By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Should you jump into this rabbit hole?
So, you bought yourself a nice little telescope and observed a few celestial bodies with your own eyes. You were fascinated but also a little disappointed at what you saw. After all, all these gorgeous photos you see on the Internet of the Orion nebula, Jupiter, or even distant galaxies are sharp, bright and full color. What you see at your eyepiece is fuzzy, faint and gray. What the heck is going on?
The explanation is quite simple: Your brain can detect photons (light) through the lens of your eyes but it can’t store them. Visual observation is like water through a straw, it just comes in one end and drips out the other, and once it has left the pipe it is essentially gone forever. Conversely, adding a camera to your scope is like adding a bucket to the end of the straw. You can collect the drops and it takes on a completely different form. It now has volume, weight and texture. In this article we will add the bucket.
The first thing I want to say about this is that if you make the decision to get into astrophotography you are essentially taking the red pill – “you’ll stay in Wonderland, and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” —The Matrix.
The truth is, astrophotography is hard. You are attempting to capture individual photons from moving targets. In many cases those photons have been traveling for millions of years. There is noise everywhere, sky glow (light pollution), sensor noise, optical distortions, and just plain old weather conditions that have to be understood and corrected for.
It is also not cheap. Although you can get started with just a telescope and a smart phone, you will quickly want to upgrade. My imaging setup is now around the $10,000 mark, and I am nowhere near a top-shelf amateur astrophotographer. My system consists of a large telescope, a computerized tracking mount, an automatic focuser, a 7-position automatic filter wheel, a coma corrector, and a purpose-made and cooled CCD camera. I also use a second telescope with a second camera feed into a laptop computer to guide my system while it is taking photos. The software alone was over $1000. Even with all that I am still chasing the dragon because I know I can do better.
Let’s start with the simplest (and cheapest) method: direct photography. This is simply pointing your camera at a target, say the moon, and snapping a snapshot. You should use a camera that you have control over things like shutter speed, ISO and gain. You should also mount your camera on a tripod to steady it and use a remote shutter release so you don’t have to touch the camera to take the picture. I looked on Amazon and found this setup for only $37! A universal smartphone adapter, an inexpensive tripod, and a remote shutter release will allow you to aim, focus and shoot simple astrophotographs.
The next step up is called eyepiece projection or afocal photography. In this setup you use a telescope with an eyepiece installed and instead of looking through, you point a camera at the eyepiece. You will obviously need a mounted telescope for this method but you will also need a way to attach your camera to the eyepiece. I found this simple universal smartphone eyepiece adapter gadget on Amazon to accomplish this task. You will still need the remote shutter release above but now you will be able to take closeup and detailed photos of craters on the moon and the bands of Jupiter. Depending on your telescope and mount cost you can do this type of photography for around $200.
The next level is prime focus astrophotography. Using this method you will need all the stuff used in the eyepiece projection method plus a tracking telescope mount, a DSLR or 35mm camera with a removable lens, an eyepiece adapter, and a “T” ring. The “T” ring is camera specific and the one I found on Amazon is for a Canon 35 mm camera. Make sure you find the one specifically for your camera make and model. Using this method you can start to get into some serious astrophotography but you are also starting to get into some serious money.
The cheapest tracking mount is going to run you about $500, a DSLR body will be at least $300 (new, but you can buy an older used one), and with the other items in this setup you’re looking at around $1000. The upside is now you can leave the shutter on your camera open much longer and collect more of those elusive photons. A non-guided setup like this can normally easily take 30-second exposures. I have a friend that, with very careful alignment, can push that to a couple of minutes. This gets you into a whole new class of much dimmer objects to photograph. Things like the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy and globular clusters are now well within your reach.
From this level it is all about adding doo-dads to improve some aspect of your imaging sessions. A better tracking mount ($1500–$10,000), auto-guiding (several hundred to several thousand dollars), temperature compensating auto-focus ($100–$1500), a purpose-built astrophotography camera ($200–$10,000 or more).
You’ll also notice that I didn’t mention any specific telescopes here. A decent instrument can be bought for a couple hundred bucks, but you can also easily get into thousands of dollars for the scope.
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)
Hi Chris, I have enjoyed your articles here and also follow your Facebook page. You take some amazing photos. This article is very timely for me as I have been considering getting into astrophotography, but worried about the “rabbit hole”, haha. I really need to seriously think if this is something I should get started with as I really wouldn’t have a large budget to work with.
I haven’t purchased a telescope yet so that would be the first step. But I’m wondering if it is worthwhile to get a telescope unless one is going to do photography – for the reason you describe in the first paragraph. After seeing the gorgeous photos of space objects it is disappointing what the eye can see through the telescope. I went to Kitt Peak Observatory a couple months ago. Looking through one of their large telescopes was even disappointing.
I could probably do the basic prime focus setup that you describe. The Whirlpool Galaxy sample photo is nice. But I wonder if it is worth spending a few thousand bucks to take those photos or should I just enjoy the ones others post online ?.
The other consideration is storage and transport. I travel full time in a small travel trailer. I would need to determine how I would store a telescope so it wouldn’t get damaged. I travel on some pretty bumpy roads. I don’t know if that could cause any damage to the lenses etc in the telescope.
Debra, I am glad you enjoyed the article and can tell you that if you are into technical challenges with a steep learning curve then you will love astrophotography. There are millions (not an exaggeration) of beautiful targets out there and it is such a gratifying experience to capture one that I can’t really express the feeling you can get from it. My advice would be to start slow. Make sure you get a German Equatorial Mount (GEM) for whatever telescope you purchase. Something like this one I found on Amazon would be a good starter mount.
Also I recommend a short focal length telescope to starT with, something in the 300-600 mm range. This will give you a wider field of view (less magnification) and let you observe and photograph some of the larger and brighter objects like andromeda or orion all in a single frame. You should also look for a “fast” telescope F4-F6. I found this one on Amazon that will give you satisfying planetary views and also allow for deepsky viewing/photography.
I have never used either of these devices so please don’t take this as an endorsement of quality but just as an example (specifications) of what you should be looking for. Also, the above scope is a refractor and I am a reflector guy. My instinct would be to go for something more like this, but it is far less portable.
I hope this helps get you started on the right path. And remember that the above suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, you would still need to buy eyepieces, a camera, and filters at a minimum to get yourself started.
Have a great day