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5 Expensive Beginner Mistakes

Expensive Mistakes

Are you thinking deep-sky astrophotography is where you want to point your camera? Maybe you are ready to start attaching your DSLR or smartphone or point-and-shoot camera to your telescope to get those Hubble-like images of the cosmos! Slow down a bit, and remember to do your homework – because imaging deep-space objects is a definite step up in the learning curve, and it has its frustrations. Luckily, we’ve all been through it, so we can help!

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You’re going to make mistakes, a lot of them. But, only if you’re human. So, if you’re a robot, you can stop reading now.

Humans: these “expensive” mistakes you’ll make are not only costly on your pocket, they also rob you of precious imaging time! But don’t despair because making mistakes is all part of the learning process, and some things are best learned by screwing up.

To help you save a little time (and money), we’ve come up with a list of five of the most common mistakes we or others have made on the road as beginner astrophotographers, so maybe you won’t have to!

Read on…

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Mistake #1:

Investing money instead of time

The telescope doesn’t make the photo, the photographer does.

Spending your hard-earned cash on the best optics and camera gear will never guarantee you great photos. Ever. In fact, nothing will guarantee that! We’ve seen (and created) some AMAZING images created with very modest equipment! Most often, the more the mount and telescope costs, the more skills it requires to use properly.

Without the due diligence of learning proper telescope and mount setup like mastering polar alignment, and adequate post-processing techniques, you won’t be successful. As hard as it may be to keep yourself from buying ‘just that one last thing’ – know that the time you put into this hobby is a far better investment than your cash.

Now, we’re not saying you can produce images with the same quality as you can with high-end optics, but just know you need the skills to create good images with ANY optics, regardless of sticker price. Throwing money at the problem does absolutely no good in astrophotography!

For example, the best mount and telescope combo are most often completely worthless without mastering the following:

  1. Operating and setting up the mount and telescope
  2. Polar alignment
  3. Collimation of the optics (in some cases)
  4. Learning the night sky – successfully finding the celestial objects you want to photograph
  5. Camera connection and operation – and software if you’re shooting tethered, as you should be
  6. Image acquisition – which settings work best for your location, equipment, and target
  7. Post-processing skills – you must learn to make what mostly looks like nothing…look like something amazing!

What don’t you need when starting out? Consider the following only when you have a handle on all the steps above, and face the real truth – owning more equipment will not make you a better astrophotographer, just a poorer one!

Avoid purchasing

  • Filters – light pollution, narrowband, etc.
  • Guide camera and guide scope – Yes, guiding will improve your images greatly, but don’t look towards guiding as the solution until you are able to polar align your mount successfully!
  • Lots of eyepieces – you’ll rarely use them if you’re just looking to create images
  • Dew shields and dew heaters – Depending on your location, you may not need anything for dew control

Things you should spend money on

  • A good mount, it’s important to think ahead. (read mistake #3 below – buying the wrong mount!)
  • An adequate telescope / lens for your area of imaging interest. Again – this does not have to be top of the line.

Things you can get for free

  • Acquisition software for camera control
  • Support and advice from other astrophotographers – we’re surprisingly helpful for being sleep deprived!
  • Stacking and post processing software

Mistake #2:

Unrealistic expectations

This goes hand-in-hand with being informed (which is your time invested). You must accept the fact that right off the bat you’re going to be spending a lot of hours outside without seeing any results. Any. But, it will still be fun – that’s the learning curve.

Adding to that, the first images you capture will not exactly (or at all…) resemble the awe-inspiring photos that got you into this hobby in the first place. Do not be deterred by this! Even the great Astro Masters started somewhere. We all did!

18month progress
Progress made over 18 months of imaging M42, by Tanja Schmitz

Your first images may well like like a blob with some fuzzy white dots around it. But the beauty of that is they are YOURS – you took that photograph and you know the time it required to get, and hopefully you’re now learning there is nowhere to go but up.

Mistake #3:

Buying the wrong gear

The mount

German Equatorial MountIf you’re interested in capturing nice round stars (you are…), your choice of mount is of the greatest importance. The telescope mount is actually quite a bit more important than your choice of telescope or lens.

There are a variety of telescope mounts available (alt/az, fork, GEM, etc.), but the German Equatorial Mount (GEM, or equatorial mount) is best suited for astrophotography. GEMs combat the earth’s rotation in the simplest manner, to keep a telescope fixed on an object in the sky. This makes GEMs capable of tracking the object through the course of your imaging session with the greatest ease and accuracy, without distortion.

This is where you really want to think ahead – don’t get the smallest and cheapest mount. Get the best you can afford. You’ll thank us later!

The telescope

You don’t even need a telescope. Seriously. We shoot all the time with our telescope mount and a standard DSLR camera lens, because some deep-space objects are just that big.

However, if you want to capture some great images of farther-away and smaller objects, you’ll need a telescope. So, think about what you like, what you want to photograph. There aren’t many telescopes that are a jack-of-all trades, and those are usually very expensive. So many astrophotographers rather have an assortment! Some scopes favor planets and the moon, some favor nebulae and galaxies. Do your research!

