Beginner Astrophotography Setup [A How To]

Beginner Astrophotography Setup [A How To]

The beginner astrophotography setup takes many forms. There’s no one way to setup for astrophotography. It’s simply about taking the steps to do it. Therefore, never fear, Kevin’s setup is here for you to study. This post will start after the purchase of the beginner telescope. And if you haven’t taken that first step, you can review my telescope buying guide.

Beginner Astrophotography Setup
Beginner Astrophotography Setup

Beginner Astrophotography: Tripod Setup

The base of your entire operation is the mount and how it interacts with the ground. A solid surface is what you’re after. Alternatively, loose, wet or soft soil are not good for your beginner astrophotography setup. In addition, you can use small wood planks (see above) or similar, to improve the tripod’s footing.

Aligning North or South

In the northern hemisphere, align the tripod north. Conversely in the southern hemisphere, align the tripod south. In addition, I have a trick I use to get very close to north. It involves my smartphone and the NOAA Magnetic Field Calculator. I discuss it in detail in my polar alignment post.

Leveling the Tripod

Leveling the Tripod

Key for all beginners in this hobby is leveling the tripod. A misstep here could have far reaching consequences on your photo. Specifically how it relates to polar alignment. Take the time to align the level on a leg of the tripod. Then adjust that leg until level. Repeat for the other two legs, then verify the first leg again. Upon completing these steps, your tripod is now ready for the heavy stuff.

Beginner Astrophotography: Tripod Tips

At each location you set up your rig, mark the tripod locations on the ground (if you can) and after you’ve aligned north or south. This will speed up your setup time. You can also mark the level locations on the tripod legs as well.

Beginner Astrophotography: Installing The Mount

Beginner Astrophotography Installing The Mount
Installing the Mount

All equipment is variable when comparing beginner astrophotography rigs. The all have a tripod, a mount, a telescope and a camera. Installing the mount on the tripod is straight forward. Place it on top and tighten the screw. Above all, take care not to move the tripod in the process.

The mount is also where accessories will differ. Some will have a polar alignment camera installed. In fact some will be a GoTo mount or a German Equatorial Mount with RA motor attached. However the configuration, now is the time to install those accessories.

Beginner Astrophotography: Mount Install Tips

In general, I usually install with the counter weights already situated. Ultimately, this it would greatly speed up your set up time.

Beginner Astrophotography: Installing The Telescope

By all means, installing the telescope is optional. Many Astrophotographers use a camera lens or telescope. In effect, it simply depends on your desired photo. Here I will discuss both. Similarly, the common attachment point is a dovetail. Yours may differ. Simply install the telescope to the dovetail holder and tighten the screws. Without delay, here’s a look at my telescopes.

Orion Astroview 6

Beginner Astrophotography Orion Astroview 6
Telescope Type; Reflecting
Aperture: 152 mm
Focal Length: 700 mm
Focal Ratio: f/5

I have 3 telescopes that I use for different objects. The Orion Astroview 6 I’ve modified and now use for astrophotography. As a result, transitioning it from visual to astrophotography has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. Moreover, it is used for most of my astrophotography. It’s great for galaxies, star clusters, and some nebulae. In addition, the 152 mm aperture and 700 mm focal length, provide a field of view large enough for Andromeda. It also does a great job on star clusters like M13.

Meade ETX-125

Beginner Astrophotography Meade ETX-125 Telescope
Telescope Type: Maksutov-Cassegrain
Aperture: 127 mm
Focal Length: 1900 mm
Focal Ratio: f/15

I purchased this telescope used at $250. The previous owner removed it from it’s mount and installed rings and dove tail bar. I enjoy using it visually and it is great for photographing the Planets. Conversely, the 1900 mm focal length prohibits wide field astrophotography of large nebulae. Alternatively, Moon craters are fair game. After that, the only negative is that it is back heavy which makes balancing this scope a challenge.

Orion ST-80

Beginner Astrophotography Orion ST-80 Telescope
Telescope Type: Refractor
Aperture: 80 mm
Focal Length: 400 mm
F Ratio: f/5

Similarly, I also purchased this one used at $50. Initially I thought it was bust because everything was blurry. I subsequently solved that problem by taking the lenses out and cleaning them. As soon as I had completed that task, the world of wide field astrophotography was made available to me. In addition it is also my grab and go scope. During outreach events it surprises viewers with details of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s cloud bands. At 400 mm focal length it is versatile.

