Interested in getting into astrophotography? The simple stuff is simple to do (like the photo above). The hard stuff is hard and complicated to do if you want eye popping photos like you see in Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines. Here’s my advice. 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 $10 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 and 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:
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.
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 market. Ignore the “This item is not available for purchase from this store” message and click on the Buy at Amazon.com button to find a used copy. Even through 3rd party sellers you still get Amazon’s guarantee. 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.
Photo Data: The photo at the top of this post 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.
(Originally written Nov 16, 2014 and updated November 22, 2015.)
You can find all of the above books in this section of my photography store which is powered by Amazon’s great prices, fast delivery, and excellent service. If you get the the “This item is not available for purchase from this store” message (for out of print books), just click on the “Buy at Amazon.com” button to find a used copy. Even through 3rd party sellers you still get Amazon’s guarantee.
The “best of the best” photography gear, books, accessories, and online photo labs: a series of articles.