What equipment do I need for astrophotography? (Advanced)

Thanks for taking the time to help. I am interested in developing a hobby in an amateur backyard observatory. I have very little knowledge in telescopes and I am interested in astrophotography. My location in NJ is ideal in that we live in the middle of the woods and ambient light is non-existent. As a beginner, which type of telescope would yield the better results?

Just a bit of background.... I always wanted to be a ham radio operator. I was put off for years with "cb radio". In 1984 I obtained by advanced class operators license. In 1970, I had an interest in photography. A few years later I was processing my own color prints in the basement. I REALLY wanna look into the sky !

It's great to hear from someone just starting out in amateur astronomy! To do good astrophotography, you'll need a good manual camera with a bulb setting; I recommend a Canon as Nikon has some issues with their noise reduction algorithms deleting stars. You'll also need a telescope with a motor-drive and photographic attachments. Generally, you remove the factory lens from your camera, and attach the body of the camera directly to the telescope, which becomes your new lens. To do this you will likely need what's known as a T-ring, which is just the connector. The motor drive on the telescope accounts for the Earth's rotation, thus keeping the object stationary on the CCD while you are exposing.

Generally, the larger the telescope the fainter the objects you can see, and the more expensive it becomes. Depending on which objects you're most interested in photographing, you may want to consider the telescope's f/ratio as well. Large nebulae and galaxies require a wider field of view than planets, for instance.

You can go shopping for telescopes at the web sites for Meade and Celestron, the two most popular makers of amateur telescopes. Meade even has a gallery of astrophotography taken using Meade instruments.

You might consider a few accessories for your astrophotography as well. I always recommend getting a device called a "telrad" for amateur telescopes. It projects a cross-hair on the sky, allowing you to see exactly where the scope is pointed. If you're planning on very long exposure photography (more than 5-10 minute exposures), you will also need an "off-axis guider," which allows you to manually guide the telescope as the camera is exposing. (The motor-drive is generally not going to be accurate enough to guide precisely for more than 5-10 minutes).

If getting a telescope sounds like too much of a cost/hassle. Then it is possible to get good results with just a tripod and a camera. Generally this will limit you to wide field shots of star clusters, nebulae and some nearby galaxies. It is possible to get tripod top sky tracker motors, without these you will be limited to exposures that are less than about 30 seconds. Even so you can still take deep images by exposing many frames and then aligning and combining them, although this will require software. Having said this, you can also make some impressive astrophotography images by intentionally not tracking the stars, leading to star trails. For star trails you will typically want exposures that last a few hours, so a bulb setting is essential.

Last updated by Mike Jones Feb. 10th 2016

About the Author

Dave Kornreich

Dave was the founder of Ask an Astronomer. He got his PhD from Cornell in 2001 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Physical Science at Humboldt State University in California. There he runs his own version of Ask the Astronomer. He also helps us out with the odd cosmology question.

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