What do you need to get started with Astrophotography?
This discussion is for those who intend to go beyond the simplest of options (e.g. camera and home made barnyard or similar) and assumes you mean reasonable, serious imaging.
Before we start, you need to be prepared to take the time to learn. This is for the patient, not the impatient and there are no shortcuts. Astronomy is a complex art, when you add photography (another complex art) into the mix, you will soon find many other fields you need to learn about. It’s hard – which is what also makes it so satisfying. No instant gratification here, we assure you.
What are the basics?
- We recommend an ED telescope. That means, you need the SVBony 503, or the Saxon 80 ED to get started ($1099), the Saxon 100 ED ($1369.95) or the 120 ED ($2699) or similar. You CAN do astrophotography with the ultra wide Kson Ke’sil, or even a simple 80mm f/5 scope, but be aware that these scopes will introduce some chromatic abberation (false colour).
- You need a camera. You can also simply use your existing DLSR with a nice lens for some very nice all sky results. Otherwise you will need an appropriate colour camera. If you intend to use a mono-camera with narrowband imaging, you can side-step some of the ED requirements and use an achromat such as the Kson Ke’sil P to get suprisingly good results. If you are getting a EQ5 Pro, a used Canon 450D will get nice results. If you are going light CCD cameras, both QHY and ZWO make wonderful cameras and are used by tens of thousands of Astrophotographers. Contact us when you know which one you want, or to get advice.
- You need an Equatorial Mount – If you have a light scope, you can get great results with the Kson MD – you align the mount, choose your target (manually), then activate the motor which tracks. Otherwise, this means a EQ5 Pro (About $1400) as a minimum, HEQ5 Pro (About $1820) or NEQ6 (About $2250). Add up the weight of your equipment, and make sure that your mount can carry that load as an imaging layout.
- You need a guide camera. This will help you with alignment and feed micro adjustments to your mount – get a ASI120MM Mini or the QHY5L-II-M for flawless guiding and be done with it. If your existing finder isn’t suitable, you can get the ZWO mini-guide scope, or the QHY equivalent, or the 8×50 Kson finder which allows you to unscrew the eyepiece and insert a camera (dual use). If you have a larger 60mm guide scope or are in dark skies, a QHY5L-II-C, the colour version of the QHY5L-II-M, will do perfectly well as a guider and is less expensive.
Color or Mono camera?
Colour gets you full colour images – but as it absorbs the full spectrum, you have less control over what is gathered by the sensor, so you are more subject to conditions. You can usually get better results by getting a mono camera and imaging with four filters (LRGB), or three (SHO). It takes more time to gather this data though, as you need to image three or four times as much. Sometimes, the type of thing you want to image will have a bearing.
- Planetary – You have some wonderful choice here, and it is very good as a low cost entry point. Good targets include Jupiter, Saturn (harder as it is smaller). We recommend, for ZWO, the ASI224MC which does a great job. It’s full colour, so no need to LRGB image, or narrowband. It’s also inexpensive and does a good job at solar, lunar and even deep sky and allsky if your into that. It’s a splendid generalist camera, it might even do for you as a deep space camera. We recommend, for QHY the QHY5L-II-C.
- Lunar – Mono cameras will do lunar imaging very well, and you can start exploring LRGB (Luminance, Red, Green, Blue) imaging with the camera later as well. Why not go for the ASI290MM-Mini. It’s the least expensive camera that will do a fantastic job for solar and lunar work. Dave Eagle’s guide to imaging the moon is very useful. If your thinking QHY, the QHY5L-II-M will do the job.
- Deep Sky – Here, you will really need to decide if you want to go colour, or mono. Really, deep space requires a cooled camera. If you go mono, you are up for an LRGB or SHO (Narrowband SII, Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen III) set of filters as well. If you go colour, you won’t need these (but don’t worry, you can shoot SHO with a colour and a special filter).
