Astrophotography is the photography of astronomical objects such as the universe, distant comets, stars and stellar-mass black holes. Astrophotography, also known as astronomical imaging, covers celestial events, such as a solar eclipse, lunar eclipse, and near-earth objects (NEOs) such as Halley’s Comet and the Great Comet of 1882, not forgetting Leonid showers, the Northern Lights, Crimson and Purple Twilights etc.
The development of astrophotography as a scientific tool was pioneered in the mid-19th century for the most part by experimenters and amateur astronomers, or so-called “gentleman scientists” (although, as in other scientific fields, these were not always men).
Today, astrophotography is a familiar genre in the theatre of mainstream photography practised by men, women and children. In addition, you don’t always need to spend a large sum of money on a good scope and a mirrorless camera to shoot astrophotography.
Many examples of astrophotography shot from smartphones have made headlines in recent years. However, in my opinion, if you want to get serious about this genre of photography, I encourage you to purchase a decent set-up over that of a smartphone and tripod. You won’t regret it, and once you start selling your images, you’ll make the money back you spent on all that fantastic kit.
Why shoot astrophotography?
Astrophotography opens up a whole world of alluring art above us to those not familiar with celestial objects and astronomy phenomena. Once you’ve understood how to shoot and process astrophotography images professionally, viewers will begin to like your incredible artwork.
Astrophotography creates awareness about environmental issues that are often overlooked, such as light pollution. The negative impacts of artificial light can be glaringly apparent in a long-exposure photo. Many great landscape images of the Milky Way show a stark contrast between dark and artificially bright skies.
Astrophotography can also open career opportunities for people interested in astronomy, climatology, metrology, etc.
Furthermore, you and your online audience will learn more about the world and the universe, such as nebulas, galaxies, constellations, the Milky Ways and the night sky.
How do I become competent in astrophotography?
If you’ve never used a DSLR or mirrorless camera before and are not familiar with digital photo processing, I highly recommend you buy a basic DSLR or mirrorless camera and sign up with a recognised photography organisation or club.
I’m a current member of the Guild of Photographers and highly recommend them if you’re serious about photography. The Guild of Photographers has so much to offer, from tutorials and training to gaining your photography qualifications. Membership is around £10.00 a month, you receive a monthly magazine, discounts on some insurance, equipment and online stock portfolios such as Alamy etc., and they host the best photography competitions at a national level. Find out more here.
Once you’ve gained a year or more of photography knowledge, such as understanding how to control ISO, shutter speeds, aperture etc., followed up with knowledge about framing, composition, rule of thirds, focus, depth of field, how to shoot freehand and with a tripod etc., then you can look into selecting astrophotography as your chosen genre.
In addition to becoming a competent photographer, I would encourage you to enter weekly and monthly photography competitions with photography clubs that set various standards at local, regional, national and international levels.
In my opinion, this is critically important because you’re not just learning how to shoot incredible photography. Instead, you’re fine-tuning your photography and digital processing skills, which every competent Astro-photographer needs.
Once you’ve gained a good insight into photography, you can start building your photography kit up, such as changing cameras from primary to entry or professional level. Furthermore, you will need a high-spec computer processing system capable of managing and storing large files and processing complex astrophotography images.
Local astrophotography clubs, online tutors, and social media groups specialising in Astronomy and deep space are also an advantage to learning more about astrophotography. I’ve found the best Astronomy and astrophotography clubs are in the countryside and on the coast: the less light polluted areas, the better.
The image below is an example of an Astronomy club located on the North Norfolk Coast not far from me. The North Norfolk Astronomy Society is only a stone’s throw away from the North Norfolk coast Path. This is an excellent region to learn about Astrophotography while also being able to shoot in a less light-polluted part of the country. On a clear night, you can capture some pretty incredible Astro images at this location.
The red circles on the map indicate high amounts of artificial light pollution, which is a nightmare for Astro-imaging. The yellow areas (especially the light-yellow regions on the map) indicate where there is less artificial light pollution. However, it’s important to note that these maps do not show you natural light pollution or light pollution from the above, i.e., Starlink Satellites or air traffic.
Is Astrophotography difficult to master?
Yes, it can be difficult and frustrating to master astrophotography depending on your knowledge of Astronomy, photography, and computer image processing skills.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and for the most part, it’s going to take some months, if not years, to build up your experience and astrophotography kit.
It’s also important to remember that you need lots of patience when shooting astrophotography and the ability to work in all weather conditions, sometimes for hours on end.
So, astrophotography may not suit you if you’re impatient and dislike working in cold weather conditions.
Astrophotography is the most challenging of all the photography genres I’ve studied. For example, there will be times when you’ve camped out in the field for the night only to find your equipment has malfunctioned or light pollution, satellites, or bad weather conditions have ruined hours, if not days of hard work.
Furthermore, depending on your geographical location, i.e., built-up cities, you may find it challenging to locate areas with the least amount of light pollution.
Six of the most common problems Astro photographers experience are:
- Weather: Clear nights are best; however, be prepared for environmental changes, especially in colder climates and areas around water where morning dew can lead to lens fog. Cold weather can also zap camera batteries quickly, especially in Sony models.
- Moon: A full bright moon is no different from light pollution. Therefore, you need to work around it and adjust.
- Time: Time is of the essence. It’s essential to plan for things like travelling, travel disruptions and equipment setup to ensure you don’t miss the subject(s) you’re planning on photographing. Furthermore, it would help if you had time to shoot and process images accurately. Astrophotography image processing is rarely done and dusted in a few minutes.
- Image quality: Occasionally, you may find that image quality is not up to par once you’ve returned home after spending hours in the field. Therefore, investing in specialist equipment and software is essential to reduce image quality problems.
- Money: Authentic astrophotography is not cheap, so be prepared to spend quite a bit of money on telescopes, cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, mounts, etc. There are alternatives, for example, visiting your local observatory, of which you can use your camera attached to a very expensive and high-powered telescope. However, in my opinion, it’s not the same, and you will be restricted timewise in most cases.
