No telescope? No problem! You can still shoot deep-sky astrophotography images like a pro.
What can you shoot without a telescope?
The short answer: almost anything! Remember, a telescope is just a big (huge) lens. When shooting astrophotography without a telescope, you are only limited by the magnification of the lens you are choosing. Luckily, the number of available targets worth shooting with just a standard camera lens is huge!
1 Gather your equipment
Your normal DSLR will do just fine! It always helps to have one that has been IR modified (replacement or removal of the stock standard infrared filter) so you can capture that beautiful red hydrogen alpha (Ha) that is the stuff of most emission nebulae. Regardless — this is NOT a necessity.
Another choice, if you want to up your game, is an astronomical cooled CCD camera. These are definitely the stuff of the best astrophotography photographs out there, but it’s big step from the standard DSLR methods.
This is where it’s easy — almost any good-quality lens will do. You are going to be able to shoot very long exposures, only limited by the sky conditions and your mount’s sky-tracking quality, so even a quality f/4 lens will do just fine. Fast is nice, but not required.
Tracked wide-field images can look amazing with lenses from the 24-50mm range. And a zoom lens, anywhere from 100mm-300mm can work wonderfully with nebula and even large galaxies, like Andromeda (M31).
Read our tutorial on how to use the free application Stellarium to choose the perfect focal length for your target!
Some of the best advice for a beginner astrophotographer is to buy the best mount your money can buy, and get the telescope later.
That being said, if you plan to travel a lot and need something small, or if you only have aspirations for DSLR and camera lens astrophotography, then a smaller budget mount can work wonders for you.
For larger mounts, we can easily recommend the Celestron Advanced VX mount. It will hold far more than just a camera, so when you get a telescope, chances are it will handle it just fine. When you’re ready to upgrade and add the telescope, check the payload capacity of your mount to ensure it can accommodate it.
Some of the smaller recommended mounts that can be used on standard camera tripods are the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer, iOptron SkyTracker, Vixen Polarie, and the Astrotrac. These are great for travel portability and quick setup.
Once properly polar aligned, they can all offer several minutes of accurate tracking to keep the stars in your images round. Usually exposure times of around 3-5 minutes are possible depending on the weight of your camera and lens, and setup. Most often this is more than enough time to capture your target.
As with any astrophotography equipment, you’ll need a stable, heavy-duty tripod. You are going to be shooting very long exposures, so the slightest movement will ruin the photo and cost you minutes of time. Luckily, most of the smaller mounts like the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer, iOptron SkyTracker, Vixen Polarie, and the Astrotrac can be used on conventional camera tripods. Most of the larger mounts like the Celestron Advanced VX will come with their own tripods.
The keys to getting it right are stable legs, heavy weight, and keeping it low. Try and keep the tripod legs as short as you can cope with to minimize risk. If the tripod doesn’t have a lot of weight by itself, add weight by hanging something heavy from it. One of the things I often do when traveling is hang my camera bag with rocks in it from the center column of the tripod. Heavy is stable!
Optional: autoguiding (advanced)
Depending on the mount you choose, you may be able to also set up an autoguiding interface for increased quality and longer exposures.
This requires a special input port on the mount and often, a connection to a computer to control and correct your mount. The autoguiding camera and lens (telescope) will add to the overall weight of your system, so you’ll need a beefier mount to keep things on track. Once a successful autoguiding system is in place, however, the ability to capture far longer exposures is enabled. 10-30 minute exposures (or more) are possible using systems like these.
Most often, an autoguiding system is best utilized for use with cooled CCD cameras, as DSLR cameras get too noisy as the sensor heats up after a few minutes.
Some of the following will be required depending on what you choose for a setup:
- Remote shutter release cable
- Computer (for autoguiding and/or tethered image capture)
- Power source for the mount
- Extra camera batteries or external camera power (recommended)
2 Pick a target
Not unlike using a telescope, choosing your target is going to be highly focal length dependent. How long your lens is and what you can fit with good detail in the field of view will dictate what your best choices for targets will be.
A large galaxy like Andromeda (M31), around 8 full moons in apparent width, will look great in a 200mm lens. Pleiades (M45), the Carina nebula, and other large objects also work well at 200mm with a full-frame camera, and even better with a crop frame DSLR.
A great way to pick a target that fits perfectly within the field of view of your lens and camera choice is with the free application, Stellarium. Read our tutorial about how to use it!
Luckily you’ll have a lot of options with a typical telephoto zoom lens. For example, the images above were shot at 200mm on a Canon 550D (modded), the images below were shot at 135mm on a 70-200mm lens and a full-frame Canon 5D.