Beginner Astrophotography: Telescope Tips

Sooner or later the amount of research you do will have an impact, so gather a lot of information before purchasing a telescope. I highly recommend outreach events like Star Parties. Visit them and talk with the telescope owners to get a feel for their telescope. All in all you will be very satisfied with your purchase.

Beginner Astrophotography: The Camera

Astrophotography can begin with the easiest camera to access. Yes the one on your smartphone. Smartphone astrophotography has grown to become it’s own niche branch of astrophotography. And the results can be fantastic.

Most astrophotography is done with a DSLR camera or dedicated astronomy camera. To begin with, smartphone astrophotography was my only means. Until I managed to secure my first DSLR camera. The rest is as they say, history.

The Smartphone

Beginner Astrophotography Unsteady Hands
Smartphone Astrophotography: Unsteady Hands
Smartphone Holder
Beginner Astrophotography:
Orion Smartphone Holder

I began with a Google Pixel. During those early days, the install was holding the phone on the telescope eyepiece. I don’t recommend this method in the long term. Alternatively, I recommend purchasing an adapter. For the beginner, this is a great way to start.

The DSLR

Canon DSLR
Canon EOS XTi

Free. That is how I purchased my first DSLR for Astrophotography. It is the Canon EOX XTi. It was free because the card reader was and still is broken. As long as I can connect it to a computer I was golden. Behold, the power of the USB cable! For this reason, beginner astrophotography can be kept inexpensive. In essence you’ve got options.

So how should the camera be attached to the telescope. A t-ring adapter is the answer. They are specific to the camera model. And you can purchase online or 3D print. Verify the t-ring attaches to your model telescope.

To install based on your t-ring, you will have to thread it or insert into the draw tube. Finally connect your wires, whether power or communications or both.

The Dedicated Astronomy Camera

I don’t currently have a dedicated astronomy camera, so if you want to send me one, I’m accepting. These cameras utilize the sensors in most DSLR cameras. Either CMOS or CCD. These cameras come cooled or not. In addition they can be color or monochrome. They have distinct advantages over the DSLR in terms of noise control for example. One of these will make it’s way into my hands eventually. I’ll give you more then.

Beginner Astrophotography: Balance

Aside from leveling, balancing the telescope and camera assembly is critical. The gearing used to drive each axis is not optimized when compared to the higher end mounts. This is going to require a little bias either east or west on the RA axis. Of course most of the pundits say bias towards the east. What I mean by bias, is to not have it perfectly balanced, but slightly pulling towards the east. First adjust the counter weights to get the perfect balance (where the telescope will not move). Then slightly adjust to create that ever so slight bias towards the east.

So what does this do? Simply put it keeps the gear teeth touching at all times. Eliminating the backlash that occurs when they separate.

As for the Declination axis, you can go for perfect balance. The challenge is in how much room the dove tail allows you to balance the weight of the camera on the back of the telescope. Certainly, you’ll have to play with those adjustments until you get it set.

Beginner Astrophotography: Balancing Tips

Once you’ve done this a few times mark the dove tail bar so you can install it directly in the balanced location.

Beginner Astrophotography: Power

Battery Power

If you’re not tracking objects in the sky, then power is optional. On the other hand, I have a computer, tracking motors, and cameras all plugged into this portable battery pack. It has 3 USB ports, 120 V plug, can put air in my tires and start my car. Ahem, I digressed there for a moment. Of course the choice is yours regarding battery size, type, portability, and other accessories required. For instance, some use a car battery, which requires additional wires and power converter in the setup. Doesn’t sound very portable to me. I like this one for portability and the USB ports. It can power my setup for several nights before recharging.

Beginner Astrophotography: Final Setup

For the most part, this is a typical beginner astrophotography setup. Your specific equipment may differ, however the many of the steps are the same. Have fun and remember that the sky is only the limit when your mind is unwilling to fly. Go Beyond!

Kevin Francis

Kevin Francis is a Mechanical Engineer by day, amateur Astrophotographer by night who is taking his Google Pixel smartphone camera to new limits.