I'm going to start off this article by listing my recommended gear for 2023. If you've been following me for a while, then most of this will actually look pretty familiar. I don't update my gear that often, especially when I find something that works well.
That's about all you need for a lightweight, portable, and easy-to-use setup! This is a big investment though, especially if you are purchasing most of this equipment at the same time. However, I can personally vouch for everything listed here, as I've been using it for years now. You won't be able to photograph those tiny little galaxies, or small nebula, but you'll still have plenty of objects to capture. If you're still a beginner, this setup will last for years. Once you've mastered it, you can always upgrade the telescope to something larger.
This Orion photo was taken with my ZWO ASI 533MM camera, William Optics RedCat 51mm, ZWO RGB filters, and the AM5 mount. The data was captured from a very dark sky near Kanab Utah, and I gathered about 3 hours of data total.
When it comes to astrophotography mounts you have a lot of choices! I used a simple SkyGuider Pro for many years, and while this did a nice job, it was fairly limited. The biggest problem was the lack of go-to functionality. That meant I had to learn the night sky to find the objects I wanted to photograph. A lot of my students are still using star trackers and getting great images! However, if you're ready for an upgrade then there's never been a better time!
The ZWO AM5 is currently one of the best go-to mounts on the market. It's lightweight, portable, and easy to use! It currently retails for around $2,300, which includes the mount and carbon-fiber tripod. This combo works great, and keeps the size and weight down. You could attach the AM5 to some sturdier tripod legs, but I don't think it's necessary.
One of the main features of the AM5 is the harmonic drive. This is different from a traditional equatorial mount, like my SkyWatcher EQ6R Pro. The AM5's harmonic drive is much more powerful, and doesn't require counterweights! (Although you will want to use one if you have a larger telescope) It can be a bit scary at first to mount your equipment without balancing, but you'll soon see that the AM5 can handle it without a problem.
Whether you're upgrading from a star tracker, or looking to get another go-to mount, the AM5 is the perfect solution. It can even be controlled entirely from your smartphone or tablet. This is a welcome feature on those cold winter nights. Once you've completed your polar alignment and focused the telescope you can head inside and warm up. The rest of the workflow can be handled through the software. Technically the AM5 does come with its own smartphone app, but I don't necessarily recommend it. You're better off using an ASIAir to control the mount.
There are currently two variants of the ASIAir available - the Mini and the Plus. The Plus is the flagship model and has everything you need, including four 12V power outputs, four USB ports, and a WiFi antenna. The Mini does the same exact thing, it's just way smaller and lighter. It does not have the USB 3.0 ports, or a power switch. Beyond that, the two are functionally the same. If you want to save $100, go with the Mini. When you've got the hang of the software interface, you can get the entire workflow completed within 20 minutes. Then you can sit back and relax! I normally configure my mount to run all night long, then head to bed. When I wake up in the morning the telescope is pointed back up towards Polaris and everything has shut down. Then I can bring the gear inside, copy the photos to my laptop, and begin editing.
I still have a SkyWatcher EQ6R Pro, but I don't use it as much anymore. It's just too much hassle, especially compared to the AM5. On the off-chance we actually have a clear night in the Pacific Northwest I will setup both mounts side by side though. In terms of performance, I don't see any real difference between the two. However, I'm using a fairly short focal length and lightweight setup. If I had a larger telescope attached, I may start to notice a difference in tracking capabilities between the two.
When you factor in the size, weight, price, and capabilities of the ZWO AM5 I honestly believe it is one of the best go-to mounts available. The only caveat is that it is entirely controlled by software, there aren't even any manual clutches on the mount. Theoretically this could become problematic down the road. I know some people still prefer those old fashioned hand-controllers, which can configure the mount without any optional software. I personally hate the hand-controllers though. To be clear, the AM5 does ship with a small joystick controller which emits a WiFi signal. You can then connect to that WiFi with your phone / tablet and control the AM5 with the ASI Mount app. It's similar to the ASIAir, but very basic by comparison.