Even shooting wide at 24-50mm can give you some beautiful results!
3 Set up your mount and tripod
Mount setup is the key to getting round stars and sharp details for each photo. Take the time to do it properly!
Balance and leveling
For accurate tracking of the stars, the tripod and mount will need to be as perfectly level as possible. Many will have a built-in spirit level to help, but remember to not always trust them without a sanity check.
Some mounts don’t have a counterweight system, like the iOptron SkyTracker and the Vixen Polarie. If this is the case then you obviously don’t have to worry about it.
For the mounts that can handle more weight, proper balance is important for the motor of the tracking mount to run smoothly and move with the stars accurately. Be sure to set the counterweight on the RA axis correctly so that the camera moves easily in both rotational directions. It is sometimes necessary to slightly set the weight balance a bit heavier in the up direction of the motion to keep even stress on the gears, but not likely for lightweight camera applications like this.
Ensuring that the polar axis of the mount is as accurate as possible, it’s a make-or-break step to success with a tracking mount. No matter how good your balance, motor speed, and mount quality is, if you don’t take time to polar align, you’ll get egg-shaped stars at best, or ugly trails at worst. Once polar aligned, you’re going to trust that your mount is pointed at the celestial pole so when you turn on the motor(s), it will track as perfectly as possible to maximize your exposure length.
If you’re using an autoguiding system, check out this tutorial detailing how to easily polar align with PhD!
4 Capture the data
At a minimum, you’ll need to use a remote shutter release cable with your camera in bulb mode. For best results, attach the camera to a computer (or mobile device) for remote shooting and camera control.
Now that you are able to shoot for longer duration without the stars trailing, you can dial the ISO speed down to keep the noise to a minimum. Anywhere from 400-800 is just fine, and a good starting point.
Depending on the quality of the lens you are using, it is always recommended to stop it down bit from wide open. This will make your stars sharper, and the image will be of higher quality in general.
For example, if you don’t like what you see from a long exposure (zoom in all the way!) at f/2.8, drop it down to f/3.2 or even f/4. Testing your lens is the best way to decide what it can handle!
If you’re properly balanced and polar aligned, and not using an autoguider, you should expect to be able to achieve photos with round stars at up to 5 minutes with wider lenses (24-50mm) and around 2-3 minutes with longer focal lengths (100-300mm). Your mileage may vary with this, depending on your imaging setup and tracking quality, so again some testing will be required!
Shoot raw, as always!
Set the color temperature the same as you would for wide-field astrophotography, but remember it can be changed in post when you shoot raw. See this article for tips on choosing the right white balance.
Turn off long-exposure noise reduction and other in-camera noise helper functions.
Disable all image stabilization features of your lens.
How many frames to shoot
The more the better! Capture as many light frames (images of your target) as possible if things are going right. However, in addition to the light frames, you’ll need to save some time to shoot darks — so while the ambient temperature is still stable, don’t forget to set aside time for around 25-30 dark frames at the end of your imaging session. Flat frames and bias frames can be made later, after you’ve gotten some sleep, if you’re careful.
Don’t think calibration frames matter? Read this article!
5 Process your images
Once your data is captured, it is processed using the exact same method used for telescopic deep-sky images.
When using a DSLR and standard lens for deep-sky imaging, you are still much better off to create calibration frames for the best results. Shooting darks, flats, and bias will exceptionally increase the quality of your final image. See our tutorial on how to easily shoot flat frames!
You’ll need to combine your captured images using a specialized computer program. This drastically increases the overall quality by reducing noise and boosting faint details.
Not sure if stacking is worth it? See this article! If you want to give it a try and practice on some my data, I’ve got that waiting for you as well, right here.
I use the iOptron Star Tracker on a MeFoto tripod and have had good luck with it so far, as you have said polar alignment is critical…with a good polar alignment I have had excellent results with 2 minute exposures up to 200mm, the stars are still pinpoint so im sure you could do longer exposures if needed. Anyone on a budget might want to go this route, I got the iOptron for $299 and the tripod with a good ball head for $189. … I also found that a good ball head is a must especially when shooting nearly vertical….hope this is of help to someone….clear sky’s!!!!
Thanks for the first-hand advice and experience, Rodney!
No problem, I hope it helps someone get into astrophotography, and thanks to you Cory for your many informative articles..clear sky’s!
Hi, this product iOptron 3305A SkyTracker Ball Head http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00OTZWJWY/ref=nav_timeline_asin?ie=UTF8&psc=1 has an internal motor who track the desire celestial object?
