, while the LDN 1622 and the Messier 78 region include several blue and yellow stars.

Star reduction was critical to draw more attention to the nebulae structures, without going overboard and destroying the natural beauty of a filterless, broad-spectrum image. In the end, I would have preferred to have had double the amount of exposure time, but I think the dark skies helped me produce high-quality data in such a short period of time. 

My Final Image

I ended up with 32 x 4-minute sub-exposures on the Boogieman Nebula and M78 (2 Hours, 8 Minutes total exposure). My camera tilt issue meant that I needed to crop the image down from about 80% of the original frame.

I am thrilled to have finally photographed the Boogieman Nebula, especially during a cloudy winter like the one we’ve had this year. Click the image for a larger view:

Boogieman and M78

The Boogieman Nebula, Barnard’s Loop, and Messier 78 in Orion. 

Final Thoughts

As brief as the experience was, it felt so good to be under a sky full of stars again. I know my videos have been a little staggered lately, but it’s just because I need to feel the energy of this hobby firsthand to really get into it.

I don’t want to force the creative process, as much as it pains me to watch 2 weeks go by without posting a video. I want to share exciting moments and experiences that inspire you to get out and photograph the night sky yourself.

That’s what excites me, and hopefully, you appreciate them too.

Helpful Resources:

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My Best Images & The Gear Used

|Camera Lenses|28 Comments

On this website, I do my best to share information and astrophotography tips that provide value. I could pat myself on the back about all of the great astrophotography images I took this year, but it is of little interest to anyone if I don’t explain how I took the shot. 

In this article, I’ll share my best astrophotography images of 2020, and the equipment setups used for each image. This way, you’ll have a better idea of what’s behind each image, and how you can accomplish a similar result yourself.

Capturing the images with the right set of gear is only half of the equation, of course. If you’re interested in learning how I process my deep-sky astrophotos, consider taking a look at my premium image processing guide

astrophotography equipment

The Gear Behind My Best Images of the Year

As you know, 2020 was a strange year. I spent a lot of time at home and took most of my astrophotography images from my light-polluted backyard (Bortle Scale Class 7) in the city. I tried to capture a mix of galaxies and nebulae this year using a number of different telescopes, cameras, and filters.

I’ve included links to the equipment used for each shot, from the filter to the telescope mount. You obviously don’t need to use the exact set of gear to replicate my results, but at least you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.

I have also included the software used to photograph the images with my laptop computer, and the post-processing software as well. 

For the absolute latest images, consider following AstroBackyard on Instagram and Facebook. For a behind-the-scenes look at how the images are created, you can also subscribe to my YouTube Channel

best astrophotography images

Messier 82: The Cigar Galaxy

  • Object Type: Irregular (Starburst) Galaxy
  • Imaging Style: Deep-Sky LRGB
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CCD

After a cloudy start to the year, I finally began my first serious astrophotography project in March. I have always wanted to photograph the Cigar Galaxy (Messier 82) with enough focal length to reveal the interesting structure of this irregular galaxy

In the past, I’ve collected light on this area of the night sky using a wider field-of-view (400mm-800mm). This allows you to create an image that features 2 distinct galaxy types in a single shot (Spiral and Irregular). 

Nearby Messier 81 always seems to get plenty of attention from the amateur astrophotography community, so I decided to give its neighbor some love. I don’t recommend photographing this galaxy on its own unless you’ve got at least 1000mm of focal length. 

Overall, I managed to collect 5 hours and 25 minutes of total integrated exposure time on this galaxy in Ursa Major. I am happy with the result (definitely my best yet), but I would have liked to capture more hydrogen-alpha data to really bring out the “fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions”. 

Messier 82 galaxy

The Cigar Galaxy in Ursa Major. 

This was an early project using the Starlight Xpress SX-42 (Trius 694 Mono) CCD camera, and I was still very new to building LRGB images in Adobe Photoshop. This camera features a 6.1 MP monochrome CCD sensor with 4.54-micron pixels. 