- Geographical Location: As you go down in latitude from the North Pole to the South Pole, the sky you can see will gradually change. So, the sky that someone in Arizona sees overlaps with the sky that someone in, say, Chile (in the Southern Hemisphere) sees, but it is not the same. The best constellations, bright stars and deep sky objects are visible from the Southern Hemisphere, and the best places for stargazing are south of the equator. That said, the Northern Hemisphere does have much to offer too.
Are there career opportunities in astrophotography?
Several astrophotography career opportunities are open to male and female candidates, and depending on your experience, the pay is generally quite good.
It’s generally a good idea to gain work experience and qualifications in photography and art with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent if you’re considering applying for a professional job in astrophotography or a similar role, such as:
- Senior technical writer
- Research scientist
- Aeronautical engineer
- College professor
- Planetarium director
- Observational astronomer
While it’s considered a good idea to gain qualifications in photography and art if you’re considering applying for a job in astrophotography, it’s not always a fundamental requirement. For example, I know of two self-educated freelance Astro photographers with extensive portfolios that had their work published in the news and media, NASA, museums, etc.
If you’re thinking of pursuing a professional career in astrophotography or a similar role, you will need to gain the following experience and qualifications:
- An extensive background in science.
- Computer science/engineering.
- An undergraduate degree consisting of two to three A-level courses in mathematics and physics.
- Postgraduate education with a PhD in your area of expertise.
- Work experience and internships that focus on your area of expertise.
- Advanced degree, i.e., PhD in astrophysics.
- You must contribute to research and analysis by helping professionals and colleagues in your field solve problems, develop solutions and support further theoretical findings.
- Critical thinking skills.
- Research skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Mathematics and physics.
- Technical skills.
If all of the above doesn’t sound appealing or you don’t have that type of knowledge to pursue a professional career in astrophotography, don’t stop reading. You don’t need the above skills to become a professional or hobbyist Astro photographer. All you need is experience, a good camera, telescope, computer, online profile, portfolio etc.
Once you’ve got the hang of astrophotography, you’ll soon find it addictive, and your online followers will quickly increase over time. Furthermore, you will likely be spotted by the press and media, weather agencies, or even NASA. As your portfolio increases, so will your profits too.
What equipment do I need for Beginner astrophotography?
As mentioned, you must first be knowledgeable in photography before purchasing anything related to astrophotography. Join online astrophotography forums, a dedicated photography organisation or a club and learn first before buying your setup.
Before spending large sums of money on technical gear, it’s generally a good idea to keep things simple for the first year (or more) to build up your knowledge, skills, and patience and see whether astrophotography is genuinely for you or not.
Therefore, I advise purchasing either the Sony A7, Canon EOS Ra or the Nikon D3400 for a beginner. All three cameras are more than suitable for astrophotography because I’ve used them for hobbyist and professional astrophotography.
Next, you’ll need a super wide-angle lens or two (with very wide apertures). Below I’ve included three of the best lenses suitable for the cameras mentioned above that are ideal for capturing long-exposure shots of the stars, Milky Way etc. and some landscape detail too.
- SonyA7: Tokina FiRIN 20mm f/2 lens (manual focus only)
- Canon Rebel T7i: Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 lens (auto and manual focus)
- Nikon D3400: Nikon 50mm f/1.8G lens (auto and manual focus)
If, however, you’re more interested in capturing objects closer to Planet Earth and in detail, i.e., the moon, you will need a prime telephoto lens of at least 300mm or 800mm.
A 300mm lens will provide up-close detail of the moon and its craters; however, if you want the moon to fill your entire frame, an 800mm is required. One can still use a 200mm lens to shoot the moon, but during the post-process stage, you’ll lose a staggering amount of sharpness when cropping and increasing scale, and your moon will lack detail.
So, stick to a 300mm or 800mm lens to stay professional-looking and print-worthy. Below I’ve listed the required lenses suitable for the cameras mentioned above.
- SonyA7: Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (auto and manual focus)
- Canon Rebel T7i: Sigma 300mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM (auto and manual focus)
- Nikon D3400: Nikon 300mm f/4D F (auto and manual focus)
Please be advised that the Nikon 300mm f/4D F has been discontinued; however, you can still purchase this lens from reputable second-hand dealers.
Once you’ve found a suitable lens, you’ll need a sturdy tripod. It’s advised to start with a basic photography tripod instead of a motorised tripod. Listed below are three beginner tripods more than suitable for a basic astrophotography start-up.
- K&F Concept Carbon Fibre Tripod
- Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB Tripod
- Manfrotto Befree Advanced Travel Tripod
Concerning computer image processing, you will need a fast processor, at least a 12th generation Intel i9 with 16 or 32 GB of RAM with 200GB+ of storage space and an external storage hard drive. Raw image files take up much disk space, and you don’t want to run out of room; therefore, 200GB of storage space is a starting point for a beginner.
I prefer custom PC and laptop builds over brand-name models because you’ve more freedom and power with a custom build over an iMac, for example. Read here for more information.
Finally, you’ll need the following kit to complete your basic astrophotography start-up.
- Petzl Headlamp: Petzl headlamps are reliable and robust, and the app is also helpful, too, should you need to send a morse distress signal in the event of an accident.
- Bank chargers: Buy from reputable dealers. I’ve found that power bank chargers priced under £20.00 are mostly useless.
- Star chart app: Star chart apps help you identify constellations in the sky to help you shoot various constellations.
- Weather app: Monitor weather updates before they ruin your imaging.
- Flight 24 Radar app: Keep track of overhead traffic. Flight 24 Radar does not track every flight, such as some light aircraft and most military aircraft.
- ISS and satellite tracker: ISS and satellite detector is required for long exposure night sky shots. The app helps you accurately time shots, avoiding artificial light pollution from satellites and the International Space Station.
- Intervalometer: A requirement to remotely control your camera during a long exposure.
- Extra camera memory cards: Purchase memory cards from a reputable dealer.
