Hello fellow Star Gazers,
since many of you are completely new to the topic and don’t know where to start with Astrophotography, this series of articles is to help you start out with the hobby. The first article will cover the different tiers of setup that you can get and what terms of images you can expect from that. In the second article I will make suggestions for equipment and software used for the appropriate tiers. Additionally to that, I’ll try to cover possible upgrade paths from each tier. The last article will cover the capture and processing of a single image utilizing a Low-Tier setup.
This series of articles is just a rough guideline with equipment I -or fellow astrophotographers I know- have used successfully to start their Astrophotography ventures. If you have anything to add to that list (like pictures for a specific tier you want to add to it), feel free to contact me and we will work something out.
This series of articles is mainly focused on Deep Space Object (DSO) photography, which I specialize in. I will try to collaborate with some friendly Planetary astrophotographers to provide a similar article series for Solar System imaging down the line.
Part 1: Equipment Tiers
The tiers of Astrophotography are generally difficult to classify. I decided to classify the tiers as “Low”, “Mid” and “High” for this series. Each tier can have different levels as well, which essentially are determined by the price and quality of equipment used. For the sake of simplification I divided the levels into “Entry”, “Intermediate” and “Pro”.
This classification is very rough, but should give you an entry point to the price you want to pay or actually can afford. Astrophotography is per se an expensive hobby, therefore I want to show you that most of you still will be able to afford to shoot the stars. Higher tiers will allow you to shoot more different and difficult objects with higher detail and quality. The same counts for higher levels within each tier.
It is to be noted that almost no equipment will allow you to fight light pollution. So if you are in or near a very bright city it will be very tough to get any Astrophotography done. Please consider this and your ability to get to a dark site (check LightPollutionMap) before buying any equipment.
I will give you rough equipment used without using any specific suggestions for every level of each tier. Additionally I will add pictures taken with a similar kind of configuration, so you can see what you can approximately expect. Now let’s have a breakdown what you will be able to achieve and can expect with the different tiers and levels of setup.
Please note that all tiers are definition by myself since there is no official definition for this kind of classification. Don’t be offended if I rank your gear lower than you would classify it.
Keep in mind that all space pictures utilize a lot of post-processing, this also counts for the pictures shown here. The quality will heavily vary depending on post-processing skill level disregarding the equipment.
Update: All Levels contain links to the appropriate part of the Equipment Suggestions article.
In the Low/Entry Level tier you will be able to shoot the Milky Way and constellations with relatively short exposures. This setup will yield not much detail and images might get optical issues due to the usage of cheap lenses. You will likely only get the largest and brightest DSOs on your pictures without any details. People who never shot any type of night sky will nevertheless be severely impressed.
The Low/Intermediate Level will allow you to take breathtakingly detailed pictures of the Milky Way and constellations. The exposure times will still be short but the usage of higher quality lenses will give you more rich pictures of the night sky. DSOs will be noticeably more present but still limited in their details by their size and brightness.
With the Low/Pro level you will be able to take the best pictures of the Milky Way, larger Deep Space Objects and constellations that are possible. You will get primarily limited by your skill of processing. Usage of tracking and high quality lenses will yield a deep Milky Way and detailed large Deep Space Objects.
The Mid/Entry level allows you to take pictures of larger and also smaller DSOs with ease. The ability of proper alignment and finding targets for the night cuts down the setup time and makes your images much better. Depending on the mount and optical quality you can keep a lot of frames, making total integrations longer. With that come sharper and more detailed pictures. Proper processing gets increasingly harder. You will be able to take pictures of most DSOs in the sky.
With the Mid/Intermediate level you will be able to take pictures of smaller DSOs or large but fainter DSOs like nebulae. Computerization makes your imaging life a lot easier by allowing you almost full control of your setup. Guiding allows you to take extremely long single exposures, giving you the faintest details your sky brightness allows.
Equipment: DSLR, Mirrorless or OneShotColor Astro CCD or CMOS (not cooled); Go-To Motorized Mount; Guiding with Computer Assistance; Larger Corrected Refracting or Reflecting Telescope; (Capture is assisted by Computer Automation)
In the Mid/Pro level the usage of a monochrome camera will increase the image quality by a lot, DSOs will be noticeably sharper and have more detail. Image acquisition will overall get more difficult but with some grade of automation you can sit back while the mount images. Long exposures and cooling allow you to gather even more details from DSOs than before.
Equipment: Monochrome Astro CCD or CMOS Camera (cooled); (LRGB Filters); Go-To Motorized Mount; Guiding with Computer Assistance; Larger Corrected Refracting or Reflecting Telescope (up to 1000mm); Capture is heavily assisted by Computer Automation
With the High/Entry level you will be able to capture objects in a way that you weren’t able before. Narrowband imaging allows you to capture the faintest emission Nebulae and more H-Alpha emissions in Galaxies. A heavier mount will allow you to utilize larger scopes to increase your focal length and thus details in Galaxies and Nebulae. Even smaller scopes will yield high detail in various DSOs. Imaging during full moon cycles is possible, but not optimal with Narrowband filters.
Equipment: Monochrome Astro CCD or CMOS Camera (cooled); LRGB + Narrowband Filters; Heavy Go-To Motorized Mount; Guiding with Computer Assistance; High Quality Corrected Small or Large Refracting or Reflecting Telescope; Very High Grade of Computer Automation for most tasks
The High/Intermediate level allows you to capture most if not any DSOs with ease. The full automation of the equipment gives you free time to optimize the guiding performance to get the most out of your mount. Automated focusing will yield the best possible images. With multiple cameras you are able to capture multiple images at the same time, essentially multiplying your image output over a single night.
Equipment: (Possibly) Multiple Monochrome CCD or CMOS Astrocameras (cooled); High Quality LRGB + Narrowband Filters; Heavy Go-To Mount (eventually on a pier); Guiding with Computer Assistance; Multiple High Quality Corrected Small or Large Refracting or Reflecting Telescopes which have been upgraded with better parts; Automated Focusing; Full Computer Automation of the Capture Process
With the High/Pro level of equipment the sky is literally the limit. You will be able to capture any DSO you want without any issues. Imaging Narrowband during full Moon cycles is no problem at all thanks to the best consumer filters available on the market. The mount quality can carry even the heaviest and largest scopes, mostly limiting you to the seeing quality of that particular evening.
Equipment: Multiple Monochrome CCD or CMOS Astrocameras with large Sensors (cooled); Best available Quality LRGB + Narrowband Filters; Super Heavy Go-To Mount on a Pier; Guiding with Computer Assistance; Multiple Very High Quality Fully Corrected Small or Large Refracting or Reflecting Telescopes which have been upgraded with better parts or eventually Very Long Focal Length Scopes; Automated Focusing; Full Computer Automation of the Capture Process
If you have such a – or similar – setup and read this article, please send me pictures!
Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for Starting with Astrophotography Part 2: Equipment Suggestions.
Update: Starting with Astrophotography Part 2: Equipment Suggestions is up!
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