It is my first CCD camera, and it has provided me with some of the most incredible deep-sky images I have ever taken (including my APOD in June 2020)

Starlight Xpress Trius 694 Mono CCD

I now have an astrophotography rig better suited for photographing small galaxies (Celestron Edge HD 11), but the 6-inch refractor used for this photo is well-suited for medium-sized galaxies like M81 and M82.

Each and every exposure used for this image was 5-minutes long. 300-seconds seemed to be enough for the Ha, but I don’t think I’ll shoot my LRGB sub-exposures so long in the future.

Messier 51: The Whirlpool Galaxy

  • Object Type: Spiral Galaxy
  • Imaging Style: Deep-Sky LRGB
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CCD

Soon after completing my Cigar Galaxy photograph, I pointed my telescope towards the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici. In the northern hemisphere, it’s an excellent project to take on in the springtime.

Again, I used my Astronomik LRGB filters and the Starlight Xpress monochrome CCD. With pleasing results on the Cigar Galaxy a month earlier, I decided to keep shooting 300-second sub-exposures on the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Unlike my image of Messier 81, I shot plenty of luminance data for this target (36 x 300-seconds). I believe this helped to keep the noise minimal, even after substantial stretching to the saturation and curves. 

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy

The Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici. 

The aperture of the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 (6-inches) helps to resolve faint, detailed structures in galaxies like this. The Esprit 150 really is a dream telescope for refractor fans.

Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 APO

The Starlight Xpress filter wheel is an absolute pleasure to use with my Trius 694 mono CCD camera. After installing the ASCOM drivers on my laptop computer, I can connect to the filter wheel using Astro Photography Tool and can change filters quickly and reliably depending on the subject matter. 

It’s a 7-position wheel containing a complete set of Astronomik Luminance, Red, Green, Blue, 6nm H-Alpha, 6nm OIII, and 6nm SII 1.25″ filters. A filter wheel is a must if you plan on using a monochrome camera to build full-color images over time. 

NGC 2539: Thors Helmet

  • Object Type: Emission Nebula
  • Imaging Style: Deep-Sky Narrowband (HOO)
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CCD

Thor’s Helmet Nebula is a fascinating deep-sky target in Canis Major and an object that can be difficult to capture from the northern hemisphere. From my backyard, this nebula skims the trees and rooftops of the neighborhood, allowing only a short window of opportunity.

Until this photo, I had only attempted Thor’s Helmet once before, using a telescope with a short focal length (400mm). This time, I was able to get an up-close view of this dynamic emission nebula at 1050mm using the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 APO refractor.

I photographed this nebula in HOO (Ha, OIII, OIII). This means that I mapped the hydrogen to red, and the oxygen to green and blue. For this subject, I think it creates a beautiful result. 

Thors Helmet

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro equatorial mount has been extremely reliable since it arrived in late 2019. This observatory-grade GoTo mount can handle a payload of up 75-pounds, yet handles like an EQ6-R Pro with an identical user experience. 

This tracking mount has spent much of the year outside, with a Telegizmos 365 cover protecting it from the elements. It was so nice to have a deep-sky astrophotography rig already polar-aligned and ready to image when the weather allowed for it.

Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro

On clear nights, I will set up an additional rig (usually the more manageable Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro) to capture another deep-sky object at the same time.

NGC 6888: The Crescent Nebula

  • Object Type: Emission Nebula
  • Imaging Style: Multi-Bandpass Narrowband
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

The Crescent Nebula is an extremely popular deep-sky target for amateur astrophotographers, and for good reason. The problem is, it’s small. To capture a detailed portrait of this 25-light-year wide cosmic bubble, you need some serious reach. 

If you haven’t noticed a recurring theme in all of the images on this page up to this point, you should. Again, the incredible Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 Super APO refractor was used to create the image.

1050mm focal length is more than enough magnification for this object, but with a full-frame mirrorless sensor, you get some of the surrounding nebulosity too. 