No, this is just a ball head that iOptron sells, the product that actually tracks for you is the ioptron 3302B or 3302W
If it is the iOptron tracker you want, check this out: http://amzn.to/1YYhrO0
Another +1 for the iOptron Skytracker. I’m out with it tonight should it stay clear! Nice article, Cory.
Thank you for the wonderful article!
Will you be posting a review of your experience with the Star Adventurer. It is the first time that I see someone using guiding with this mount. I am sure there are lots of people interested in hearing about your experience!
Thanks for your comments! Yes, I will be doing a review of the Star Adventurer, as I found it to work very well. I just have a little more testing to do!
That is awesome! I can’t wait to read about your experience!
Hi Cory. I’m thinking about deep sky photography witch some telephoto lens and I’m wondering about sigma 70-300mm f4-5.6 AOP it’s quite chip lens but are you think it’s gona be enough to have some decent photos? As far as I know 80mm scope with f/6 has about 480mm f lenght and most of the people dissuade scopes smaller then 80mm on account of poor observation quality so 300mm lens won’t be too small to catch some nebulas or bigger galaxies as Andromeda? Sorry if question sounds ridiculous but I’m just a begginier. Thanks
There’s no such thing as a bad question!
300mm at f/4 will be just fine for some decent AP. You will need to make sure and use a proper tracking mount, however. 300mm is definitely enough to get Andromeda! Best of luck.
I have a Star Adventurer and may I know how do you mount the auto guider to the bracket? Did u have to use a ball head to do that? I’m thinking that this might not be a firm attachment and therefore not be able to guide well?
I’ve used a strong ball head mount in the past, yes. It works but it’s not perfect. A better solution would be to attach the guide scope right next to the camera, or even ON the camera, if you can. However, it has definitely worked for us with a ball head. Just make sure everything is EXTREMELY tight and you don’t have any cable tension issues.
See here for a photo of what I did one time: https://www.instagram.com/p/BE_0NDqnGEs/
Thanks for sharing Cory!
I have ordered the new mount iOptron Skyguider Pro, and planning to get Nikon D750 and Tamron 150-600mm F/5-6.3 (the new generation). my interests are only about deep sky AP
what do you think about this combination?
I can’t say I’ve used the iOptron Skyguider Pro yet, but I’ve heard good things. The only thing I’d worry about is weight and tracking accuracy, but I would bet you’d be able to get away with long enough exposures of a minute or two if your balance and polar alignment is good enough. As far as deep-sky with that lens, 600mm at f/6.3 is OK, but you probably won’t be able to track accurately enough with a small mount at that focal length. 200mm-400mm would most likely be your max focal length for a good long-exposure tracked image.
Best of luck!
I just started my astrophotography with a canon dslr, tokina 11-16mm, canon 50 mm and canon 70 200 mm. so far i was taking milky way images with 11 – 16 mm and some faint shots of orion nebula and andromeda with 50 mm. now i am planning to get a tracker. I dont want a telescope now so I prefer a portable tracker. which one you can suggest? ioptron or start watcher star adventurer? I saw some instructional videos in youtube, my doubts are
1. After polar alignment, the tracker should always face to the polaris. correct? we cannot touch the tripod or tracker till the session is complete?
2. some videos say we should set the latitude in the tracker. how we find the latitude?
3.Can we remove the infrared filter on the camera sensor by ourselves? or is it a professional’s job?
Thanks in advance
As far as which tracker to choose, the iOptron and Sky Watcher are both great mounts. We personally use a Sky Watcher Star Adventurer with good results.
To specifically answer your questions:
1. Yes, once you have aligned the tracker towards the celestial pole, you cannot move it or it will need to be aligned again. That is true for any tracking mount, big or small.
2. For the first rough alignment, you need to set the latitude of the mount to the latitude from where you are shooting. The best way to find that out is with a GPS system, phone compass app, or a mapping application such as Google Maps.
3. If you aren’t experienced at removing the IR filter on a DSLR, my advice is to have it done by a professional. The IR filter will need to be replaced with one that will allow the hydrogen alpha frequency of light through.
Best of luck!
How can you get solid deep space photographs with something as wide as 24mm? Would you not have to crop so much that it would ruin the quality? Am I missing something?
Targets requiring high-magnification would not be good with a 24mm lens, you are obviously limited as to what objects will work nicely with an FOV allowed by that. However, tracked and stacked images of the Milky Way core and wide-field areas are amazing!
