Are you thinking deep-sky astrophotography is where you want to point your camera? Maybe you are ready to start attaching your DSLR or smartphone or point-and-shoot camera to your telescope to get those Hubble-like images of the cosmos! Slow down a bit, and remember to do your homework – because imaging deep-space objects is a definite step up in the learning curve, and it has its frustrations. Luckily, we’ve all been through it, so we can help!
You’re going to make mistakes, a lot of them. But, only if you’re human. So, if you’re a robot, you can stop reading now.
Humans: these “expensive” mistakes you’ll make are not only costly on your pocket, they also rob you of precious imaging time! But don’t despair because making mistakes is all part of the learning process, and some things are best learned by screwing up.
To help you save a little time (and money), we’ve come up with a list of five of the most common mistakes we or others have made on the road as beginner astrophotographers, so maybe you won’t have to!
Investing money instead of time
The telescope doesn’t make the photo, the photographer does.
Spending your hard-earned cash on the best optics and camera gear will never guarantee you great photos. Ever. In fact, nothing will guarantee that! We’ve seen (and created) some AMAZING images created with very modest equipment! Most often, the more the mount and telescope costs, the more skills it requires to use properly.
Without the due diligence of learning proper telescope and mount setup like mastering polar alignment, and adequate post-processing techniques, you won’t be successful. As hard as it may be to keep yourself from buying ‘just that one last thing’ – know that the time you put into this hobby is a far better investment than your cash.
Now, we’re not saying you can produce images with the same quality as you can with high-end optics, but just know you need the skills to create good images with ANY optics, regardless of sticker price. Throwing money at the problem does absolutely no good in astrophotography!
For example, the best mount and telescope combo are most often completely worthless without mastering the following:
- Operating and setting up the mount and telescope
- Polar alignment
- Collimation of the optics (in some cases)
- Learning the night sky – successfully finding the celestial objects you want to photograph
- Camera connection and operation – and software if you’re shooting tethered, as you should be
- Image acquisition – which settings work best for your location, equipment, and target
- Post-processing skills – you must learn to make what mostly looks like nothing…look like something amazing!
What don’t you need when starting out? Consider the following only when you have a handle on all the steps above, and face the real truth – owning more equipment will not make you a better astrophotographer, just a poorer one!
- Filters – light pollution, narrowband, etc.
- Guide camera and guide scope – Yes, guiding will improve your images greatly, but don’t look towards guiding as the solution until you are able to polar align your mount successfully!
- Lots of eyepieces – you’ll rarely use them if you’re just looking to create images
- Dew shields and dew heaters – Depending on your location, you may not need anything for dew control
Things you should spend money on
- A good mount, it’s important to think ahead. (read mistake #3 below – buying the wrong mount!)
- An adequate telescope / lens for your area of imaging interest. Again – this does not have to be top of the line.
Things you can get for free
- Acquisition software for camera control
- Support and advice from other astrophotographers – we’re surprisingly helpful for being sleep deprived!
- Stacking and post processing software
This goes hand-in-hand with being informed (which is your time invested). You must accept the fact that right off the bat you’re going to be spending a lot of hours outside without seeing any results. Any. But, it will still be fun – that’s the learning curve.
Adding to that, the first images you capture will not exactly (or at all…) resemble the awe-inspiring photos that got you into this hobby in the first place. Do not be deterred by this! Even the great Astro Masters started somewhere. We all did!
Your first images may well like like a blob with some fuzzy white dots around it. But the beauty of that is they are YOURS – you took that photograph and you know the time it required to get, and hopefully you’re now learning there is nowhere to go but up.
Buying the wrong gear
If you’re interested in capturing nice round stars (you are…), your choice of mount is of the greatest importance. The telescope mount is actually quite a bit more important than your choice of telescope or lens.
There are a variety of telescope mounts available (alt/az, fork, GEM, etc.), but the German Equatorial Mount (GEM, or equatorial mount) is best suited for astrophotography. GEMs combat the earth’s rotation in the simplest manner, to keep a telescope fixed on an object in the sky. This makes GEMs capable of tracking the object through the course of your imaging session with the greatest ease and accuracy, without distortion.
This is where you really want to think ahead – don’t get the smallest and cheapest mount. Get the best you can afford. You’ll thank us later!
You don’t even need a telescope. Seriously. We shoot all the time with our telescope mount and a standard DSLR camera lens, because some deep-space objects are just that big.
However, if you want to capture some great images of farther-away and smaller objects, you’ll need a telescope. So, think about what you like, what you want to photograph. There aren’t many telescopes that are a jack-of-all trades, and those are usually very expensive. So many astrophotographers rather have an assortment! Some scopes favor planets and the moon, some favor nebulae and galaxies. Do your research!
Don’t jump into an expensive astronomical CCD camera right away. Again, you need to define what your goal is. Not to mention they are harder to use. We highly recommend starting out with a decent DSLR that isn’t just for astrophotography – a crop-sensor camera is oftentimes best for telescopic use because of vignetting issues. If you already have one, just buy a mount and don’t even bother with anything else right away! And yes – you can align your mount with just a DSLR and lens just fine, we do it all the time.
Poor planning for a shoot
This robs you of time, a lot of it! If you’re making special effort to get out of town to escape light pollution, this is especially of importance! So many times we’ve gotten to our location, or even have the telescope all set up, great polar alignment, everything dialed in…then spend WAY too much precious time trying to figure out WHAT we’re going to image, and sometimes not being able to finish a target before it’s not dark anymore!
The best way to avoid this is to know the sky where you live. Remember those steps above we said you needed to master? This is why that’s important. Knowing your sky will help you know what targets you will be able to successfully shoot at what times of year.
Go out with a plan – and since we can look into the future with our special planetarium applications like Stellarium, PhotoPills, SkyGuide, Sky Safari, etc., the cloudy nights never have to be boring.
Setting up in the dark
Last, and least wordy – don’t wait until dark to set up your gear. At least at first. It’s really annoying, and slow, and just don’t do it.
The first many times you use your telescope and mount, you’re not going remember where this or that cable goes, and what the balance points are, and were the focus point for the camera was, and then you drop something and lose it because it’s dark and waste time with your torch (I can say torch because I live in SA now!) trying to find it.
Not to mention, setting up your scope will take even the best of us the good part of an hour, regardless of the amount of light. So wasting the darkness is just a bad idea!