Crescent Nebula

The Canon EOS Ra was my most-used camera of 2020, and it remains my favorite camera for astrophotography of all time. A full-frame modified sensor is something to treasure. The extremely user-friendly format of a mirrorless camera attached to the back of the telescope reminds me of how I got started in this hobby, and the joy it brings me.

Many people doubted my decision to purchase the Canon EOS Ra, and the critiques claimed it was overpriced. After nearly 30 image projects completed with this camera, I can safely recommend it to anyone looking for a reliable all-around astrophotography camera. 

Canon EOS Ra

The Radian Triad Ultra quadband filter is an incredible fit for the Canon EOS Ra, and this was the filter I used for 90% of my deep-sky shots using this configuration. 

It can be difficult to showcase the faint shell of oxygen surrounding the Crescent Nebula, and for this, I needed a little help. I applied a 25% layer of OIII data using my monochrome CCD camera to the image to really make that outer shell ‘pop’.

Comet NEOWISE

  • Object Type: Solar System (Comet)
  • Imaging Style: Broadband Wide-Field
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

Photographing Comet NEOWISE was an unforgettable experience. The tail of this evaporating iceberg in space was long and beautiful. 

There were thousands of images of Comet NEOWISE taken in July 2020, and some of them were remarkable. I did my best to capture this memorable scene from my backyard using basic equipment.

Comet photography is quite different from traditional deep-sky photography, although there are a few best practices that came in handy. I used my Rokinon 135mm F/2 lens and DSLR to photograph this comet on July 17th, 2020. 

Comet NEOWISE

The best part about photographing this comet was that it did not require an expensive deep-sky imaging rig. A portable star tracker and camera lens worked perfectly to capture this long icy snowball in the sky. 

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is a dependable, battery-powered, ultra-portable star tracker that can handle up to 11-pounds of gear. I’ve used this little EQ mount with everything from a DSLR and 50mm lens, to a Radian Raptor 61 APO. 

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i

You may be wondering why the comet is lying on its side in this image when most photos show it pointing downward. The silhouetted treeline at the bottom of the photo is actually the side of my neighbor’s tree, and I rotated the frame to capture the Comet lengthwise.

The position and timing of the comet made photographing this celestial event a challenge. It sat rather low in the sky, and there was a limited window of time to capture it in the early morning, or just after dusk. There are many things I would change if I could photograph Comet NEOWISE again, but I will have to wait until it returns to Earth in 8,786.

  • Total Exposure Time: 7 Minutes
  • Details: 32 x 14-seconds
  • Camera: Canon EOS 60Da
  • Telescope/Lens: Rokinon 135mm F/2
  • Filter: None
  • Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
  • Guide Scope: None
  • Guide Camera: None
  • Acquisition: Remote Shutter Release Cable
  • Integration/Calibration: DeepSkyStacker
  • Processing: Adobe Photoshop 2020

The Planet Mars

  • Object Type: Solar System (Planet)
  • Imaging Style: RGB 
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CMOS 

The Mars Opposition was another amazing celestial event that seemed to further ignite interest in astronomy in 2020. On October 13th, 2020, Mars was at its closest to Earth, and I photographed the planet shortly before this date.

Up until this year, my best photos of Mars were tiny, blurry orange orbs in the sky. I had never captured any interesting details of the planet’s rocky surface before. 

This type of astrophotography requires different acquisition software and a completely different post-processing routine as well. The results were incredible, considering I still have much to learn.

Planet Mars

High magnification planetary imaging is still quite foreign to me, although I have been photographing planets for quite some time. This time, I used a large SCT (Celestron Edge HD 11) and a dedicated astronomy camera that excels in planetary photography.

Celestron Edge HD 11

The most difficult part of the process was painstakingly removing and replacing each RGB filter in front of the camera (and re-focusing each time) to create a full-color image with my monochrome camera. This is exactly why filter wheels exist, I just did not own one at the time. 

The process becomes even more challenging as the planet slowly rotates (some, faster than others), and you realize that the rotation has created a mismatch in terms of surface details from one color to the next. 

