Basics of Astrophotography

Under Construction

This article is broken into multiple pages to keep the size manageable. Until this notice is removed, one or more of the sub-pages is still under construction.

Introduction to Astrophotography

Why This Article?

This article is part of a series on setting expectations for beginners to Astronomy, and giving general advice to help beginners plan an approach to the hobby.

Reading forum posts by absolute beginners to Astronomy, I note it is very common for them to want to tackle astrophotography right away. This is almost always an error, and several authors have written that failed attempts at astrophotography are one of the most common causes of beginner frustration, and even of beginners leaving the hobby.

It turns out to be really easy to take really bad astro photos.

I think there are 3 reasons that early attempts at astrophotography are usually an error: It turns out it is easy to produce really bad images.

  1. Expectations: You have probably seen very high-quality astrophotographs produced by professionals or very experienced amateurs. It will be years before you are producing work of that quality.
  2. Difficulty: Astrophotography is a skill that it will take time to learn. You may have been mislead by advertising to expect it to be much easier than it is.
  3. Equipment: Telescopes that are ideal for beginners to Astronomy are often not good choices for astrophotography. Good astrophotography equipment is often not a good choice for a beginner to Astronomy.

My qualifications? Like most of my articles, this one is based on relevant experience: having done most things wrong myself, I hope to be able to help others avoid some of the most common errors. Let me be clear on this: I’m not good at this even yet. However, I have at least reached a point where I have a good understanding of the errors I made, and have developed thoughts on an organized approach to understanding this aspect of this hobby.

Target Audience

This article is not for experts. If you are an experienced astrophotographer you know far more about this field than I do. There are no secrets or advanced techniques here. I am in awe of what experienced astrophotographers achieve, and I am learning from you.

This article is for you if you are a beginner to amateur astronomy, and are thinking about including photography in your hobby, either right away or eventually.

  • Ideally, you are thinking about astrophotography, but you have not purchased any equipment yet: neither telescope nor camera. I’ll try to help you line up your entry plan and original equipment purchases.
  • If you have already purchased a telescope, but have not yet invested in photography equipment, we’ll discuss whether your astrophotography expectations are reasonable with the telescope you have purchased. Whatever you have purchased, there is a good chance that some form of astrophotography will be practical for you, but it may not be the kind you had in mind. My primary advice to you will be not to buy a camera yet – take the time to become thoroughly comfortable with your telescope before adding the complexity of photography.
  • If you have already purchased everything, these thoughts may still help you plan an organized approach to learning the necessary skills.

Strangely, experienced photographers — even professional photographers — who are new to Astronomy may also find this series useful.

I am an experienced photographer, including a degree in photography, and thought that would make astrophotography easy. After all, I had already taken tens of thousands of photographs on a variety of good-quality camera equipment.

Wrong. Astrophotography is quite different, and I had a lot of learning (and un-learning) to do.

Content Overview

This long article will be broken into a few sections. We’ll discuss a general overview of astrophotography and work out an organized way of looking at the different objectives, equipment, and techniques; I’ll offer a number of personal observations based on all the various mistakes I have made, and which ones I was eventually able to avoid or improve upon; and we’ll end by deriving a suggested “order of progression” in which it might make sense for a typical beginner to tackle this aspect of the hobby.

These articles are not instructions on technique – there are excellent books to help with that, and the main requirement is practice.

Warning: It’s Hard!

A personal warning: this is hard! That doesn’t mean it’s not fun. In fact, for me at least, it’s fun because it is hard. But beware of unrealistic expectations that will lead to disappointment.

You may have seen, or even had purchases influenced by, advertisements in Astronomy magazines (one vendor in particular comes to mind) showing amazing Hubble-like images and the claim that with their product “you can take photos like this the first night out”. The skeptic in you should ask whether that is really likely. Maybe an experienced astronomer & astrophotographer, already experienced in astrophotography and familiar with all their other equipment, could do this the first night out with the advertised camera or telescope. I am certainly not capable of such feats. (Maybe it’s because I didn’t obey the ads and buy the specific equipment they were promoting.) I have acquaintances who produce stunning, publication-quality, award-winning results, but this is the result of decades of practice, not a mere product purchase.

You can have a lot of fun with astrophotography, and you will find even basic images and small successes very satisfying. But to get those publication-quality photos, expect to spend years perfecting your technique, and probably hundreds of hours and hundreds or thousands of dollars upgrading your equipment.

How to Make it a Great Hobby

If it’s so hard, why do it?

Progress: Horsehead and Flame Nebulae in Orion, about 4 years into the “learning astrophotography” project

Progress: Horse head and Flame Nebulae.

That’s a personal question, of course. If you just want beautiful pictures, there are far easier ways to get them. However, if you want pictures you made yourself, this is really rewarding. Even better, the way to make this a great hobby that you enjoy every time out is to define your hobby as the process, not the result. That works for me: my hobby is learning astrophotography, not doing astrophotography. If I had defined my hobby as producing competition- or publication- quality images, I probably would have given up already.

Start simple, work in a sensible order, set realistic goals, and watch your results improve. That’s a great hobby.

Main Article Modules

The main content of this article is divided, below, into a few stand-alone articles for ease of reading (and composing). They are:

In this article we look at a couple of ways to organize the complex field of astrophotography, and begin to understand the roles for which various techniques and equipment types are best suited.
This article reviews the main choices, for purposes of astrophotography through a telescope, in telescopes, cameras, mounts, and guiding accessories.
This section focuses on the skills you need to perform the many tasks involved in capturing and producing pleasing-quality astro-images.
Finally, this section reviews what we’ve discussed and presents a suggested order of phases in which a beginner might approach astrophotography to produce pleasing results, make steady progress, and avoid disappointment.

2 Comments

  1. Just what I have been looking for. Fantastic. What can I do with what I have & what do I need to do more?

  2. Thank you for your excellent articles&|60;:-) I find especially the beginners guides, who has helped me a lot in deciding for which telescope to purchase. You certainly helped me avoid disappointment with your cleverly written short stories about a beginner. I am also looking forward to the next article on astrophotography. I find your guides to finding objects on the night sky very helping. Decided on an refractor 80mm and Focal length of 600mm on an manual equatorial mount. Got it yesterday and I can’t wait to give it a try. Only minor problem is that the weather is rather cloudy here in Norway.

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