While not as exciting as a bright nebula or distant galaxy, the Pleiades is always fun to shoot during the winter months. This photo was captured with the ASI 533MM camera and a set of RGB filters from ZWO.
Before we get into the telescopes, I need to clarify a few points. There are a lot of telescopes out there, and I've only ever used a few of them. Also, I like to keep my astro setup as small and light as possible. With this in mind, my telescope recommendations are fairly limited. I'd recommend checking out AstroBlender, and other content creators, for more information on larger telescopes. They've got much more insight and expertise than me on this topic. I'm going to touch on three telescopes today.
First up we have the William Optics RedCat 51mm. I've been using the SpaceCat variant since 2019 and it's done a great job. It's sharp, easy to focus, lightweight, portable, and even comes with a built-in bahtinov mask. The only real downside is the short focal length - 250mm. This does not pair well with a full-frame sensor, as most objects look quite small in the frame. That's why I prefer using dedicated astro cameras with Micro 4/3 or 1" sensor sizes. Since these sensors are so small, they magnify the field of view by a factor of 2 and 2.7 respectively. Therefore, my little SpaceCat now has a focal length equivalent between 500mm - 675mm when using the right camera. That's the perfect field of view for many nebulae and galaxies!
If you plan on using a full-frame or APS-C sensor, then you'll want more zoom. This brings us to the William Optics RedCat 71mm. This is the "big brother" of the RedCat 51mm. It has all the same benefits of the smaller telescope, but it has a longer focal length (350mm) and a wider aperture. Two of my workshop students have used this telescope, and both times I was impressed by the image quality and sharpness of the stars. It was substantially larger than the RedCat 51mm though, and twice the price! However, if you're looking for a little extra zoom, this would be a good choice.
Alternatively, you can go with the Radian 75 from OPT. I've never used this telescope, but from what I've seen it compares pretty well to the RedCat 71 in most aspects.
If you're still dead-set on getting a larger telescope, then be sure you know what you're in for. The more zoom you have, the more accurate your polar alignment, guiding, and tracking needs to be. If you plan on shooting over 1000mm, then it's a good idea to consider purchasing an Off-Axis Guider. These will give better guiding than a traditional auto-guider and guide-scope. You're also going to need a reliable mount that can track accurately all night long. The AM5 should fit the bill nicely, although if you are using a lot of zoom then you may want to swap out those carbon-fiber legs for something a bit more heavy-duty.
If you are planning on getting a larger telescope, and using the ZWO AM5 mount, then you'll want to buy the optional counterweight bar and pier extension. These will make the AM5 safer to use with a large scope. You'll also need to find a 20mm counterweight to fit onto that AM5 counterweight rod (my SkyWatcher EQ6R counterweight does not fit, nor does my SkyGuider Pro weight)
For those that are still new to astrophotography, I'd highly recommend purchasing a smaller telescope first. This will let you ease into the workflow, without getting in over your head. A larger telescope just makes everything more difficult...
This photo of the Horsehead Nebula was captured from my light polluted backyard in Port Angeles Washington. Thanks to my monochrome sensor and H-Alpha filter, I was able to pull out the beautiful red clouds around the Horsehead. This would not have been possible with my stock Nikon DSLR.
If you're still using a DSLR, then you should consider upgrading to a dedicated astro camera as soon as possible. Out of all the equipment I've purchased over the years, this was what ultimately had the biggest impact on what I was able to capture. With a dedicated astro camera I could finally capture beautiful narrowband photos, like the shot of the Horsehead Nebula. Most of the nebulae in the night sky emit H-Alpha light. This is emitted at 656 nm, which most DSLR sensors block out. That means a stock DSLR is simply not capable of capturing the photos you want. While you could get the IR/UV Cut filter modified or removed, I'd rather see you invest that money into a dedicated astro camera.