The camera

Don’t jump into an expensive astronomical CCD camera right away. Again, you need to define what your goal is. Not to mention they are harder to use. We highly recommend starting out with a decent DSLR that isn’t just for astrophotography – a crop-sensor camera is oftentimes best for telescopic use because of vignetting issues. If you already have one, just buy a mount and don’t even bother with anything else right away! And yes – you can align your mount with just a DSLR and lens just fine, we do it all the time.

Mistake #4:

Poor planning for a shoot

This robs you of time, a lot of it! If you’re making special effort to get out of town to escape light pollution, this is especially of importance! So many times we’ve gotten to our location, or even have the telescope all set up, great polar alignment, everything dialed in…then spend WAY too much precious time trying to figure out WHAT we’re going to image, and sometimes not being able to finish a target before it’s not dark anymore!

The best way to avoid this is to know the sky where you live. Remember those steps above we said you needed to master? This is why that’s important. Knowing your sky will help you know what targets you will be able to successfully shoot at what times of year.

Go out with a plan – and since we can look into the future with our special planetarium applications like Stellarium, PhotoPills, SkyGuide, Sky Safari, etc., the cloudy nights never have to be boring.

Mistake #5:

Setting up in the dark

Last, and least wordy – don’t wait until dark to set up your gear. At least at first. It’s really annoying, and slow, and just don’t do it.

The first many times you use your telescope and mount, you’re not going remember where this or that cable goes, and what the balance points are, and were the focus point for the camera was, and then you drop something and lose it because it’s dark and waste time with your torch (I can say torch because I live in SA now!) trying to find it.

Not to mention, setting up your scope will take even the best of us the good part of an hour, regardless of the amount of light. So wasting the darkness is just a bad idea!

Now get out there – do your research, make some mistakes, learn from them, and have fun!

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About the author

Cory Schmitz

Co-founder of PhotographingSpace.com, co-owner of several telescopes and mounts, too many cameras, and not enough hard drives, Cory is an American expat living in South Africa with his wife, Tanja Schmitz.

An avid astrophotographer for timelapse, deep-space imaging, lunar, planetary, and star trail imagery, he is an all-around jack-of-most-trades for night-sky photography.

He is also an internationally published and commissioned astrophotographer, where his photos have been used in multiple online and print publications.

20 Comments

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  • Hi Cory. Everything you have said makes perfect sense. Thanks for spelling it out.

    But I have a problem with “Mistake #1” even though what you say makes sense.

    Meet the newest newbie and newest wannabe in AstroPhotography (living in Sydney).
    Very recently retired, turned 70, have no requisite equipment and before I meet my maker want to have a decent go at shooting Andromeda, Orion, Horsehead. Sombrero, Veil, Carina, Alpha Centuri, Milky Way etc etc etc. Recognisable with color. Must have color 🙂 Doesn’t need to be suitable to submit for APOD.

    Given my “very brief” intro and stated goals, in my situation what are your thoughts on ?? ED80Pro and ?? EQ5Pro as a “starter package”. Without getting too vendor centric is there something else I should be thinking of?

    Don’t have lots of it, but I do have to invest money and time is what I am really short on !

    • Hello Suresh!

      An ED80 scope, DSLR (even stock crop sensor), and a mount of that size is a great start! I believe that will honestly get you all the targets, at least to some degree, that you’ve mentioned.

      What you to do as well is learn your sky from your location with a planetarium application like Stellarium, as some of those targets may not be visible to you in the southern hemisphere!

      As far as wide-field milky way shots, a wide-angle fast lens with your DSLR will be a great addition — and you’ll be able to place it with just the DSLR and normal camera lens on the telescope mount and make some AMAZING long-exposure tracked images!

      Good luck!

      • Thanks Cory. I now feel much better about the scope and mount selection.

        I have picked up a cheap 600D (with the kit 18-135 lens) on ebay and a QC3000 webcam to mod as a guide cam, getting bits’n’pieces together and have been playing with Stellarium and learning our night sky. Have to now wait for Andromeda till Sept/Oct. Hopefully I will be in good shape by then. Due to the initial outlay I am going to put the wide-angle fast lens for Milky Way shots on the back burner.

        Thanks again! You will be hearing from me 🙂

        • Sounds like a good project to get you started! If you really want to guide straight away, and you have a little cash as you said — I’d invest in a proper guide camera like the Orion SSAG. It’s cheap (ish) and works very well, out of the box, with PhD.

          But, you’ve also got time to play around with the webcam, will just take some extra work for the mount control.

          Good luck and have fun!

          P.S. — If you look at my Flickr page, many of the deep-sky images were done with a 600mm FL ED80 scope and an IR-modded Canon 550D. 🙂

          • Hi Cory, Hard to imagine you using anything less than the best like FFs and HS lenses. But a Canon Rebel? I was a little taken back 🙂

            Thanks for the advice. I did come across the SSAG in my investigations but baulked a little at the price (AU$469) having penned in $2.7k for the scope and mount and the cheap 600D. So a webcam alternative, doing the SC1 mod, and putting together a “non standard” solution was kinda appealing. Will probably end up with the SSAG anyway but will have some fun first with the webcam!