NG 6960: The Western Veil Nebula

  • Object Type: Supernova Remnant
  • Imaging Style: Multi-Bandpass Narrowband
  • Camera Type: Dedicated Astronomy Camera (one-shot-color CMOS)

I took several photos with the versatile QHY268C one-shot-color astronomy camera in 2020. It was difficult to choose a favorite, as they all ended up being my best versions of each object to date. 

The Veil Nebula looked especially beautiful when captured with this camera, and I photographed it from every angle possible. The Optolong L-eXtreme filter was made for this target, and I was thrilled with my results using this combo.

The separation between the hydrogen and oxygen gases of this nebula from a light-polluted sky was impressive. If you’ve ever photographed the Veil Nebula using a broad spectrum filter, you’ll know that it can easily get buried underneath a sea of stars.

Western Veil Nebula

The sensor size of the QHY268C is APS-C (crop-sensor), which is quite large in the world of dedicated one-shot-color astronomy cameras. I thoroughly appreciated the field of view this sensor captured, in stunning high-resolution detail.

Although many of my best images of the year were captured using a monochrome camera, one-shot-color cameras continue to be a practical way to complete an image with limited time. In the case of the QHY268C, the image quality doesn’t have to suffer, either.

QHY268C Camera

Messier 31: The Andromeda Galaxy

  • Object Type: Spiral Galaxy
  • Imaging Style: Broadband RGB 
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

I rented an Airbnb under Bortle Scale Class 4 skies to photograph the Andromeda Galaxy in October 2020. This sensational broadband galaxy often looks best when photographed without the use of filters. 

Unlike most other galaxies, Andromeda is very large, and you may be surprised to find out that your current camera and telescope configuration will not fit the entire galaxy in a single frame. 

Andromeda Galaxy

This is one of the many sensational images captured using the Radian Raptor 61 apochromatic refractor telescope. This shows off the massive field of view provided at 275mm focal length. The conditions were far from ideal that night, but I am happy with how the photo turned out nevertheless. 

apochromatic refractor telescope

I used my portable Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro GoTo equatorial mount for this photo and took advantage of the autoguiding feature of the mount. The entire imaging rig was very manageable, and one that I will certainly bring on more adventures away from home in the future. 

As for the processing, I have shared an Andromeda Galaxy image processing tutorial in the past, and those techniques are largely unchanged today. 

The Milky Way 

  • Object Type: Milky Way Photography
  • Imaging Style: Wide-Field Nightscape
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

This photo was taken on a rare adventure away from home in 2020. My wife Ashley and I rented an Airbnb under Bortle Scale Class 3 skies during new moon. The night sky was jaw-droppingly gorgeous from this location.  

The core of the Milky Way was obscured by trees, but there was a large opening to the sky straight overhead on the property. Luckily, the timing was perfect as Cygnus and Cepheus are full of beautiful nebulae regions. 

The Milky Way

For this photo, I used my Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera with a Sigma 24mm F/1.4 lens attached. This is a spectacular lens for astrophotography, particularly nightscape images like this.  Sigma 24mm F/1.4

I compensated for the apparent motion of the night sky using a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i star tracker. This portable rig is so easy to set up and record wide swaths of the night sky. It is hands-down the best Milky Way Photography setup I’ve ever owned.  

I used a different stacking software for this shot, one that is more suitable for landscape astrophotography. Sequator is a simple-to-use stacking software that does a great job of reducing noise in your image to provide an impressive file to process.

  • Total Exposure Time: 14 Minutes
  • Details: 9 x 90-seconds at ISO 3200
  • Camera: Canon EOS Ra
  • Telescope/Lens: Sigma 24mm F/1.4
  • Filter: None
  • Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
  • Guide Scope: None
  • Guide Camera: None
  • Acquisition: Remote Shutter Release Cable
  • Integration/Calibration: Sequator
  • Processing: Adobe Photoshop 2020

NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula

  • Object Type: Planetary Nebula
  • Imaging Style: Multi-Bandpass Narrowband
  • Camera Type: Dedicated Astronomy Camera (one-shot-color CMOS)

The Helix Nebula is one of those deep-sky objects that remind you of why you got into astrophotography. Its iconic shape and bold colors can spark a passion for astronomy and space like few other objects can.

