Beginner deep-sky astrophotography with a DSLR for real results!
By Trevor Jones, astrobackyard.com
First off, let me explain my situation. Like many of you, I am a pretty busy guy. I work 9-5 each day and weekends are usually filled with social commitments and family gatherings. This does not leave a lot of time to spend outside in the dark photographing deep sky objects in space!
Add in the fact that the weather needs to cooperate as well, and you’ve got a very limited window in astro-imaging time. Making the most out of this limited window of imaging time is important! The last thing you want is to spend your one CLEAR night in the backyard fighting with your equipment, and ending up empty handed with no images to show for your efforts.
The basic process for capturing deep-sky images is this:
- You shoot multiple, long-exposure photographs with your DSLR through a tracking telescope.
- You then combine the images together to improve the signal to noise ratio.
- Image processing is then needed to bring out the fine details in the object, and correct the levels (brightness) of the image.
The quality of the final image depends on many factors including the level of accuracy your telescope is tracking, focus, and using the best camera settings based on your location.
The best way to learn how to get better is by experiencing the process for yourself. Each night of astrophotography will remind you of the small nuances of your equipment. Eventually you will understand exactly where your camera needs to be for perfect focus, and how to properly balance your gear.
It’s all about paying attention to what works, one step at a time. If you do that enough times, you’ll have a system that takes you to the finish line time and time again.
Let me tell you exactly what has been working for me for the past 6 years, and how I have been able to capture over 50 deep-sky objects with an entry-level, basic DSLR deep-sky imaging setup.
Capturing photos of distant galaxies and nebulae is reserved for those who are able to track the apparent movement of the night sky. This also means using a DSLR to take long exposure photographs through a telescope. Below, I’ll cover a basic deep-sky imaging setup that will provide you with more photos than it will headaches.
I enjoy shooting with Canon DSLRs, specifically in the entry-level Rebel series. My first DSLR was a Canon 450D (Xsi), followed by a Canon 600D (T3i). Modifying your DSLR can improve the amount of certain types of nebulosity in your images, but it is not
necessary right away.
These cameras are widely available in the used market, and provide reliable results for an affordable price. If you want to get started in deep-sky, do yourself a favour and start with a Canon Rebel series DSLR.
[Editor’s note: a Canon Rebel DSLR like this]
I always recommend that beginners start with a wide-field refractor telescope for astrophotography. They have several advantages over larger telescopes of a different design:
- They are lightweight and portable
- They do not require regular collimation
- They offer a forgiving wide field of view
If your budget allows for it, spring for an apochromatic refractor. This type of telescope will produce better photos due to the extra low-dispersion glass used. The stars in your photos will not suffer from chromatic aberration as an achromat would. The shorter focal length of a small refractor will produce beautiful wide field images of deep-sky objects in space. This means that large objects such as the North America nebula and California nebula are within reach. I use a 102mm apochromatic refractor (triplet) that offers an extremely flat field of view. It captures crisp, high contrast images with no chromatic aberration.
[Editor’s note: Pictured is an APO refractor like this]
A German equatorial telescope mount is required for astrophotography. These mounts can be polar aligned to move move in the exact motion of the night sky. This effectively “freezes” the objects in space so that you can photograph them. It is often said that your mount is the single most important part of your astrophotography equipment. To accurately track the stars and deep-sky objects among them, your telescope mount needs to be sturdy and reliable.
Keeping the camera absolutely still with a consistent, fluid motion is essential for astrophotography. It is important to select a mount that is rated to carry the weight of your telescope, and all astrophotography accessories. It is wise to “over mount”, meaning to choose a mount that can easily support a heavier payload than you currently own. This way, the mount will move effortlessly as it tracks the sky.
I use an astrophotography-rated GEM (German Equatorial Mount) that is well-suited for my current imaging equipment. This mount happens to be quite popular, so there are a number of aftermarket mods available. Upgrades for both the software and hardware have been developed to help my SkyWatcher HEQ5 perform better than ever.
[Editor’s note: Pictured is a mount like this]
The Camera, Telescope and Mount are the 3 main pieces of the puzzle, but there are a few extras needed to get everything running smoothly. It’s all about keeping the DSLR and telescope locked onto the deep-sky target for as long as possible.
A guide scope is used for autoguiding the telescope. This is a smaller telescope that rides on top or next to your primary imaging telescope. It’s job is to focus on a star within the field of view, and use it to keep the mount “guiding” on that area of the night sky. This can only be done by using a camera for this purpose only. I use a small Orion 50mm guide scope that adds minimal weight to my overall imaging payload.
