Astrophotography Gear

I currently use three different setups for astrophotography. Which one I setup on any given night really depends on my goals and imaging targets for that evening.

  1. Deep Space, Long Focal Length
  2. Wide Field, Super Portable
  3. Medium Focal Length & Solar

Also be sure to see the recommended accessories.

1. Deep Space, Long Focal Length

Deep Sky Imaging Setup: The cardboard box makes a good dew cover and light shield for the laptop, which controls and camera and auto-guider.

Deep Sky Imaging Setup: The cardboard box makes a good dew cover and light shield for the laptop, which controls and camera and auto-guider.

This is pretty similar to the setup I started with 3 years ago, but I’ve managed to upgrade every single major component over that time. This is what I use for planets, deep space objects with a small angular size, and the occasional lunar image.

M81 & M82

Leo Triplet Reprocessed

This is a bulky carload of a setup, but I have used it pretty regularly at the Denver Astronomical Society’s Dark Sky Site that’s about a 70 minute drive away from me. However, I also think this is about the heaviest setup I’m likely to get. It’s about the right balance for me of portability and capability. I’ve also found that a pair of those 27-gallon plastic tubs work great with some foam lining for transporting the mount in one box and the telescope in the other.

I’m convinced that the 6″ Ritchey-Chrétien is the bargain of the decade for astrophotography. Astro-Tech is the cheapest at $400, but they are frequently wait-listed. Orion Telescopes has recently begun offering the same Ritchey-Chrétien scopes in 3 sizes: 6″ RC8″ RC, and 10″ RC. These appear to be identical to those offered by Astro-Tech, which are also branded elsewhere as GSO. Each retailer seems to offer a slightly different package, but the same scope and focuser. The Orion scopes quite handily include dual-finder scope shoes, so you can use one for an auto guider and the other for a visual finder. Regardless of the brand label, these are very good imaging scopes!

OK, twist my arm, and I might upgrade to an 8″ RC optical tube at some point.

2. Wide Field, Super Portable

Portable Setup: Everything fits nicely in a backpack and a carry bag.

Portable Setup: Everything fits nicely in a backpack and a carry bag.

  • iOptron Sky Tracker Mount (bundle with tripod and ball head)
  • Canon 7D Mark II camera w/wired intervalometer
  • Canon 70-200mm f/4 L lens
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 EF II lens
  • Canon 18-55mm f/5.6 EFS lens
  • Opteka 6.5mm f/3.5 Fish-eye lens

This is a pretty versatile setup, a true grab and go rig with no heavy counterweights, external batteries, or laptop required. With a careful polar alignment and a delicate touch, I can manage 5 minute exposures at 100mm with this setup, very useful for subjects like the Rho Nebula complex.

Rho Ophiuchus Nebula

Rho Ophiuchus Nebula (70-200mm @ 105mm)

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy passing the Pleiades

C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy passing the Pleiades (50mm lens)


This all gets packed in a backpack and a carry case and weighs less than 20 lbs. Easy to transport and setup. This is my future road-trip imaging package.

3. Medium Focal Length & Solar

80mm APO on the CGEM

80mm APO on the CGEM

There are a lot of interesting things to photograph that sit right in the middle of what I can image with those two other setups. An 80MM APO refractor fills that gap nicely. Add an inexpensive solar filter, and it also becomes a white-light solar scope!

  • Celestron CGEM or CG-5 EQ Mount (current model of the CG-5 would be the Advanced VX Mount)
  • Stellarvue 80mm f/6 APO (480mm)
  • Stellarvue 0.8x focal reducer/Field Flattener (makes the telescope an effective f/4.8 384mm)
  • Canon T6s Camera
  • Orion Solar Filter
  • Most of the same accessories as the Deep Space setup.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy with M76

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy with M76

Messier Trilogy

Messier Trilogy

This page is a mostly complete list of the astronomy and photography equipment that I use for the astrophotography posted in the Gallery. In cases where there are newer alternatives available to the equipment I have, I’ve listed those alternatives as well. To date, I’ve spent around $5,000 including the cameras, telescopes and mounts (yes, all of those are plural), and all the other little accessories. You can definitely spend less, or a heck of a lot more. If you already have a camera and a telescope, the investment may be well under $100 for a few simple adapters.

If you have questions, please leave a comment below, or contact me and I’ll be happy to try to help.