The dedicated astro cameras have numerous benefits over DSLRs. The most important are the built-in cooling system and improved low-light performance. This translates to much cleaner photos at night, especially during the summer. As the sensor gets colder, the thermal noise in your photos will drop substantially. A DSLR has no way to cool down, whereas a dedicated astro camera can maintain -20C all night long! Now that you are starting to see just how important these improvements are, let's talk about the major choices.
You've got two main considerations when upgrading your camera. Mono or color? Sensor size? These will have a profound impact on your entire workflow. A monochrome camera will provide higher quality images than a color camera. (Realistically though, I doubt most people could tell the difference between a color or mono camera's final JPEG.) If you capture lots of data, and are good at processing, it really won't matter what you have. As for the sensor size, that will make a big difference. The smaller the sensor, the more magnification you will get with any telescope. A Full Frame sensor has a crop factor of 1.0. As you go down to a APS-C, Micro 4/3, and 1" sensor you increase the crop factor. (1.5x, 2x, 2.7x) This is why I prefer smaller sensors. I can easily fill the frame with nebulae and galaxies, even at 250mm. If you've got a large telescope already though, then stick with either a Full Frame or APS-C sensor. The last thing you need is any more magnification!
If you want to keep things simple and cheap, get a color dedicated astro camera. The ASI 533MC would be a great choice to pair with any of the telescopes mentioned above. The 1" sensor performs well in low-light, and has a crop factor of 2.7x. The color sensor also saves you a lot of money in filter costs. You should only need a narrowband filter, and possibly a UV/IR filter for RGB imaging.
Another factor to consider is the sensor resolution. Most people prefer high-resolution sensors, as evidenced by the popularity of the D850 and Sony A7R series cameras. It seems every manufacturer is pushing for ever higher resolutions. This is all great in theory, but in practice it leads to some serious problems. First of all, the higher resolution creates larger file sizes. The ASI 2600MC camera has a ~6,000 x ~4,000 sensor (26 megapixels) and the FITS files are each 50mb in size. If I capture 100 images, that's 5 GBs of data! You can see how this will quickly fill up the storage on the ASIAir, as well as my laptop. Meanwhile, my little ASI 533MM, with its 3000 x 3000 sensor (9 megapixels), only uses 17mb per FIT file. These smaller files are much easier to process and store. For that reason, I actually prefer lower resolution cameras. Unless you are printing lots of large photos, I don't see much point in chasing higher resolution sensors.
Finally, let's talk about the cameras I actually have and use. First up is the ASI 1600MM, this was my very first dedicated astro camera and it did a great job. In hindsight, the amp glow around the corners was annoying, and forced me to take dark frames. Then I used the ASI 294MC, a color camera. This had the worst amp glow I've ever seen, almost like a flashlight shining across the edge of the sensor! However, a good set of dark frames could completely eliminate the amp glow, so it's really not that big of a deal. In 2022 my girlfriend purchased the ASI 533MM camera and we've been using it ever since. This camera has no amp glow, a 2.7x magnification factor, and great low-light performance. The only downside is the square crop factor, which is a bit boring for me personally. I prefer the rectangular images with the APS-C and Full Frame sensors. I have not personally used the ASI 533 MC (the color variant), but I've heard from fellow astrophotographers that it does a fine job. That's why I'm recommending it today, since it's just the color variant of the camera I'm currently using.
This photo was captured in my light polluted backyard as well. I used the ASI 1600MM and two narrowband filters - H-Alpha and Oxygen. This allowed me to showcase the stunning details of the Heart Nebula
Before I go any further, we need to talk about quality control and false advertising. When you purchase filters, you are expecting to capture a certain amount of light within a given range. (I.E. 90% transmission at 656nm) However, there's a chance that the filter you receive will not perform as well as it should. Watch this video for more information.
With this in mind, I'm hesitant to personally recommend any filters! The last thing I want to do is advocate for a bad or deceptive filter. I have personally used the Optolong L-Enhance filter (on my color camera), and the ZWO LRGB + Narrowband filters (on my mono camera). These filters do a fine job, besides some distracting flares around bright stars. Whether or not they are performing precisely as advertised is unknown, all I can say is my photos look pretty good!