- Compass: A compass is required when not using a mount base.
- Filters: Filters come in all shapes and sizes; therefore, its essential to pick the correct type of filters for your camera. Scroll down for more information concerning specialist filters.
- Tent: A tent is not always required; however, you may need it. Therefore, the Snugpak Ionosphere will not let you down. Easy to erect and take down, and its low profile too. The Snugpak Ionosphere can withstand high winds; it’s waterproof, warm, and compact once packed up.
- Camping gear: Suitable clothes depending on the weather, food and water, Snugpak waterproof sleeping bag, gloves, Jet Boil stove and mug, suitable waterproof rucksack, waterproof map, gloves, hat, fire starter, spare charged phone, first aid kit, cables, leads, laptop, powerful torch, tent light, compact travel external storage drive, red smoke grenades and distress flares etc.
The above equipment is all you need for a beginner competent in photography who wants to branch out into astrophotography. I’ve also included a video below to help you understand more about astrophotography for beginners.
It’s vital to keep your first year of training as simple as possible before branching out into specialist equipment and venturing into unknown terrain with expensive kit.
Regarding working outdoors, it’s best to keep things local while practising for the first year. For example, I practised in the local field behind me. It works, it’s practical, and if I needed anything urgently, I could quickly pack up my equipment and walk home. I knew my surroundings too.
With that said, if you’re living in a heavily light-polluted region of the planet, you may want to travel to a less light-polluted area close by. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure you have most of the equipment I’ve highlighted above for your safety.
Astrophotography is an exciting photography genre; however, it can also be addictive. Therefore, you must follow the above instructions if you’re thinking of branching out into this genre of photography; keeping it simple is critical, even for a pro.
If you’re a family man or woman, you may want to consider involving the children or your partner too. It’s probably also good to speak about your work with your partner and children, especially if you’re considering spending days or weeks away from the family home.
Astrophotography isn’t like everyday photography; it’s much more demanding; however, as mentioned, it can also be addictive. So, take your time, take regular breaks, don’t overdo it, and remember, if you have a family, they need your time too.
Do I need special filters?
It would help if you had specialist filters for telescopes, DSLRs, mirrorless, and most dedicated Astro cameras. Without filters, you will struggle to filter out light pollution and radiation. Additionally, filters help to bring out the colours of nebula emissions, help with identifying planets and constellations, and to observe faint and distant objects.
- City Light Suppression Filter: Works like a light pollution filter but blocks wavelengths from mercury and sodium vapour light. These are the primary light waves you’ll find in densely populated cities.
- Broadband Light Pollution Filter: There are two types of BLP filters. One that sits in front of the shutter and sensor and one that clips or threads onto a lens. BLP filters reduce light pollution and are commonly used for shooting galaxies and star clusters. If you’re using different-sized lenses, it’s important to note that one size does not fit all. Therefore, you may want to choose a clip-in filter that sits in front of the sensor and shutter instead.
- Narrowband UHC Filter: Narrowband filters only allow a small selection of light waves to pass through. These filters select the prominent emission bands from nebulae, allowing only them to pass through to the sensor. All other light wavelengths are blocked. Narrowband filters are also referred to as Ultra-High Contrast (UHC) filters. The contrast is between the blocked light and the light from the selected emission lines. UHC filters are best for shooting emissions, planetary nebulae, and supernova remnants. You can use UHC filters with DSLR and mirrorless cameras. They’ll also work with CCD cameras, commonly used in astronomy. Narrowband filters are also helpful for Astro monochrome photography; however, you may require a dedicated monochrome Astro camera. You can find clip-in UHC filters that will fit in Canon or Nikon DSLRs. But usually, they will need to be applied to a camera modified for astrophotography.
- H-a Filter: Hydrogen-alpha filters only allow the hydrogen alpha emission line of light to penetrate. All other light is blocked from the sensor. H-a filters sit at the red end of the spectrum and allow Astro photographers to see detail from emission nebula. Additionally, H-a filters also help identify detail from our sun’s atmosphere. H-a filters can only be used with an Astro camera, modified mirrorless, or DSLR.
- H-b Filter: H-b filters zone in on the light from hydrogen-beta, which is found in the blue zone of the spectrum. These are the narrowest and most selective of the line filters. And they’re used to observe faint and distant objects and nebulae. H-b filters are essential for Astrophotography. CCD and CMOS sensors are susceptible to this wavelength. H-b filters can only be used with an Astro camera or modified mirrorless or DSLR.
- OIII Filters: OIII filters pick up the light emitted by Oxygen III. This light is green and one of the most common in astronomy. OIII filters are used to view planetary nebulae and supernova remnants. OIII filters let very little starlight pass through, so stars often appear faint in your images. They might have a green tint to them as well. OIII filters can only be used with an Astro camera or modified mirrorless or DSLR.
- Solar Filters: Solar filters attach to the end of your camera lens or telescope and are essential for safely viewing the sun or a solar eclipse. A solar filter must never sit between the lens and the sensor. Additionally, you must purchase the correct solar filter for your equipment. Read more here about solar filters. Seymour is one of the best companies I’ve come across that manufactures both lens and telescope solar filters. Moreover, before using a solar filter, check your camera, lens and telescope warranty. Several camera companies do not cover accidental solar damage.
- Diffusion & UV Filters: Diffusion and UV filters are excellent for shooting the night sky. They remove a considerable amount of noise from the atmosphere, making stars appear more prominent in your images. This can help you pinpoint and identify planets and constellations. Diffusion and UV filters are aimed more at night sky photography than deep sky astrophotography. Diffusion and UV filters clip or thread onto a typical DSLR or mirrorless camera lens.
- Graduated Neutral Density Filters: GND filters are not typically used for deep sky astrophotography. You use GND filters for images that include the night sky and some earthbound features, like mountains or buildings. You might need a GND filter over the earth section to get the correct exposure for the whole image. Even if you have bright stars in a clear sky, the light from the terrestrial objects will still be more brilliant. The GND filters allow you to compensate for the discrepancy. There are many GND filters on the market that clip, screw or slide through a filter holder. Read more here about GND filters.
