Astrophotography tools: What you need to capture the stars

Even though astrophotography has created a new genre in the vast world of modern photography, it’s nothing new historically. The practice has been around since the mid-19th century—ever since experimenters and amateur astronomers started using it as a tool to photograph space and the stars beyond.

However, for more than two decades, photographing the night sky and all its phenomena has developed into a cool hobby of tech and gear that would impress the likes of NASA.

Astrophotography involves several methods and special needs, unlike common photography. But even as more and more backyards become observatories, the process of astrophotography can be somewhat complicated to hobbyists and daunting for beginners. But once you get to know and understand the equipment used in astrophotography, you will soon be selecting the best techniques and picking the best approaches for taking professional-looking and top-tier images.

Astrophotography over traditional photography

Unlike ordinary photography, astrophotography requires its own set of tools and techniques to photograph astronomic and cosmic objects. To ensure capturing the most pleasing images, you have to take the distance of celestial objects, atmospheric changes, lighting, night or day shots and accuracy into consideration. Keep in mind that astrophotography is still science-based photography that’s all about photographing astronomical objects. This is what sets it apart from the custom of more traditional, earthly photography. For the best results of astrophotography, camera settings and equipment have to pivot in a parallel mode from the earth, and devices have to ensure that taking photos is accurately timed.

Even for the amateur or hobbyist, successful astrophotography depends on the precise tracking of astronomic objects and preventing tracking errors with the right tools and equipment and modern developments in computer science and software. Unlike traditional photography, the art and science of astrophotography involve more than just point-and-shoot.

Choosing a starting point

With just a camera and telescope, any enthusiast can explore the vast hobby of astrophotography. But to make it more fun and rewarding, you need to consider a starting point. There are several types of astrophotography you can pursue. Photographing objects far away into the night sky can be a bonus for the hobbyist looking to capture stunning images of the nebulae and far away galaxies. This is known as deep space astrophotography.

For this particular photoshoot, you need to consider the challenges and obstacles of star trails and the use of special equipment. Or you can go as simple as photographing everything within our solar systems, such as the moon, the sun, and the planets. Or you can explore the type of astrophotography that uses a wide field of view. The bottom line here is that considering a starting point of what images you want to capture, whether in the night sky or somewhere out there in the Milky Way, the quality of the cameras and equipment you decide to use will make all the difference.

Choosing the right camera for the right job

The same way you have a variety of cameras to choose from for standard photography is the same way you have an abundance of choices for astrophotography. Your preference will narrow down to two vital factors: what images you plan on capturing and which camera is best for the job.

Whether you’re a beginner or a hobbyist, many astrophotographers start with standard DSLRs, either full-frame or cropped. Mirrorless systems and smartphones can produce crisp and quality images; however, most beginners—and hobbyists, too—tend to start with what works for their budget and their photographing goals. If you decide to follow most amateur and beginning enthusiasts, the top three DSLR brands dominating the market continue to be Canon, Nikon and Sony.

There’s a great deal to consider when purchasing the right camera for the job. The hobbyist who has some years of advancement in astrophotography recommends a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera because they are cost-effective and multipurpose. Popular amongst these are the Canon Rebel T7i and Nikon D3400. As cameras with an entry-level body go, these two cameras support an overwhelming quantity of camera lenses and software apps. Sony offers mirrorless a7 series cameras, which tend to be notable for wide-angle landscape style astrophotography, but not for deep sky imaging.

This is why before spending your hard-earned money, it’s important to research and determine which camera is right for your needs. For example, a Canon 60Da is an excellent choice for capturing deep space images like the Andromeda galaxy. The Canon 5D Mark IV and Nikon D850, meanwhile, are perfect professional upgrades when you’re ready for the big leagues of astro-cameras.

Outside of the popular DSLR camera bodies, dedicated astronomy cameras are designed specifically just for deep sky imaging through a telescope. Dedicated astronomy cameras come in two formats—one-shot-color, and mono. The ZWO ASI294MC-Pro captures amazing high-resolution images in full color. These cameras are ideal for capturing images under a dark sky.

Photographing space can come with complications. However, you don’t need to break the bank with enough cameras and equipment to fund an entire NASA space program. Some cameras to consider for the DSLR camera bodies are the Canon EOS Rebel T7i, the Canon EOS 80a, the Nikon D5300 or the Nikon D7500. If you lean toward a dedicated astronomy camera, consider the ZWO ASI294MC-Pro (Color) or the ZWO ASI183MM Pro (Mono).

Another thing to keep in mind when considering a camera is CCD Imaging over DSLR. According to advanced users, one of the main reasons why you may want to consider a CCD camera for astrophotography is that CCD cameras can be up to 50 times more sensitive to light than DSLRs.

Think about your needs before your spending. Whether DSLR or dedicated cameras for astrophotography, consider the experience you’re looking to have from the shoot. Are you looking to capture the moon and shooting stars, or are you looking to go as far as technology can take you into the Milky Way and deep space?

Choosing the right accessories

Astrophotography is more than just a camera or telescope. An equatorial mount with full GoTo, an 80 mm apochromatic refractor for long exposures, equatorial mounts that track the sky by moving and a Skytracker that follows the earth’s rotation are just a partial list of essential accessories to add to your gear. For example, with a Skytracker, you can keep your focus on star systems without any trailing or fuzziness. A tripod is also essential for photographing the night sky. You can also enhance your long exposure times with a remote and an intervalometer to capture images in succession. And if you plan on being outside for long periods of time, gloves and warm clothing are much-needed accessories.

Filters can help you get better images of the sky. For example, (CLS) City Light Suppression helps to cut skylight pollution from cities. Light pollution is a major side-effect of urbanization in major cities. Light Pollution Suppression (LPS) filters cut down the extra light in the sky, and LPRO Max filters for wide-angle landscapes are explicitly designed for astrophotography. Essentially, these filters are meant to give you far more natural-looking star colors.

It’s also pertinent to have the best lenses in your gear for your Canon, Nikon or Sony DSLR cameras. The best lenses for astrophotography will make shooting the stars and night sky stress-free. Knowing which lens is ideal for shooting the Milky Way will improve the quality of your images. Astrophotography with the right camera lens offers a far more enjoyable experience.

Time to get lost in the stars

Thanks to advancements in digital cameras, video technology, computer software and gear, astrophotography has become just as popular for the backyard hobbyist as it has for the trained scientist. From the beginner to the enthusiast, everyone can enjoy capturing space images and seeing into faraway galaxies. Beginner-level tools, accessories and equipment are available to anyone looking to start the journey of surveying the cosmos. Webcams, CCD, over-the-counter cameras, single lens and digital single-lens cameras, telescopes and computer software have become available for the enthusiast at any level. All that’s left to do is choose the right tools for you, then start shooting.

Stephen Mandel Joseph
Stephen Mandel Joseph
Stephen Mandel Joseph is a published, professional writer and director of several Sci-Fi 3D animated shorts and a short drama film.

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