I photographed the Helix Nebula on several occasions in the summer of 2020, yet still didn’t manage to collect enough exposure time to truly do this object justice. This image is not technically amazing by any stretch, but it is still one of the most exciting photos I took all year. 

For this image, I took advantage of the amazing Optolong L-eXtreme filter and QHY268C color camera once more.

Helix Nebula

To achieve these colors, I had to do some selective stretching and color balancing. The outer rim of hydrogen in red/orange is pretty standard, but in my data, I had to pull the greenish/blue area in the center way up. 

The central region of this nebula was much more greenish in the “out-of-the-camera” image. The Optolong L-eXtreme does a great job of separating the important wavelengths of light associated with some of the most popular nebulae in the sky.

Optolong L-eXtreme Filter

This is quite a small target, so plenty of aperture and focal length is needed to really get a good look at the Helix Nebula. 

Final Thoughts

This was hands-down the busiest year of astrophotography I’ve ever had. There were a lot of sleepless nights, numb fingers, and long image processing sessions. My reward? The images in this article, and the countless memorable nights under a clear night sky.

I hope you have gotten some value out of the descriptions of these images, so you can tackle the job yourself. Of course, you do not need to use the exact configuration I did to achieve these results, but at least you will have a benchmark to start from. 

If you have any questions about the astrophotography equipment discussed in this article, please feel free to let me know in the comments. Until next year, clear skies!

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Astrophotography Gear Update

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Despite the excitement of a moving into a new house under Bortle Class 6 skies, I’ve had a rough start to the new year in terms of astrophotography.

The weather has not been friendly, from -30 C nights to consecutive weeks of precipitation and clouds. However, this has given me some time to get my astrophotography gear organized in the garage for my next imaging session. My weather app shows that Saturday has a chance of clear skies for about 2 hours, and I’ll be ready.

In this post, I’ll provide an update as to the astrophotography gear I’ll be using next. My goal is that you find some inspiration in this setup, and to keep you guys up to date with the latest happenings in the AstroBackyard. 

You can also stay completely up-to-date by subscribing to my newsletter: AstroBackyard Newsletter

deep sky astrophotography setup

Astrophotography Gear Update

As you progress in your journey of deep sky astrophotography, I think you’ll find that you gravitate towards equipment that delivers a painless and enjoyable experience. To me, this hobby is about more than just aperture and guiding accuracy. Yes, improving the quality of my images is very important, but its the road to get there that I think I enjoy most.

If you have been paying attention to the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel, it may appear as if I am collecting all of the latest and greatest gear to bring to show-and-tell. The truth is, if I don’t actually get a chance to use and share my experiences with these items, it’s of little value to the amateur astrophotography community.

We’re half way through the month of February, and I’ve got a staggering amount of exciting telescopes, mounts and accessories on loan for review. I’ll share more information about these products over the coming months, as I continue to educate myself about them and their intended purpose.

This post will focus on a deep sky astrophotography rig that I have set up in a semi-permanent fashion. This means that I can quickly set up this rig for some deep sky imaging if the weather provides an opening through the clouds. I do not own a permanent observatory, so everything needs to be carried from my garage to a spot in the yard.

This rig has been commissioned into action for this month based on the current temperatures and weather conditions I’ve been experiencing. Options such as a larger mount or telescope are reserved for more accommodating temperatures and predictable conditions.

Here is each piece of the deep sky astrophotography setup I have put together:

As you can see, there are some familiar faces on this setup. There are also some exciting new additions such as the Meade Deep Sky Imager IV and Xagyl Filter Wheel. I have never captured images using a filter wheel before, so this should be an eye-opening experience. 

Another noticeable change from my last  deep sky setup is the use of a monochrome astronomy camera in place of the OSC (One-Shot-Color) ZWO ASI294MC Pro. The Meade DSI IV uses the same camera sensor found in the incredibly popular ZWO ASI1600MM, the camera behind countless jaw-dropping images from Chuck Ayoub, Dylan O’Donnell, and Diego Colonello.