As with conventional photography, there is a wide selection of filters on the market for astrophotography. Some filters are essential, while others are a complete waste of money. Therefore, it’s best to shop around and, if possible, try before you buy.
Please note that the links I have supplied regarding the filters highlighted above are for educational purposes only. Before purchasing specialist filters, you need to consider several factors first.
- Camera: If you’re using an unmodified mirrorless or DSLR for night sky and some deep sky photography, in most cases, you will need filters that fit your camera lenses instead of filters for an Astro camera.
- Lenses: One filter size does not fit all mirrorless or DSLR camera lenses. For example, if I’m using a 55mm lens, I’ll need a 55 mm-sized circular thread-on filter. Furthermore, If I use a LEE filter system, I will need a 55mm ring to thread onto my lens to fit my filter holder and filter. Therefore, choosing your lenses wisely is essential because filters can be expensive.
- Astro cameras: Most dedicated Astro cameras and modified cameras require specialist clip-in or thread filters instead of conventional mirrorless or DSLR camera lens filters.
- Clip-in filters: Clip-in filters, such as narrowband UHC, can fit some unmodified camera models. However, you may need an Astro camera or modified mirrorless or DSLR to use others.
- Solar filters: Before purchasing a solar filter, it would be wise to check your camera and lens warranty. Several camera and lens manufacturers don’t cover accidental solar damage, while others require you to use specific filters. Additionally, if your equipment is insured, it would be best to check what your insurance covers before buying and using a solar filter.
- Usability: Some filter models, such as a filter system that requires a square-shaped holder and a circular disk to hold a filter in place, can hinder your Astro imaging due to their size. Therefore, it’s best to try before you buy.
- Price: As a general rule of thumb, I avoid cheap filters. Numerous brands of cheap filters on the market scratch easily, while others can add more noise and colour cast to a long exposure image. Furthermore, beware of fakes. Many counterfeit filters on the market, especially on eBay, are challenging to identify. Therefore, always purchase filters from a reputable dealer or someone you know well. If you buy a used filter, shine a 1000-lumen torch on the filter at various angles and look for scratches. While some cosmetic scratches won’t harm, deeply embedded scratches can be viewed in some images.
Advanced & specialist Astrophotography setup
Once you’ve gained a year or more of astrophotography knowledge, you may want to consider looking into an advanced and specialist astrophotography setup. Trade your old beginner camera, lenses and tripod in and look into a high spec mirrorless, equatorial motorised mount, sturdy tripod, spotting scope and a reflecting or refractor telescope. Don’t trade your filters in. You will need your filters for Astro imaging.
Alternatively, you may want to do away with the mirrorless or DSLR and focus more on a dedicated Astro camera.
A dedicated Astro camera is designed primarily for deep sky imaging through a telescope and requires reliable software to run. Dedicated astrophotography cameras can capture the exceptional detail and colour of faint objects in the night sky, such as galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. These cameras are typically referred to as CMOS or CCD cameras.
It’s also important to note that there are two types of ‘dedicated’ Astro cameras on the market: a colour Astro camera and a monochrome Astro camera.
- Colour Astro camera: A one-shot colour camera does not use the sensor’s full resolution for each colour channel. Colour Astro cameras capture complete images quicker and are easier to process but suffer transmission and resolution losses due to the Bayer matrix.
- Monochrome Astro camera: A monochrome astrophotography camera can collect more signal (light) than a colour camera, three times as much light as a colour camera, to be precise. However, a monochrome camera takes more time to capture an image than a colour camera and requires a filter wheel to take colour images.
In numerous Astro photographer forums, you will find that some Astro photographers, including well-known professionals, prefer the colour Astro camera instead of the monochrome. While everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding what equipment suits them, a one-shot colour camera is not on par with a monochrome (and that is a scientific fact). Monochrome cameras have a far better signal-to-noise ratio than one-shot colour cameras. Monochrome sensors have intrinsically higher frame rates, and their algorithms are well-tuned instead of one-shot colour cameras.
Therefore, it’s important to note that if you’re suddenly finding that your monochrome or colour camera is not producing quality images anymore, the camera may not be at fault. There could be a mechanical or software problem; you may need a firmware upgrade, the software you’re using may no longer be compatible with your computer or setup, your eyepieces may need collimating etc. Therefore, before moving over to a different camera, it’s best to rule everything else out first. For example, an incomplete firmware update is one of my most annoying problems. Should that happen, the software begins to perform poorly, and image quality can be affected.
Astro cameras are more powerful and outperform most mirrorless and DSLR cameras; however, several brands of Astro cameras have very low megapixel counts. So, if your objective is to upload Astro images to social media or onto projectors for schools and universities, a 10mp Astro camera would suit your needs.
However, a 10mp Astro camera doesn’t offer much if your objective is to print Astro images in sizes of A1 and A0 or for posters, banners, billboards etc. As with conventional cameras, you need a high megapixel count to crop and print large format images. Ideally, when purchasing an Astro camera, you want to aim for a camera with a megapixel count starting at 28mp. A 28mp is ideal for printing images in large format, but it may not be suitable for large commercial posters, banners, billboards, etc.
Therefore, you want to aim for an Astro camera with at least 30-100mps for large format printing. While more megapixels do not improve “image quality”, more megapixels are required to print sharper images in large format. Below I’ve included five Astro cameras suitable for printing in small and large formats.
- ASI6200 62mp full-frame colour Astro camera
- AA61CFX 61mp full-frame cooled colour camera
- APX60 61.09mp full-frame Astro camera
- Prosilica GT Large Format 31.4mp monochrome Astro camera
- ZWO ASI 6200MM 62mp pro cooled full frame monochrome deep sky imaging Astro camera
All five Astro cameras highlighted above require an external power supply and are cooled too. Therefore, you won’t need an external cooler fan to keep them cool during long imaging sessions. As mentioned above, if you purchase a monochrome Astro camera, you will need a filter wheel to produce colour images.