The only way to verify that you're getting accurate filters is to personally test them with a spectrometer. You'd need something like this, along with special software to analyze the data. This is not reasonable for 99% of people. Therefore, we're all taking a risk whenever we buy an astro filter. We just hope it will work as intended.
The safest bet when purchasing filters is usually Chroma or Astrodon. These are supposed to be the best filters on the market. There's only one problem - they cost a fortune! For comparison, the Chroma 2" LRGB filters cost $1925. Meanwhile, the ZWO 2" LRGB filters cost $300.
I was already struggling to afford a new camera and telescope when I decided to upgrade my gear. There was no way I was going to drop another $2,000 just for some filters. I chose the least expensive route and the ZWO filters have done a fine job. While the flares and halos around bright stars are annoying, I can deal with it. However, if you want the best quality photos from a reputable company, then Chroma is probably the way to go. Every other manufacturer will likely have less accurate filters by comparison.
This photo of the Lagoon Nebula was captured with the ASI 1600MM, the ZWO RGB + H-Alpha filters, and a RedCat 51mm telescope. While the filters I used were very cheap, the final image turned out quite nice! This just goes to show that you don't necessarily need to spend $2,000+ on filters.
If you purchased a color camera, then you should only need 1 or 2 filters. I'd recommend purchasing a dual-band narrowband filter, like the Optolong L-Enhance. I use this filter with my ASI 294MC and ASI 2600MC, and it allows me to capture great nebula photos even from a light polluted suburb. The filter blocks out all light pollution wavelengths, while letting through the specific wavelengths being emitted by the nebula. Since this is a H-Alpha + Oxygen filter, your nebula will have that nice red color.
If you prefer the more abstract Hubble Color Palette, with its yellows, blues, and greens, then you'll likely want a monochrome sensor instead. This will allow you to capture specific wavelengths independently. You can then choose which color channel they get mapped to in post-processing.
Since I mainly use a monochrome camera, I needed to purchase 7 filters! LRGB and H-Alpha, Oxygen, and Sulphur. Even though I purchased the cheapest ZWO filters available, I still ended up spending $800+. If you want some higher-end filters, you're looking at well over $2,000. You'll also need a filter wheel to house all these filters, and that will cost between $300 - $400. As you can see, monochrome is a big investment! If you're still a beginner, you may want to stick with a color camera for now...
As you are looking at the various filter options, you'll see there are different sizes - 1.25", 2", 36mm unmounted, etc... The cheapest filters are 1.25", which should work fine for the setup I have listed up top. However, these filters aren't necessarily future-proofed. If you decide to purchase a full-frame sensor, you may notice vignetting caused by the filters. This is why I recommend purchasing a good set of 2" filters right out of the gate. The 2" will cost more, but they should last for years to come, regardless of the camera or telescope you buy. I'd rather you buy a good set of filters once, than have to buy two sets of filters in the long run.
One accessory I recommend everyone purchase is a dew heater strip. This will be one of the best (and cheapest) investments you can make! A dew heater has a few hidden benefits. Obviously it will prevent dew / frost from settling on your lens. It can be attached to a wide-angle lens, small telescope, or telephoto lens. The reason I recommend them though is because they keep the glass at the same temperature all night long. This prevents the focus from shifting as the telescope cools down. In my experience, the telescope focus will shift drastically over the span of 30 minutes, as the ambient air temperature drops. This is due to the glass and elements shifting slightly as they get colder. If you have a dew heater installed though, this shouldn't be a problem!
You'll also need a battery to power your mount, ASIAir, and camera's cooling system. I used a Jackery 240Wh battery for many years, and it worked fine for my SkyGuider Pro. However, it was not enough for my AM5 and ASIAir. I've noticed that the battery is usually dead by the morning. Therefore, I would recommend at least a Jackery 500 battery. This should be able to handle an entire night's worth of astro, even on a cold winter night. If you want even more juice though, get the Jackery 1000. It's very expensive, but it will last multiple nights of shooting.