Let’s take a look at each piece of the rig in detail. 

Telescope Mount

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R has been an absolute pleasure to use since it arrived in the fall of 2018 from Sky-Watcher. This computerized equatorial telescope mount is reliable and capable. The EQ6 model has been refined over the years, a big improvement over my old HEQ5 Pro SynScan in terms of build quality, technology and features.

It is a step up from the HEQ5 in terms of payload capacity as well, offering a commendable 44-pound payload. This is more than enough for most of the telescopes I use for astrophotography, including the Explore Scientific ED 102 CF refractor that’s currently riding on top.

Computerized Telescope Mount

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Computerized Equatorial Telescope Mount.

I have yet to control the EQ6-R via my computer, tasks such as star-alignment and object slewing have all been accomplished using the hand controller thus far. While browsing the Cloudy Nights forum, I discovered an incredibly helpful article by John Upton about controlling SynScan telescope mounts from your computer.

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R I have has the new Version 5 SynScan hand controller with the USB A-Male to B Male (Printer Cable) on the bottom. This does not require the use of the PC Direct Mode when controlling the mount using Astro Photography Tool (APT).

Long story short, I plan to leverage the power of ASCOM and PC control to further automate this setup over the coming months.

Primary Imaging Telescope

Ah, the Explore Scientific ED 102 CF. My reliable 102 is beginning to rival the number of imaging hours I put on the 80mm version of this triplet years ago. 

The ED 102 has a practical focal length and ratio for most of the deep sky targets I am interested in capturing (714mm and F/7). The 102mm diameter gives it enough aperture to give it some extra light gathering power for faint nebulae and galaxies over a smaller refractor, yet it is still very lightweight and easy to manage.

Explore Scientific ED 102 Refractor Telescope

Explore Scientific ED 102 CF Triplet Apochromatic Refractor.

I have taken countless images through the ED 102, but collecting light on deep sky targets in monochrome with a filter wheel is all new territory. 

The reason I have chosen to enlist the old ED 102 instead of the Esprit 100 or William Optics Z73 is the modifications I have made to it. I have fitted a motorized focuser and focus motor controller box to this refractor to help me fine tune my focus on the fly. 

I have photographed many incredible deep sky objects with this telescope over the past 3 years and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a high performance imaging APO for astrophotography.

Primary Imaging Camera

The Meade DSI IV is a rather new dedicated astronomy camera in the amateur astrophotography world, and there is not a lot of information about it yet. Ontario Telescope and Accessories saw an opportunity for me to share information about this camera and dive into monochrome LRGB imaging.

When I learned that the Meade DSI IV mono houses the same sensor as the ASI 1600MM, I immediately agreed to this arrangement. The Meade DSI IV mono marks as a return to the dedicated astronomy camera market by Meade, and I have high hopes for this 4/3″ format 16 Megapixel CMOS sensor.

dedicated astronomy camera

Meade Deep Sky Imager IV Mono CMOS Camera.

The thermo-electric cooler will ensure that my images are virtually noise free when compared to the images I capture on a DSLR. This camera requires an external AC power adapter to run the cooling system, and connects to my PC using a USB 3.0 cable.

I have installed all of the necessary software to run this camera using APT on my imaging laptop, and have tested everything out to make sure the images are recorded properly. I will not be using the included SkyCapture camera control software that was bundled with the camera.

Reducer/Flattener

I have always used a field flattener and reducer with the ES ED102 Triplet to maintain a flat imaging field of stars in my images. The Starfield 0.8X reducer/flattener is a perfect match for this telescope as it was designed for imaging refractors of F/5.5 and above. 

This flattener requires 55mm of back focus, which I have achieved between the camera sensor on the Meade DSI IV and back of the flattener. The required distance was accomplished by using a t-mount adapter ring to thread the camera to the Xagyl filter wheel.