Please read my article here to understand why megapixel count is essential in the theatre of commercial photography and printing.
Astro cameras are expensive, as are new mirrorless and DSLR systems; therefore, if you’re on a budget and considering keeping your old camera, you may want to consider modifying it for deep space imaging. Modifying digital cameras is not necessary to obtain great Astro photos. Many stock cameras have good hydrogen-alpha response, e.g., recent Canon DSLRs. However, modifying can be helpful if you want to take your astrophotography to the next level. Read here for more information about camera modification.
Please don’t trade your computer in (especially if it’s a custom build). Most custom-built PCs and laptops can be upgraded with a new processor and more RAM or storage if required. That said, if you’re thinking of getting serious about Astrophotography and your PC or laptop cannot be upgraded or lacks power, it’s probably best to look into a more robust home computer for storage, post-processing, printing and uploading to online portfolios.
I use Inside-Tech for all my custom build computer needs. Inside Tech are reliable, and its systems are robust, sleek and powerful. Regarding monitors, I always opt for a BenQ. BenQ monitors are one of the best brands of monitors for amateur and professional photo editing.
You may also want to consider looking into a custom-built field laptop. Field laptops aren’t new in the theatre of photography. Many photographers use laptops for specialist work, such as portraiture and long exposures.
Astrophotography field laptops are required in most specialist Astro setups. Astro photographers use field laptops to view planetary work, inspect RAW image files, monitor the weather, flight radar, track stars, etc. Field laptops can also control the tripod mount with a program called PHD2 Guiding. Read more here about RAM and here for details about CPU/GPU.
Specialist astrophotography also requires a reflector, refractor, catadioptric telescopes, or an apochromatic/achromatic lens. A professional reflector telescope is ideal because it offers better precision image quality and collects more light than a refractor. Reflector telescopes can easily capture deep space objects (closer to our Earth) such as nebulas and galaxies in great detail.
Some Astro photographers prefer an apochromatic or achromatic refractor telescope as it is less expensive. It uses a lens to magnify objects and is great if you want to observe the moon or close planets. However, like many beginner telescopes, apochromatic and achromatic refractors have limitations; therefore, it’s best to seek professional reflector telescopes.
The image below shows a typical yet basic Astro setup consisting of an apochromatic refractor on a motorised mount and tripod. The long black refractor is fitted with a dedicated monochrome CCD Astro camera at the back, and there’s a spotter scope fitted to the top too. This setup is excellent for beginners wishing to photograph celestial objects closer to the Earth.
Several avid Astro photographers will likely bite my head off for daring to state that apochromatic and achromatic lenses are for beginners. However, it’s true. With that said, you will find many professional Astro photographers still using them on top of their primary telescope with either a mirrorless or Astro camera attached to the lens (see image below).
This is because apochromatic and achromatic lenses have limitations, so you’ll often see professional and avid Astro photographers using a telescope and lens together. The apochromatic and achromatic lenses will be used to capture subjects closer to the earth or detailed moon shots. At the same time, the primary scope will be used to capture subjects further away with either a mirrorless or dedicated Astro camera.
A high-end telescope can help you discover more of the universe, deep space, nebulas, galaxies, etc. For detailed planetary images, a reflector telescope with a long focal length (1000mm+) with an aperture of at least 6″ and a focal ratio starting at f/10 or more is required.
For example, if I planned on shooting distant planets in detail, I’d start with a reflector telescope with a f/ratio of f/10 or above and a focal length of 1000mm+. I’d also want a wide aperture of 10-20″. Ten inches would be sufficient for me if I wanted to travel. However, a twenty-inch aperture is more observatory, meaning a 20″ aperture scope will be colossal and too large to travel with.
A telescope’s performance depends on the quality of its optics – its mirrors, lenses and eyepieces – and, most importantly, the size of its aperture. The diameter of a telescope’s front end is critical as it dictates how much light you can get into the scope, and the more light it collects, the fainter the stars it will show. Please view the video below for more information and read more about apertures here.
With more light comes the ability to magnify the view more: larger apertures make it possible to increase the magnification. However, before buying, it’s worth noting that each telescope (like a camera and lens) has its limitations, for example.
A telescope can magnify twice its aperture in millimetres or 50 times the aperture in inches. So, if you have a:
- 100mm (4″) scope, the maximum output = 200x
- 150mm (6″) scope, the maximum output = 300x
- 250mm (10″) scope, the maximum output = 500x
So, before you purchase your first specialist telescope, you need to list what type of subjects you will be specialising in and what detail you want to capture. For example, if you’re going to capture up-close images of the moon and some detailed craters, a 100mm (4″ inch) scope is up your street. A 100mm is also sufficient for capturing “some close-up photos” of Jupiter and, depending on weather conditions, Jupiter’s moons.
If you’re looking at capturing detailed images with more depth of colour of Mars, Venus, Saturn, Neptune, Mercury, Pluto and dwarf planets, you will need a scope with an aperture of at least 8-10 inches. While a 100mm scope with an aperture of 4 inches may capture some faint planetary detail, it will also struggle to capture sharp and deeper planet colours.
Concerning Nebulas and Galaxies, a 1000mm+ scope with an aperture of between 8-14 inches will capture vivid details, and you should be able to see the Orion Nebula too. In addition, depending on your geographical location, you may be able to capture the Milky Way.
You’ll need specialist, high-priced telescopes if you’re looking at capturing celestial subjects and deep space in vivid detail. Beginners’ scopes and some apochromatic and achromatic lenses will struggle.
Therefore, the Celestron CGX 800 8″ f/2 RASA, Celestron C11-XLT or the AG12 Orion Newton Reflector are your best options for capturing detailed planet images, the Milky Way, galaxies and most nebulas etc.
Below I’ve listed three specialist 14″ powerful telescopes that may suit your needs.
- Meade 14″ LX850-ACF Catadioptric OTA Telescope. Focal length = 2845mm, Focal ratio = f/8.01, Highest magnification = 710x.
