Astrophotography Equipment

telescope-setup

Mounts

I started getting into astrophotography using a few different mounts. I tried using a really cheap EQ1 style mount that had a motor drive, but despite my best efforts to align it with the Southern Celestial Pole, I could never get it to work quite right. A lot of my frustration with this mount was due to the drive motor, it had a variable speed that you could change using a potentiometer and really no way to tell if you were close to the right speed.

Next, I got a hold of a Meade DS-2000 mount. This basic Alt-Az mount is fine for pointing a telescope at objects and looking through an eyepiece, but it’s useless for much else. There are instructions on modifying the firmware for the hand controller which will allow you to switch the mount from Alt-Az mode to EQ mode. If you put the mount on a wedge, you can get some level of accurate tracking as long as you don’t put much weight on the mount. A DSLR with a small-ish lens is probably as much load as you’d want to put on it before the clutches start to slip. It won’t be accurate enough for exposures of more than a minute anyway. You might get away with 250-300mm focal lengths with fairly short exposure times – enough to get an OK shot of the Orion Nebula.

Barn door mounts are quite a bit of fun. The basic ones are not too hard to make and you can get some decent results, but again don’t expect to take any really long exposures. You’re still limited to wider fields, or shorter exposures at longer focal lengths. I’ve had a few goes at making these with various levels of success. They’re a good project, and if you motorise them with say, a stepper motor controlled by an arduino, you can learn some programming and electronics along the way.

Ultimately all of this effort (and money) led me to buying a decent mount. The mount is key to getting good pictures. There are many, many mounts available but ultimately you will want an equatorial mount if your goal is astrophotography. I found that the HEQ5PRO was the best value for money at the time, and it has served me very well.

Guiding

If you’re starting off, you can probably skip an autoguider. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fantastic things and have helped me go from 20-50% keepers to 90-100% (weather permitting), but they are an added complexity. I currently use the fantastic and cheap Orion Starshoot autoguider package. You just fit it to the finder scope mount on your OTA, align it with the OTA, plug it into a computer and  the mount, and you’re good to go. It’s such a small package that it won’t add any more weight and it works well enough as a replacement for the finder scope.

OTA

AKA Optical Tube Assembly. This is where you’re really spoilt for choice. There are thousands of options to choose from, and researching your options will really pay off here. I went with a package deal for my first setup, HEQ5PRO mount with a Guan Sheng Optical f/5 8″ Newtonian telescope. It’s a decent package, I’ve taken some good shots with it, but I think if I was going to buy a new OTA I would spend the money on a good quality Ritchey–Chrétien telescope.

Imaging

I use a Canon 450d with the IR filter removed. It’s great for just taking shots without having to worry about filters. It has its limits – after all it’s still an entry level DSLR, but for now it’ll do.

Accessories

  • A small powered USB hub for connecting the autoguider and camera to.
  • A good electronic spirit level, for levelling the tripod and helping set the mount to the correct latitude.
  • Velcro cable ties are handy for keeping the mess of cables at bay.
  • It’s worth getting a Bahtinov Mask too – but I’ve found you need a fairly bright star to make use of it.
  • A laptop is essential for controlling everything too, especially if you’re like me and not permanently set up in a dome or roll-off-roof shed.
  • Get a laser collimator – this makes collimating the telescope quick and easy.

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