This post is part of a larger 4 step series, check them all out:
Step 1: Using the Star Adventurer Tracker
Step 2: How to Shoot the Moon
Step 3: Choosing Gear for Deep-Sky Imaging
Step 4: Shooting Deep-Sky Images
Shooting the night sky has never been more popular, nor easier. The choice of equipment has also never been better, or more affordable. However, as per the advice given by Dickinson and Dyer in their book The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, we suggest getting into astrophotography one step at a time.
Step One: Use Your Phone
Remarkably, modern phone cameras are capable of providing impressive results when used on a tripod in low-light mode for long exposures of scenes at night. Even older phones have cameras good enough to capture images of the Moon when clamped to the eyepiece of a telescope, with an accessory like a Smartphone Adapter.
Start with the phone’s own camera app. However, apps such as Deep Sky Camera (for Android) and Night Cap (for Apple iOS) provide more advanced options. Dabbling with phone astrophotography provides practice in framing scenes at night, setting a camera, aiming through a telescope, and simple image processing.
Step Two: Use Your DSLR on a Tripod
If you have an older DSLR camera or a newer mirrorless camera, plus a kit zoom lens, use it on a sturdy tripod to shoot short exposures (under 30 seconds) of night scenes lit by moonlight.
Mastering this type of “camera-on-tripod” nightscape photography will give you invaluable experience in operating and focusing a camera at night. Focusing has to be done manually, by using Live View to focus on a star at a 5x or 10x zoom setting.
You’ll also gain experience adjusting camera settings for the best exposures. On moonlit nights, use the lens you have at an aperture of f/4 to f/5.6 (or wider at f/2.8), and set the camera to an ISO speed of 400 to 1600 for exposures of 10 to 20 seconds. You’ll be amazed at what the camera can capture by moonlight.
Step Three: Upgrade to a Better Lens
Shooting the Milky Way in a dark, moonless sky requires exposures of 30 to 40 seconds at ISO 1600 to 6400, but with a fast lens, likely your first necessary astrophoto purchase.
Nightscape photography, and all tracked constellation portraits, as described below, benefit from having an f/2 to f/2.8 wide-angle (12mm to 24mm) lens. Manual focus lenses from brands such as Rokinon (shown) are popular and affordable. No matter how much more gear you buy, you will always have a use for such a nightscape lens.
Step Four: Add a star Tracker
A camera on a fixed tripod limits your exposures to no more than 30 to 40 seconds before the motion of the sky trails the stars. By placing the camera on a motorized star tracker it can follow the moving sky, allowing the camera to record even more Milky Way detail, while keeping the stars pinpoint. With exposures of several minutes under dark skies, the Milky Way shows up with stunning structure and colour. You’ll be hooked.
Getting good results requires learning how to “polar align” the tracker so its motorized rotation axis aims toward the North Celestial Pole near (but not exactly at) Polaris. The tracker, and any camera on it, will then turn to accurately follow the stars from east to west. Using short telephoto lenses you can start shooting big deep-sky objects.
See our Astrophotography for Beginners Step 1: Using the Star Adventurer Tracker for more information.
Step Five: Shoot the Moon Through a Telescope
While you might want to immediately move up shooting long exposures of targets like the Andromeda Galaxy through your telescope, first try the Moon with your DSLR or mirrorless camera. Attaching the camera body (without lens) to your telescope requires a "T-Ring Adapter" and a “T-Ring” (shown) for your camera brand.
The Moon is bright and requires only short exposures well under a second. As such, the Moon can be shot through any telescope on any mount. Shooting the Moon provides experience with focusing and framing through a telescope, not always easy tasks!
See our Astrophotography for Beginners Step 2: How to Shoot the Moon for helpful tips.
"The Big" Step Six: Shooting Deep Sky Through a Telescope
This is where many aspiring astrophotographers want to start. But it’s a giant leap! Getting the colourful images that often entice newcomers into astrophotography requires a suite of specialized gear – both mounts and telescopes, not to mention accessories – that will add up to $2,000 … or much more.
The types of telescopes we recommend as the best buys for visual astronomy (i.e. just looking!) will almost certainly not be suited to long-exposure deep-sky imaging.
We survey the equipment required in our Astrophotography for Beginners Step 3: Choosing Gear for Deep-Sky Imaging.