Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I have a Canon 20D. I'd love to take some photos of the moon and stars.

How do I get started? I've search the web and the information is sparse and cryptic.

I'd like to know what equipment is the best for a beginner and what I should try taking a photo of first... besides the moon :).

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I would be interested in the answers to this as well. I have been researching astrophotography for a while, and one of the key factors is a tracking mount or tracking telescope that can keep the camera pointed at the same stars as the earth moves. Beyond that, I have also not been able to find much information. –  jrista Jul 22 '10 at 19:33
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@jrista I'm in the same boat. It seems like a black art. I've found some stellar photos on the net taken by DSLRs. I'll update the post as I find more information. –  Chuck Conway Jul 22 '10 at 19:35
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Thanks for all the links. I'll check them out. I have some good astrophotography articles bookmarked at home...I'll try to find them and add an answer once I get off work. –  jrista Jul 22 '10 at 21:55
    
+1 for the astronomical pun! –  alastairs Jul 30 '10 at 11:17
    
I would suggest The Handbook of Astronomical Image Processing for your book list. –  Rusty Sep 3 '10 at 13:55
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6 Answers 6

up vote 34 down vote accepted

You don't need any special equipment if you're just starting out with astrophotography. So forget about a telescope and an equatorial mount (to counter the earth's rotation) just for now, it's complicated enough already without those things ;).

Besides the moon you can take wide field shots of the night sky with your 20D and a normal lens and tripod. I suggest you use a lens that has a large aperture (e.g. the 50mm F1.8) since you want to capture as much light as possible.

On a fixed (normal alt/az) tripod you could try photographing:

Because the rotation of the earth the stars appear to move. Therefore you need to limit the exposure time unless you want to photograph star trails. There are some guidelines to determine the maximum exposure time on the Astropix site (I have a calculation somewhere as well, I'll try too look it up for you). It's advisable to take multiple photo's of the sky and stack these. This will improve the signal/noise ratio considerably. DeepskyStacker is an easy (and freeware) tool to help you stacking your images. The images do not have to be aligned. DeepskyStacker will do the alignment and registration for you. If you find DeepskyStacker too limited you can also try IRIS. This tool is not so user friendly but it offers many more options than DeepskyStacker.

Once you've mastered astrophotography with a fixed tripod and a normal lens you can consider an equatorial mount and a telescope. Since a telescope will magnify the image so much you will need an equatorial mount otherwise the stars and galaxies will move out of your frame in seconds. Buy the best equatorial mount you can afford. I had a Orion Skyview Pro mount which was not so well performing so it was useless for serious astrophotography. The Losmandy GM-8 and Vixen Sphinx mounts are far better. If you only want to use the camera the Kenko Skymemo would be a good solution.

There are many different telescopes you can choose (refractor, reflector, catadioptics) and each has their pros and cons (could be another post ;). I had an Orion ED80 refractor and was very happy with it. To connect your camera to a telescope you'll need a photo adapter like this one.

Last but not least: if you live in an area with lots of light pollution you can consider buying a light pollution filter. I can recommend the front filters from Hutech. These filters are placed in the camera body and therefore work with many types of lenses and telescopes.

Clear skies! (this is the standard astrophotographer greeting :)

EDIT:

As promised: Here's a link to a Google spreadsheet where you can calculate the maximum exposure time without trailing stars. You need to provide 2 numbers: camera crop factor and focal length of the lens. The final parameter is the declination of the celestial object (already available in the table in 5 deg steps to get a rough idea).

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Thank you for the detailed answer. I appreciate the links and the suggestions. –  Chuck Conway Jul 23 '10 at 17:15
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Thanks for the info! I agree with Chuck, excellent answer. –  jrista Jul 23 '10 at 19:10
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I finally found one of the best astrophotography articles I've ever found on the net. This article is very thourough, and covers both the taking of long-exposure shots as well as the critical post-processing phase. I have not yet been able to take advantage of the great knowledge here yet, as I do not have a tracking mount, however the theory explained in the article seems very sound and specifically geared towards taking the best astrophotography shots:

Long-Exposure Astrophotography

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+1: great article indeed! –  Marc Aug 9 '10 at 6:58
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if anyone stumbles across this still (like I did), I think this is the updated link: naturescapes.net/articles/techniques/… –  laurencemadill Feb 3 at 13:42
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There's loads of useful-looking information in the "Astrophotography Techniques" section of astropix.com. Unfortunately, I can't vouch for any of it; I live in London, light pollution capital of Europe...

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That's the problem. There is a ton of information on the next. Half of it is over 5 years old. Astrophotography seems to have two aspects: the camera (or stellar CCD) and the telescope. I've got a camera. I'm looking for a guide on choosing the entry level telescope and hooking up my camera to it. –  Chuck Conway Jul 22 '10 at 21:08
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One thing I'd reccomend is getting along to your local club. There will be people there who can help you, and you may well be able to borrow equipment to try out. One near me (West Yorkshire Astronomical Society) even have a motorised 16" or so reflector and a group that meets to do photography (with that and other telescopes), obviously if there was something like that near you it would be ideal.

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I am pretty new to the astrophotography scene but I have learned fairly quickly. I read Introduction to Digital Photography which can be found on Amazon, this gave me a great starting point to start from and experiment with. My current setup is:

Canon 40D Celestron Omni XLT 150 Newtonian Telescope with adapter ring. Auto Compensating tripod. This compensates for the rotation of the earth for long exposure shots.

Some shots take a few hours and some post processing to get a really good deep space photo.

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Thank you for the answer. What Auto compensating tripod do you have? –  Chuck Conway Jul 23 '10 at 4:53
    
The telescope comes with the tripod but you would need to get the Motor Drive, DA for CG-4 mounts for it. –  Damon Jul 23 '10 at 15:25
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Since the question mentioned taking pictures of the moon, I would like to point a very helpful android app for this: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.sylde.Moon

It allows you to plan in advance where the moon will be.

For example, if there is a full moon next week, it can tell you it will raise on top of your neighbours house at 4am, so you won't spend the whole night waiting for it.

You can also use still pictures, so let's say there is this place at one driving hour from your place which is a perfect spot for astronomic pictures (open sky, no light pollution,...). If you took a few pictures from this place with the app, you can know from home when and where the moon will raise.

This is useful for either shooting the moon... Or avoiding it so you can shoot other celestial objects without its light pollution.

The app also allows you to know the sun position which may be useful for other kind of photography.

Just to clarify, I'm not involved in any way with this app or its makers. This is just something that has been very helpful for me, so I'm sharing it.

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