Astrophotography is for everyone

You don’t need expensive equipment to do astrophotography. A smartphone and a telescope is all you need to get some great shots that will impress your friends and family.

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award-winning photographer Alex Conu

You don’t have to have the worlds most expensive set up to do astrophotography and I think astrophotography really is for everyone because that’s how we can share the amazing things we see in telescopes and binoculars or even by just looking up (at night of course). I’m amazed at what can be captured by smartphone cameras, so amazed that I tried it myself with my iPhone and Milky-Way.kiwi’s own 8″ telescope a few days ago, here’s the result:

This is a very unremarkable shot of the Trapezium in M42, the Great Nebula in Orion. The cool thing is that it kind of looks like what you see in the eyepiece which is great when people ask me, “what do you see in the eyepiece?”. It’s a bit wrong to show them a flash multi-coloured image taken with an hour or two of exposure. But there’s a place for those images too, and that’s in inspiring people with the beauty of the cosmos and showing them what is sitting right above our heads all the time that most of humanity doesn’t even notice.

Ever see those cool star trail images? They’re really easy to take if you have you have a camera that you can do long exposure with. You just set it up to look at a patch of sky, preferably with a nice scene at the horizon to frame it by, and then let it collect the photons for a while. For the below photo I used a Canon DSLR with my telescope as the back drop and my ghostly image illuminated by a laptop screen. I think star trail images are fantastic and really are easy to take.

With a tracking mounted telescope you can still take some great pictures without spending a fortune on an expensive camera. Most of the photos I’ve taken of planets and the moon have been with an inexpensive webcam. The webcam is used to capture a movie, the theory being that some frames will be really good and others not so good because of the fluctuating seeing created by our inherently slightly unstable atmosphere. The frames of the movie are stacked with software to filter out the bad frames and to improve the signal to noise ratio, this technique can lead to some very amazing results (not that I have managed to achieve any of those results), here’s a rather poor shot of Jupiter taken with a Phillips webcam a few years ago:

Having the image quite small certainly improves it. There are some really amazing images captured using some quite modest setups. If you have a telescope and a smartphone it’s worth it to just point the telescope at the moon and have a play with what you can capture, you might be surprised at the level of detail that pops out of the screen. Here’s a shot of some sunspots with the same camera used above on Jupiter, this time through a solar telescope (and on a fantastic day).

Obviously if you want to win astrophotographer of the year you may need to invest in a little more than a smartphone but you can get some great results with not much at all. The great thing about astrophotography is that it is a scalable activity, in that by adding bits of capability to your setup, you can do more and more. For example, with a fixed mounted telescope and a smartphone you can image the Moon and the likes of M42, as above. Add a tracking mount and you can take some really amazing shots of the Moon and the planets. Add a computerised mount and a guiding system and then you can start long exposure photography. Add a fancy Astro camera with a filter wheel, then you can do narrowband imaging. The upgrade paths are endless – of course money isn’t or else we’d all have a VLT in the back yard.