Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Take Awesome Deep Sky Astrophotos Without Breaking the Bank

M13: the Great Hercules cluster. With a little know-how (and not a ton of cash), you can take photos just like this one!

For anyone who was visiting this website from its early days, it was obvious that I started this whole online endeavor as merely a way to backup all of my astrophotos should my computer crash. Since then, I've expanded into other things photography and astronomy, but have kept up with the monthly astrophoto galleries. So, as the photos keep coming online, you may be asking yourself: what does he use to take those pictures?
Answer: surprisingly little. In fact, you may only need 4 things to do it: a dSLR, a telescope mount with a R.A. Drive, a T-ring, and a universal T-adapter. Depending on your camera, you may or may not need a programmable remote, too.
So, exactly what does he use and how much does it cost?

The Canon 30D (with Tokina 28-70 f2.8): an oldie, but a goody

Camera: Canon EOS 30D
Launched way back in February, 2006, the Canon 30D is a digital dinosaur by today's standards in terms of feature set. However, in image quality, though, only the current generation of dSLRs can clearly beat it. Unlike most of today's digital cameras, it uses the big CF cards. Want one? Expect to pay around $400, give or take $50 based on condition, for one. Too expensive? The EOS 20D from fall, 2004, essentially the same thing but with a smaller LCD screen, can be had for about $100 less.

The Meade LXD-55: plenty good for "short" exposures and small scopes

Mount: Meade LXD-55
Another out of production item that serves me perfectly well, the LXD-55 has long-since been replaced in Meade's lineup by the often considered superior LXD-75 thanks to its steel 2” tubular legs and a reportedly better drive motors. However, when it comes to short exposure (30-60 sec) photography with a short focal length telescope (400-600mm), the LXD-55 serves its purpose perfectly well. Fully assembled with the ED80 on top, the whole rig weighs about 50 lbs. Looking to pick up a LXD-55? Well, price can vary, but they typically go in the $400 range.

Except for having a sleep mode rather than on/off, a knock-off remote is just as good as the manufacturer version, but at a fraction of the cost.

Canon Remote: Knock-Off Canon TC80-N3
Unfortunately, no Canon dSLRs, not even the $7,000 1Ds Mark III, have a programmable remote function built in the camera, which means you need to buy an external one and plug it into the camera should you wish to make life really easy on yourself. Fortunately, instead of dumping $200 on the Canon version, you can be like me and snag a knock-off that does the exact same thing for $30! Catch: you're buying on Ebay from Hong Kong. Want to stay USA? Well, there are domestically-sold third-party versions out there for around $75.

The first step to get your camera onto your scope is to get a camera manufacturer specific T-ring, which will lock into the mount just like a lens. With something like this, don't go for nice, buy used or a second and save yourself some money, hopefully keeping the cost under $10.

Universal T-Adapter
You have your ring, but now you need the adapter that the ring threads onto in order to attach the camera to the scope. Unlike with the ring, the adapter is universal in that any ring, whether Canon, Nikon, or any other brand will thread on to the rear of it. Ring/adapter together, stick the whole thing into the back of the scope to turn it into a giant lens. Like with the ring, buy used or a second to try and stay below the $10 mark.

Thread the T-adapter and ring together, attach like a lens, then stick the camera into the scope's focuser.
So, there they are, the five (or four if your camera has a built in programmable remote function) things money can buy that you need to be an astrophotographer. Unfortunately, no amount of cash can buy skill and dedication required to start catching the stars. That you'll need to learn on your own.
Good luck!

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