- Celestron 14″ CGE Schmidt-Cassegrain OTA. Focal length = 3910mm, Focal ratio = f/11, Highest useful magnification = 840x.
- Celestron 14″ CGX-L Equatorial 1400 EdgeHD Telescope Bundle – CE – 12077. Focal length = 3910mm, Focal ratio = f/11, Highest magnification = 711.2x.
As mentioned, telescopes like (cameras and lenses) have their limitations. However, you can increase the power of your telescope with good-quality eyepieces, for example:
- 40mm optic: A 40mm optic will give a 750mm scope an extra reach of 18.75x magnification. This is excellent for shooting detailed images of the Milky Way (depending on your geographical location) and most nebulas.
- 25mm Plössl optic: A 25mm Plossl optic will give a 750mm scope an extra reach of 30x magnification. The Plössl eyepiece is excellent for shooting faint deep space objects such as the crab nebula.
- 8mm optic: An 8mm optic will give a 750mm scope an extra reach of 93.75x magnification. This optic will provide incredible close-up views of lunar craters and most planetary observations.
- 2x Barlow lens: A 2x Barlow lens gives more power, doubling the magnification of any eyepiece used with it – giving you greater flexibility when observing.
When I purchased my first telescope, I bought cheap and expensive used optics from a dedicated telescope and optic dealer. Cheap optics did not work well, and costly used optics were also unreliable. Therefore, I would encourage you to shop about (and not online). Be wary of used optics. Try before you buy, and always purchase optics from a reputable dealer. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s cheap (avoid at all costs), and if it’s new but with pounds knocked off, be wary. Finally, never purchase optics online unless you know the dealer.
A Barlow lens is an optical device usually inserted between the eyepiece and the focuser. Inside is a negative lens that artificially increases the telescope’s focal length. A Barlow is often not a single lens but a system of lens elements. This is usually employed to reduce chromatic aberration; in this case, the lens is often referred to as an achromatic Barlow. Standard Barlows have a 2X magnification factor.
The function of such a lens can be best explained using an example: Let us look at a 200/1000mm Newtonian reflector, such as the Omegon Advanced Telescope. An eyepiece with a 6mm focal length is used for this purpose. The magnification formula results in a 166X magnification. A Barlow with a magnification factor of 2X extends the telescope’s focal length from 1000mm to 2000mm. Using the same eyepiece results in double the magnification, i.e., 330X.
If you’re confused regarding which Barlow lens to purchase or which lens is suitable for your telescope, please use the Barlow lens calculator here and follow the online instructions.
What computer software do I need?
Firstly, let’s briefly talk about computers and laptops again. I shoot a lot of detailed photography. I also print my work in A1 and A0 formats. I use a custom-built computer for image processing and a custom-built laptop for everything else, i.e., controlling my mount, planetary observations and camera tethering in the field.
Therefore, you will need a relatively fast and powerful custom-built computer with a large monitor that can be calibrated for colour and printing accuracy. For processing at home, you’ll need a system with an i9 CPU with at least 200+GB of storage and between 16-32GB of RAM.
Image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom requires 8GB of RAM to run each programme. So, for example, if you’re using both Lightroom and Photoshop simultaneously, your home system is already using 16GB of RAM.
Therefore, you may want to opt for a custom-built computer with an i9 CPU with at least 32GB of RAM that can be RAM and storage upgraded if required. Some photographers will argue that 32GB of RAM is overkill; trust me, it’s not. When processing and stacking hundreds of images for one picture, flipping between Photoshop and Lightroom, plus being able to run other apps such as Google, Facebook, etc., you’ll need that extra RAM and a CPU capable of managing your workload.
Most Astro photographers prefer using a field laptop to control their mount, camera and telescope. Astro field laptops use a lot of battery power (though most can be run via an external power generator). Astro field laptops require specialist software, too. Therefore, you will need a similar setup with a universal driver. A universal driver is necessary to control your telescope via your laptop.
Regarding image processing, I prefer to do that at home on a large BENQ monitor. I think image processing at home on a more extensive computer system is better because you’re more relaxed and can see more detail on a larger calibrated screen.
Below I’ve highlighted the necessary software you need for image processing and scope, camera and mount control etc:
Basic mirrorless/DSLR with photography tripod and lens
For night sky photography, lunar and some planetary, star and constellation imaging using only a camera mounted to a tripod with an intervalometer you will need:
- Adobe Photoshop: (Windows and Mac) image processing.
- Adobe Lightroom: (Windows and Mac) image processing.
Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are sufficient and powerful enough to process RAW, and pre-edited Astro images shot on an unmodified mirrorless or DSLR. Alternatively, you may also want to look into Pixinsight too.
It’s also worth noting that Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are commonly used at the end of the processing stage concerning Astro photography shot through a scope with image capturing software, etc.
For example, if I were shooting Astrophotography on a mounted reflector telescope with image capturing software, I would use Pixinsight first for all my pre-editing, and Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom for precision touch-ups, cropping, spot checking, etc.
If I were printing in large formats or selling images in a commercial setting, Adobe Lightroom would be my final editing phase to ensure whites, blacks, highlights etc., were correct, and for dust-spot checking too. One of the most common mistakes all us photographers make is failing to check for dust spots before printing. It’s a fundamental requirement in commercial photography. Dirty pictures do not sell well and can lead to a bad reputation.
Astro with telescope, mount, Astro camera, mirrorless or DSLR
You will need a few apps highlighted below for deep space and astrophotography using a field laptop, mount, telescope, Astro camera etc.
- ASCOM: (Windows) or INDI for (Mac) for telescope control.
- Stellarium: (Windows and Mac) for planetary observations.
- CPWI: (Celestron and Windows users only) for laptop control of your telescope.
- Cartes du Ciel: (Windows and Mac) controls most telescopes via laptop.
- NINA: (Windows only) for image capturing.
- The SkyX Professional: (Windows and Mac) for image capturing.
- ASI AIR: (smartphones and tablets) for image capturing.
