Interested in getting into astrophotography? The simple stuff is simple to do (like the photos below) and all you need are a camera, lens, and tripod. For some astrophotography you will need specialized but not very expensive equipment like the $300 sky tracker used for the photo above. The challenging stuff is hard, complicated, and expensive to do if you want eye popping photos like you see in Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines (you should subscribe to one or the other or both if this is your thing). No matter what you want to do, the books below will get you started. And if you just like to look at the night sky, I recommend some books for that too.
I suggest you start simple and work your way up to the more complex.
You can do simple stuff with just your camera, a lens, a locking cable release, and a quality tripod.
You can make a home made, mechanical “star tracker” for less than $20 that will track the motion of the stars for up to 15 minutes when using normal to wide angle lenses on your camera. Instructions are here. Due to the inaccuracies of a home made rig, don’t use a lens focal length longer than 50mm or an exposure longer than 15 minutes.
You can mount (piggy-back) your camera and lens on the back of a telescope, and let the telescope follow the rotation of the stars for photos much longer than 15 minutes. The telescope should do just fine tracking the stars so long as you don’t use a camera lens longer than 100mm. If course, the telescope needs to be a model with the ability to track the motion of the stars. This ability is usually built into the telescope mount.
If you want to shoot through the telescope (using the telescope as a super telephoto lens), you will need a telescope that can track the motion of the stars, an adapter to mount your camera to the telescope, an eyepiece, and a “guider”. Due to the long focal length of the telescope, even the best amateur tracking telescopes aren’t accurate enough to stay on track during the long exposures that are necessary (15- 30 minutes and typical), so you use a guider to pick and follow one star and to alter the motion of the telescope in order to stick with your guide star. Guiders come in the manual, do it yourself variety, and the automatic CCD variety. Special CCD astrophotography-cameras are also available for shooting through your telescope instead of using your normal camera body. This is, as you would guess, more complicated and expensive than piggy backing your camera on a telescope.
Do some reading before you start buying stuff.
I highly recommend you buy a planisphere that matches your approximate latitude. Spin the dial to match the date and time and the planisphere will give you a map of the overhead night sky. I recommend you get a planisphere made by David Chandler since they are two sided. The back side gives you a better view of the southern sky. You can order one at the link below.
I highly recommend these books.
The Light-Hearted Astronomer by Ken Fulton. Reading this book first will save you a lot of heartache, not to mention dollars. Try and find this on the used market. just follow the link and click on the But at Amazon.com button. Despite being technically dated, the advice is still very sound and the book is a fun read.
Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickinson, Adolf Schaller, Victor Costanzo, and Roberta Cooke. Any recent version of Nightwatch will do. This is a great guide to viewing the night sky with naked eyes, binoculars, or a telescope. It is not a photography guide.
Photography: Night Sky, A Field Guide for Shooting After Dark by Jennifer Wu and James Martin. This is an excellent introduction to the easy stuff. All you need is a camera, lens, and tripod.
Splendors of the Universe, A Practical Guide to Photographing the Night Sky by Terence Dickinson and Jack Newton. An excellent guide to photographing the night sky. It is well worth finding on the used Amazon market via the link below. This book was written in the days of film photography, but it is still my favorite. Just use the film speed recommendations in this book and set your digital camera’s ISO accordingly. And if you still shoot film, you will be in astrophotography heaven.
Getting Started: Budget Astrophotography by Allan Hall. Another excellent guide to photographing the night sky. Just out this year (2014). If you are on a budget, this is the book for you.
If you are just getting started should you get Dickinson’s book or Hall’s? This is a really tough call. I am tempted to give a slight edge to Dickinson because I have lived with his excellent books for so long, and Hall is new to me. But you can’t go wrong either way. Maybe you need both!
Astrophotography for the Amateur by Michael Covington, or Digital SLR Astrophotography, also by Covington. Another great book. This is an older classic with a wealth of information. Highly recommended. I have the original version but not the newer digital version, so I can’t speak from personal experience regarding the newer version of this book but the reviews at Amazon are good.
Getting Started: Long Exposure Astrophotography by Alan Hall. This is complicated, using a telescope kind of stuff. There is no getting around that fact that this kind of photography is going to cost you in terms of time, effort, determination, and some money. But if you are really serious abut getting this deep into astrophotography, this is an excellent guide. Read the reviews at Amazon.
In addition to the books listed above, I own several other books by Terence Dickinson. Just about anything he does is first class.
The book titles above are all linked to Amazon.
When you get ready to buy a telescope or other astrophotography stuff, go here:
Fred Bieler really knows his stuff and his prices are very competitive. I have no financial connection with Astronomics – I’m just a very satisfied long-term customer.
The Orion Nebula photo at the top was taken with a Canon 5D Mark III camera and a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DO IS lens at 300mm. f/11, 177 seconds, ISO 800. The camera and lens were mounted on an iOptron Sky Tracker.
The Milky Way photo in the middle of the article. Canon 5D Mark III. Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 lens. 30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200.
The Star Trails photo immediately above was taken in Rocky Mountain National Park with a tripod mounted Canon 5D camera and 15mm lens. A locking cable release was used to hold the shutter open. Exposure: f/4, 1253 seconds, ISO 100. That’s not a misprint, the shutter was open for 20 minutes, 53 seconds.
This is one in a series of articles that will guide you to the best of all things photographic. The rest are here: Buyer’s Guide: Recommendations For The Best Photography Equipment, Software, Books, Magazines, DVDs, Online Photo Labs and More.