The guide camera peers through the guide scope to display an area of the night sky. Then, we’ll use software to choose a star within that area and “lock on” to it. These cameras are usually much smaller than the imaging cameras. They collect “signal” in the form of star light, and provide a looping “live-view” of the sky. I use an old CCD camera made by Meade known as the Meade DSI Pro II. When connected with my 50mm Orion guide scope, the system works very well for my autoguiding needs.
[Editor’s note: a guide camera like this]
To control the camera and set it to capture images throughout the night, a basic Windows laptop is used. This allows you to control things like:
- Automatically shooting the exposures
- Running the autoguiding camera
- Adjusting the frame and focus of your image
- Testing different exposure lengths and ISO settings
It is much more enjoyable to control the camera and review settings using the computer screen rather than on the back of the camera! It allows you to fine-tune the focus and framing of your target with much greater precision.
A field flattener is an adapter that you place between the camera sensor and the telescope, to “flatten” flatten the field of view. Depending on the type of telescope you use, the stars at the edges of your image frame may become elongated or “football” shaped. With the right field flattener adapter, the stars in your images with be round pinpoints right to the edge of the frame.
[Editor’s note: a field flattener for short refractors like this works well with the above telescope recommendation]
Throughout the night, the temperature can drop. When this happens, moisture can collect on the objective of your telescope. This effectively “blurs” your images as the moisture obscures the view through your telescope.
To combat this, astrophotographers often use a dew heater strap around their telescope. This heated velcro-strap gets warm enough to keep your telescope dry, much like the defroster does in your car.
[Editor’s note: dew heaters like this]
It may seem like a lot of equipment to purchase and learn how to use. But with patience, you’ll learn how to best use each item and improve your astrophotography images. Talk to others about what they are using, and view the results they are getting for a better idea of what to expect. I feel that the system explained above is a real winner in terms of hassle-free results.
The other half of the equation is image processing, and the folks here at PhotographingSpace.com can definitely help you out with that! It is a great time to be an amateur astrophotographer, as there are countless astrophotography tutorials available online.
I have put together a few tutorials on YouTube myself, so feel free to check out the AstroBackyard YouTube channel for more.
Until next time, clear skies!
About Trevor Jones
Creator of the AstroBackyard community, Trevor Jones photographs the night sky from his backyard in St. Catharines, Ontario. Trevor is an active member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and provides talks to photography groups about DSLR deep-sky astrophotography.
Trevor is marrying his high-school sweetheart and biggest fan, Ashley in December 2017. Together they make sure their lab/hound mix “Rudy” gets plenty of walks and attention.
See more of Trevor’s work on his website, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+.
I have no idea about telescopes and their respective accesories. Can you provide Amazon link to each items you mention? I tried to Google them and havent found anything. Thanks man!
Regarding the links to some recommended gear, or examples of such a thing, I’ll work on getting you some examples! My apologies for the ridiculously late reply — this comment fell through the cracks.
All the best, and check back soon!
I have a meade lxd55 mount. I know its outdated but for now its all i have to use. It doesn’t have an auto-guide port on it and I was wondering if there is any setup/equipment available that would allow me to use an auto-guide system with my mount? Thx
I can’t speak with certainty, but without an autoguide port on the mount it will be difficult. BUT — what you could do using a guide scope is to manually “guide” it by hand by adjusting the speed/target in real time. It’s very, VERY, time intensive but can work a bit. Use your eyes to watch the guide star and adjust the RA drive speed to keep the guide star centered (and DEC at the same time if you really want a challenge).
It sort of defeats the purpose, but it can help if you get good at it. I used to do it a long time ago with my old dob platform.
Best of luck!
Are there any solid telescopes for less than $650 that will be good enough for deep space astrophotography?
My best advice is to check out the major brands for an 80mm APO or doublet. You can get the telescope for around or under that price, and it’s a great place to start and can produce some great images. Also, there are some inexpensive Newtonian astrographs designed for AP that work great, like those from Orion (and other similar makes).
Note, those are the telescope optics only, and not the mount. So, yes, there are some solid telescopes that can produce very good results for that price range, assuming you have a tracking mount or plan to get one in addition to it.
Does that help answer your question?
The article is nice and professional. But I am not sure how to find the article release date?
The article was published in 2017.
