Category Archives: Tripod

Astrophotography Equipment Recommendations – Beginner to Intermediate

For basic astrophotography I recommend starting with a wide angle lens and a sturdy tripod.  That’s it. Go out there and get some Milky Way or starry sky shots. Take plenty and average stack them (after aligning them). More on this later.

To image things like the moon, planets, galaxies and nebula you’ll want to move up to a decent telephoto lens (200-800 mm effective focal length) and an Equatorial Mount.

Mounts

To my thinking there are 4 categories of mounts with their approximate prices and assembled total weight (excluding telescope or camera):

  • Light, single drive (e.g. the AstroTrac, $900, 15 lbs, the Polarie or the SkyTracker)
  • Cheap ($189) and probably useless to decent but limited AstroView Equatorial $350, 26 lbs.
  • Mid-range, accurate with features like autoguide ports, and GoTo: Celestron CG-5GT, $690, 42 lbs; Orion Sirius, $1150, 43 lbs; Orion Atlas, $1400, 76 lbs. All are heavy!
  • High end: A hefty hunk of metal with a hefty price point: e.g. Celestron CGE Pro, $4,400, 154 lbs.

In the examples I’ve shown mostly equipment from Orion for three reasons:

  1. I have Orion equipment and they have a local store.
  2. They have a good reputation for being helpful and consumer friendly
  3. Their website makes comparisons easy!

The Portable Solution

The best portable solution is clearly the well made AstroTrac with the power cable, finder scope (upper right) and the drive at the bottom.

MaierAstrotrac

To use this you need several other bits and pieces shown here excluding a standard camera tripod.

MaierAstroTracKit

It’s a well engineered, portable system. All the gear together (including tripod, drive, camera, telephoto lens, batteries, etc) is about 16 pounds – meaning you can carry it with you. The next closest equatorial drive solution is about twice that heavy.

The cost is a minimum of $680 for the drive, polar scope and power cable. But you’ll need some additional head components (about $210), a power supply of some kind ($30) and perhaps a sturdier tripod. The total outlay will be under a thousand making it comparable to the low end of the mid-range mounts.

PROS: The AstroTrac is easy to set up, and relatively easy to align if you use the geared heads and the polar scope. You can pack it in a suitcase or a backpack and take it on an airplane!

CONS: More expensive than a single drive equatorial mount. Only drives one axis (all that is generally needed). Maximum tracking time is about 2 hours. Repointing the camera may misalign the drive. Need to build or buy a 12V battery pack (though this is easy to do). Need to learn your sky to find things.

The Equatorial Mount

Go cheap, go big, go fancy… but you’re not going light.

OrionEquipmentRec

The AstroView – which I have – requires drive motor(s) for another $130 or so bringing the total outlay to about $380. It’s carry weight is about 35 pounds if you include the camera, and all accessories including counter weights.

PROS: Inexpensive, includes polar scope, lighter of the many mount options, can support modest refractor or small reflector. Tracks well.

CONS: No guide port, limited to about 12 pounds of capacity, no “GoTo” option so you have to learn your skies to use it well. Tripod is thin aluminum. It’s sturdy but may not hold up to extended use.

A step up from the entry level mount would be something like the SkyView Pro ($850) It includes a “GoTo” computerized control which is a great help to the novice and helps you with alignment routines. I’d probably opt for the Orion Sirius ($1150) however as it supports 10 more pounds (30 total) and for that extra $300 bucks you also get a polar scope, the ability to use a decently large telescope and fancier drive options. A highly recommend mount is the Celestron CG-5GT at about $690 add $50 for a polar scope. All of the GoTo mounts will “slew” (move rapidly and accurately) from one object to the next and you can enter the object into a keypad to get there. Save even more money by using your computer instead of the “GoTo” unit.

Attaching A Camera to A Mount

If you opt for a telescope mount, you will want to consider using a ball head for maximum ease of pointing the camera. However you CAN attach the camera directly to the dovetail bar and use it just like a telescope (with limitations on the field orientation). Here I have used a ring collar that couples my telephoto lens to the ball head. This allows me to rotate the camera to change the frame without having to repoint. It’s also better balanced.  There is enough room on the front of the dovetail to put another head and another camera.

CanonAstroAttach

BallHeadAstro

I even “cheated” and am using a camera as a counter weight – see it hanging there in front of me?