Threaded to the reducer/flattener, is an Optolong L-Pro light pollution filter. This 2-inch filter sits in front of the LRGB filter set residing inside of the electronic filter wheel (EFW). So, each colored filter in the EFW (and the luminance filter), will benefit from a a subtle reduction in the amount of artificial light pollution collected when imaging in the backyard.

This is a bit of an experiment, so I plan on imaging without this filter in the future to compare results.

Guide Scope

The autoguiding telescope is a Starfield 50mm guide scope. This miniature refractor telescope has a focal length of 190mm, and serves as a lightweight solution for autoguiding. I have used this guide scope on a few rigs now, and I enjoy the precision of the helical micro-focuser.

I’ve mounted the guide scope to the cradle ring handle of the ED 102, as there is a convenient slot to mount accessories using  1/4″ screws. This is better position than the default finder scope bracket that I have used in the past. The autoguiding combo now sits directly center over the primary imaging scope.

This mounting position also allows me to use a finder scope with the ED 102 and autoguiding combo attached, which is nice to have for my 3-star alignment procedure. Both the guide scope and finder scope add very little extra weight to this setup.

astrophotography telescope

Starfield 50mm Guide Scope Package with Altair GPCAM2.

Guide Camera

The camera I am using on this setup is my well used Altair Astro GPCAM2 Mono. This camera is sensitive enough to provide accurate autoguiding results using the PHD2 Guiding software, and has proven to be a dependable little camera over the past 2 years. 

Its low profile takes up very little space on the telescope and is virtually weightless. This autoguiding combo is a painless way to add some seriously powerful tracking abilities of your existing telescope mount without adding a heavy telescope or unneeded complexity to your setup.

The camera connects to to my USB hub with a USB A Male to B Male cable to display the live loop images on my PC, while the ST-4 cable communicates subtle commands to the EQ6-R for improved tacking accuracy via PHD. 

autoguiding

The Altair GPCAM2 Mono Guide Camera.

Filter Wheel

This a new experience for me, and I am still getting used to seeing a big black plate in front of the camera. This is a Xagyl 5-position filter wheel with 48mm slots certainly requires some space, but this Xagyl model is only 0.7″ thick. 

I’ve moved the imaging payload around with everything attached and balanced, and it appears as though I won’t have to worry about the filter wheel crashing into anything. I will certainly keep an eye on things, though.

With the included adapter from Xagyl, the filter wheel added an additional 19mm of back focus which I needed to account for when fastening the camera and flattener.

The filter wheel connects to my USB hub with a mini-USB cable, and thankfully does not require another power source and additional cord to my setup. 

electronic filter wheel

Xagyl 5-Position x 2″ Electronic Filter Wheel.

Camera Filters

The team at Optolong has provided me with a complete set of Optolong LRGB filters to use in conjunction with this monochrome camera. This is my first foray into the world of LRGB imaging with a monochrome camera, as I have never owned a filter wheel to automate the process.

These filters are the 2-inch (48mm) round mounted versions that I have carefully threaded into the Xagyl 5-position filter wheel. I have tested the selection of each filter using APT and everything appears to be working flawlessly thus far. 

The images I take through the Optolong filters will showcase not only the potential of the Meade DSI IV mono, but the LRGB filter set as well. Unfortunately, I have nothing to compare them too, but I will produce a full-color deep sky image with this system so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

Optolong LRGB filter set

Motorized Focuser and Controller

I installed a Pegasus Astro Motorized Focuser on my telescope in late 2017. Since then I have enjoyed the added functionality of my ED 102, which comes in really handy when monitoring my gear outside remotely. I used to have to run outside to make a small tweak to my focus, which would often result in a lengthy back and forth process.

Now, I can make fine adjustments to the focus on the fly using a combination of Team Viewer for remote access of my imaging laptop, and the focus control panel in APT. As the temperature changes throughout the night, I often need to tweak my original focus position from the start of my imaging session. 

Motorized focuser

Pegasus Astro Stepper Motor Kit and Dual Focus Motor Controller.

