Your equipment will undergo an evolution from the outset, and this will be a continuous and ongoing thing as your astrophography needs change over time. A lot of us, myself included, started out with nothing more than a static tripod, a “stock” camera and a kit lens. You can still capture some incredible images of the night sky with this setup, and it’s also quite forgiving of any errors you’ll make early on.
The image below was one of the first I captured with this setup, in the moderately light polluted skies of my children’s back garden. You’ll probably remember yourself the joy from capturing something similar, and if you’re not yet quite there, you soon will be. There’s a lot “wrong” with this image, but I’ve discovered that that word is quite subjective in this area. Don’t be disappointed. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to learn the limits of the equipment you currently have. Learn what it, and you, can and can’t do. Upgrade slowly as your needs change. You may find that you love shooting planetary and not DSO (deep sky objects.) In which case you wouldn’t for example really want to purchase a widefield refractor when a Newtonian would be more suited for it’s longer focal length.
My personal taste is for DSO imaging. By this I mean nebulae, galaxies, clusters etc, although one of my first captures was actually Jupiter (quite by accident!)
For this I use equipment that is robust, portable and, essentially for me, affordable. In order to counter the rotation of the earth I use a mount. This keeps the telescope and camera rock steady, which is massively important when taking long exposure shots that often run into minutes in length. The higher end mounts, the ones that can take a lot of weight and still maintain precise alignment, are currently beyond my own financial reach, so I use the Sky Watcher EQ5 PRO GoTo, which has a rated payload capacity of 9kg for visual astronomy, and approximately 6.5kg for imaging. This is my permanant DSO (deep sky object) setup and uses the SkyWatcher ED72 doublet refractor. For lunar and planetary work I have recently purchased the SkyWatcher SkyMax 102 Mak. This means that I need to decide beforehand what my targets are for the night and use the appropriate scope. However it only takes around ten minutes to swap them out should I change my mind for whatever reason.
My portable setup uses the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer to mount either telescope on, although the weight of the fully laden 72ED pushes the payload capacity of this mount. The equipment I use pushes the performance envelope considerably, and oftentimes exceeds it. I pay for that with increased stability issues and shorter subframe lengths. A lot of the time, its a trade-off between what you want to do, what you should do, and what you can do. I usually go for the latter. I enjoy pushing that envelope. Someone once said, “I have no idea what I should do, I only know what I CAN do.” That quote pretty much sums me up.
My youngest daughter has taken her own first steps into astrophotography and recently obtained her first ever image of an object in the night sky. Although the post processing was done by myself, it was her who captured the image of the moon below. She did this using my own ED72 and Star Adventurer (above) although she has her own mount and telescope, a Celestron Nexstar SE and Sky Watcher ST102T.
For myself I use the Sky Watcher Evostar ED72 which I generally find perfect for what I tend to shoot right now with the mount I have. As I’m just getting into “guiding” I have on top of that a Sky Watcher 9×50 Finderscope that’s been converted to take a guidecam, in this case the ZWO ASI120mm (mono) the two of which are a perfect combination. In order to get “on target” I use a small 6×30 Finder that I remove once I’m aligned. This helps with balance when guiding as the finder is offset from centre and also drops the weight down a little (although it’s not by any significant amount!) Actual imaging is carried out using an Altair GPCam2 290c and ED72 telescope, although I’ve recently added the ZWO ASI178MC. Although this has a similar FoV (field of view) to the Altair 290c, it has a higher resolution (3096 x 2080 against 1920 x 1080) and smaller pixel size (2.4µm against 2.9µm) which I’m hoping will allow greater detail, especially coupled with the SkyMax 102 when carrying out lunar and planetary imaging.
Something I’m finding out as I add and subtract equipment is that there are a lot of adapters and other associated bits and pieces that get used in order to fit it all together in a configuration that suits you.
Cable Management (or lack of!!)
One of the biggest standing jokes among astrophotographers is our complete lack of cable management ability. The above setup requires cables that run from the mount to the laptop, the guidecam to the mount, the dew shield, the focusing unit, from guidecam to laptop etc…and mine is a relatively simple system. But joking aside, good cable management is quite an essential part of it because the last thing you want as the mount and telescope rotate with the stars, is cables snagging, or tripping over cables and ripping ports out of place (which I’ve done!) So, all my cables run to a powered USB hub sat at the bottom of the tripod leg. From there, there is only power to the hub and a single USB cable from the hub to the laptop. Cable management is a pain, but it’s so important I can’t reiterate it enough. Just don’t forget to also leave yourself enough slack at the business end to allow for full range of movement through the axis as the night progresses, something else I’m guilty of.