 

Further Reading

About Cameras

I started out with a refurbished Canon T3i. I’ve since upgraded to both a Canon T6s, and a Canon 7D Mark II. Honestly, if you have a DSLR, you can use it for astrophotography. If you are looking at getting a new DSLR with astrophotography in mine, see the post The Best DSLR Cameras for Astrophotography.

Recommended Accessories

Focusing

A final small but notable addition would be a Bahtinov Mask. This is a really simple focusing mask you just place over the objective of the telescope while pointing at a bright star, and it shows you a set of three diffraction spikes, two of which form an X, the middle of which shifts position with the focus. When you get that middle spike dead center between the X, you know your focus is bang-on. What I found is that  LiveView will get me close, but the mask takes care of that last mm or so of adjustment for perfect focus. You can buy a Bahtinov mask for about $20, which I think it totally worth it. Alternatively, here are instructions on how to make your own.

Power

Any telescope mount with tracking or goto capabilities is going to need power. Some scopes have internal battery compartments, while the one I picked requires external power. I’ve used an AC adapter, but also purchased a Celestron Power Tank for portability. I don’t consider this a perfect solution, but it’s a relatively inexpensive option, and has had no problem powering the mount for 4 hours (which is the longest stretch I’ve been out for).

For camera power, be sure to have at least one extra battery. Particularly in cold weather, camera batteries drain quickly. The Canon T6s seems to actually have much better power management for long exposures than other cameras I’ve tried – I’ve imaged for 4 hours on a single charge, which is double what I’ve gotten from my other two cameras. Still, I carry a spare battery for it.

Camera to Telescope Adapters

To connect the camera to the telescope requires two small adapters. First is a Celestron T-Ring for EOS Digital Cameras that clips into the body of the camera in place of the lens. Second is a Celestron T-Adapter for SCT Telescopes. This provides the bridge between the T-Ring and the back of the telescope to let you connect the camera in prime focus.

An alternative that I also find useful is the Celestron Universal 1.25-inch Camera T-Adapter. This lets you slide the camera into a standard 1 1/4″ visual back, making it usable with almost any telescope. This also allows you to use standard barlow lenses and filters, which are handy for photographing planets or distant nebula. Most of my photos of Jupiter use this adapter along with a High Point Scientific 2.5x Barlow. The drawback of the 1 1/4″ adapter vs the SCT adapter is that you do get some vignetting around the edges of the image, whereas you won’t with the SCT adapter, since it has a wider internal diameter. If you have a telescope that will accept a 2″ eyepiece, then you can also find 2″ T-Adapters.

The other attachment method is to use a Celestron Piggyback Mount to have the camera with a standard lens ride on top of the telescope. This enables wide field photography to capture whole constellations while taking advantage of the tracking capabilities of the telescope mount. When doing wide field imaging, tracking doesn’t need to be nearly as accurate, so this can be a good way to start out.

Camera Control

To take longer exposure photos, you will want an Intervalometer Remote Shutter Control. This lets you set the camera for exposures longer than 30 seconds (up to hours if you wish) and also lets you avoid touching the camera to trigger the shutter, since that can lead to camera shake that will be visible in the photo.

Vibration Dampening

Another useful extra are Vibration Suppression Pads that will help to dampen the knocks and bumps, as well as just your foot steps around the telescope.

Lens Hoods

The last accessories worth mentioning are the Telescope Lens Hood and Camera Lens Hood. These are inexpensive, and are a real benefit in preventing both stray light and reducing dew on the lens.

 

 

Telescopes

SV080STOTA_2016__52508.1447350123.1280.1280Stellarvue SVT 80mm APO

This is one of the most highly regarded 80mm Apochromatic refractors on the market. Very high quality focuser, good quality case, and an available dedicated 0.8x field flattener/reducer making this a prime choice for wide-field astrophotography. The scope is native f/6 for a 480mm focal length. Adding the reducer results in an f/4.8 384mm imaging scope, ideal for objects like the Orion Nebula or Andromeda when paired with a DSLR camera.

Stellarvue 80mm f/6 APO – $1199
2″ 0.8x FFR for 80mm f/6 – $265

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Celestron C6 SCT

This is the first telescope I purchased, and I still use it all the time for public outreach and planetary viewing. Makes an excellent visual scope, and includes a finder, 1 1/4″ diagonal, and a 24mm eyepiece. If you are looking to get started in Astrophotography though, I recommend an 80mm APO Refractor instead.