I simply observe any changes to the star sharpness and quality over the last few images, and make any slight adjustments as needed in between frames using the Pegasus Dual Motor Focus Controller (DMFC). APT provides useful HFD and FWHM metrics to measure the focus quality of your stars.

I have not experienced the autofocus feature in APT yet, but plan to investigate this further this year. 

Accessories

My favorite astrophotography accessory of this setup has to be the Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box. If you remember my video from last year, this little blue box allows me to better organize and balance my deep sky imaging rig by connecting almost everything on top of the telescope. 

It powers my primary imaging camera, DFMC, and 2 dew heater straps. This not only cuts down on the number of cables running from my power bar and computer to the telescope, but also allows me to control the output of each port remotely using dedicated software from my PC.

Pocket Power Box

The Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box.

I’ve also mounted an Anker USB 3.0 7-Port hub to the eyepiece tray spreader underneath the EQ6-R mount head. This gives me all of the USB ports I need for my astrophotography cameras and accessories.

I no longer recommend using this USB Hub. It has given me some trouble lately, potentially due to the cold weather. I have since upgraded to a StarTech 7-port USB Hub.

What  I have plugged into the StarTech 7-Port USB Hub:

  1. Meade DSI IV Mono Imaging Camera
  2. Altair GPCAM2 Guide Camera
  3. Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box
  4. Xagyl 5-Position Filter Wheel
  5. QHY PoleMaster Electronic Polar Scope

With all of the cables carefully run down from the telescope into the 7-Port hub underneath, I only need to connect a single USB 3.0 cable to my imaging laptop. I ordered a nice 9-foot A-Male to B Male USB 3.0 cable for this connection to give me some flexibility when setting up. 

The computer I use for deep sky imaging is a portable laptop I purchased on Amazon last summer. This computer has all of the necessary software for astrophotography image acquisition installed such as APT, PHD2 Guiding, and the Pegasus Astro software for the Pocket Power Box (PPB), and DMFC.  

To combat moisture on the objective lens of my primary imaging telescope and guide scope, I use Kendrick dew heater bands that are powered by the PPB.

The Bottom Line

Cable management was a top priority of mine, as the goal is to be able to control this mount remotely from inside the house when it gets too cold to be out all night. I’ve used over 25 Velcro ties to bundle up the cables as neatly as possible to avoid potential cables snags. Some soft tubing to completely conceal this cables might look best, but I’ll monitor how things operate like this first.

The entire imaging payload is balanced perfectly on top of the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R in both axis. I’ve pointed the telescope in almost every possible position, and nothing catches or strikes the tripod. I still do not feel comfortable slewing to a new target remotely (nor do I have the PC connection set up yet), so for now that operation will only take place when I am sitting next to the rig. 

The most important aspect of this rig are the automation and portability qualities. What I mean by that is, I can quickly carry this rig out of the garage to set up and image on a night with a limited amount of clear sky time. Without the counterweights attached, I am able to lift the entire load up and place it in the yard without having to re-assemble it. 

If the telescope were larger and heavier, I wouldn’t be able to do this safely without sacrificing my back or the chance of dropping something. 

Once I set up the tripod and polar align the mount, I can perform a quick 2-star alignment and slew to my target. Once I am locked on and framed properly, I’ll head inside the house to monitor the imaging session using Team Viewer to access my laptop outside.

From here, I can make slight adjustments to focus and take images through each LRGB filter. I expect I’ll need a window of at least 3 clear hours to produce a color deep image using this system.

Now, if I could just decide on a target…

What’s Next?

You may have noticed the absence of some existing new astrophotography gear I have talked about over the past couple of months. Namely the ZWO ASIair WiFi camera control unit and the Celestron CGX-L telescope mount. 

Both of these products will be used in the near future as the weather improves and I can dedicate longer periods of time under the night sky. The plan is to use the ASIair on the Celestron CGX-L, with the new Celestron 8″ RASA attached.

I’ve got a few other new products to share as well, so I hope you stick around to see them over the coming months. Until next time, clear skies.

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