An auto-guider will send commands to your go-to mount, making it track much more accurately. I have seen expensive Rainbow Astro mounts, which are supposedly very good, have trouble taking sharp exposures past 60 seconds. This can be incredibly disappointing... However, a simple auto-guider and guide scope will fix that problem. The auto-guider will watch the stars all night long. If it detects the star moving out of a defined area, it will send a pulse to the go-to mount. This can keep your total tracking error below 1 arc-second throughout the night. If you purchase one of the telescope that I recommended, then you can get an inexpensive auto-guider and guide scope like the ZWO 30mm f/4 and ASI 120MM Mini. I've been using this combo for years and have not had any problems.
I've been known to have a wild mess of cables dangling from my astro setups. This hasn't gotten me into any trouble (yet), but I have seen people rip cables out accidentally at night. This can be a very expensive mistake... If you want to stay organized, then these 3d printed pieces may be a good idea. They can be mounted to your ASIAir or camera to control the long cables that normally ship with the astro equipment.
This image was actually captured with a Nikon D750 and SkyGuider Pro. I gathered around 1 hour of data, maybe less. Since I was in a very dark sky near Canyonlands Utah, Rho Ophiuchi stood out very nicely from the background.
The gear I've listed today should do a phenomenal job for most astrophotographers. Whether you live in a light-polluted city, or rural area, this gear will allow you to capture beautiful astro images. The big concern is the cost. Times are tough for all of us, and dropping $5,000+ on astro equipment may not be feasible. In that case, I'd recommend you start off with the mount purchase first. I'm guessing you already have a DSLR and telephoto lens, so at least you can use that gear with the AM5 (or another go-to mount) to begin capturing some data. The new mount will make the entire process of capturing data much easier. If you can afford it, I'd get the ASIAir Mini as well. This will make it easy to control everything from your smartphone / tablet. Alternatively, you can get a free software program like NINA to handle things.
When you're ready to purchase your next piece of gear, I'd recommend a new camera. Let's say that's the ASI 533MC. They do make adapters, mainly for Canon / Nikon lens mounts, so you can connect your ZWO camera to a telephoto lens. Before you buy a lens mount adapter, be sure to check your lens' default aperture. My Tamron 150-600MM G1 has a closed aperture by default. If I try to use it with my ZWO cameras, there is no way to open the aperture up, it's stuck at f/32. This makes it unusable. However, my Tamron 70-200mm G2 lens has an open aperture by default. I can use it almost like a telescope now!
The next investment would be filters. If you purchased a color camera, then you should only need one. I'd get something like the Optolong L-Enhance filter. This is a dual-band narrowband filter, which can be used to block out light pollution and enhance the visibility of nebulae. You don't need this filter right away, but it'll be perfect for backyard astrophotographers living in the suburbs or city.
Assuming you have a telephoto lens that works, I would hold off on buying a telescope until you've purchased your camera and mount. The William Optics RedCat series will work well and keep the costs down. When your RedCat 51mm telescope arrives you may find that it has no handlebar to mount an auto-guider and guide scope. Therefore, you may have to purchase the handlebar separately. While you're at it, you should get the ZWO 30mm f/4 guide scope and ASI 120MM Mini auto-guider. These can now attach directly to your telescope and make the go-to mount track much more accurately.
If you haven't done so already, get a good battery to power your new setup. I'd recommend Jackery, specifically the 500wh battery. This should be just enough to get you through a full winter's night of astrophotography.
For more information on deep space astrophotography, be sure to check out my Deep Space Course on howtube.com. It has over 100 videos that will teach you everything you need to know. We've got multiple workflows, depending on the gear that you have. The course is designed for both beginners and intermediate shooters. Click here for more information.
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