- Let’s talk mono first. For ZWO the ASI183MM Pro Cooled Mono is a sensible choice (see this image, taken with SHO and RGB set), with the ASI1600MM Pro Cooled Mono a real step up. For QHY The QHY183M (take a look at this LRGB and Ha result) are your friends, with the QHY163M being a superior, though more costly choice that can get breahtaking results.
- Let’s talk colour. The ASI183MC Pro Cooled Colour camera will also get you good results in one shot for less. If your thinking QHY, the QHY183C is an equivalent.\
- If your going mono – you will be up for some extras. You will need your LRGB or SHO filter set, 2″ versions if you’ve decided to run with your own DSLR. The SHO options allow you to image even when the moon is up, cut through light pollution and even image with an achromatic rather than an ED scope (which means you can use a Kson Achromat) if you do it right.
- Filter Wheels (mono only) – Get yourself a ZWO manual filter wheel so you can put your filters in and rotate them without the horrible task of changing them in the dark.
Best Astrophotography Tools and Software Comparison
Note that you do NOT need all of these tools. Some of the packages do a lot of functions, while others just do one, or a few. Think about what combination of tools will do the job for you and give it a go. Many have lengthy trial periods.
Astrophotography Planning Software
Skytools 4 is lovely for planning your sessions and more (start with visual, and you can buy upgrade licences for imaging versions should you need it). It has some very clever functions that allow you to enter obstruction points/areas (trees, roofs etc..) that prevent it from suggesting objects you can’t see. Skytools comes in various versions and you can upgrade from one to the next by paying the difference as you go. It’s about AUD$140 for the basic version up to AUD$280 for the complete version.
Astroplanner (About AUD$65) – The user can enter objects to be viewed. they can be observed and log entries recorded for each of them. The application will also control a wide range of computerised Go To telescopes, in order to slew to selected objects. It also computes the visibility of the objects for the current observing session, shows the sky for that time and can show the field-of-view for the current object as if it was being viewed through a virtual eyepiece, or the sensor of an imager. Additionally, if you have a network connection, you can download high-resolution photographs of any part of the sky from the Digital Sky Survey (DSS and SDSS).
Stellarium (free) Planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. I love the timewarp function, which lets you fastforward time and see where things go. It’s free, and amazing. No excuse not to get it now if your not using it already.
Cart du Ciel (free). This program enables you to draw sky charts, making use of the data in many catalogs of stars and nebulae. In addition the position of planets, asteroids and comets are shown. The purpose of this program is to prepare different sky maps for a particular observation. A large number of parameters help you to choose specifically or automatically which catalogs to use, the colour and the dimension of stars and nebulae, the representation of planets, the display of labels and coordinate grids, the superposition of pictures, the condition of visibility and more. All these features make this celestial atlas more complete than a conventional planetarium.
Deep Sky Planner (About AUD$120) – Find out what you can observe, when and where to observe it, and what it looks like. Once you’ve observed an object, record the observation and exchange it with other astronomy software (like SkySafari or Starry Night) that supports OpenAstronomyLog. Great user interface.
Mount Control Software
EQMOD (free) This uses the PC to do the same job (and more!) than the intelligent handbox that comes with your mount. Get the relevant cable (from $70-90, depending on whether you go ‘Astro Force’ or ‘Lynx Astro’ – both do the job perfectly well). You can use Cartes du Ciel with these cables to create a ‘GOTO’ mount. You will hear ‘ASCOM’ sometimes – this is a set of standards and some software for Windows computers to permit software vendors who market imaging control and automation products to integrate their offerings easily with device drivers provided by the device manufacturers. EQMOD contains an ASCOM driver for Synta hand controllers (Saxon, Skywatcher, Orion + more).
Astrophotography Image Capture Software
Firecapture (free) – One click profiling for your object, which sets up the best parameters for what you are doing. Filter support (just say what your using), ASCOM mount interface, support for motorised filter wheels. Nice.
NINA (free) – A very broad program that started as a planning and acquisition mission and has grown into a suite. It does particularly well with sequenced image capturing. You will still need PHD2 (guiding software), plate solving software (e.g. ASTAP). Many who start with BackyardEOS move to Sequence Generator Pro, then end up with NINA. It has a great UI.