Trevor, catch up with the times man, you’re leaving money on the table… you’ve left out specific links for products. Besides, “A mount, a camera, a tripod” isnt really helpful at all. I already knew that, as most beginners probably do. We need to know what brands/products your referring to. I dont know if it will cost me 100$ or 1000$, so this article is pretty incomplete. Plus, you have people in your comment section asking you for affiliate links to amazon, which is the same as them waving a commission in your face, which you then deny. Thats like someone knocking on your door with money to give you, but your shoo-ing them away.
Put up some affiliate links, help out your readers figure out what they actually need, and then finally pocket some commission.
Thanks for the feedback! Trevor contributed this article to the site as a super-basic “what it takes to get started” article. Believe it or not, there are many levels of beginners, and in my years of working with people in astrophotography, I’ve seen it all.
I’ll use the feedback regarding the links to specific examples of the minimum level of gear we can recommend, that’s a great idea. It will definitely be helpful to an audience of all levels.
Thanks, and clear skies!
How do you feel about using something like RASA 8 instead of the recommended setup from your article for deep sky astrophotography? I get that it’s a single purpose setup. My question is whether you’d expect the end result to be higher or lower quality images?
In my opinion (not sure if the if Trevor agrees), the RASA scopes are pretty great from the results I’ve seen. If you’re looking for fast optics, it’s hard to beat!
BUT — you will need a dedicated astronomy camera with a small sensor, or smaller sensor mirrorless camera (like a micro 4/3) to use properly. The RASA 8 is not designed (according to Celestron) for normal DSLR crop or full-frame cameras, or large CCD sensors. Other than that, used properly, the images from a RASA 8 would be great and pretty easy to obtain.
However, from a beginner standpoint, you still can’t beat the ease of use of a good APO refractor!
Remember, the best telescope is the one you use the most. 🙂
Cheers and clear skies,
How do I know which telescope will be compatible with my canon rebel T7?
Since the T7 is a crop-sensor camera (APS-C, smaller than full-frame), it should work with just about any decent-size telescope that can handle the weight. I highly recommend a smaller ED or APO refractor to start with (as long as it has a 2″ focuser). Of course that is always depending on what you want to do!
You’ll just need to get a t-ring and a t-adapter that is made for Canon EF.
How do I connect a camera to a telescope? I’ve not seen anything in your article about how you connect the two together? Is the telescope end of the mount as specific as the camera mount (ie if camera is a canon only a canon mount will fit a canon) or are the telescope end of the mount universal so will fit any telescope?
Connecting a camera to a telescope is done with an adapter to adapt the telescope focus tube to a mount that suits the camera you are using. A “t-adapter” is used to fit into the focuser tube and a “t-ring” is used to fit the camera mount.
For example, for a Canon EOS DSLR camera, you would get an EF-mount (Canon EOS) t-ring. The t-adapter is universal and will fit any t-ring. For example, something like this, on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3o03TUO
Dedicated astronomy cameras will have different mountings to directly attach to the t-adapter or even directly to the telescope focus tube (sometimes).
I hope that helps!
I notice that the ‘basic’ setup requires a mid to high level $3,000 mount. There are much cheaper mounts available that will do the same; just saying…
The main thing that is “required,” (using the term loosely), for the best results, is a GEM mount. There are inexpensive mounts. Trevor specifies the mount that he used at the time of writing, but it is not *required* to have his same mount.
Indeed there is a large spread of inexpensive up to very expensive EQ mounts out there.
My apologies for the last comment: a site that considers a $2200 telescope to be ‘cheap’ means I am in a place where people make waaay too much money
I started with an “inexpensive” $500 USD ED APO refractor telescope, it worked great for me. I even still have it.
Again, the prices range all over the place. While I agree Trevor’s choice of words for the 102mm APO can seem odd, note that there are telescopes available that cost many times that, so, it’s a relative statement. (I think I will update the article to remove “inexpensive”, actually).
That being said, DSO astrophotography can be somewhat “inexpensive” if you want it to be (which still might be expensive for some, depending on income!), and it’s also known to be a money pit if you let it go that way.
Let me know if I can be of any other assistance.
Hi I’m new to astronomy .
I have zero skills in how to use telescopes . I’m passionate about understanding which camera I can buy to see deep sky object inside my camera zooming screen before clicking on to capture the picture .
Please suggest specific fine information, do not provided or mention multiple options. Assume I can spend $500+ Costs.
Give me specific information about all different types of lenses from level 0 to higher & detailed examples what human eyes see on camera screen if we use each one.