C6 SCT Optical Tube @ B&H
C6 SCT with AVX EQ Mount @ B&H

AT6RCAstro-Tech 6″ Ritchey-Chrétien Astrograph

This scope is the bargain of the astrophotography world. At under $500, you get an astrograph using the same basic optical setup as many professional class observatories (including Hubble) in a small and portable package. I do recommend starting out with a wide-field scope like an 80mm refractor. Once you get some experience in astrophotography, and have a good equatorial mount and auto guider, the Ritchey-Chrétien astrographs are the line of scopes to look at for long focal length imaging.

Shop Orion RC Astrographs
Shop Astro-Tech RC Astrographs

Cameras

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Canon EOS 7D Mark II

The 7D Mark II represents the high end of Canon’s APS-C sized sensor camera line. Introduced in late 2014, it includes the latest DIGIC 6 processor (actually 2 of them) a study magnesium body, and a 20Mp sensor that represents the best APS-C sensor to date from Canon. Introduced at $1799, Canon has recently dropped the MSRP to $1499. You can sometimes find grey market cameras (new, but not backed by the Canon USA warranty) for as low as $1199 on eBay. Check the Deals on Gear page for special pricing that may be available.

Buy the Canon 7D Mark II @ B&H

Canon T6s

Canon EOS Rebel T6s

The T6s is the newest camera in Canon’s entry level Rebel line of DSLRs. The T6s moves slightly up market with the addition of a top-mounted LCD similar to the higher end 70D and 7D models. It’s still a smaller body however, and includes the very useful articulating touch-screen LCD. It’s also the first new Rebel in several years to introduce a new 24Mp sensor.

Buy the Canon T6s @ B&H

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

This is the camera I started doing astrophotography with. It’s still a very capable camera, and in wide use in the astrophotography community. Unfortunately you can’t buy them new anymore. You can occasionally find refurbished units on Canon’s online store, or used models on eBay. If you want an inexpensive entry into DSLRs, the T3i, T4i, or T5i are excellent options.

Search eBay for Canon T3i Cameras

Canon EOS Rebel T5i

While I don’t own this particular model, it’s the closest match you can still buy new to the T3i, and appears to have slightly lower thermal noise. This model is a couple years old now, but can be purchased with a basic lens kit for under $650 new.

Buy @ B&H
Search eBay for Canon T5i Cameras

Telescope Mounts & Tripods

iOptron Skytracker with Polar scope for $299! Great option if you want to dip a toe into astrophotography and already have a camera, tripod, and some lenses. Also a great light weight travel option. I recently bought one of these, and so far have a positive impression.

iOptron SkyTracker

The iOptron Skytracker with Polar scope is a great option if you want to dip a toe into astrophotography and already have a camera, tripod, and some lenses. Also a great light weight travel option. I recently bought one of these, and so far have a positive impression.

With the price at only $299, this makes for an ultra-portable, easy to travel with astrophotography mount. It can also be purchased as a complete kit with a tripod and ball head for mounting the camera for $449.

Buy the complete SkyTracker kit @ B&H
Buy the iOptron SkyTracker in Black @ B&H
Buy the iOptron SkyTracker in White @ B&H

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Celestron CGEM Equatorial Mount

This is a mount I recently upgraded to from the smaller CG5. It’s a much heavier mount with better tracking, but to be honest, I still find it wanting for longer focal length imaging. Even with the auto-guider, tracking in Declination shows a lot of slop and stiction in the mount operation, meaning the guider will send corrections to the mount, but there is too much mechanical friction for the mount to always respond. I expect I’ll be looking to upgrade again before too long. At $1499, there are other options to consider.

Buy the Celestron CGEM @ B&H

Celestron CG5

The CG5 was Celestron’s entry level equatorial mount that got me started in astrophotography (with some degree of frustration). So, while it isn’t the best mount for imaging, it works great as a visual mount. I still use this regularly for public outreach events with the C6 SCT or the Stellarvue 80mm. Much lighter and more portable than the CGEM.

The newer version of this mount, priced at $799, is called the AVX. (Note that buying it with a scope bundled with generally save you a couple hundred dollars.)

Buy the Celestron AVX @ B&H

 

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