Nebulosity (was $95, but has now gone free – unlock with N4-14627-55834-23500-59673) Designed for deep sky – It’s a well organized, intuitive and non-convoluted software package and contains a variety of easy to use tools for image capture and initial post processing.
Astrophotography Polar Alignment Software
Sharpcap (about AUD$20 per year) will do your alignment. (It does plate solving and tells you exactly how to adjust your mount). And shock – you can use Sharpcap with your QHY polemaster which is a dream combination.
QHY Polemaster, an electronic PolarScope is a great alternative. It’s a CMOS camera attaches to the right ascension axis of your mount and communicates with your computer via a supplied cable. Astrobackyard did a great review on it some time ago. Alignment takes about 2-5 minutes and can often be done before the sky even gets dark.
Astrophotography Guiding Software
You will need PHD2 guidance software (free) unless you are using AstroArt (which integrates guidance software).
Astrophotography Image Stacking Software
Deep Sky Stacker (free) – Used only to stack photos. DSS is easier to use than PixInsight for that purpose as PI does it in multiple steps and can be a bit daunting, but really, PI can do a better job. So, if your not going with Pixinsight or another program that stacks the images, this will be what you will be using.
Registax 6 (free) for Lunar / Solar / Planetary. Fine image stacking program primarily intended for the planets and the moon, which it does very well. When it comes to wavelets, this software tends to impress.
Autostakkert (free) for Lunar / Solar / Planetary. Does particularly well with very large numbers of frames and specialised in “lucky imaging” a bit of a misleading term that is basically “stacking multiple short images” a real bonus if you can get over 20 frames a second. A common strategy is to stack in this software then use the wavelet sliders slightly. Many use both Registrax and Autostakkert together to bring out the fine details.
Keep in mind Nebulosity (mentioned above under image capture) also stacks.
Astrophotography Processing Software
PixInsight (About $360) Power, flexibility and a steep learning curve, but it produces reliable, superior results. Expect to need to watch a lot of youtube videos, but many feel it isn’t any harder than learning photoshop for the very first time. Specifically designed for astro-imaging. Many use PixInsight (PI) and Photoshop (PS), but really it does pre and post processing so PS is not needed. You can calibrate, register, integrate, combine channels, do noise reduction and weak contrast all in one. The tools and scripts included are indeed amazing. Runs on Linux and Mac, so if your processing on a Mac, it could be a no-brainer. Great, lengthy trial period.
Astro Pixel Processor (about $260). Some people call it “PixInsight lite’ – but one thing is for sure, it doesn’t have the steep learning curve that PixInsight has. With all the things you need to learn with imaging, you’ve got enough to do without mastering PixInsight. Time spent in APP is not wasted if you decide to move to PixInsight later and its actually fun. Easy to use. Great, lengthy trial period.
Astroart ($279.95) is another fine option which is a little less well known. Astroart can do both imaging (mount control, integrated star charts for planning, platesolving, guiding (some say it’s better than PHD2) etc..) AND processing (which Pixinsight and Astro Pixel Processor don’t do). It has a 64bit pre-processing engine and is highly multithreaded so is very frugal with memory and CPU cycles. We sell the version 7 physical edition, with a free upgrade to version 8 for those who like a physical product, and you will get extra discounts as you go through the Astrodog checkout for even less. PC & Linux compatible.
Astrophotography Image Finishing Software
Affinity (One-off $90 or so). Affinity is continuing to mature and is starting to include Astrophotography tools and allows some Photoshop plugins. Dave Eagle’s guide for Affinity final image processing is a quick guide to get into it and well worth it.
Photoshop and lightroom is about $180 a year, but is very familiar to those who are already using it. If you are just starting off, affinity is a better choice in our opinion as it avoids a constant cost.
Questions about anything we’ve mentioned on this page? Call us on 1300 ASTRODOG or just use the form!
Prepared Nov 2021