SLC_scopeAstro

Telescopes

If you decide to up the ante, here are a few commendable small, light refractors. None are “top of the line”, but I’ve had some pretty good success with the ED80. It’s biggest weakness is that it comes with no mounting bracket, and the focus mechanism is not the “dual speed” (fine focus) option that seems to help fine tune things. I did find that I could mount the ED80 on my scope without mounting rings by attaching it to a Vixen-style dovetail bar and a 1/4″ 20 cap screw. A hex bolt would work fine, too.  I drilled out one of the threaded holes in the dovetail bar.

OrionScopesRec

If you are thinking of going in all at once, various vendors offer bundles that might interest you.  Here are some examples from Orion (www.telescope.com)

OrionKits

 

 

 

 

Stacker’s Checklist

Created November 2, 2010
Last Updated April 19, 2019

Note: Items in RED are suggestions that apply in particular to star trail captures and may be changed based on circumstances at the scene and goals.

Site Selection

  • Sunrise, Sunset, Moonrise, Moonset and moon phase all known.
  • Safe area, travel paths known

Equipment

  • Camera, tripod, release plate, camera batteries, memory card, lens, intervalometer + batteries, lens hood, rain protection, headlamp, flashlight/torch, and items for light painting.

On Site

  • Tripod set up – no leaning (center column should be vertical) – leg locks tightened.
  • Camera aimed, leveled.
  • Camera locked onto tripod. Head tightened.
  • Tripod weighted/secure and everything is wobble free. Keep the tripod low and out of the wind for best stability. Do not extend the center column.
  • Neck strap removed or secured to prevent wind throw. Intervalometer and any other cord, or wiring also secure. Velcro on the intervalometer and the tripod leg is a handy trick.
  • Save GPS coordinates and/or mark site with glow stick / other?

Camera Settings

  • Manual Mode, Bulb exposure
  • ISO 200  (varies but from 100 to 800, and up to 6400 if capturing meteors or the Milky Way)
  • Single Exposure
  • LCD brightness down
  • Image review time off
  • Record in RAW
  • White Balance = daylight (Auto not recommended)
  • Aperture f/4 (f/1.4 to f/7.1)
  • Auto focus OFF
  • Image stabilizer (vibration reduction) OFF
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction OFF
  • Mirror Lockup OFF
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing OFF
  • Focus Assist OFF (this often fires an infra-red beam/red beam and will annoy other photographers). On many cameras this feature is on the flash unit/speedlite. On Nikons, this resource may help.

Timer Setup & Test

  • No delay, length of exposure = 1:59 minutes (adjust based on conditions. A 2 minute total interval is a good starting point), interval = 1 second, Num exposures >= 120
  • Timer cabled to camera
  • Test sequence (lens cap on) – Verify that second shot starts before canceling.

Focus & Final Framing

  • Check image composition, field of view.
  • Set camera to Aperture priority mode (not needed if it is already dark)
  • Take several bracketed shots in daylight or twilight: if it is already dark take a high ISO “range finding” shot. E.g. 2000 ISO for 30 seconds.
  • Pixel peep and adjust focus until sharp.

Battery and Card Shuffle

  • Remove memory card and insert second card. Format new card in camera.
  • Take second set of bracketed shots.
  • Return camera to Manual/Bulb mode.
  • Turn off camera and remove battery.
  • Reinsert battery (or insert fresh battery).
  • Verify that all settings are correct (See Camera Settings, above)

Final Steps

  • Check for wobble. Start by lightly jostling the camera, tripod, center column and even walking around in the area to make sure no movement occurs.
  • Set DELAY on interval timer appropriately (at least 5 seconds).  Goal is to start and/or end in twilight.
  • Secure cables for timer, external batteries (and neck strap). Do not block battery or memory card access.
  • Switch to aperture priority mode (so that your manual settings do not change), take a single image and re-verify focus. If already dark, take a high-ISO range finding shot for this task.
  • Switch back to Manual/Bulb.
  • Verify all camera settings as described in Camera Settings
  • Start Timer and verify that the timer is running.
  • If practical wait for first two shots to complete.
  • NOTE: You can leave the lens cap on for the first few exposure to collect DARK frames.

My thanks to Mike W. for comments and improvements to this checklist.

Additional References