Capturing wonderful deep-sky images might be easier than you think.
Go big or go home.
These days, that obnoxious declaration seems to pop up with alarming frequency in everything from sporting events to cooking shows. I get it—half measures are akin to admitting defeat before the game has even started. But it’s also nonsensical when it’s applied to recreational activities, such as taking pictures of the night sky.
I suspect that more than a few readers have shied away from astrophotography because they lack the time and equipment to “go big.” In reality, getting nicely detailed shots of galaxies, star clusters and nebulas isn’t an all-or-nothing game. There’s a satisfying middle ground. Indeed, you may already have most of the tools you need.
When it comes to astrophotography, I readily admit to being a dabbler. I enjoy making night-sky photos from time to time, but it’s not how I spend most clear nights. As a result, the equipment I use isn’t exactly impressive. My gear choices are governed by an aversion to spending lots of money and a desire to avoid lugging a computer into the backyard. The computer thing is both personal and practical. Because I spend so much of my day parked in front of a monitor, I try to avoid doing so when I’m out to have fun. For me, the equation is simple: computer = work. There are practical considerations too. Computer screens throw off a lot of light (even when they’re shielded) and can draw considerable power. Plus they sprout the inevitable cords and cables that stiffen into frustratingly uncooperative snakes when the temperature cools.
A prime-focus astrophoto rig generally consists of five main components: a camera, a data-recording device, a telescope, a mount and a guiding setup. I use a run-of-the-mill DSLR (a Nikon D5100) to capture images. You can go with a dedicated astro-cam and computer, but I like the simplicity (and lack of cables) of an all-in-one solution. And even a modest DSLR can produce remarkably pleasing results. Sure, a filter-modified astro-unit is better than the DSLR you use to take snapshots of the cat or the kids, but a specialized model is real money. My imaging scope is nothing special—it’s just a basic optical-tube assembly I cobbled together with bits and pieces I had lying around. At its heart is a 4.5-inch f/4 mirror salvaged from an Orion StarBlast reflector. When coupled with a Tele Vue Paracorr coma corrector (which I bought for visual use), this humble instrument produces star images that are more than good enough.
The mount I use is an old Sky-Watcher HEQ5 I purchased secondhand from a friend. It’s my main observing mount but works effectively for imaging as well, thanks to the
inclusion of an auto-guiding port. Auto-guiding is one of the miracles of the modern age—it takes the tedium out of imaging by ensuring that your mount tracks the sky very accurately. Most auto-guiding solutions rely on software and a computer, but I’ve chosen another stand-alone item: a Celestron NexGuide. This amazing little device is an imaging chip and computer in one. I use it with a guidescope I made with a 70mm binocular objective.
The NexGuide is the only piece of equipment I bought specifically for astrophotography—and it was money well spent. It works so reliably that once everything is up and running, I can walk away and enjoy some observing with binoculars or a second telescope. Only occasionally do I need to check that everything is humming along as it should. For me, this truly is the best of both worlds.
I’m not saying that the approach I’ve taken is perfect or that a rig like mine is for everyone. It’ll never produce images on a par with what the best equipment in skilled hands can accomplish, but it’s simple, effective and relatively inexpensive. A dabbler like me may never “go big,” but on the other hand, I never really saw anything wrong with going home. It’s where I live.