In this blog, Chandresh talks about the photography gear needed for Astrophotography.
One of the questions I get asked often is “What gear do I need to photograph the night sky?”. Commonly hidden behind that question is an underlying assumption that astrogear is always expensive and more expensive the gear the better quality of pictures produced. This myth although true to a certain extent, but one can achieve fairly good results with inexpensive gear. In this blog I hope to provide you the answer to the question and also highlight some of the gear I commonly use.
Camera body – An ideal camera for astros will have better low-light capabilities, very low noise at higher ISO settings and preferably have a larger sensor. Modern Smartphones also have the capability for astrophotography.
Camera lens – an ideal lens will have a combination of large aperture (lower F number) plus minimal lens aberrations and wide/ultra-wide-angle capability.
Tripod & tripod head – the main requirement of a good tripod is sturdiness. A lightweight tripod is a nice to have.
Headlamp & pen lamp – A nice to have is the red night vision option in addition to a bright white led light.
OTHER ESSENTIAL GEAR
Interavalometer – an essential gear if you plan on doing star trails.
Extra battery & memory – Yes, it’s really frustrating to run out of either on location.
Winter & safety gears – warm layers, winter boots, heated gloves, micro spikes, hand warmers, lens warmers etc.
A DEEPER DIVE INTO BASIC GEAR
A camera with a manual setting function and preferably one with interchangeable lens works. Digital cameras are currently the most popular choice for astrophotography. The main considerations for an ideal camera body for astrophotography includes:
Mirrorless vs mirrored (DSLR’s)
Digital cameras come in mainly four different sensor sizes, i.e micro four-thirds, APSC or crop, full frame and medium format. The cost of the camera increases as the sensor size increases. Generally speaking, larger sensor sizes have better ISO performance (lower noise). Larger sensors typically have larger individual pixels, allowing them to capture more light, resulting in higher signal to noise ratios at higher ISO settings. A full frame camera is a good balance between ISO performance and cost of the camera for astrophotography. Also, a full frame camera will be able to exploit the full focal length capabilities of your lens as opposed to around1.5 for a typical crop sensor. The diagram listed alongside, details a comparison of typical modern day camera sensor sizes. The 1” type and 1/2.5” type are generally smartphones image sensors.
Mirror (DSLR’s) vs mirrorless cameras differ in fundamental design and internal mechanisms. Mirrored cameras use a mirror in front of the image sensor to reflect the incoming light via a prism and onto an optical viewfinder. As the shutter button is activated, the mirror flips up and allows the light to reach the camera sensor. Mirrorless cameras eliminate the mirror mechanism and instead use an electronic viewfinder for composing and previewing images. Mirrorless cameras have made significant inroads into the world of astrophotography due to compact light weight options.
Noise is an integral part of most astrophotography images as it involves camera settings where the ISO’s are relatively very high. Higher ISO means the images tend to look more “grainy” or “noisy”. Having a camera that produces low noise as ISO increases is ideal for astrophotography. ISO performance is related to camera sensor size, camera’s technology, image processing and overall sensor quality. Most modern cameras can produce great usable pictures up to 6400 ISO. Smartphones currently lack ISO performance for astrophotography compared to DSLR’s. Smartphones can produce great web resolution astropictures, but not good for large prints.
Megapixels refers to the camera’s resolution or the total pixels captured by cameras image sensor. Megapixels and noise is a bit more complex. Generally, higher megapixels means smaller pixel sizes, which are susceptible for more noise as a result of less surface area to collect light. Advances in sensor technology have allowed manufactures to mitigate this issue and various higher megapixel cameras with improved noise performance are available in the marketplace.
Camera brand is a personal choice. Canon, Nikon and Sony are brands that you will find most astro-photographers prefer. Fuji and Panasonic are other brands worth mentioning, but the choice of fast wide-angle lenses is limited and are more expensive for these brands.
I currently use an astro-modded Canon EOS 6D, along with Canon EOS 5D MKiv, these are my DSLR’s. I also use a mirrorless Sony A7Riii.
An ideal lens for astrophotography is a fast, wide-angle lens. It will be characterized by three important criteria:
Lower f-stop number
Low focal length number (wide-angle)
Prime Vs Zoom lens.
