Astrophotography on a Budget

For many amateur astronomers, the passion for deep space observing ultimately leads them to photography and imaging of the night sky.

It is a good thing to come home with pictures of your late night observing sessions, sharing with others what you are actually doing out there all night, as crazy as it might seem to them.

Usually the first perilous step into astro imaging is taking pictures of the entire sky, aurora and light pillars, and then moving on to individual constellations.

Using a simple camera and tripod, with some exposure control, makes this a short learning curve and results in great pictures.

Through this time of learning you will familiarize yourself with all of your camera’s functions and how to use them in dark, or nearly dark, conditions.

The next challenge is to start taking pictures of the moon and the planets.

At this point you are now using your telescope and camera gear at the same time in the dark. Your exposure times for lunar shots are less than a second for a nice image, and even the most basic camera and telescope combination will produce impressive results.

When it comes to imaging planets with a telescope and camera, Jupiter and Saturn are the favourites because of the amount of detail and their relative brightness. Jupiter’s cloud bands and ever-present moons make easy targets for the budding night time photographer.

As for Saturn, my first successful photo came as a bit of a surprise. It took a four minute exposure at ISO 1000, using a telescope with a 2010mm focal length. At this point the telescope is just a big telephoto lens.

It sounds impressive doesn’t it? Well, not really – when the image is displayed on a 29-inch computer monitor, Saturn is about the size of the flat end of a pen. Remember, Saturn is about 1.2 billion kilometres distant, making it challenging to photograph, to say the least.

Next on the list: galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. These fascinating deep sky objects require long exposure, and tracking, sometimes for several hours. Even for the best of motorized tracking telescope mounts, tracking accurately enough for photography is limited to around four or five minutes.

In order to accurately guide photography for any length of time you will require a separate guide scope, an adjustable ring system for the guide scope and finally a computer. The setup becomes expensive, and amazingly complicated. With cables everywhere it ends up looking like a rat’s nest.

Modern technology has made this expense and hassle a thing of the past, with a couple of new and innovative pieces of engineering.

First is an off-axis guider you attach to your finder scope. The real bonus is that it has the computer built right in.

All you do is attach the guider to your finder scope, or a separate scope riding on the back of your main telescope, and then plug it into your telescope’s mount.

On the back of the guider is a small LCD screen. By aligning a star in the cross hairs, and locking onto the star, the guider will move the telescope mount when required to achieve perfect tracking.

It runs on four double AA batteries, which means fewer power problems as well.

This amazing little gadget sells for about $350 and is a breakthrough in technology, making astro imaging faster and easier, with better results and less equipment.

The next innovative piece of technology designed for amateur astronomers is a special guide scope mount. When you are taking a picture of a galaxy, for example, your main telescope and camera are pointed at the galaxy. The guide scope is actually pointed at a nearby star, which is why it is called off-axis guiding.

This new guide scope mount bolts to the back of your telescope or onto a separate mounting plate. It can be adjusted 12 degrees, up or down. No more need for adjustment rings that can scratch your telescope finish, and an end to rings slipping as the temperature drops, ruining a perfect picture.

This little mount is built very well, is easy to use, and sells for about $200. It’s a fantastic investment for any astro photographer.

These two accessories are small and lightweight, making for easy transport to any observing site. On top of all that, they are affordable. With this gear, the night sky is now open to the astro photographers.

Clear Skies!

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