It seems many digital photographers are under the impression that one needs to use a telescope in order to engage in astrophotography. While that is indeed one excellent way to start imaging the wonders of the night sky, a lot of night sky photography can be accomplished with the equipment you probably already have.
Let’s look at a good kit for beginning in digital astrophotography.
What Camera to Use?
The largest sensor interchangeable lens camera you have is going to be the top choice. A Full-Frame format DSLR or mirrorless camera will offer the best quality for night sky pictures. Other good alternatives are the higher end APS-C and MFT format cameras.
Larger format sensors are preferred for astrophotography for several reasons. A bigger sensor generally has bigger pixels, which give better low light response as well as less digital noise.
There are many options for astrophotography lenses. Two great options are wide angle lenses, zooms or primes, and fast aperture primes in the normal to very short telephoto range.
Taking photos through a guided telescope is another fine option, but that may be a little more advanced than a beginner would want to attempt, at first anyway. Once a person gets familiar with imaging the night sky, then using a telescope is the obvious next choice. The two major options are shooting through the telescope itself or piggybacking the camera and lens on the guided scope.
Reasons for choosing shorter or faster lenses are due to the rotation of the Earth. On an unguided mount, this rotation results in the stars becoming streaks instead of points in long exposures. With a wider angle lens, the effect is lessened somewhat. With a faster lens, the exposure doesn’t have to be as long. Long telephoto lenses will cause streaking to happen with even short exposures.
So, lenses in the 20mm to 24mm range are great for beginning astrophotography, as are faster normal lenses like a 50mm f/1.4 lens. A short fast telephoto prime up to about 85mm or 100mm will work if it is fast enough. A lot of awesome images of the night sky are taken with lenses in the wide angle range.
A Tripod is a Must
Any astronomy photography is going to need a tripod of some sort. A tabletop tripod comes in handy when traveling, as it can be used to position the camera on a balcony, a rock outcropping, or even a table.
Larger, more sturdy tripods will provide excellent stability for long exposures and for a heavier camera or lens. Using a good tripod will also allow for any special processes such as image stacking or HDR photography.
So, a good beginning kit for astrophotography should probably have both a large tripod and a compact or tabletop version. In addition to the tripod, some sort of remote release is a good idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s corded or wireless, a remote release increases your chances of getting usable images that aren’t degraded by camera shake.
Red LED Flashlight
It’s dark out, but you don’t want to ruin your night vision. So, in order to find your stuff in your bag and keep your footing, a red flashlight is one of the more valuable small accessories for amateur astronomers at any level of expertise.
Portable LED lights are a good choice for many people because they are small, rugged, and don’t eat up a lot of battery juice. Some even have adjustable power settings, which is useful for adapting to varied lighting conditions. Sometimes you may be out the wilds under a dark sky, other times you could be in an urban area or under the light of a full moon.
Extra Batteries and Memory Cards
Long exposures consume battery power, and a series of exposures will soon eat up space on a memory card. So having spares of these items could make the difference between being to continue to shoot photos or to pack it up and go home.
Hiking Chair or Stool
This is a non-photographic item that is one of the more important items for any long photography sessions. When out in the field, whether it’s an actual field or a city street, sometimes you’ll want to take a load off your feet.
Carrying around a folding chair like we use around a card table may not be an option for longer treks. Camping or hiking chairs and stools are tailor-made for this situation. They fold up to about the same size as a good tripod, and they keep your pants off of the possibly wet or cold ground.
Heavy Duty Bag
Since we’re likely to be out in some unfamiliar terrain from time to time for astrophotography, having a sturdy bag with some protection for the camera and lenses. A tough camera bag is a good idea for any type of outdoor photography, not just astrophotography.
It used to be that we carried star charts or a small book to help find objects in the night sky, now we can use our smartphone to assist our astronomy goals for the evening. Many apps are free, others are very low cost. Not all apps work with the operating systems our phone may have, so be sure to search for Android or iOS apps, whichever you have.
Some of these apps will have ads, but a paid app shouldn’t have any ads. Some apps will continue to work offline, which is useful if you’re outside of your carrier’s coverage area.
…and the Rest
That’s the basic kit. The other items are somewhat generic and apply to any sort of outdoor photographic excursion. Comfortable shoes are an absolute must. Nothing takes away the joy of doing something outside as quickly as sore feet will. Moisture-wicking socks are a good addition for the extra level of comfort and protection they add.
Even on a Summer night, temps can fall enough to make having a light jacket on a good idea. In colder areas or colder months, adequate protective clothing can make the difference between staying out and having fun or leaving to go get warm and safe.
Some people may like using a walking stick, others may want a beverage in a reusable container or a light snack.
Having a friend with you or being in a small group can be fun as well as offering protection against boredom or possible dangers.
Any way you look at it, astrophotography is a great opportunity to capture beautiful images and have fun doing it. Like one popular astronomy TV host used to say, “Keep looking up!”