- Deep Sky Stacker: (Windows and Mac) for image stacking only.
- SIRIL: (Windows and Mac) for image processing and stacking.
- PIXINSIGHT: (Windows and Mac) for image post-processing.
- STAR TOOLS: (Windows and Mac) post processing.
- PHD2: (Windows and Mac) PHD2 is essential for autoguiding.
- Topaz De-noise: (Windows and Mac) for noise reduction during post-process.
- Topaz Sharpen AI: (Windows and Mac) for precision sharpening of images during post-process.
You do not need every programme listed above. Furthermore, I think the paid versions of these apps are better than the free ones.
Most Astro photographers I work with and speak to online prefer Pixinsight over Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for image processing; however, it’s best to choose what app suits you rather than follow the crowd.
What additional equipment do I need for astrophotography?
The vast majority of Astro photographers love to travel with their telescopes to find better observation points, such as locations with the least amount of artificial and natural light pollution or regions of the planet with more detailed views of celestial subjects. However, if you’re adventurous and plan on staying in remote locations, you need to think carefully about what equipment you’re taking.
Nowadays, most handheld camera equipment is lightweight and a doddle to carry on long journeys. For example, last week, I was lugging two mirrorless cameras, filters, two tripods, a laptop, power bank chargers, and zoom and wide angles lenses up mountains taller than Ben Nevis. Moreover, I only took a Viper Tactical side bag with me. In total, I was carrying just under 14kgs in weight.
However, telescopes and additional equipment such as mounts, guide scopes, power generators, camping gear, water and food can be pretty heavy to lug about on the uneven ground and rocky terrain.
Please be advised that the vast majority of this equipment (listed below) is not required if, for example, you’re planning on using transport and staying close to your local apartment or home, e.g., camping gear.
Furthermore, if you’re planning on travelling to a foreign country, it’s wise to check with the airlines and the embassy of the country you’re travelling to regarding what equipment you’re allowed to take and where it has to be packed on the aircraft. For example, some airline companies have strict rules about certain batteries. Moreover, some countries around the world strictly prohibit the use of laser pointers and satellite phones.
Finally, it’s probably wise to look into insuring all of your equipment and looking into travel insurance in the event you need medical treatment abroad.
Below I’ve included a list of additional equipment you may need if you’re planning on hiking to remote locations and camping for a few days or more.
- Mount and tripod: A mount and tripod must be capable of bearing any additional loads. Alternatively, you may want to buy your mount and tripod separately. Read here for more information.
- Cameras: Nikon Z7 II, Sony A7R IV or a dedicated Astro camera (CMOS or CCD).
- Filters: Read more here and here.
- Guide scope: A guide scope is a small refractor or even a modified finder-scope that is mounted along with the imaging telescope and camera, and its job is to capture an image of a single star using its small camera and then analyse the movement of that star in the field of view using guiding software.
- Filter wheels: Filter wheels are essential for holding colour filters for monochrome astrophotography. A telescope filter wheel can streamline your astrophotography acquisition process by allowing you to change filters without removing the camera.
- Focusers: The focuser moves the eyepiece holder up and down slightly, adjusting the focus of the eyepiece for each individual observer. Focusers usually are required for focusing a telescope.
- Rotator: A rotator rotates the entire Optical Tube Assembly or the OTA. This means that any equipment installed on the OTA is rotated too. Therefore, you can use a piggybacked guide telescope for guiding or taking long-exposure images with telephoto lenses mounted on top of the OTA.
- Switches: Switches are an excellent way to ensure you can have total electrical control over your equipment without having to go to the observatory. This can be crucial in a remote set-up where you cannot access the equipment.
- Weather sensors: While not always essential, weather sensors can help you with accurate real-time temperature, humidity and dew points at your exact location instead of relying on estimated readings from weather apps. Please ensure you check the compatibility of weather devices with the equipment you’re using before buying.
- Fans: Depending on your setup, your telescope size, and the environmental temperature, you may need a fan or cooling system to optimise your scope before you begin using it. Additionally, you may need a fan or cooling system for your camera; though most Astro cameras come equipped with fans, most modified Astro cameras don’t. Therefore, to keep noise down to a bare minimum, you will need a cooling fan for your camera’s sensor if it hasn’t already got one.
- Portable power station: You may need a portable power station when travelling or if there’s a power outage. Furthermore, I would not advise building your DIY version unless you’re a qualified electrical engineer. Read here for more information.
- Charts: A star chart or star finder app. I prefer the Star Walk 2 app. You can opt for the free version or the paid version. In my opinion, the paid version is much better.
- Green laser pointer: Pointers are restricted and banned in some countries; therefore, checking with the local authorities before ordering one is essential. In the U.K., no specific law prevents you from using a laser pointer for Astrophotography as long as it’s not used recklessly.
- T-ring: T-rings are required to attach your mirrorless/DSLR camera body to the telescope.
- Barlow lens: A Barlow lens increases the magnification of the telescope.
- Headlamp and torch: Petzl and IProtech are the best military-grade torches on the market.
- Camping gear: i.e., water reservoir, wet or dried food, water purification tablets, first aid kit, extra batteries, maps, compass, red/purple smoke grenade (for emergency airlift), camping knife, suitable clothing, please remember that temperatures drop significantly at night in deserts, mountains, coastal regions and open countryside. Waterproofs for you and your equipment, decent hardwearing hiking boots (with ankle protection), GPS tracker, satellite phone (if you’re working in regions with no cell phone coverage). Check local country laws regarding sat phones because satellite phones are prohibited in several countries.
- Tent: Waterproof tent, i.e., Snugpak Ionosphere 1–2-man tent with Snugpak waterproof sleeping bag. Depending on the amount of kit you’re taking on your Astro vacation, you may need a two-person tent.
- Star gazing chair and table: A star gazing chair and table are suitable for a more accessible and comfortable workflow.
- Cleaning and calibration equipment: i.e., sensor swabs and cleaner, lens microfiber cloth, loupe, blowers, brushes, telescope, collimator, etc.
