Astrophotography 101 - Welcome to Astrophotography - Eric Benedetti
  • Astrophotography 101 - Welcome to Astrophotography

“For $1,000 I can teach you…..” often sounds too good to be true, almost always is. I think anyone who has looked into or even pursued photography in general has come to the realization that it’s not a hobby that’s light on the wallet. For a person just getting into this, someone who isn’t going to be spending as many nights as possible out shooting, it’s a tough pill to swallow when they see the common recommendations for equipment investment. This is especially true for those who haven’t made much of investment in photography equipment already, if you’re current equipment list starts and ends with a point and shoot camera then there’s a bit of up front sticker shock. Common recommendations I’ve seen online are for cameras like the Canon 5dmIII, t6i, or 6D, or Nikon D7200, D810, D750, Sony A7r, A7s, etc. Those cameras alone will set you back at least a $1,000 if not several thousand dollars and that’s not even touching on lenses. Common recommendations for lenses often are ones like the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8, various Canon/Nikon/Sony lenses in the 10-20mm range at f2.8, and something like the Rokinon/Samyang/Bower 14mm f2.8 or 16mm f2.

On average I’d say the recommended setup for astrophotography that I see online would have a sticker price of around $1,500, for ~$1,000 I would recommend a setup that will completely outclass the common recommendations. So what can you get for $1,000 that would blow away pretty much everything else, including $2,000+ cameras, $1,500 lenses and various other equipment? To start, you can/would buy a Canon t41/t5i, Nikon D7000/D7100 or 3300/5300 from Adorama, Amazon, or Ebay for $350-450. Used, yes, but this is the best value you can pursue to get into this hobby, those cameras have very good sensors and are above your very entry-level DSLR’s which will have poor quality and a higher price brand-new. Do your homework, check with the seller for information on shutter actuations (modern cameras are mostly rated for ~100,000-150,000 actuations over their lifetime, try to find one <50,000 which is not hard). Next, you can buy a Rokinon/Samyang/Bower 14mm f2.8 or 16mm f2 lens for ~$250-350 from Adorama, Amazon, or Ebay, these lenses are probably the best value for ultra-wide angle astrophotography, they have very low coma and are sharp from corner to corner. Other ultra-wide angle lenses will be more expensive, have worse coma, and/or be notoriously soft in low light conditions. So far you’ll have invested around $600-700 for a quality used camera body and a very good lens for astrophotography purposes.

The biggest difference in quality for astrophotography images is my next recommendation, buy yourself a tracking mount. You can currently buy a solid tracking mount like the iOptron Skytracker on Amazon brand new for $300, I got mine from Amazon Warehouse Deals (with a warranty) for $250. This tracking mount will allow you take exposures of the sky up to 15 minutes (maybe even longer, I’ve gone up to 15) with no star trailing using wide angle lenses. Being able to take long exposures of the sky will allow you to lower your ISO, stop-down your aperture, and produce low noise, high quality images of the stars. A tracking mount will also require you to be proficient with certain post-processing steps, because you are taking long/tracked images of the sky the foreground of those images will be blurred. You will have to take matching shots with the tracking mount off of the foreground to produce sharp foreground images, then composite the sky and foreground. This process is not hard and honestly it’s a technique most people should be doing even if they don’t have a tracking mount, taking long/low ISO images of the foreground and then taking a proper exposure of the sky produces the highest quality images. Purists will claim something about not producing a real image or have some other idea about how if you’re not taking just 1 image you’re being authentic, pure nonsense IMO. In essence using this method is no different than producing a panorama or HDR shot, using multiple images to produce a higher quality and more interesting final image.

Finally you are going to need a solid tripod and a few peripheral accessories, I’ve bought two Dolica ZX600B103 tripods which are $100 off Amazon, come with a nice ballhead, are very lightweight, and are more than stable enough to take long tracked exposures of the sky with a wide angle lens. Additionally you’ll also need an intervalometer, I’ve purchased multiple intervalometers off Amazon for $20 or less which have never failed me. It’s also wise to buy at least 1 extra camera battery, taking long exposures will drain your battery fairly quickly, and again Amazon has good prices on spare camera batteries. Buy a good class 10 high speed memory card, 16gb is usually more than enough for a mid-level crop sensor camera like the ones I’ve mentioned above. A tripod, intervalometer, extra battery, and memory card will run you ~$150 based on what I’ve spent previously.

Altogether those are the minimum things to take very high quality wide angle astrophotography images, ~$350-450 for a camera body, ~$250 for a good lens, ~$250-300 for a tracking mount, ~$150 for a tripod and a few accessories, total cost = ~$1,000-1,150. You will of course find yourself spending sums of money on other things to help your pursuit of this hobby, but that list will get you well ahead of the now busy/large astrophotography crowd. The next section will discuss things to keep in mind when it comes to this hobby, besides the actual picture taking.

In the next section (Astrophotography 101 - Expectations and Preparations) I will discuss what you should do to prepare yourself for going out and imaging at night, this page can be accessed from the Browse link above. 

Nikon D7000 + Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 lens on an iOptron Skytracker mount