          • Yes, well, remember what we said above! Money doesn’t buy good astrophotos, unless they’re prints.

            I completely understand – it’s going to be a fun and rewarding project. 🙂

  • Great tips and really enjoyed reading it. I love space and looking for the best gear to buy to explore some of the stars and planets. You have posted great info. Yhanks

  • One comment to above, being on my 5:th year as a newbie. After a year with a cheap solution I chosed a good computerized AltAz mount (Skywatchers Synscan Goto) and added a good 600x80mm ED glass refractor (Evostar 80ED) and a x0.8 reducer. Biggest mistake, I bought the mount in a package with a Maksutov tube I never use. Been cheaper to get just the mount. Could have gotten a somewhat cheaper 80ED, ca 400 mm.

    As a camera I got Sonys Nex-5R. Cameras can be debated to end of time, but the Nex/Alpha series has a tool neither of the competition has, perfect for an AltAz astro photographer. Max exposure with 500 mm tube on an AltAz mount is ca 30 sec, you get star trails if longer. The Sony Alpha series had a downloadable camera app, a time-laps app ($9), allowing between 30 to 1000 shots with up to 30 sec exposure. A typical DSO object needs around 120 to 150 such 30 sec shots to get the details. A battery handles 300-400 shots, that is ca 3 object/battery. I got really good shots of some 30 of the Messier objects and many other objects, competing with tracked GEM-mounted shots in quality.

    Key is to adjust the AltAz very carefully, allowing for doing night after night at 30 sec exposures. Some object is tuff to take with this method. Horsehead, the Witchhead right of Rigel, the red parts of Christmas Tree, Elephant Trunk etc. often 30 sec exposures give to little light. I have them, but not as good as I liked.

    But since above was a newbie recommendation, an AltAz solution is a lightweight, simple field solution, only needing a battery cable, no tracking or other stuff. I use small heat gel packs in a orthopedic stocking around the front lens as dew heater (pack slid in under the lens position). And when grown out, going for a larger GEM mount, this mount still has it function as a star party tool.

  • Awesomely good advice. 🙂
    Re. camera lenses for astro imaging. You don’t need expensive lenses either. The Canon Nifty 50 F1.8 is available new for around $100AU. The Tamron 90mm Macro and the Samyang 8mm fisheye are also good budget lenses that will get good use in the daytime as well. 🙂

    • Hi Jeanette, Thanks!

      I agree, to a point. I can say from experience that many of the more inexpensive lenses show a lot more artifacts than high-quality glass does, so if you’re a perfectionist down to the last pixel, you are better off waiting a bit and purchasing good glass. However, that is not at all necessary for the hobbyist.

      I’ve got a nifty 50 as well, and while it’s OK for some fun use, there is definitely an issue with CA. However, I was pleasantly surprised! One could definitely get some good results with it.

      Cheers!
      Cory

    • Ah – the Nifty 50! But you HAVE to stop it down to f4 to let the niftyness out – otherwise one ends up with a border of Technicolor comets!

      • Agreed — that is a lot of chromatic aberration if you zoom in on your images at f/1.8 or close to it with the nifty 50.

        Regardless, it’s a great inexpensive lens to play around with!

        Cheers!
        Cory

  • Hi Cory, Thank you very much for the tips. These are mistakes, every newbie will do and you have covered them. I am trying to learn deep sky, astrophotography and planned to go for Orion 8″ f/3.9 Newtonian Astrograph Reflector. This telescope doesn’t come with a mount. Could you please advise a GEM for this telescope ?
    I am newbie as well, any small piece of advise would help a lot.

    • Hello,

      We have that telescope! At a minimum, I’d suggest the Celestron AdvancedVX mount. Note you may need an extra counterweight for a total of two to support it.

      Cheers,
      Cory

  • Hi Corey, before I ask my question I just wanted to say thanks to both of you for your videos and tips on astrophotography they are a joy to watch.

    In one of the comments you mention photos on flicker taken with an ir modded camera. I have recently acquired a second DSLR that I am willing to dedicate to astrophotography. At first I thought the choice was easy enough and I would go with a full spectrum mod, now after reading about star bloat from the IR spectrum I am not so sure. The place of have chosen to do the modification offers a HA mod.

    I am am sticking with DSLR and not considering any CCD, even if unlimited funds where available to me, simply for easy of use, no computers, wire, I have a stand alone auto guider etc… so this means I also do not want to start messing around with filters for the full spectrum mod.

    Do you have any advice on camera mods?

    Thank you,
    Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      It sounds like you’ve made up your mind already! Hearing your comments, I’d say stick with the Ha mod on the DSLR, unless you plan to use it for IR or UV photography as well. If it’s dedicated for astro, the Ha mod is perfect!

      Cheers,
      Cory

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