My first love, as it has been for over 50 years, is visual astronomy, but about 10 years ago, I added the dimension of astrophotography, thanks to the advent of better astronomical digital cameras and innovated adapted optics. Visual astronomy has limitations, of course, but a camera can accumulate and store more light, which can bring out more detail and the color of whatever you’re shooting in the sky.
Astrophotography is much simpler now. Not all that long ago, astrophotography relied on film cameras. That made it much more laborious, expensive and painstaking. Among the many limitations was the inability to know whether your shot was good or bad until you developed the photo, which you more than likely had to pay somebody else to do! Once digital photography came along, it changed everything. You could see your results right away, saving time and giving you more control.
One of the simplest forms of astrophotography with a telescope is to take any digital camera, even a camera on a cellphone, and hold it up to your telescope and hit the shutter button. You can really get some amazing photos, especially with brighter celestial objects such as the moon, planets or bright deep-sky objects like the Orion nebula or the great Hercules cluster.
In fact, smartphone cameras with their flat surfaces are your best bet because it’s so much easier to get the lens of the phone against the telescope’s eyepiece. If you have a protective case on your phone, you may have to take it off so your camera lens can get close enough to the lens of the eyepiece. Some cellphones do a better job than others. I really like the quality of the cameras on Samsung Galaxy smartphones.
Forget about trying to get a selfie with your favorite celestial object. It’s hard enough to hold your camera steady so you can see your image on the viewfinder or screen before you shoot. Hooking a tripod onto your camera can help, but it still will be a challenge. A tripod won’t work with a cellphone, but a handy tool that’s come out in the past few years is a platform that attaches to the telescope’s eyepiece and holds your smartphone camera in place. I think the best one out there for both smartphones or most conventional cameras is the Orion SteadyPix Pro Universal Camera/Smartphone Mount from Orion Telescopes. You’ll be amazed at the quality of photos you can get — even at this beginning level.
To make your astrophotos even better, you’ll have to spend more money and be willing to invest time into honing your skills You’ll need to get a more sophisticated camera, such as a DSLR or an astronomical CCD camera. They can gather light more efficiently. You’ll also need to take pictures with longer exposure times, from at least 30 seconds to several minutes. That’s tricky to do properly, though, because of the Earth’s rotation.
No astronomical target stays still in the sky, so unless your telescope can keep up in a precise manner with the Earth’s rotation and with your target, you’re going to see smudgy streaks instead of stars. That means you will need a more expensive, sophisticated scope that will track stars across the sky.
Taking longer exposure photos is the most difficult aspect of astronomical photography, in my opinion, and one that can darn near make you pull your hair out and just give up! That’s where extreme patience comes into play. Astrophotography is best done with a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. With their sophisticated electronics, they can do a better job of tracking stars with greater precision. That’s the telescope I use.
Computer software makes shooting and processing astronomical photography much easier than it once was. In just the next few years technology will improve even more, and I can see the day when most telescopes will have easy-to-use photographic capabilities. In the meantime, if you want to get into more serious astrophotography, be prepared to make fairly sizable investments of time and money.
Many astronomy outlets around the county can help you get started. One of the best places is Starizona in Tucson, Ariz. Dean Koenig, the owner of Starizona, developed a special adaptive lens called Hyperstar. It has revolutionized digital astrophotography, in my opinion. With the Hyperstar lens interfaced with your astronomical camera and your telescope, you can pull in the light from whatever you’re photographing much faster. An exposure that takes 60 minutes without Hyperstar can be achieved in less than two minutes with Hyperstar. To find out more about the lens, go to starizona.com. The website also has great tutorials on more advanced astrophotography.
Give at least basic astrophotography a try and see how you like it, and maybe boldly go a little deeper into space. But be warned: You can really get hooked on it. Just remember that when things don’t go well … capture the light, but be patient!
On Sunday and Monday night, the new crescent moon will hang out next to Saturn in the early evening low southwestern sky. On Wednesday and Thursday evening, the first quarter moon will be parked next to Mars in the evening southern sky.