- Spare phone: You may need an extra phone if your primary phone is damaged/lost.
- Charger cables: For charging phones, etc.
- Phone apps: i.e., weather, star chart, flight radar, navigation, etc.
- Suitable backpack: Teesar 100lrt olive backpack with a waterproof cover (preferably with high visibility straps).
- Glow sticks: NATO military-grade glow sticks. Ideal for keeping track of your kit or people with you in unfamiliar terrain.
- Midge protection: Mosquito net, repellent, bite stick etc.
- Tic protection: A decent hat, herbal shampoo and essential oils to deter tics (read more here).
- Emergency numbers: i.e., international and local, in the event of an accident or wild animal attack
- Translation: Translation apps (Google translation remains the best app I’ve used thus far)
The additional kit I’ve listed above is essential for some local and most off-road/trail country astrophotography projects. However, most of the equipment I’ve highlighted will not be required if you’re staying local and planning only a few hours of photography, i.e., in the back garden, local beach or field. That said, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it but not have it.
Astrophotography cannot be mastered in a day, week or even a few months. Astrophotography is a genre of photography that requires a lot of patience, dedication, time, and effort. However, don’t let this put you off from starting.
We all have to start somewhere. My first camera was a 1940s Kodak Brownie, much older than me, but it taught me patience, how to shoot, frame, compose, etc. Nowadays, digital photography is rushed; people often want instant results and become frustrated and bored when things don’t turn out how they want to.
Astro-photographers need to learn about light pollution, moon phases, the night sky, celestial objects, space phenomena, weather and atmosphere changes, and suitable shooting locations. In addition, Astro-photographers need to understand and master manual focus, shooting in RAW, processing from RAW, working from a tripod, and much more.
There are numerous mistakes to watch out for, too, such as not getting the focus right and capturing soft data instead of clear and sharp data. Moreover, composition and framing are crucial in astrophotography, especially (competitive photography). Instead of depicting a dull night sky, home in on a subject, focus on it, remember the rule of thirds, and include something interesting such as the landscape at the bottom, the night sky filling two-thirds of the frame and your primary focal subject off centre on the right or left.
In addition, most Astro-photographers agree that Astro-images must depict more than a “black sky”, meaning, when post-processing, it’s best to include stars, planets, and everything you see instead of homing in on one subject and leaving everything black. You may want to have just one focal feature, such as a distant nebula with stars and planets; however, don’t leave everything black around your subject. Furthermore, don’t over-sharpen your images during the post-processing stage or apply too much denoise.
Being too impatient is one of the most common mistakes that even experienced Astro-photographers make, such as not letting the optics and telescope cool down to ambient temperature. Telescopes and optics must be at ambient atmosphere temperature before you start shooting to obtain high-resolution lunar and planetary imaging. Professional Astro photographers use specialist fans to cool their telescopes down before they start imaging. Read more here about cooling fans.
Collimating your optics is also essential in astrophotography too. Collimation is, simply put, the physical alignment of your telescope’s optics. If your telescope is not collimated correctly, it will be impossible to focus properly, no matter the sky conditions. If you want to take the very best images, you must collimate your optics regularly.
Light pollution is probably one of the biggest problems Astro-photographers have to deal with, and it’s not just artificial but natural. Wheater it is streetlamps, a distant town, city, village, approaching car, Elon Musks Starlink satellites or even moonlight. Too much light pollution can ruin hours of hard work. Therefore, it’s best to plan before heading out and stay tuned to regular updates concerning overhead traffic, too, i.e., satellites. Read more here.
As mentioned above, shooting in RAW is necessary for astrophotography imaging. When shooting in RAW instead of Jpeg, you record all of your sensor’s data and greater brightness levels. Furthermore, you can correct over or underexposed images and white balance and record better detail. Shooting in RAW allows you to edit your pictures easily rather than destructively. Processed RAW photos print better than processed Jpegs, and photographs look more professional too.
Going out poorly equipped is also a common mistake a minority of Astro-photographers make. Therefore, it is best to lay all your kit on the floor before you pack and check that you’ve got everything you need before embarking on your project, such as extra memory cards, power banks, filters, baseplate, tripod etc. There’s nothing more annoying than travelling miles for a once-in-a-lifetime shot only to find you’ve forgotten a vital piece of kit.
Specialist and advanced astrophotography are expensive pursuits. Therefore, it’s essential to ask questions, research before buying, try before you use and remember your choices need to be geared towards practicality and usability. Don’t expect results every night, and be prepared for plenty of challenges to happen along the way. In addition, be prepared to make plenty of mistakes. This is normal; however, don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes and educate others along the way. You never know; you may become the next Galileo Galilei.
Finally, it’s important to note that astrophotography, like all photography, must be practised ethically and not immorally or fraudulently. In recent years, the internet has been flooded with thousands of fraudulent Astro images produced in Photoshop that do not depict authentic night sky or deep space photography.
Hence, learning from your peers, asking questions, and seeking advice are essential. This is especially important if you’re showcasing Astro images to schools and universities or selling your work commercially. The public and budding young students want to see genuine Astro imaging instead of composites or fake images made in Photoshop.
Astrophotography must always be conducted ethically concerning flora and fauna. The ground you work on must be left how you found it; wildlife must not be disturbed for the sake of a photo, regardless of how vital the imaging session is or whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Furthermore, respecting each other’s work is crucial. Critique must only be provided if it’s been asked for. Under no circumstances should learners new to astrophotography be ridiculed or bullied for using cheaper equipment or if their images don’t look as good as yours. When we mock beginners, we turn them away. If you’ve nothing good to say, don’t say it, and only provide critique, advice and suggestions when it has been asked for.
If you suspect an Astro image has been produced fraudulently and posted on an online forum, contact the admins of that group and explain why such images harm the Astro community. Moreover, suppose you suspect an Astro image has been captured immorally of which the environment or wildlife has come to harm. In that case, you must report that individual or group to the relevant authorities.