Want to get into astrophotography but the cost of all the gear is holding you back? This post should help. I’ll be going through my cheap, beginners widefield setup for astrophotography. I hesitate to use the word cheap because astrophotography is expensive, which is why I’ll include prices.
What Equipment You’ll Need
I recommend looking at buying used gear to help keep costs down. Places like Stargazers Lounge have a For Sale thread on their forum, there’s always lots of quality astro gear for sale there. For camera gear, try places like MPB or LCE. You’ll be able to pick up used camera bodies and lenses much cheaper than new. I’ve used all of these sites numerous times and have never regretted buying from them.
- Star tracker (optional)
- Camera lens
- Power source (batteries)
- Remote shutter release
The Equipment in Detail
As you’d expect, there’s lots of options out there. It can be tricky to know where to start. In astrophotography, stability is the most important thing for a good image. The best camera gear in the world can’t make up for a wobbly platform, but cheap camera gear can produce great results on a sturdy platform. Therefore, we want something with a good payload capacity, but that doesn’t have to mean expensive. Below is a list of some of the options I recommend.
Manfrotto Element Tripod – £89. This tripod has a payload capacity of 8KG and it comes with a ballhead and carry bag. I use this tripod for my widefield setups and it has served me well. The only negative for me is that when fully extended, it can feel a little flimsy, so a remote shutter release is key. That being said, I have used the Star Adventurer and a 3-inch refractor telescope on this tripod and managed 2 minute subs with a good polar alignment, so it’s certainly up to the task.
Manfrotto 055X Pro Tripod – £179. Essentially a more robust version of the tripod linked above. If you’re able to stretch your budget that bit further, then this is a great option. It also has quick release catches to extend the tripod, rather than twist locks. Note that this tripod does not come with a ball head.
Sky-Watcher tripod for Star Adventurer – $95. Not only does this mount fit the Star Adventurer but also other mounts such as the Star Adventurer Mini, Star Adventurer EQ, AZ5 & AZ-GT. Just because it’s the cheapest on this list, it doesn’t mean it’s lacking in quality. If you’re buying a star adventurer, this is the perfect tripod to go with it.
For me the SA is all about portability, just picking the whole thing up and walking somewhere with it. I know there are people that use an HEQ5 tripod for extra stability, I think that’s a great idea, especially at home but for me this is only used when travelling and so the portability is the main concern for me.
I include this as optional because 1, it is potentially the most expensive purchase on this list and 2, you can take great wide field Milky Way images on a static tripod without tracking. However, if you also want to start some basic deep sky astrophotography then you’ll definitely want a star tracker, especially if you intend on buying a longer focal length lens such as the one listed below.
As with everything on this list, there are plenty of options out there but I am sure there will be some second hand bargains out there as new star trackers have been released in the last couple of years.
Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i – $520. Unfortunately, the original version of the Star Adventurer is now only available second hand on forums such as Stargazers Lounge. You can definitely still pick them up as people are still selling them but you may have to wait. Equally, people have sold their 2i for the newer GTi model so you may be able to pick up a second hand one no problem.
The pro pack comes with everything you need to get started including the counterweight, the L-bracket to attach a telescope or lens and an adapter to attach a ballhead as well.
If you’re considering buying a Star Adventurer, I have a review of the original version here.
iOptron Skyguider Pro – $398. Slightly cheaper than the Star Adventurer above. The SkyGuider pro has a built-in battery pack that requires mains power to charge it, unlike the Star Adventurer that can run on mains or is powered by 4x AA batteries. This is definitely a consideration when choosing, the last thing you want to do is head out at night and find your mount doesn’t have any battery left!
MoveShootMove – $249. This is the most basic of all the trackers on this list, hence the significant price difference. This is really geared towards tracking the Milky Way for short periods of time, unlike the others mentioned above that will track the stars but are equatorial mounts and so they also allow you to go to the next level and start with deep sky astrophotography too.
The MoveShootMove gets excellent reviews from well-known astrophotographers, but think carefully about which option works best for you before buying this one just because it’s the cheapest.
DSLR or mirrorless? Well I’m a big believer of starting out with what you already have. If you already own a camera, then I’d put this money into something else instead. As for DSLR or mirrorless, both are able to take incredible astrophotography images but you’ll be able to find DSLRs cheaper in general, so it’s really down to personal preference and cost.
I use Canon 650D modified DSLR, which cost £180 second hand and I then got it astro modified for £75. Brand new this camera would be £400 but places like MPB have them second hand starting for a lot less than that. The great thing about this range of Canon DSLRs is the screen flips out and is a real neck saver when framing targets/checking test exposures.
The astro mod makes the camera much more sensitive to red light so capturing all that Ha gas in nebulae targets is much easier.
Cameras I recommend:
- Canon 600/650D by far the cheapest on this list. Any Canon camera with a flip out screen I recommed.
- Sony A7 if you prefer a mirrorless option but likely to cost more than a second hand DSLR. These are old cameras, so sporting for a newer model like the A7III is beneficial but that is likely to cost 10x more.
If you already have a kit lens with your camera, then that’s a good place to start. However, better lenses are available at good prices second hand, so when you’re looking for an upgrade consider the following.
Samyang/Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 – Available for Canon or Sony cameras. This lens is incredibly popular for Milky Way imaging due to the wide FOV and low f stop, meaning you can have that aperture wide open to gather as much light as possible in the Milky Way.
I got mine second hand on eBay for £185. Brand new it costs £360 so I essentially got this half price.
Samyang/Rokinon 135mm f/2 – Also available for Canon and Sony cameras. This is probably the most popular lens in deep sky astrophotography. If you’re wanting to step up from widefield nightscapes, to more deep sky hunting, then this lens is the best place to start.
For just over £400 it is a real bargain. There is a whole thread over on Stargazers Lounge dedicated to this lens, with lots of image examples so you can really see the capability of the lens.
Everything I have listed above comes with batteries, so power isn’t an issue. However, do consider that long exposures on cold nights will drain your batteries much quicker. A typical DSLR battery will last around 3 hours, for example. An external power source is an entirely optional choice here, but if you want to read about it in more depth, I have a page here that will help.
Accessories such as a remote shutter release are equally important in astrophotography. A remote shutter release allows you to take those long exposures needed to capture the faint details of the night sky. I bought mine on Amazon for £15 and there are many available, just make sure you buy the right one for your camera model.
Here is the setup that I have:
- Manfrotto Element tripod (£89)
- Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (£269)
- Canon 650D (£180 second hand + £75 astro mod)
- Samyang 14mm (£185 second hand)
- Remote shutter release (£15)
That’s a total of £813, or $1008 at the current exchange rate. Brand new this setup would cost a little over £1200, or about $1600. So that’s quite a substantial saving at £400/$500, if you are prepared to hunt around a little for cheaper options. I’ve never regretted buying any of my hear secondhand, people in the photography community seem to look after their gear and I’ve never had anything more than a tiny mark on the gear. The extra cash can then be put towards extra gear, which is always a bonus!
Of course, you could choose to not buy a star tracker right now, or you may already have a camera, lens and tripod and only need to buy the star tracker. Whatever your situation, this setup is incredibly cheap for astrophotography. Even buying everything, you’re still only spending $1000, which is cheap in astrophotography terms!