I too am a newbie when it comes to astrophotography but when I found your blog I immediately signed up (and even sent you enough for a pint or two, cheers!). I have a Canon t3i with a 18-55mm lens, an intervolometer, a decent tripod with a ball head and finally, an I Optron Sky Guider which I will start using this week. I will soon be purchasing a telephoto lens and will be having the Canon converted to full spectrum. Eventually I will be purchasing a 102-135mm refractor once I am comfortable with what I have now. I don’t want to make that learning curve too steep. Could you please refer me to a blog of yours that deals with full spectrum conversions and with dark, white, bias and flat frames, how to obtain them, can they be stored and used on other sessions etc? Thanks and keep up the excellent work.
Thanks for the kind words (and the donation)! I don’t have an exact blog post (yet) that perfectly matches your question, but I’ll quickly address it here.
Your camera will deal with calibration frames the same as if it were a stock, unmodified DSLR. However, I don’t necessarily recommend a full-spectrum mod unless you plan to insert a proper IR-block filter for astrophotography.
Lights should be shot the same way. Shoot darks the same (25-30, same ISO as lights, and within 5deg of the ambient temp at time of lights), bias the same (~100 or so, lens cap on, same ISO as lights, at your camera’s fastest shutter speed), and flats are easily attainable using this method: https://www.photographingspace.com/how-to-create-dslr-and-ccd-flat-frames-for-astrophotography/
Darks and bias frames (and sometimes even flats), can be kept in a “library” and are good for a while (a period of months?). So if you commonly shoot at a specific ISO and temperature (or when the sensor is a specific temperature), they can be reused for another night. The only time flats can be reused are when you keep the lens/telescope connected or at the exact same configuration, and the focal length the same. Even then, I wouldn’t really recommend reusing flats because things like dust motes change night to night.
Hope that helps, and clear skies!
I cant afford a tracking mount. Any ideas for shooting nebula or am I way out of my depth ?
You don’t ALWAYS need a tracking mount! If you shoot with a bit wider field of view, and higher gain (ISO) and wide-open aperture (low f-ratio), you can often get away with shooting a ton of much shorter exposures using a static tripod and stacking them in post-processing. I’m talking about shooting something like HUNDREDS of ISO3200-ISO6400 exposures at maybe 2 seconds each (or 5-10 seconds, depending on the focal length you’re using).
Good article – very helpful to a newbie.
Am retired and Caribbean based. Can’t travel because of Covid but a serious photographer for may years with a good Sony A7 outfit and love large sharp prints. I have Sony zooms so could cover a wide range of subjects from 16mm (Milky Way) to 400mm (planets?).
Would love to get into Astro and I’m fortunate that the budget is good but the learning curve on what gear to buy looks very steep.
Most examples I’ve found online looks great at screen definition but very fuzzy at large print definition. So maybe I’m expecting too much.
Seems my A7RIV is NOT good with noise at long exposures or high ISO so feel a good equatorial mount on a very solid tripod to open multiple short exposures is the first step. Seeing some US stores offer deals with high end telescopes on GEM’s I’m thinking to maybe order a telescope as well.
Big question I know, but if YOU were starting afresh with cost not a problem what gear would you go for?
You live in South Africa? This is so exciting, it’ll be great to meet you some day. You are so inspiring to me. Furthermore thanks for the great post!
I’m happy to help inspire you on your astro journey!
Hi, I am just about to start astrophotography using my LUMIX G85 MFT camera with 14mm LUMIX wide field lenses….any advice for using a MFT.
The only difference with an MFT cam is the sensor size, so all the same rules will apply. 14mm is pretty wide, but on the MFT sensor it would be a great wide angle lens to start with.
I like the star adventurer and have used it for 6 months. I dont like the rotary dial since it moves too easily and keeps turning on in my bag and wears out the batteries. They need to make it so that the dial clicks more tightly. I have to keep taking out the batteries when not in use and then put them back in when I’m out in the field. The batteries are very difficult to remove since the spacing is tight for them and it hurts your fingers. Also the illuminator has no on off switch and you never know if it is really off. I hope they improve the designs of these.
Agreed, the design could be improved upon. I’ve actually never used batteries with mine, but rather a small USB power block (the same kind you use to charge portable devices), and it works great.
Another great article, I know that I need to turn of vr/is on the lens. What about the new mirrorles cameras with build in stabilisation..
All image stabilization should be disabled, whether it be lens IS/VR or in-body image stabilizers. You don’t want the camera or the lens trying to stabilize something that is already stable on a tripod.
Really good advice on a fascinating and most interesting topic available to humanity! Much appreciated and grateful! I have decided to concentrate on scientific issues outside of Planet Earth, which hold the complex mystery of all things alive! Your tips on Astrophotography are priceless!
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