Every aspiring astrophotographer will know that capturing the perfect shot of the Milky Way is not an easy task. It’s not as simple as being in the right place at the right time and pointing your camera skywards. There are many factors that need to be accounted for, and very specific settings that are needed on your camera. There’s also a range of other equipment you need aside from the camera itself. We’ll take a look at some of the key equipment you need, as well as some of our favorite examples. By the time you’ve read to the end, you should have all the astrophotography equipment you need for shooting the Milky Way.
Astrophotography Equipment: What to Pack
Your kit bag for astrophotography equipment will have a few central, essential components, as well as some accessories that will help you on your way to a successful shoot. The mainstays of your kit bag will be focused around a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Below are the main bits of equipment you’ll need:
- DSLR or mirrorless camera.
- Selection of lenses suited to astrophotography.
- Shutter remote.
- T-mount adapter.
With these elements you should be able to successfully take some pictures of the Milky Way. We take a closer look at each area below.
Astrophotography Equipment: Essentials
Essential gear is the equipment that you absolutely cannot do without. Some may seem obvious, but we’ll pick out some good examples for those just starting out.
The centerpiece of your astrophotography set up will be your camera. A good DSLR will help you out no end, although the price range does vary considerably. You may find an entry level DSLR too basic, and a decent full-frame DSLR might be way out of budget. You also have to consider the cost of lenses. However, here are some solid choices to get your started:
Why it’s great:
- 2-megapxiel APS-C CMOS Sensor.
- DIGIC 7 Image Processor.
- 0-inch Vari-Angle Touchscreen.
If you’re just starting out with photography, the Canon Rebel T7i, also known as the 800D, is a great place to start. It sits somewhere between entry-level and mid-range in Canon’s lineup. It’s a straight forward camera for new users, but is advanced enough to help develop your skills. There’s a lot to like about it; the 24.2-megapixel crop-frame sensor gives a good level of image quality and resolution, and the DIGIC 7 processor makes it fast and responsive to use. For astrophotography, its 3-inch tiltable touchscreen is particularly useful; if you’re shooting something overhead, you can just rotate the screen to see what you’re aimed at. This mean you don’t have to crouch on the floor to look up. For other types of photography it’s also well equipped with a great autofocus system and fairly strong video capture.
- Although it’s a good entry-level camera, for slightly more you could pick up a used, mid-range DSLR.
2. Nikon D810A
Why it’s great:
- Specifically built for astrophotography.
- 3-megapixel full-frame sensor.
- Excellent ISO performance at higher ranges.
The Nikon D810A is a rather special camera. It was designed by Nikon specifically with astrophotography in mind, and it doesn’t disappoint. The 36.3-megapixel full-frame sensor is extra sensitive to H-alpha emissions from celestial nebulae to capture all the stunning beauty of their color. As you’d expect from a camera aimed at this market, the performance at higher ISOs is excellent, producing very little image noise. Images come out clear and in high-quality. It works well for regular photography too, with a whole host of features you’d expect from a modern DSLR.
- This camera is anything but cheap. Only the serious astrophotographer could afford this.
Next to a camera, the most essential astrophotography equipment is your lens (or lenses). Having the correct lens makes all the difference when shooting the stars. Ideally you want a wide angle zoom lens with a fairly wide maximum aperture. Here are some of our suggestions:
Why it’s great:
- Fixed f/2.8 aperture ultra-wide angle lens.
- Sharp image quality in low light with little chromatic aberration.
- Image stabilization with vibration compensation.
This lens is a fantastic wide-angle lens for astrophotography. A constant f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range means it’s capable of capturing stunning nightscapes. There are a host of features that make it so good; great optics, low chromatic aberration, and image stabilization are some of the key ones. With this lens you’re getting good performance for astrophotography as well as landscapes and architecture.
- The solid build quality of this lens adds a fair amount of weight.
Why it’s great:
- Super-wide angle lens with constant f/2.8 aperture.
- Very good optical performance and image capture.
- Good control of ghosting and flare.
Nikon call this an ‘extreme wide-angle’ lens, and with good reason. The 14mm end of the zoom is extremely wide, particularly on a full-frame camera. The range is very good for astrophotography, and the f/2.8 aperture makes it perfectly suited to shooting in low-light. Optical performance justifies the price tag; there’s almost no ghosting or lens flare, and chromatic aberration is well controlled. Overall this is a great lens.
- It’s a fairly bulky and weighty lens. It’s also very expensive, so it may not be suitable for the beginner.
Why it’s great:
- Wide-angle with a good zoom range and constant f/2.8 aperture.
- Excellent astrophotography performance.
Canon lenses usually perform very well, and the 16-35mm f/2.8 has long been a favorite. There have been 3 iterations of this lens (I, II, and III) and they keep getting better with each one. It particularly excels at landscapes and nightscapes, making it a good all-rounder.
- There is some chromatic aberration noticeable, meaning you may have work to do in post-production.
There are so many types of telescope available, and you’ll often hear conflicting advice about which is best for astrophotography. Some claim that a large one is better as it captures more light. However, if you’re just starting out then something small, around the 65-85mm range, will more than suffice. Here are some we’d recommend looking at:
- Astro-Tech AT65Q – 65mm aperture, 420mm focal length, f/6.5 quadruplet ED apochromatic refractor
- Astro-Physics 130 EDFGT
Key Features: 130mm aperture, 780mm focal length f/6 triplet apochromatic refractor
- Tele Vue NP 127is
Key features: 127mm aperture, 660mm focal length, f/5.2, 4 element Nagler-Petzval apochromatic refractor
Choosing a good and sturdy mount should be one of your top priorities as an aspiring astrophotographer. You need something that will be able to support your telescope and minimize field rotation. It’s best to go for something you think is a little more than necessary. This means you won’t find yourself with an underperforming mount and gives you room to expand at a later date.
Astrophotography Equipment: Accessories
Once you have the basic equipment sorted, you need to carefully consider what other accessories you will need for your night photography.
Keeping your camera firmly planted is important for taking a stable picture of the Milky Way. To do this, you need a tripod that is up to the task. Choose something that is sturdy and suitable for a range of terrains, but also consider portability. If you travel a lot, something light and robust might be useful, if expensive.
Another essential accessory is a shutter remote. This will allow you to shoot without needing to touch your camera; a vital component to keeping your set up stabilized. The choice is between wireless and wired remote, which really comes down to personal preference. A basic remote will have a shutter function; a press will release the shutter. Other more sophisticated models will have timers and other functionality which can be useful.
A T-mount to 2-inch adaptor will secure your camera to your telescope. You will need to find one that corresponds to your brand of camera. The telescope will then take the place of the lens on your DSLR, leaving you ready to start shooting the Milky Way.
With this astrophotography equipment in your kit bag, you’ll be well on your way to taking excellent-quality images of the Milky Way. Be sure to do your research and have a budget in mind when making purchases. Finally, make sure you’re up to speed with the fundamentals of astrophotography before you go out on a shoot.