There are other beginner guides to astrophotography on the Internet, but many of them assume the purchase of a telescope and tracking mount. It’s an expensive hobby, and I can’t afford a good telescope and mount right now. I figure a reasonable starting budget is $4000-$5000 USD for scope, equatorial mount, camera, autoguider etc. While it can be done for less by sacrificing aperture or quality, there will be diminishing returns in the photographs that are produced.
So if money is a major concern, I recommend you begin without telescope or mount. Even if money isn’t a concern, read on for other reasons to consider this approach as your starting point.
If you don’t already own a dSLR camera, I recommend you buy a mid-range mirrorless like a Sony NEX-5N to get into the hobby for between $500-$1000. I have two NEX-5Ns which is why I recommend them. All of the photos on this page have been made with the NEX-5N. One of mine is full-spectrum modified, but you do not need to do this to take amazing night photographs with a standard model like this:
The NEX-5N can be purchased used on Amazon for $300-$500. I’m not an affiliate of any merchants mentioned here, and bought most of my gear directly from Sony’s online store. You can do what I do for less.
The 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the 5N is usable, but for better results get something with at least f/2.8 or wider aperture, like the SEL16F28 for ~ $175. That lens has its shortcomings, but I’m familiar with it and the kit lens. You can see the quality they produce in the photographs accompanying this blog. None of them have been post-processed, except for occasional cropping. The 16mm is really terrible for vignetting (the dark fringes around the edges). At smaller resolutions, especially on a computer display, it doesn’t matter much. For the price, it is a perfectly acceptable tradeoff.
To round this beginner’s kit out, get the SEL55210 telephoto zoom lens for $350. You can improve your results with more expensive lenses later on once you get some experience with this basic setup. The purchase of the telephoto pushes the basic setup over $1000 a little, and isn’t necessary to get started. Mainly it gives you the ability to do some additional lunar and planetary imaging like this:
Venus and crescent moon
The blurriness in the moon’s face above is partly due to the earth’s rotation and partly due to the fog, I think. A tracking mount would help, except it would blur the landscape…. That’s just a tough situation either way and a shorter exposure might have been a little better.
Note that you can buy just the NEX-5N body by itself, plus the two lenses that I’m recommending separately, and save a little by not getting the 18-55mm kit lens. I find that lens very nice for daylight use, and it is my #2 night lens and I use it at night regularly. The call is yours. I think the three together make a perfect setup: 16mm wide angle, 18-55 midrange and 55-210 telephoto covers the basic focal length range for almost all situations. I initially bought just a body because Sony didn’t have the kit lens in stock, and I missed it the first month until I bought a second camera with the kit lens.
For the most extreme budget, you can get started with just the basic $500 NEX-5N with the kit lens and a tripod (if you go this route beware some sales are “body only” and make sure you’re getting the kit lens). I’m pretty sure if you buy used on Ebay you can get a camera and usable tripod for about $500. If anyone knows a better and cheaper camera for astrophotography, please let me know in the comments!
You can boost the telephoto lens with an inexpensive doubler like the Sony VCL-DH1758 (plus step-up adapter rings to go from 49mm to 58mm). I’ve read good reports about this, but have not yet had a chance to try it myself. I do currently own a Canon 500D macro doubler with step-up rings for the SEL55210 which I’ve taken some nice macro shots with (sample). This setup will provide you with great daytime results too!
You’ll need a good sturdy tripod for best results. Figure at least $75-100 for something that is usable. You want one that is heavy enough to avoid ever blowing over and destroying your investment. Don’t skimp on this after what you’ll spend on the camera and lens. I have two tripods right now, one which is very lightweight for packing on trips and backcountry hiking. I don’t use it in high winds or with the heavy lens like the SEL55210. Look for one with a built-in bubble level and a rotating head that will rotate to give you a view of any part of the sky above.
If you want to make time lapses then an infrared intervalometer for the 5N like the gentLED-AUTO will run you another $75. Extra batteries or AC adapter should be added too in that case. If you only want to make single still images of the night sky, you can forego these extras. I still recommend getting a cheaper IR remote from ebay. If you don’t have one, be sure to take your long exposure night photos using the self-timer, to avoid moving the camera when taking a shot.
Note that the newer (and costlier) NEX-5R and NEX-6 series have some advantages over the 5N, including applications for doing time lapses without an external intervalometer (which runs on a watch battery that can die in the middle of a shoot). If you plan to buy a camera for making time lapses, look at the newer models and calculate that extra $75 for the intervalometer in your comparison. The newer models can be partially controlled via a smart phone or tablet as well. If I could upgrade easily, I would. The ability to quickly preview photos on a bigger display can also be done using an Eye-Fi card on the NEX-5N, but I find that the added battery drain of the card’s wifi module isn’t worth it. If I really feel reviewing is necessary I’d rather just swap out the flash memory cards between shots. I imagine the newer NEX with built-in wifi may also drain batteries more quickly, but I haven’t been following the reviews.
Later when you do buy a telescope you’ll be able to use it as the lens for your NEX with a T-mount adapter. If you build your setup incrementally, get the mount (equatorial) after the camera so you can take longer exposure photos with just the camera mounted on it, until you get your optical tube assembly.
I believe that wide field astrophotography with dSLR or mirrorless cameras gives you more opportunities to use the equipment, and more creative control over what you get out of it, for far less than you’d spend on a decent setup for planetary or deep space imaging.
You get more opportunities for creativity with the wide field because you have the context of landscape to work with. You can frame views of the stars, planets, moon or Milky Way with landscapes, plants or architecture. How much creativity can you express with a high-resolution view of Orion’s nebula or Saturn? Don’t all those photos start to look alike? I’m not saying you can’t be creative with a telescope, only that your subjects are so narrowly constrained that it takes a lot more work to differentiate what you do from what other people have done.
On completely overcast nights you can use the same equipment to do light painting. On partly cloudy nights you still have great photo opportunities of the night sky where the clouds may actually enhance the final result.
Partly cloudy, mostly awesome
The NEX-3 series could be usable too and save you a little money, but I haven’t seen the night photographs that it produces. I’ve read that at higher ISO is not as good as it is on the 5, 6 or 7 series, so I’d suggest you stay with the 5N and buy it used, rather than drop to the 3 if your budget is that tight.
I’ve since published Part 2 of this guide here where I provide specific instructions for technique and advice on your first night shoot.