Typically f-stop 2.8 or lower is ideal for astros. Lens cost tend to increase significantly as the f-number gets below 2.8, also lens aberrations increases as well. I find that a lens with an f-number of 1.4 is great, as you tend to “stop down” to f 2.0 or f2.8 and this reduces any lens aberrations (coma, vignette) when shooting wide open with a f2.8 lens.
You will also need a wide angle lens in order to capture a significant portion of the enormous night sky. The general rule for focal lengths is to use 20mm and below for a micro four-thirds, 24 mm and below for an APSC or crop and 35 mm and below for a full-frame sensor camera. There are a lot more choices for lens brand and the most popular brands for astros are Sony, Rokinon, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina, Laowa and Tamron. Rokinon, a third party lens maker offers some of the best balance of cost-performance benefits for astrophotography.
Prime lenses are fixed focal length lenses and tend to be sharper compared to zoom lenses. Zoom lenses offers compositional flexibility compared to prime lenses. Lens filter mounting options is also another parameter to consider when committing to a lens.
I have about 4-5 different lenses for astrophotography, a few of my favorite lenses are Rokinon 14mm f2.8, Rokinon 8mm f3.5 fisheye, Sony FE 2.8/12-24 GM, Sony FE1.4/24 GM, SigmaArt 20mm f1.4 and Sigma Art 35mm f1.4. Generally, glass technology progresses at a slower pace compared to camera sensor technology and I always counsel people that if there is one area where you want to spend your dollars that would be on your lens.
Tripod & Tripod Head
Yes! You will definitely need one, there is no human who can hold a camera still for exposures as along as 20-30 seconds. There are probably thousands of tripod options, ideally you want one that is lightweight and sturdy. Also another consideration for your tripod is the tripod head and load bearing capabilities. I prefer a ball head tripod as it gives you the best flexibility to frame your picture. A few of the astro lenses tend to be heavy and when paired with a camera with extra battery pack, it can get quiet heavy. You do not want your “top-heavy” expensive set-up being tipped over by gusts of wind. Carbon fibre and Aluminum material tripods are popular choices. I currently use a Gitzo GT1545 and two different Manfrotto tripods - Manfrotto 190 and the Manfrotto 190GO carbon fibre.
I love the Arcatech ballheads, these are lubricant free and great for Canadian winters in that it does not freeze on you.
A DEEPER DIVE INTO OTHER ESSENTIAL GEAR
Headlamp & Pen Lamps
Headlamps really help when you arrive on location and your eyes are not adjusted to the dark. It also helps to avoid trips and fall and running into strange animals that don’t want you in their territory. At times you can also use your headlamps to focus your lens. I generally carry a low-light pen lamp that helps me if I am unable to feel the buttons on the camera. These are tons of choices for headlamps, the more popular brands are Petzl and Black Diamond. I would counsel you to maintain etiquette about the usage of headlamps and be aware of ruining that perfect shot for other photographers near you. I currently use a Petzl Tikka Lamp.
An interavalometer serves a few functions, can be used asa remote to program your camera to shoot continuously (Timelapses and Startrails), it can be used to operate your camera in bulb mode there by doing exposures greater than 30 seconds, can be used as a remote to prevent camera shake. There are numerous brands and I haven’t extensively researched for intervalometers, I have the ishoot intervalometer that I purchased online and it works great. Recently I bought a wireless version and love the benefits
Extra Batteries & Memory Card
This is a cliché statement, but an important one. I would advise to have spare fully charged battery for not just your camera but also other gears like headlamps, intervalometers etc. Always have a couple of memory cards stored away in your backpack. These days memory cards are very inexpensive and have a large capacity for data storage. There is nothing more frustrating for a photographer to run out of batteries or memory and miss that epic shot. I also carry foreground lighting devices for lights painting.
Camera Bag, Winter and Safety Gears
A good durable camera bag to protect the expensive gear is essential. I have been very happy with my f-stop bag, which offers a great balance of protection, praticality and balance of packing between hiking gear and camera gear. Winter gears are seasonal and depends on specific trip usage.
I hope the above article gave you a good idea of the necessary gear needed for astrophotography. Very often, I tell folks that the best gear is the one that you have in your hands or the one that you can afford. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on the above blog item. If you have any questions please reach out to me in the contacts section and I will be glad to connect.