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Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography with a Telescope

It’s very common for a large number of amateur astronomers to eventually want to take photographs of the objects they have enjoyed observing, so they can document and share them with others. If you want to start shooting images of the night sky, here’s a basic beginner’s guide.

Getting Started

The simplest way to begin is to experiment with the equipment you already have. A great example is to use your smartphone’s camera, by holding it over your telescope’s eyepiece. This is great place to start when observing the moon. If you are trying this technique, below are some useful tips:

  1. Use the fastest shutter speed your camera allows. You may not be able to set this directly but if you choose a low power eyepiece, the image will be very bright so your phone camera should use a high speed automatically. This will help to reduce camera shake and improve the sharpness of the image.
  2. For even better results, get a smartphone to telescope adaptor like the Bresser Smartphone Adapter and if available on your phone, use the delayed shutter option. This will improve the sharpness and the ease with which you can take pictures.
Bresser Smartphone Adapter. Image credit: Bresser

Bresser Smartphone Adapter. Image credit: Bresser

Taking better pictures

If you wish to progress to the next level, you might want to consider a telescope that has motorized tracking and at this point you may also wish to consider a dedicated Luna and planetary camera. For example, the Celestron NexImage Solar System Imager is a very good starting point

Celestron Imager & Laptop. Image credit: Lecuit

Celestron Imager & Laptop. Image credit: Lecuit

You will also need a laptop or PC to connect to the imager via a USB port. However, please note that most Astrophotography software, especially the excellent freeware available often only runs on a Windows PC.

The Moon

Close up image of The Moon

Once connected and set up, you should now be able to take very detailed pictures of the Moon, sunspots and planets using your telescope and the imager.

Sun Spots

Close of Image of Sun Spots

Shooting Faint Objects

So far we have been taking pictures of very bright objects and using techniques that require only very short exposures. But supposing we now want to take pictures of the milky way or the great nebulae in Orion for example? These objects are faint and take up much bigger areas of the sky than a planet!

If you have a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera, then this is a great place to start. Using your DSLR camera on a standard tripod with a fixed lens of say 50mm f2 or faster, you can now make exposures of many seconds and capture night sky images that show areas of the Milky Way and numerous other faint objects as well as hundreds of stars.

Experiment with ISO settings and exposure times to get the best results, but always set the lens aperture to its maximum setting. You’ll find that getting a precise focus can be challenging, so a very cost effective way to get accurate focus every time is to use a Bahtinov Mask.

Finding a dark location is also very important for wide-field long exposure photographs to minimise light pollution on your images. Sometimes it is not always possible to find a site that is as dark as you would like. In these situations, light pollution filters can be a good solution.

Also note for longer exposures, you will need to mount your telescope on a polar aligned tracking mount. A good place to start if you have a telescope, is to fit your camera piggy back on your telescope. Often the tube rings used to hold your telescope will have a mounting point, like the example image shown below.

If you have one of the popular SCT telescopes then a piggyback adaptor is available, like the example shown below.

Camera Piggy Back Mount

Camera Piggy Back Mount

You will now be able to use longer exposures before star trails become visible and this will allow you to use longer focal length lenses. 80 to 140 to capture smaller objects or longer exposures to capture faint objects. Depending on the telescope you have you may also be able to fit your camera directly to the telescope.

If you do not already own a telescope (or your telescope does not have motorised tracking) and you want to move on to more advanced astrophotography, then you might want to look at our article on choosing your first telescope for astrophotography.

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